News broke today that legendary songwriter, musician, performer, and producer Prince Rogers Nelson, died today at Paisley Park in Chanhassen, Minnesota. The iconic artist left us with a lifetime of music to remember him by, even though he was only 57 years old. But Prince was also a fascinating human being who was responsible for many tales from those he encountered. We asked Lenny Waronker, the former Head of A&R and President of Warner Brothers Records, to recount his memories of signing the 18-year-old savant from Minneapolis. [Full disclosure: Lenny Waronker is the author’s father.] Although many will remember Prince’s relationship with Warner Brothers nothing short of turbulent, Waronker’s stories remind us of how the former slave to music set so many of us free.
I first heard about Prince from Russ Thyret who was the Head of Promotions and someone I admired. Russ said he was having a meeting with one of our local promotions guys, Cliff Siegel from the Midwest, because Cliff knew a guy named Owen Husney—a very cool kid from Minneapolis who happened to be Prince’s first manager. Cliff told Russ about Owen and said that Owen had this kid and there was a tape. Owen set up a meeting with Russ, and Russ asked me to be a part of it. I told him I couldn’t make it because I was in the studio, but if we had anything close, to wave the red flag and I’d meet with him tomorrow.
Russ called me immediately after, if not during, the meeting and said I had to meet with this kid. I can’t remember who exactly was in the meeting, but what I do remember was that it was clear we had something interesting. I then took the tape and played it for a handful of people. There were other labels, like Portrait (Columbia’s West Coast division) and A&M, who were also interested in Prince. But all the other labels wanted to sign Prince making sure he had a producer that could work with him. As we know, he didn’t want a producer. My feeling was that we had just gotten a hold of a tape of six or eight songs where this 18-year-old kid was playing every instrument and it sounded like a finished record, why would he need a producer? My thought was, let’s sign him and then bring in an engineer that had some production skills, I knew of the perfect guy, his name is Tommy Vicari. Tommy is a really good guy and Prince didn’t have an issue with pairing up with him.
So we decided to sign him on a three-album confirmed deal, which was unheard of then and still is now, I guess. I had a conversation with David Berman, who was Head of Legal Affairs, who said, “We can get this kid if we wanted for three albums.” My recollection of the conversation was that we started talking and I was like, “Look, as far as the producer thing, this is a no-brainer. We’re signing this kid based on not only his songs and his ability to play, but also it’s clear he has a production-type brain.” Apparently Colombia had Maurice White [of Earth Wind & Fire] and A&M had another fancy and notable name attached to produce Prince, but we were like, “We don’t need anything more than Tommy.” Companies were literally fighting for him with big name producers lined up and we said, “No, we’re okay.”
So David and I start talking—we have this stream of consciousness back-and-forth—about the risk of signing Prince with three albums confirmed. But it was a simple conversation. We got all the information we needed for a first album. We had two guys from A&R named Steve Barry and Gregory Katz who were both very astute. They confirmed we had at least two or three hit singles off this album and it gave me affirmation. We knew the first album would do something, unless we’re all crazy, which means of course we will do a second album. The likelihood of him taking a backwards step knowing the kind of talent he has and where he is now, it wasn’t a big gamble that the second album would do better than the first. So I said to David, “When it comes to third albums, you know the nature of this company.” There are always on-going battles with letting artists go, there is always a rabbi in the room for the artist and the rabbi usually won. So there is an on-going issue about hanging on too long, which ultimately is a good thing because it showed that we were truly an artist label. If you were good, it was hard to let go of you. So I remember saying, “You know the nature of this company you know what’s going to happen, I bet on a third album.” And David ultimately just said okay and got up and left. Next thing you know, maybe we went to see Mo [Ostin] or whoever, but the deal was made.
The first time I got a sense of this individual—the real Prince—was when we took him into the studio. I took him in with Russ Titelman, another Warner’s producer, and maybe a couple other guys. We brought him into the studio because we were so curious and he was so interesting, but we didn’t want him to feel like he was auditioning. We just wanted to see him do his thing. He put down a guitar track and got it right. Then he put down the drums—wow. You could just tell—the guitar was locked in, the timing was good, you could tell it was easy for him.
So I naturally was like, this is silly, let’s stop, he can clearly handle it. But he said, “No, let me do a bass overdub.” I said it’s unnecessary and that he could take the tape and leave, but then he did something unusual. He was typically a quiet and reserved guy, very mysterious, and it was the first time I saw any true emotion. He looked at me and said, “No, I need to finish the track” He was very firm about it. I said okay, no problem.
Now at this point we’re standing in a very narrow studio, in a very thin booth. It’s so narrow that you literally had to step over people if you weren’t sitting down. Anyway, he was sitting on the floor and as I’m walking across to talk to the engineer, I step over him and his legs were out. I was halfway through the step when I looked down, he said to me, “Don’t make me black.” It really stunned me. Then he reeled off a bunch of artists from all kinds of different musical backgrounds, whether it was Fleetwood Mac, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, maybe The Beatles, yes Rolling Stones. He just reeled off all these artists so quickly. When an African-American, 18-year-old kid from Minneapolis says something like that, you better pay attention. He covered so much ground musically, and it was a fun ride.
The on-going issue for Prince was that he was so far ahead of his time. If he were to be making [his old] music now, it would be less of an issue. But Prince was relentless about putting music out. We constantly had to tell him, “Take a breath, take a breath. You don’t have to put stuff out all the time.” But he wanted to put music out. He had a brief falling off after Purple Rain and the next album he put out, Around the World in a Day didn’t match in sales. But the next album he put out was Parade. Sign o’ the Times was kind of like a comeback album—I hate to say comeback, but it was like a comeback album—the song itself was such a big hit. Anyway, it was a double album, but I had to take a lot of time to convince Prince to take a triple album and consolidate it down to two.
During this time, Prince came to me and said he likes to go to the clubs, but the clubs don’t play his music, so he wanted to put out a dance album and call it The Black Album. He said he would put out the record anonymously and that no one would know it was him. Well, I said, “Since, you’re in the midst of one of your biggest hits with a phenomenal album, there’s just no way people won’t know it’s you.” He then went and had a long conversation with Mo [Ostin] and finally the two agreed we would make The Black Album. We pressed a bunch of records and then he decided he doesn’t want to do it. He actually asked us to make sure all of the records were destroyed. He may have paid for all the records to be pressed and destroyed it himself. But that was Prince.
He was obviously an enormous talent, I mean truly, truly, gifted. And even when he was at his funniest, he was incredibly serious about songwriting and the art of songwriting. Besides his unbelievable ability to play every instrument, he was a great singer and performer. He was able to get across what he was trying to say in every single way that he knew how and it made him different. He wasn’t like anyone else. And when you have a relationship with someone like him…mine was close, but from afar. He knew I was supportive of him, so our relationship was already pretty nice, but I never got to know all the sides to him.
He was someone with so many different sides to him. There was the musician and then there was the songwriter, even his songs were unpredictable. I’ll be sad knowing that someone that had that immense talent and skill doesn’t exist anymore. Just knowing that he was around, whenever there was a mention of Prince, there was always that little hope that he would come back and do, I don’t want to say one more album, but if he ever did anything, we were interested. That’s his personality. Anytime I would speak with him, for the most part I would pick up on something new. He was very, very smart. Like really smart. He was dynamic and unpredictable and so many other things that when you put it all together, you have this amazing and mysterious and brilliant musician, a truly all-time great. I will miss him.