Inside Prince’s Funky First Recording Sessions
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.