wax Poetics
Photograph by Joe Giannetti from the original photo shoot for 1978’s For You, originally intended as the cover and to include flying birds. © Joe Giannetti. All rights reserved.

The Master

At just eighteen years of age, Prince self-produced his debut album, 1978’s For You, writing all the music and playing every instrument himself. Two years prior, Prince, already a multi-instrumentalist wunderkind, met studio owner/engineer Chris Moon, who would change his life by teaching him the ins and outs of recording while also helping him to find his voice and style. With a demo in hand, Moon delivered him to Owen Husney, who would manage the young artist and score a record deal with Warner Bros., setting into motion a historic musical career from a creative force of nature.

published online
Originally published in Issue 67
By Chris Williams

When and where did you first meet Prince?

Chris Moon: I had a recording studio in South Minneapolis in the 1970s. The name of the studio was Moon Sound Studios. It would be fair to say it was the only studio in town that was really doing mostly Black music and R&B. The reason I was doing mostly R&B was because it was the kind of music I liked. I am an Englishman from England, originally, but I was always drawn by the joy that R&B and Black-rooted music brought more than anything else. Sixty percent of my time was given away to local bands. So if I found somebody I liked, I’d just bring them into the studio and record them, produce them, and put it all together. There was never any charges for the artists. I did that because one of the reasons I had a recording studio is because I liked music. Most people start recording studios because they are trying to make money and like music. [laughs] I was fairly known in Minneapolis. If you were a Black artist, it was the studio to go to. There were a couple other studios, but they were doing mostly rock and country and things like that. A band called Champagne booked some time at my studio to put together a demo tape. It was actually a paying gig. One of the band members’ mothers was managing the band because it was all young kids who were fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen years old. She booked some time with me to do a demo tape.

So they were recording in the studio. Each day at lunchtime, the band would break and go across the street to Baskin-Robbins to get an ice cream cone, and I would sit in the control room eating my lunch. One day while I was sitting there eating my lunch, I looked out into the studio and one of the artists stayed behind. The one that stayed behind was Prince. He started playing on the piano. I kept eating my sandwich, and a bit later I looked up and he was over there playing the guitar. A bit longer I looked up and he was over there playing the drums. I looked up again and he was over there playing the bass. [laughs] And I said, “That’s interesting. It looks like he can play all the instruments.” It finally occurred to me, I was spending all this time giving time away to artists and recording other musicians. I needed to record some of my own material. I’d been a songwriter since I was thirteen or something, so I had a lot of songs put together. I wanted to produce my music, but I realized working with bands was one of the nightmares in life. One of the…things I’d become acutely aware of with a recording studio was the incredible difficulty involved in getting a band to all show up at the same time at the same place, and then do that on a regular basis.

So I was sitting there thinking, “Okay, I want to record some of my own material, and I don’t really want to work with a band, but what other options do I have?” And then I see Prince at the studio running around playing different instruments and I’m thinking, “There may be the solution to my problem. Now, all I got to do is to get one guy to show up. If he played all the instruments, wouldn’t that be great.” So after the session that day, I walked right up to him. He and I had probably not said more than two sentences to one another. He was incredibly shy. I mean, he just didn’t speak. I walked up to him and said, “Look, I’m looking to produce some original material. I would like to make you the artist. I will build a demo tape around you. I will package you up and write some songs for you, and I will teach you how to record and produce in the studio and see if I can make you famous. What do you think?” He looked up to me and said, “Yeah!” I reached in my pocket, and I handed him the keys to my recording studio, which was everything I owned in my life because I was only nineteen. I handed him the keys and he looked at me, and I said to myself, “You have just handed the keys to this small kid from the North Side of town that you don’t even know.” I said to him, “Meet me here tomorrow after school. Take the bus over after school. I’ll be working. I’ll leave two songs on the piano. Pick your favorite song and develop the music. When I get back, I’ll teach you how to record it. We’ll put some songs together.” That’s how it started.

When you began working with him on your material, what were those first sessions like?

Moon: Okay, so, this one should be pretty interesting, because it’s surprising how few people reach out to get the beginning of Prince, because I’ve maintained that Prince was born in my studio. I’m not maintaining I made him—but I’m maintaining he was born in the studio. And after you’re done with this interview, I think you’ll agree. So he would come over—a shy, little, and quiet, five-feet-four-inch kid with an Afro from the North Side of town—and let himself into the studio and pick one of the two sets of lyrics I’d left on the piano. He’d work them up and then I’d show up. I was working at an ad agency back then, so I was learning about advertising, marketing, sales, and all of that. I’d show up to the studio and we’d sit down, and he’d play some music on the piano or guitar, typically. Then we’d start singing the lyrics together until we could work up the melody. And then we started recording it. He had never been in the studio before, so this was all new to him. I started teaching him how to record things, how tracks worked, and how to layer tracks. We got through building up our first song. We spent quite a bit of time working on it. Then, we spent quite a bit of time getting him used to the studio and recording the music to this first song. We were maybe a month into the process, and it was time to lay down the vocals on our first song.

