The album sleeve of Prince's first record, 1978's funky For You, famously credited Prince with producing, arranging, composing and performing every note on the LP. He was 19 at the time it came out, and such a feat was unprecedented at the time.
Just a few years earlier, he was cutting his teeth with a band called Grand Central. That's when Pepé Willie, husband of Prince's first cousin, Shauntel Manderville, first took note of his musical skill. Willie, whose uncle was a founding member of Little Anthony and the Imperials, had grown up in New York City around music, watching his uncle's gigs, serving as road manager and assisting the acts they played with. He also played a variety of instruments himself and after he moved to Minneapolis, he launched his own group, 94 East.
In 1975, he invited Prince – then a teenager – to record with 94 East for his first-ever session. They played together in the studio several times, and Willie has subsequently put out several releases containing his Seventies recordings with Prince with titles like Minneapolis Genius, Symbolic Beginning and The Cookhouse 5. When Prince started his own musical career, Willie offered his own house as a rehearsal space.
Willie was at home last week when a friend told him to turn on a news broadcast that reported that Prince had died. "I went, 'Oh, my God,'" he tells Rolling Stone. "It was just overwhelming. It's been very difficult." Here, he reflects on his times making music with Prince.
The first time I met Prince, he was 12 years old, so I wasn't really paying him no mind. He was just a little kid. I had just gotten out of the service in 1970 and came to Minneapolis to see my wife. She took me to the house of one of her aunts, and Prince was there with his cousin Charles. They were wrestling on the floor.
The next time I met him, he was 15. I'd been working in New York with the telephone company and came back to Minneapolis in 1974. I was married to Prince's cousin by then, so he was my family. And I remember he was asking about the music industry, publishing, copyrights, all of that. Then I saw his band, Grand Central, play my father-in-law's ski party. Morris Day's mother was their manager. They played a couple of Earth, Wind and Fire tunes and other cover stuff, and I thought they were pretty good. I told Morris' mom that I'd love to work with them. They thought I was some big-time producer coming in from New York [laughs].
So we started having rehearsals. This was 1975; Prince had just turned 16 at that point. Grand Central, the band members, were Morris Day on drums, Andre Cymone on bass, Prince on guitar, Andre's sister Linda on keyboards, and William Dowdy, we called him Hollywood, playing on percussion. I asked to hear one of their original songs. Prince had this song called "Sex Machine." It was a really good, good song, but it lasted for 10 minutes. And I said, "Wow, that's a nice song, but for it to be on the radio, you have to use a certain formula." So they started using that formula in their material. Andre had a song called "You Remind Me of Me," and they played some other stuff.
Prince and Andre used to have contests of who could write the most songs. They'd just go off in different rooms of their house, because Prince lived with Andre. I don't know what the situation was there, but when I met him, he'd moved away from his parents and was living with Andre. He just learned how to play music on his own. He didn't know how to read music or anything. He just learned on his own.
At one of the rehearsals, I remember Prince stopped, took off his guitar and he went over to Linda, and he says, "Linda, this is what I want you to play." And I was going, "Wow. He plays keyboards and guitar. That's great." Then he goes over to Andre and says, "Andre, let me hold your bass for a second." And Prince starts thumping. And I was going like, "Wow. What is going on?"
I said, "Have you ever been into a recording studio before?" And Prince goes, "No." And I say, "OK, look. I'm in the studio right now at Cook House Recording Studios." I said, "I want you to come play guitar with my band 94 East." And he says, "Oh, OK, great. Cool." And I gave him a cassette of five songs that we were recording: "Games," "If You See Me," "I'll Always Love You," "If We Don't" and "Better Than You Think." I said, "Practice this with two leads," and that was it. That's basically what I'd done for everyone in the band.
"Prince played better than a professional session player."
I had four hours of studio time, and we just kicked it off, right there. We did five songs in four hours. It was just unbelievable. I didn't even know what they were going to play. We didn't have rehearsal or nothing; I just trusted that everyone had their parts. Those recordings came out as The Cookhouse 5.
Prince played better than a professional session player, and I've been to a lot of sessions. None of the guitar players I'd worked with played as well as Prince for his first time in a recording studio. It just totally blew my mind. He was definitely a better guitar player than me [laughs].
He was kind of quiet back then. He didn't talk much. When we was rehearsing with Grand Central and Morris and Andre and I would take a break. I'd say, "OK, let's take 10 minutes, and just take a break, go have something to eat." Prince would say, "OK, I'll see you guys when you come back." He would not leave. But we talked about girls and all this stuff, and we played basketball together.
