John Nelson moved out of the family home when Prince was seven. But he left behind his piano, and it became the first instrument Prince learned to play.The songs he practiced were TV themes – Batman and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. "My first drum set was a box full of newspapers," he has said, explaining how he came to play a whole range of instruments. "At thirteen, I went to live with my aunt. She didn't have room for a piano, so my father bought me an electric guitar, and I learned how to play." But the aunt wasn't keen on the noise, and she threw him out. It was then that Prince turned up at André's.
Hardly into their teens, Prince and André (who uses the surname Cymone) had already formed their first group. Prince recalled, "I got my first band. I wanted to hear more instruments, so I started Champagne, a twelve-piece band. Only four of us played. Eight were faking. André and I played saxophone. I also played piano. I wrote all the music. The songs were all instrumentals. No one ever sang. When I got into high school, I started to write lyrics. I'd write the really, really vulgar stuff."
André, on the other hand, claims the first band had Prince playing lead guitar, André himself on bass guitar, his sister Linda on keyboards and the Time's Morris Day on drums. The group was called Grand Central, later renamed Champagne. The musicians all wore suede-cloth suits with their zodiac signs sewn on the back (Prince, born on June 7th, 1960, had Gemini, the twins, on his). For a time, they were managed by Morris' mother, which didn't make Prince very happy. "She wasn't fast enough for Prince," says Mrs. Anderson. "He wanted her to get them a contract right away."
The band practiced in André's basement, where Prince had established a bedroom of his own. "It sounded like a lot of noise," says Bernadette Anderson. "But after the first couple of years, I realized the seriousness of it. They were good kids. Girls were crazy about them."
André – whose father had played bass in the Prince Rogers Band – says that although the family was poor, Prince "dug the atmosphere. It was freedom for him." There wasn't enough money to buy records, but there was a family friend – a reclusive black millionaire, says one source – who gave the kids the money to go to a local studio to record a few songs. The studio they picked was called Moon Sound.
Moon Sound was an eight-track studio that charged about thirty-five dollars an hour back in 1976, when Prince and André and the rest of Champagne walked in the door. The owner, Chris Moon, was a lyricist looking for a collaborator. "Prince always used to show up at the studio with a chocolate shake in his hand, sipping out of a straw," Moon remembers. "He looked pretty tame. Then he'd pick up an instrument and that was it. It was all over."
Prince soon agreed to work with Moon, and the studio owner handed the seventeen-year-old a set of keys to the studio. "He'd stay the weekend, sleep on the studio floor," Moon says. "I wrote down directions on how to operate the equipment, so he'd just follow the little chart – you know, press this button to record and this button to play back. That's when he learned to operate studio equipment. Pretty soon, I could sit back and do the listening."
One person who heard Prince's early recordings was Owen Husney, who became his first manager. Husney put together an expensive package that included a demo tape of three twelve-minute songs on which Prince sang and played all the instruments, and he went off to L.A. to make a pitch to the record companies. Three labels – CBS, Warner Bros, and A&M – eventually made offers. Prince finally signed with Warner Bros., where, says an executive, they "were taken with the simplicity of his music and a future that looked wide open," and where he was offered a firm three-LP contract, unheard of for a new artist.
Lenny Waronker, then head of A&R and now president of the label, was impressed enough to allow Prince to act as producer of his debut album. "I met him when we first signed him," Waronker recalls. "[Producer] Russ Titelman and I took him into the studio one day, much to his chagrin. So we said, 'Play the drums,' and he played the drums and put a bass part on, a guitar part. And we just said, 'Yeah, fine, that's good enough.'"
Sales of the first Prince album, For You, released in 1978, weren't so hot, but the fact that the kid was a one-man band – and his own producer – got a lot of attention. Then, in 1979, the single "I Wanna Be Your Lover" from his eponymous second LP went to Number One on the soul charts. But the age of innocence was almost over. Prince was back in Minneapolis putting together a new band, a straggly mix of blacks and whites, all recruited locally. His old friend André Cymone was among them, playing bass.
"There was a lot of pressure from my ex-buddies in other bands not to have white members in the band," Prince has said. "But I always wanted a band that was black and white. Half the musicians I knew only listened to one type of music. That wasn't good enough for me."
The band, with its double keyboards, learned to reproduce the music Prince had been creating alone in the studio. The synthesizers, often playing horn lines, are a hallmark of the Minneapolis sound. The guitar signature is edgy rock, but the beat reins in any long guitar solos. "Around here, if it's not synthesizers, it's nothing," says a local Minneapolis musician. "This is a keyboard town. It's simplicity. If you listen to a lot of Prince or the Time, it's simple. It's direct and straight to the point. And it feels so good."
With a band to spread the word on the road, Prince was ready, in 1980, to unleash Dirty Mind, his bawdy third album. 1999 wasn't very far away.
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