He was in the studio, and I was in the control room. He had the headphones on. I started playing the music. It was coming over the headphones. I looked out into the room. I saw his lips moving as the song was playing, and I looked down at my meters and they weren’t moving, and I couldn’t hear anything. I’m thinking, “Okay, I’ve got a bad mic or a bad cord.” So I went into the studio. I swapped the mic out, came back, still nothing. Okay, obviously, it was the cord. I went back, and I swapped the cord out. I came back again and still nothing. Over the course of ten minutes or so, I troubleshot all that equipment because I saw him singing but nothing was picking up. Then, it occurred to me, I went to the door while the track was playing, and I saw him singing and I stuck my head in the studio and I couldn’t hear anything. I walked over to him and he stopped. I said, “Keep singing. Keep singing.” And I realized that he was singing so softly that I could hardly even hear him.

I said, “Prince, Prince, Prince, you’re not singing loud enough. I thought that I had a technical problem here. The problem is, I need some volume out of you, man. I can’t even hear you. The mic can’t pick you up.” I had sensitive mics. Then we started this process of trying to get him to sing louder. He couldn’t. I don’t know whether it was shyness or intimidation or being scared or whatever. I started looking at his psychological profile to better understand. I had a five-feet-four-inch Black guy who always wanted to be a basketball player. That dream wasn’t going to happen. It just wasn’t going to happen. I had a five-feet-four-inch, Afro-haired Black dude whose name was Prince, and everyone at school was calling him Princess. They were beating him up because he was short and little. Now, he’s going to break out singing in a falsetto girl’s voice. When I started putting it together like that, I started to realize that the dude was facing some intimidation issues from life. I thought, “Shit, I’ve got a problem here. I’ve got all this time invested in my hand-selected artist.” I knew he could play all the instruments, but I never actually auditioned him vocally. [laughs]

Here, I thought my perfect plan was solving all the problems, by not having to find a band and finding an artist who was good and played all the instruments. I thought my perfect plan had just gone belly-down, face-up, because I forgot to find out if he could actually sing the words, which was the reason I was doing this in the first place. [laughs] I was committed to finding a solution to that problem. If this had been an audition, and if I’d actually auditioned him beforehand, he would’ve failed the audition. But because I was already down the road with him, I had to find a way to make it work. We went back and forth and back and forth for hours in the studio, and nothing I could do or say would get him to sing any louder. It just wasn’t happening. The longer we went, the worse it was getting, in terms of him feeling bad and intimidated and frustrated and shy. It wasn’t going in the right direction. I was thinking, “I’ve got to come up with a little miracle here; because, otherwise, everything ends right here and now, and it’s all the way back to the drawing board. I got an artist that I think I can work with. We’re developing music and we’re doing stuff together, and I’m liking what’s happening, but the only problem is, I just can’t get him to sing.

So we took a break, and I was really wracking my brain: “What can I do? What can I do? What can I do?” And finally, I came up with the idea of making a bed in the middle of the studio. I slept downstairs in the basement of my recording studio. I went downstairs and got my blankets and my pillows. I came upstairs and made a bed in the middle of the recording studio. I said, “Come over here. Lay down. I’m going to put a blanket on you. I want you to put your head on the pillow. I want you to get really relaxed.” He said, “Well, why are you doing this? Why you doing it?” I said, “Don’t worry about it. Just go with it.”

I put him down, and I literally put him to bed in this self-made bed in the recording studio. Then, I turned off all the lights in the studio. I took my most sensitive microphone, and I put it as close to his mouth as I could. I said, “Look, you’re all tucked in. You’re all safe. You’re all warm. The lights are off. I just want you to close your eyes. Just relax. I want you to imagine you’re in your room by yourself at night at home, and you’re just singing a song out loud and no one’s around and no one can hear you.” Over the course of some time, I eventually coaxed the voice out of him.

How many hours did that take?

Moon: It took all day. I didn’t make him. I didn’t create him. But, in that day, for the first time, I think he found his voice. It was always there. To sing, you’ve got to expose yourself. You’ve got to let someone see your soul. His singing was in a falsetto voice. That’s not a very manly thing if you’re feeling like you’re not very manly to begin with and you’re a teenager. He was sixteen. In that session, we found his voice together. It was pretty shaky at first, but over time, he learned that it was okay to sing in the style he wanted to sing. He got support and encouragement for it, then I taught him overdubbing. You know what overdubbing is? That’s where you sing with yourself. Then you get three or four or about ten tracks of your voice. When he heard that, he really liked it. Because if you overdub any voice enough times, it always sounds cool. I had him overdubbing fairly early just to try and build the confidence in the sound of his voice. He really grooved on that. So that was one of the bigger things that happened for him in the studio very, very early on. Of course, I would sit down and teach him how to record a couple tracks, then I’d take him into the studio and I’d show him how to mix them together, and how he could use equalization and reverb and panning and level. All of that had an effect on the sound. Over the course of the year, I really taught him how to record and produce, which he, of course, never had any opportunity to be exposed to before. Who’s going to give you unlimited time in the recording studio and sit there and teach you how to do it all for nothing?

He had an intensive one-on-one course in recording, producing, mixing, and engineering, which became his hallmark. Because once he understood that he could control his art, through controlling the recording, producing, engineering, and mixing process, he never went back. He never went out and sought out other people to produce him. He got dialed in early and that was the ultimate way to be. Then what did he do? He built a house that was a recording studio. Lived in a recording studio and spent his whole life recording.