When he played basketball, he became a different kind of person. That's when the, what do you call it, dirty talk came out. One day me, Prince and Andre was playing over in south Minneapolis, and we just beat 'em so bad, three on three. And they got so salty with us. Prince looked up at one guy and said, "Look like you want to fight or something." And I said, "Oh, my God. Prince is like that?" [Laughs]. One of the guys was, like, my height, six-foot-one, and Prince is little. I thought we'd have to fight our way out, but we didn't. But Prince, you know, he wasn't no punk, OK? Put it like that.
After we did our session, I went to New York for about six months to shop those tunes, to try to get a deal, and when I got back Prince had told me about how he'd met [Prince manager] Owen Husney and [Prince demo producer] Chris Moon. So I met with them in their studio. Prince was 17 at that time. I know they said he was 16, but he was 17. They were nice.
Around that time, I was in the studio with 94 East recording our first single, "Fortune Teller" – which Hank Cosby who wrote "My Cherie Amour" with Stevie Wonder wrote – and "10:15," which I wrote. So we're going into the studio, and we see Prince coming out of the studio. And he goes, "What are you guys doing here? Can I play on your single?" [Laughs]. And I says, "Sure, come on in." Prince did background and he played guitar on both songs. So he was part of that.
About a year later, we got dropped from the label because Hank got fired from Polydor. When I told Prince and Andre that we got let go, Prince was more upset than I was. He told Andre, "We have to go back in the studio with Pepe." So we went back in the studio and did, "Just Another Sucker" – Prince and I wrote that one – and "Dance to the Music of the World" and "Loving Cup," which I wrote with another friend of mine, Ike Paige.
Writing that song with him was fantastic. I would come up with some ideas and he'd go, "Check this out, Pep, tell me if you like this." And I would go, "Oh yeah." I liked everything he did. It wasn't like I would go, "Nah, man. I don't like that part, man." [Laughs]. He was just phenomenal. I did the music and he wrote the words and it was just amazing.
One time, I took him and Andre to New York to do some recordings with Tony Silvester of the Main Ingredient. I played him some recordings and he flew me, Prince, and Andre out and put us up at the Hilton hotel. They were teenagers. They tore the room apart. It looked like a hurricane hit that thing. But we went to the studio, it was the first time that I heard "I Feel for You." Prince had just wrote it, and he didn't have any words, and he played the music on a grand piano between sessions. It was just fantastic.
After we got dropped, I decided to focus on Prince's career, because he'd just gotten signed. He was working at Del's Tire Mart in Minneapolis and somebody robbed him of all his gear. The only things they didn't take were two giant speakers that I'd lent to Prince so he could audition a band. After that, I said, you have rehearse in my house. That's where we auditioned his band members – Bobby Z, André Cymone, Dez Dickerson, Gayle Chapman and Matt Fink – and that's where they'd practice, from about 10 o'clock in the morning to 10 o'clock at night, every single day.
One night, at around 10:30, I tried to call Prince and I didn't get an answer. So I went over to his house, because he wasn't far from where I lived, and I see his car parked in front of his house. I rang the bell, knocked on the door and I didn't get no answer. Then I hear this little tapping sound, and I went around to the side of the house and I peeped through the basement window, and Prince was down in the basement playing drums. I mean, he was wailing away. And this was after 12 hours of rehearsing. It was just unbelievable. So I had to tap the window in-between the drum beats so he could hear me, and then he came to the door and we talked. But after that experience, I had said to myself, "Gee, no wonder why he's so good. This guy practices all the time."
Prince had desire. He was not going to fail at anything that he did musically. That's what I admired about him the most. He just had it.
"I don't know if we're ever going to see anybody like Prince again."
He wasn't fully formed as a musician when I was recording with him, but he was more formed than a lot of studio musicians. You show Prince something once, and he's got it. It's like a photographic memory in his fingers. [Laughs]. I've never seen a musician like Prince, and I don't know if we're ever going to see anybody like him again. He was on the cover of guitar magazines, bass magazines, keyboard magazines, drum magazines and Rolling Stone. I mean, come on.
We always stayed in touch, too. The last time I spoke to him was in Las Vegas at the Rio, at 3121 Club in 2007. It was just a "Hello, how you doing?" "I'm fine. How are you?"
I'm so glad that I was part of his life. Every time that Prince did a record or was out there performing, I knew that a part of me was out there. I just loved it, and I love him. I never would have thought he would have died before me. I'm 10 years older than him. He was just one of those guys that only come around once every 30, 40 years. For us to have him so long was a total blessing. We lost Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Amy Winehouse in their twenties. And Prince, all the way to 57. It was a total blessing.Elton John calls Prince the "greatest performer I have ever seen" in a tribute to the deceased musician. Watch here.