Prince’s First Concert Made Him ‘So Blue': 365 Prince Songs in a Year
To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.
Because he had been signed to Warner Bros. on the strength of his one-man band demos, Prince didn't take the traditional route to stardom by building a local following in clubs and building word-of-mouth, perfecting his stage presence while woodshedding the songs. Although he had played in the cover band Grand Central while in school, he had not booked a single gig under his own name by the time he released his 1978 debut For You.
To promote the record, his label took him on a tour where, instead of performing, he met with local radio and fans, who continually asked him if Prince was his actual name, if he really played all the instruments on For You and the meaning of "Soft and Wet."
"They asked me about it on the radio, and I told them it was about deodorant," he told Jon Bream of the Minneapolis Star. "I don’t think they believed me."
"It was weird," he said of the jaunt. "I liked the food drive [in North Carolina] because I was in a small section in the radio station and people could come in and I could talk and stuff like that. But on Saturday night we did an autograph party for two thousand people. It was hysterical. ... I only got to sign for about one hundred, and they just started rushing the stage and we had to leave. It got really bizarre. Then they [the organizers] were just like throwing posters off the stage. It was just mad."
But Warner Bros. wanted to see him onstage to determine if the instrumental skills that dazzled them on tape could translate to a live setting. Prince booked the Capri Theater in North Minneapolis for three nights, Jan. 5-7, 1979, the first time he played live since leaving Grand Central three years earlier. The opening night was a warm-up gig and the executives would come to the second night.
Although he and drummer Bobby Z. flew out to Los Angeles to spend three days auditioning musicians for his band, Prince decided to stick with local talent. He put together a band consisting of Z., his best friend Andre Cymone (bass), Dez Dickerson (guitar) and Gayle Chapman and Matt Fink (keyboards).
It was arranged by Pepe Willie, Kristie Lazenberry and Marcy Ingvoldstad of Pepe Music Incorporated. The leader of 94 East, Willie had met Prince during his Grand Central days and became his mentor and hiring him as a session guitarist for Willie's demos. Later, the two collaborated on "Just Another Sucker" before Willie broke up 94 East to help his protege jump-start his career.
The first evening was a benefit for the theater, with tickets costing only $4, and $4.75 at the door. "We did all of it," Lazenberry said in Dave Hill’s Prince; A Pop Life. "We made the tickets, we sold them, we even did the door. We were the security too!"
They opened the first one-hour show with "For You" and closed with "Just as Long as We're Together." Bream covered it for the Star and was struck by Prince's "grand Mick Jagger-like moves and gestures. He was cool, he was cocky and he was sexy. Prince reached out to the audience, and the fans, especially the teen-aged girls, embraced him." The writer noted that Cymone and Dickerson "often relied on flashy pyrotechnics and overzealous showmanship" but they made up for their lack of polish with "refreshing energy and emotion."
Dickerson agreed with Bream, telling Hill that he and Cymore were "far overdoing it" by taking advantage of his wireless unit to repeatedly run into the audience. But he remembered Prince as being far more timid. "All I remember is Prince spending most of the evening with his back facing the audience," he said," and in between songs, mumbling into the mic with his eyes closed."
The band's inexperience also showed in the inability to deal with sound issues. In Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks, Ronin Ro fingered Dickerson's rig as the cause, and the bassist blamed the store for not setting them up properly. Feedback and buzzing caused several delays throughout the show and was particularly noticeable during "So Blue," the jazzy acoustic ballad from For You. That first concert is believed to be the only time Prince has ever played that song.
"So Blue" is indicative of how Prince, even at the earliest stages of his career, had bigger plans for himself than the industry usually expected of black artists, citing a smash by Lionel Richie of the Commodores as an idea of where he wanted to go.
"I have a lot of really nice acoustic songs I’d like to record," he told Bream. "It’s like 'Three Times a Lady.' ...That was a song that just couldn’t be stopped—it just broke everywhere. It didn’t matter that they were black or whatever. Sometimes I’m tempted to just not do another single like 'Soft and Wet' and just do something out of the ordinary. Then if that hits, then people would, I guess, realize. I don’t want to be trapped into a particular thing that would be hindering, because I would like to do a lot of different things."
The Warners executives arrived the next night and one of them, Carl Scott, was blown away by Prince "literally climbing over amplifiers and electronic equipment, going from one place to another to create these sounds," he told Hill. "I just couldn't believe I was watching this. There was something absolutely genius taking place. It was totally different to anything that I had ever really experienced before. I knew that something in there was magic, but I didn't know what it was."
Because of the extroverted nature of the performance, matched by the band's outfits (Prince wore thigh-high boots and a flared shirt, while Cymone wore a pinstripe suit and tie and Dickerson went for the Jimi Hendrix look), Scott was surprised by Prince's demeanor when they met backstage.
"In person he was very quiet, and laid back and shy almost to a fault," he continued. "I honestly thought it was me, you know? He was polite, but with very few words. Anyway, we went back to Burbank, and were totally shell-shocked by what we had seen."
For all the excitement the shows generated onstage, Prince's lack of name recognition in Minneapolis -- "Soft and Wet" barely got local airplay -- and only 300 people attended. "We sold just enough to pay for the lighting," Pepe Willie said. "I think I came out with about five dollars profit."
Even worse, the label felt that the group needed more experience onstage before sending them out on the road. They waited until after the release of Prince, and then that winter tour ended earlier than expected because of an illness. Even with a pair of freshly minted hit singles, "I Wanna Be Your Lover" and 'Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?" Prince and his band still had trouble getting through.
"They didn’t understand that we are trying to bridge the worlds of rock, funk, jazz and whatever,” Prince told Bream in 1980. “The critics were led to believe we would be laid-back because of the albums. ... They thought we were gay or freaks. We’re wild and free. It’s no holds barred."