That was the second thing that was career changing for him. The third thing that happened was—I worked in an ad agency and it was the largest ad agency in Minneapolis. It was tenth or twelfth in the country at the time. It was a pretty big ad agency called Campbell Mithun, and they were doing a lot of work with major national clients. They were teaching them how to use color, words, name recognition, and create an identity. I was bringing that all back and then applying it to the fundamentals of packaging out Prince. The first thing that happened was, after doing a few songs with him, I came home from the studio one day, from the ad agency, and I said, “Okay, I’ve written your first hit song.” He asked, “How do you know it’s going to be a hit song?” I said, “You know how I know, it’s because this song has been written and designed to promote you as an artist. Most people go out and write songs that they just feel and think. This is a song written and engineered to market you as an artist, with your primary marketing concept in place.” But he didn’t know anything about marketing concepts, identity, image, and all of that at sixteen years old.

I said, “Let me explain to you what I had to do to write this song. What I had to do is to think about how someone markets a five-feet four-inch-Afro-haired kid from the North Side of town into the music industry and make you huge.” He was all perked up, saying, “Okay, how?” I said, “Well, I looked at it. It’s all about demographics and identifying your target audience. After doing some research, the target audience for music is people who buy music for kids from ten to sixteen years old. Those are people who buy more of this music. They’ve got the money to spend on it. Once they become eighteen and they go out into the world, they got to pay cars and rent and all the other stuff. The audience that we’re trying to appeal to here is twelve- to sixteen-year-old young people. I don’t think that guys are going to really relate to you, but I think we can get girls to relate to you. The way we can get girls to relate to you is by writing songs that have a sexual double meaning. In songwriting, it’s called the double entendre. I’ve been thinking about this, and I’ve written this song that has a double-entendre sexual undertone. I think this should be the marketing theme that we use to promote you, because I think that’s a very strong emotion that you can lock into and tie into young people. It will give you an identity.”

He said, “Okay, that’s really cool. That’s really cool. What’s the song called?” I said, “The song is called ‘Soft and Wet.’ ” That was his first hit song. He asked, “What’s the double meaning?” I said, “Well, don’t you know?” He said, “I get the sexual meaning.” [laughs] “What’s the double meaning?” 

I said, “The double meaning is—I’ll fast-forward five years. My mother heard this song, and she was a proper British woman. She heard ‘Soft and Wet’ played on the radio. She came up to me in front of my whole family at the dinner table. She said, ‘Son, I heard your song on the radio. It’s great, I really like it but what is “Soft and Wet?” ’ Now, here I am, in front of my mother, who, like I said, is straight as an arrow, I said to her, ‘Mother, it’s about a kiss.’ ” [laughs] 

I explained to Prince that it being about a kiss “was the defendable position. You could say things that are highly sexual but also have this innocent side to it. It creates a very powerful marketing asset. Go with that. We need to have a name and we need to have a color. These things need to work together. Now, let’s talk about the name.”

He said, “Well, I know what my name is going to be.” I said, “Well, I know what your name is going to be. Let’s just make sure we’re all on the same page. I’ll go first—I think your name should be Prince.” I’m sitting waiting for him to go, “Yes, of course, duh.” He goes, “Listen, I will never, ever, use that name. Forget it, it won’t work, I don’t agree, no, no, no.” Prince’s real name was Prince Rogers Nelson. Now, coming from the ad agency, learning how your name impacts these things, I thought we had been given a gift. I said, “You got the King…but there’s never been a Prince. What a great image to work with.” I could see exactly how the package is wrapped around Prince. He said, “No, no, no, no, no, no.” He was vehemently against it. In fact, it ended up being a three-month-long argument that nearly broke us up in terms of a writing team. It was the biggest disagreement we ever had. You’re probably wondering, “What did he think his name should be?”

After he told me that he did not want to go by the name Prince and that it would never, ever happen, I said, “Okay, what name are you thinking about using?” I was just dying to hear this, because I didn’t know where he would go after this. He said, “There’s only one name I will ever go by.” I said, “Okay, what is it?” He said, “I just want you to understand there’s only one possibility here with my name that I will even consider.” I said, “Okay, what is it?” He said, “I want to be known as Mr. Nelson.”


Moon: After three months, I finally said to him, “Either we do it my way, or I’m not going to work with you anymore, because I cannot make a Mr. Nelson famous. God could not make Mr. Nelson famous. As a name, it doesn’t work. If we’re going to keep working together, and if I’m going to keep paying all the bills and cover all your time, it’s going to be Prince.” He didn’t like that at all. I mean, this was not a happy day between us, but I guess he didn’t have a choice. 

After we settled on “Prince,” I said, “Now we need a color.” I said, “Prince is royalty, so there is only one color we can choose. It’s got to be purple.” Because purple is the color of royalty. He agreed with that, and we had no problem on that topic. That’s really how his image was developed and constructed over the course of the year that we worked together, and how the concept of sexual innuendo in his lyrics was developed and came out in his first hit song.

I had no idea.

Moon: Most people don’t. I don’t know what most people think. I think they think he had all these ideas and worked in the studio and said this is how we’re going to do it, but it didn’t happen that way at all. I’ve never heard anyone at any time report it that way. But this is one hundred percent accurate in terms of how it developed and why it developed the way it did. If you look back at it, it’s really a lucky set of chances, really, that all lined up together. That’s why I said, I think he was already born in the studio over that year, because, by the time he walked out, I wrote three of the four songs on his demo tape. He had an identity. He had the name. He had the color. He had a marketing image to go with him.

And then I went and found his manager to help him manage his career, which was Owen Husney, who was someone I knew. He walked in as this shy guy and walked out as a packaged artist. Let me be clear: I didn’t make him. It was just—if we hadn’t come together, what happened wouldn’t have happened. He had the talent. It was just [that] somebody needed to bring it out of him. He needed the opportunity. It makes you wonder how many other kids in the inner city have all the talent in the world they need to be world-famous superstars but just never get the opportunity.

When you began working with him as a solo artist, where would you guys be positioned in your studio? Would he be working side by side with you?

Moon: We’d sit on the piano bench together. I have a pretty pitchy singing voice, but I feel a lot of melody in my head. So, we’d sit on piano together. He’d play the music. He wrote the music, and I wrote the words. Together, we would work out the arrangement for them. After we’d done three songs on his demo tape—we did maybe fifteen songs altogether, but it occurred to me that I was taking him in the direction that wasn’t going to serve him long-term. He needed to be able to do this himself. So I told him, “For your demo tape, I want you to do one song that’s all you. I want you to write the lyrics. I want you to produce it, mix it, do the music, and do it all without anything to do with me, because you need to know that you can also do this without me. You don’t need to be dependent on me to get your artistic expression out.” So the fourth song on his demo tape was a song that he had all done himself called “Baby.”

What equipment and instruments did you have at your studio?

Moon: Well, back then, we did all of these songs on an eight-track, reel-to-reel cassette TASCAM recorder. I didn’t have a lot of money. I built my recording studio from the money of selling vacuum cleaners. [laughs] It was scraped together with nickels and pennies here and there. So it wasn’t the world’s best equipment, but both of us came to it with more passion than the money, for sure. So one of the things that we would do with the studio was, we would experiment—I always told Prince I really wanted to experiment a lot. The Beatles had made a big impression on me. We used to do things backwards where the tape was playing backwards. We’d make sounds with pots and pans and singing through vacuum-cleaner hoses. We were swinging them and doing all kinds of singing into a Leslie organ speaker. We were doing all kinds of weird things. At the time, we were using [Shure] SM58s. We were using AKG C414s for vocal mics and Sony condensers. Then I had some UREI compressors in the studio. I had a guy build me a phaser/flanger. It was pretty good.

We had that built into the rack and it wasn’t the most expensive equipment, but we used to do a lot of multitracking. So we’d do three voices, then mix it down to one, and then do another two voices and mix it down to one, and then mix those two down to one, and then to stack up our voices, because we only had eight tracks to work with. We were always having to bounce things around like crazy. So, that was the studio environment. And then, we would really spend all our free time in there every day or weekends. He’d always get so upset when I broke away to do anything other than work with him and spend time with him. 

After he became famous, he called me up. This was three or four years later. He called me up out of the blue, and I said, “Hey, Prince. I haven’t heard from you in a long time.” He asked, “How are you doing? I’m so lonely. You know, I never realized, but when you’re famous, you don’t know why people are with you. Everyone wants to be with me. Everyone wants to be my friend. I know they just want me for my money and my fame. I feel so lonely because I can’t really trust any connections that I’ve got with anybody. The only person that ever did anything for me, without really wanting anything back, was you.” What I heard in that phone call was the same young sixteen-year-old, kind-of-scared kid trying to sing in my studio, now out in the world, famous with all the money, still realizing that he was still scared. It was still a lonely world, even though he was achieving his dream and getting everything he wanted in life, but it really wasn’t the end all to everything that it could have been. In fact, I did an interview recently with the BBC. The BBC asked me a question that was interesting. They asked, “How do you feel about having discovered Prince and your work with him?” After he died, I really asked myself that question, and I’m not sure that I really did him a favor. I think, if I had to go back and do it all over again, I might not have discovered him. I might not have taken him where I took him. And maybe he would have had a really ordinary life, and married a really ordinary girl, and had a really ordinary family, and lived a really ordinary life and been happier.

My deal with Prince from the beginning was the fact that I was going to do whatever I could to make him famous. There was only one thing I wanted. He asked, “What’s that?” I said, “The only thing I want is that any songs we write together, you give me credit for my songs. My only reason for doing this is, I just love music. I’d like to see you get out there, and I’d like to see you get out there with at least one of my songs.” People say, “Wow, if you could go back and do it again, don’t you wish you got him under contract? Or don’t you wish you got a bigger piece of him?” I say, “No, because I got all done packaging him up, and we finished his demo tape.” He came to me and said, “I want you to be my manager.” I said, “No way. I had no interest in being a manager. I do this because I love music. I’m not interested in booking your hotels, making sure you get on the plane, and seeing if you got food in your room. That doesn’t interest me at all. I’ll find someone to do that, but I won’t be a manager. It’s not a job I’m interested in.” I found him a good manager. I did the piece with him I wanted him to do. 

How did you bring him to Owen Husney?

Moon: Owen was managing another artist; it was a folk artist who was recording in the studio at that time. So Owen would come over to the studio sometimes, and sit with me, while we were recording, and he was working with these real prim and proper couple of White guys singing folk songs. But he was a solid manager. He was a good businessman. He had a little ad agency, and he had the understanding of the ad agency background and the marketing components I had put into Prince that he had to leverage them into the next step. When I was thinking about trying to find his manager for him, Owen came to mind fairly quickly because I knew him. Even though I was a recording engineer/producer/writer, I was really a marketing person first. All my life, I’ve been doing marketing, so that was always a passion of mine. Owen was a natural person to pass the baton to. I’ll never forget the line that I used that day. I said, “Owen, I’ve got the next Stevie Wonder. He can play all the instruments. He’s sixteen years old, but he’s not blind.” That was my pitch. I played this four-song demo that I had written and produced with Prince. He said, “Okay. It’s not bad. Let me listen to it.” I kept coming back for the rest of the week, every day, saying, “Owen, have you spent more time? Have you listened to the tape?”

Then after about a week, he came and said, “You know, okay, I’m hearing it. I think you got something here.” I think what he did was he went off and played it for other people and started getting some good feedback. Then he said, “Yes, I think you got something here. I’d like to work with your artist.” I said, “I’m not looking for anything. I’ll hand him off to you. The only deal is the same deal I did with Prince. Anything that comes out that I wrote, I want to make sure it’s got my name on it.” Owen took it from there and got him a deal with Warner Bros.

Prince <i>For You</i>
Prince For You

How did you begin working with Prince?

Owen Husney: The first time I met him actually was when Chris Moon brought him over to my house. I had already heard the demo by that point. I was quite enamored with what I heard, but I still didn’t know what he looked like or anything. Chris already told me that it wasn’t a band. It was one kid playing everything, which was pretty unusual in those days, except for maybe Stevie Wonder. The fact that he was so young and he was doing it was cool. Actually, he didn’t really want to meet at my office. We met over at my house; I was living in Minneapolis with my wife at that time. I was sort of thrilled to see that he was also cute. [laughs] I was in showbiz, so I was trying to figure out every aspect of it. I said to myself, “Please don’t be that gifted and ugly or 475 pounds.” [laughs] I was just praying, and I listened to the demo tape like six hundred times.

So, I was very prepared when he came over. I could tell that he was a very bright human being, even though he was that young. He was grasping a lot of different concepts. I was probably ten years older at that time. But I could tell that he was very bright, aside from the music, which was important to me. I could just tell by the way he was conducting himself, and by some of the questions that he was asking me, that there wasn’t some bullshit going on there. He was grasping a lot of the things that I was throwing out at the time. I was asking him some questions. I was asking him about his influences. Because I was a musician myself, I had a lot of instruments around the house. He gravitated to the instruments and was still talking, which really made it nice because it broke the ice.

I listened to his demo a thousand times, and I was watching him, like I’m sure he was probably watching me at the time, and trying to figure each other out. I think there were some things that I threw out that he got right away, and we formed this little friendship. I’ve worked with many, many artists in my lifetime. Everybody is always leery when they meet a manager. I could see that he was leery and checking me out, but what he did or did not know that I was checking him out to see, “Hey, can I work with this dude? Is it a workable situation?” I had a saying that there are no superstars who are still living in their mother’s basement who should have made it. You have to have talent and drive, and that’s the most important thing. I knew he had the talent. I was checking him out to see, “Okay, is this going to be a drug situation?” Because I had been through that. “Is this going to be a kind of attitude situation?” Because I had been through that too. All these things were sabotage and killers to the artists, especially in the beginning. He didn’t seem to have any of that.

He seemed to be very directed and focused. When I said something, he was listening. He wasn’t, like, off in the corner looking at flowers or anything. He was there, he wanted know, and because of that, in that first meeting, I was very enthused to go to work with him and see what I could do. Again, you have to understand, at the beginning of an artist’s career, it’s fifty percent management and fifty percent artist. Once the artist starts to make it, they’re generating money, and they’re doing it, obviously, it becomes all about the artist at that point. And because he was so young, he needed me. I can tell that he needed me because I was a little bit older than him, and I had been around the block. He needed my information and my experience. We all know that Prince, at some point, became entirely his own boss, but it was not that way in the beginning; I knew this young vulnerable kid who came into my house. When I mourned his death, I mourned that kid that came to my house. There was a very young, vulnerable kid living in André Cymone’s basement at that time.

Can you delve more into your first interaction with Prince? Did you guys just talk about music?

Husney: Yes. We talked about a lot of things, and I kind of have this sense of humor that some people just don’t get and some people get, and he got it. Because I will just all of a sudden say something out of the blue that other people would be like, “Huh, what?” I know Chris [Moon] was doing that, because he was at the first meeting. There was a reason I did that. I could tell Chris was kind of like, “Huh?” But Prince got it, and he would laugh his ass off. I thought, okay, he has a sense of humor. He gets it. He gets what’s going on. I had met a lot of people from other record labels at the time, and I had some near misses in management. I had an act that Columbia Records wanted to sign. But I met an attorney who I became friends with, until he was killed about two years ago [in a cycling accident]. He was a very famous attorney named Milt Olin, and he just looked at me one day, and he said, “You know what, Husney, you’re one of us.” And when I met Prince, that was the same feeling I had. It was like, “Hey, man, you’re one of us. You get it. You get the bullshit, you understand this stuff.” And that was very appealing to me. I could tell that he was pretty driven. 

Take me back to the first time you heard his demo, and what songs were on that demo that you heard?

Husney: The demo was some stuff that he and Chris had done at Chris’s Moon Sound Studios. Prince could come over to Chris’s studio anytime he wanted to. So a lot of what I heard were very long songs, longer than you would want on a demo tape. But I could hear that there was some serious talent. I actually asked Chris what was the name of the band. He just looked at me and said, “Hey, it’s one kid. He just turned eighteen, and he is singing and playing everything.” I was like, “Okay. Let’s go to the next stuff. Let’s listen to that one too.” I think one of the first things I heard was a song they had cowritten called “Soft and Wet,” which was the first single. I didn’t know where the impetus came from, because “Soft and Wet” was very suggestive at the time. I didn’t know who came up with this layer and what was going on, but they had pretty much cowritten that song.

[The other songs] were good, but they were almost jam songs. They were very long. I was listening with a commercial ear all the time back then. I’d been through the mill, so I understood how some of those A&R guys thought. The whole time I was thinking, “Boy, if I ever get to manage this guy, these songs are going to have to be two minutes in length,” which I knew wasn’t going to make him happy, but I had to do it. Later on, I just started listening to everything that he was writing. We would sit and listen and get everything that he was writing. He trusted me at that time, because he was a kid, and I was the dude in town; but I think he respected the fact that I had come from the basis of being a musician, and I had my own little hit record myself [“(Turn on Your) Love Light” by the High Spirits]. I think that gave him a lot of confidence. I didn’t think anybody else had all of that going for them, and he was smart enough to recognize that.

<i>For You</i> inner sleeve with credits, showing Prince’s mastery of instruments at such a young age.
For You inner sleeve with credits, showing Prince’s mastery of instruments at such a young age.

Now, when he started working with you, was he still living with André, or did he move in with you?

Husney: Yes, he was still living with André, but he was spending a lot of time in my house at that point and with André. These guys were like glue. They were always jamming together. They could sort of read each other’s mind. André was a very gifted guy. I was over at his house and saw the famous basement. I began to gather that André was a very integral part of it. Both of them hung out over at my house all the time, because I had an office and I had an ad agency; I was gone during the day. So Prince was free to come into my house. I had a tape recorder that you could bounce tracks internally on. He used that as he would record and hang out. Then we began to have countless dinners together. It was really funny, because when we went to do the first album in Sausalito at the Record Plant [in 1977], André was there. He was telling my son this at the First Avenue [club] last August; I overheard him. André told him when he and Prince met me and [my son’s] mom, who’s now my ex-wife, it was the first sense of family that either of them ever had. And André said, “And it was White people.” [laughs] It was the first time they ever ate salad before dinner. André said, “The brothers on the North Side weren’t eating salad.” It was interesting to hear André’s take on it, but I guess it was true that we were kind of a family. We had become kind of a family. Prince trusted my wife and me, and we really loved him. He was a very cool guy. We just wanted to make sure that he made it.

Please talk about your move out to the West Coast to record?

Husney: Yes, that was very interesting because I did the demo tapes. I knew I couldn’t make a deal on the Moon Sound demos. They were just eight-track recordings. The quality wasn’t good enough, and the songs were way too long. I had another bandmate of mine, David Rivkin. David Z is what he goes by today. He got into engineering and recording acts. As a matter of fact, David is probably really one of the forefathers, because he staked his claim recording the young, Black musicians and bands in Minneapolis, well before Prince. David and I were in competing bands in our youths. Then he joined my band, and we toured for a long time. In my mind, there was only one person who could do the demos and that was David. We recorded in Minneapolis at Sound 80 [Studios]. I only wanted three, really well done demos. Then, I left to go out to California. I was lying my way into the record labels and pitching them. Eventually, I got a deal with Warner Bros. We wanted to always record in Minneapolis, so I cut a deal with the studio because it was a state-of-the-art room. Minneapolis was a real hotbed of music. People didn’t even know that. We definitely had talent there for a long time. It was a big commercial area, too, for ad agencies. This was an up-to-the-minute, contemporary, state-of-the-art studio.

Were you in those sessions with David Z?

Husney: Yes. I was there all the time. I put them together. I put everybody there. I brought everybody and put them together.

When they were working on those tracks, what was their interaction like in the studio?

Husney: David was a consummate musician, and he really knew his way around recording. David also had perfect pitch. So I knew that Prince had no problems with David. David worked with Prince all the way through Purple Rain and…afterward. Prince really liked him. I don’t ever remember Prince coming to me and saying, “Whoa, this David guy, get him out of here.” Never. I don’t remember them having a problem. I think they were the perfect match. When it came to vocals, David had perfect pitch, but he also knew that when harmonies are off, and especially when one person’s doing all of the harmony parts like Prince was doing, when they’re just a little bit off, that’s where you get a richness of sound. When harmonies are dead on, it’s sterile. David understood that. They were the perfect match, which is why I was heartbroken when Warner Bros. wanted someone who had more gold and platinum than David did on the wall. Ironically, when we went to record the first album, David went into the studio with another group, [Lipps, Inc., whose leader Steven Greenberg] was literally playing bar mitzvahs and weddings. This guy had an idea for a song and he brought it to David, and David completely retooled that song and brought in every snare sound and every sound and it became a number one hit. This was while we were doing the first album. Every free country in the world knows the song called “Funkytown.” So David was very instrumental in helping us from a recording and sound point of view to get that deal. Obviously, Prince had his own mind. He knew the direction, and David knew how to work with him in that direction in the studio. 

During the recording process of making the demo with Mr. Rivkin and Prince, where would they be positioned in the studio? 

Husney: I have pictures of them, but I can’t share them with you. I have pictures of our very first night. David would be at the console and Prince would be next to him. It was really the same with Chris Moon and Prince. They were sitting right there side by side.

What was his typical studio routine? Would Prince come in and work with him at a certain time?

Husney: Yes, because I had set up so many hours that would be enough time for them. It was nonstop even back then. I mean, that’s what Prince was put on Earth to do. That was it. And so I would be recording him at my office. I eventually got a studio together there, but I had an office with twenty employees because I owned an ad agency. They would leave at six o’clock, and then they’d come back to the studio. We’d push the desks off to the side, and then we would just jam until all hours in the morning. So even though the studio might have been a little bit more structured at that time because we didn’t own it, the music did not stop.

Why wasn’t the debut album recorded there?

Two things happened: Warner Bros. thought that David was too new, which I thought was a mistake. I had to represent Prince and tell the chairman of Warner Bros. that an eighteen-year-old kid that had never made an album before was also going to produce his own album. So we negotiated a deal, and Warner Bros. said, “Okay, we’ll give it to Prince, but we’ll need an engineer who’s already got gold and platinum on his walls. You can either do it in L.A., or we will fly that engineer into Minneapolis.” I was heartbroken because I wanted David Z to do it. Because I knew how talented he was, and I knew that he really got along, in a musical sense, with Prince. There was just no doubt about it. But they insisted—Prince knew that we couldn’t push the envelope. We got him to become his own producer. We couldn’t push it too far, so we agreed to have an engineer come in, [Tommy Vicari], and he had [a lot of ] experience.

The original plan was to begin recording…at Sound 80 Studios in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Vicari and Prince were going to work at that studio for two months on his debut album. Vicari was going to fly in for two months and serve as executive producer, because the deal that was made with Warner Bros. was that Prince would serve as main producer, but the execs at Warner Bros. wanted a seasoned, veteran producer to serve as the executive producer on the album. The studio got so excited that they decided to put in a new recording console. That’s a no-no in this business. I owned three studios in my lifetime, and that’s a real no-no. It usually took a month or two to get a board under control once you wired it in. Vicari said he couldn’t work in that studio, so he wanted to go back to Los Angeles to record. Tommy Vicari was from L.A. and felt more comfortable out there. 

I made the decision that I did not want to go to Los Angeles with Prince. I knew who he was, and I knew how he liked to operate. I compromised and said, “Okay, we’ll leave the studio in Minneapolis.” Prince was a Minneapolis guy and didn’t want to go, but I talked him into it, and we compromised on the Record Plant in Sausalito, California, where Sly [Stone] did quite a bit of his work there. It was a very good room. They agreed to it, and I went out and found us a house in Marin County. We flew out there. The whole family: my then wife, André, Prince, me, and my dog. [laughs] We all went out as one happy family living in Sausalito.

You have to remember: Prince and André had probably very limited travel experiences at that time. And here they are—Marin County is one of the most expensive real estate areas in the world. We were out there living in a three-level redwood home that I swung for us. It wasn’t too far from Sausalito. I could drive Prince because he didn’t have a driver’s license or car at that time. I was the designated driver that drove everybody around. My wife was making dinners and helping Prince with his hair. We were turning him on to other forms of music like Joni Mitchell. André was there as well. André was really Prince’s soul-mate companion during that first process.

There were a lot of great stories when we were recording. We would take a break for a day, because it was getting intense. One of the things they loved to do was to have me drive them into San Francisco. They would just go to some music store there and jam like crazy. I would drop them off, and they would jam there with all the instruments. One day, I got a call from this dude, and he said, “Hey, man. I saw these two dudes jamming at the music store in San Francisco. We want to come over to the house.” I was like, “No, I don’t want anybody out at the house. This is ridiculous. They’re working, we can’t do it.” I said, “Who are you?” He said, “We’re in Santana’s band. Carlos saw them jamming, and he went crazy over them. We want to come out to the house and hang with you guys.” I was like, “Oh shit.” [laughs] So, here are these two guys from over north in Minneapolis, who are now—Prince hasn’t even made his first album—influencing the big musicians at that time like Santana, just from jamming in a music store. That was the enormity of his talent. I was a guitar player. When I was living in Minneapolis, if I sat for ten years in my basement playing guitar, I would’ve never been as good as Prince’s natural talent. Either you’re born that way or you’re not.

So it was a really good experience. André was there. Prince had an ability to absorb a lot of stuff. The engineer [Tommy Vicari] was great. I mean, he had a huge track record. But Prince didn’t want anybody dictating any kind of musical direction to him. After a while, he said, “Owen, I can do most of this myself. Can you let the engineer go?” And I didn’t want to let him go because he was a good guy. Then I knew I would have record-label problems; but again, I have to give Warner Bros. credit. They really understood Prince. Warner Bros. gave him everything that he wanted: all the tools and the keys to the kingdom. They understood him. They got him. They got who he was as an artist. That’s why I wanted to be there, because they were a very artist-friendly record label. Mo Ostin was the chairman, Lenny Waronker was the president, and Russ Thyret was head of promotions; they all would have fallen on a sword for Prince, because they believed in him as much as I did. 

Were there major differences between the Record Plant and Sound 80 Studios?

Husney: Yes, Sound 80 was a little bit more sterile and you probably would expect to see more white lab coats there. [laughs] The Record Plant in Sausalito, California, was a very funky, wooden studio known for just great sound with a giant tongue in one of the studios, a lounge chair in the shape of an elevated tongue, and that’s where Sly would record. He could plug into the tongue and stuff like that and just record or sing right from there. All those places were still holdovers from the hippie days with everything being natural. But it wasn’t as sterile as Sound 80. It was funkier. It was a good room to make that first record in. They had a little FM transmitter, so we could do a mix or just do a rough cut, and then get in our car and drive around about a nine-block radius, then listen to it on the radio and see how it would sound, which actually worked. Because you have to remember, we were in a big, giant, million-dollar studio, and basically, at that time, we were cutting records that were coming out of tiny speakers. We had to be very aware of how that sound was going to translate. But it was a very funky room, really cool place, very typical San Francisco-ish, hippie-vibe-ish, Sly Stone situation. It really turned out to be good.

How much time was spent at the Record Plant recording the songs for the album For You?

Husney: It seemed like day and night. I kept pushing the boundaries of Warner Bros.’ budget. In all the books, it says, “They went way over budget.” Considering the artist that he became, it really was meaningless. I pushed Warner Bros. I pushed them like crazy. We needed extra time. I think retrospectively, and I’m sure Prince would say the same thing, that he probably tried to be too perfect on that first album. He knew it was his debut. I think that he tried to go over it again and again and to make it a perfect album, which he was capable of doing. If you were to ask him, he’d say, “Yes, I probably put too much time in. I didn’t give it enough air to breathe. I probably overdid it.” But they were going all the time. Prince really liked recording at night, so that’s what musicians do and that’s what he did. I’d drop him off at night at the studio. They’d work all night. He’d come home early in the morning. But he was working around the clock. We had it on lockout, which meant they locked out the room for us, so it was our room.

For the nine songs that are on the record, were you there during the collaboration process between Prince and the engineer, Tommy Vicari? 

Husney: Yes. Look, I’m sensitive enough. I was a musician, and I wouldn’t want my manager sitting in the studio all day long. There was no reason for me to do that because I had to be up during the day to be dealing with the record label and working off promotional programs and promotional tours. It didn’t make much sense for me to be a studio hanger-on. I don’t even like doing it to this day, although I’m semi-retired. I’m not out to make anybody self-conscious, but I did see the process. Trust me, I heard the problems that would happen, especially when Prince and the engineer fell out. It wasn’t because the engineer wasn’t good. It was because Prince had an ability to learn at such a rapid rate. Prince didn’t come home and say, “Wow, I learned how to EQ something today.” No. Prince would come home and say, “I’ve learned how everything works.” Everything. It was more than amazing to watch. He was a sponge—he was SpongeBob on twelve. He just pulled everything in. It was nothing personal for anybody that he worked with, but as soon as he started to fully understand it, it was time for him to do it himself. I’ve never seen that with anybody I’ve worked with. People know their way around now because it’s digital, but back then it was a pretty interesting process. You were still editing tape by cutting it. He understood everything from A to Z, and it was very awesome to watch.

Photo by Jurgen Reisch, courtesy of Warner Bros. As seen on the inner sleeve of the follow-up album, 1979’s <i>Prince</i>.
Photo by Jurgen Reisch, courtesy of Warner Bros. As seen on the inner sleeve of the follow-up album, 1979’s Prince.

What was some of the equipment and the instruments that were used during the creative process?

Husney: He was very enamored with synthesizers. Actually, we talked about it at one point, the usage of synthesizers. In the very beginning, it was just another creative tool, so I was able to get him one—it was an Oberheim Four Voice synthesizer. He grasped how it worked, immediately. He used it on some of the horn parts, especially on the demos at Sound 80 [Studios]. The only person I know that actually did some stuff with him that came out during the first album was Patrice Rushen. She showed him a bunch of stuff, and he did some stuff with her. Otherwise, he did it by himself. He was very enamored with the early Oberheim Four Voice synthesizer. He continued to use it quite a bit. That became part of the Minneapolis sound. Other people overused it to the point where it was totally overdone. He knew how to layer it. He was laying down the drum tracks, guitar, and bass. He was laying it all down and putting it together. His use of the synthesizer was the biggest standout that I remember at the time. It really was influencing his sound.

How much was Prince involved with engineering For You?

Husney: I think that’s where some of the dispute came in, because Prince had a very specific way that he wanted his music to sound early on. He had two things going for him: he had the talent to pull it off, and he had the balls to pull it off. He would go for it, and if you got in his way, it wasn’t going to work out too well for you, even at an early age. In fact, one of the things I noticed about Prince that I liked early on was he knew what he wanted and he had the balls to go for it. I never saw him back down. [laughs] That kind of talent doesn’t come along very often. A lot of people do have it, but very few [overall].

Were there any interesting, behind-the-scenes stories in terms of the making of the couple of songs that were released from the record, like “Soft and Wet,” “Just as Long as We’re Together,” “For You”?

Husney: On “For You,” I don’t know where he dreamt that up. Somewhere on the plane going out there or sometime in the studio. He just kind of came up with that. The only thing that I can tell you is that we were all thrown into this situation in Sausalito, and we had to make the best of it. One of the things that kept us going was, we were constantly doing practical jokes on people. At one point, Prince wanted David [flown] out during the vocals, because he really trusted David. So I flew David out to Sausalito, and he stayed with us and did a lot of the vocals. Prince always trusted David on vocals. But, I think, David was even shocked by the amount of practical jokes we were pulling on each other. We would go to a restaurant, and Prince would have a squirt gun. From under the table, he fired it up in the air; it would be landing on different peoples’ heads. [laughs] They were like, “What the hell is going on?” People would be brushing their shoulders off all over the restaurant. We pulled all kinds of practical jokes. It helped to break the ice. He was definitely a leader in the practical-joke department.

Did you have a favorite song on this album?

Husney: Yes, I did. There was a song on the first album called “In Love.” No, “So Blue.” I mean, “So Blue.” “In Love” I liked, because when he hit it, that was a synthesizer arrangement. It was very hard to get out of my mind. There was a song called “So Blue” on that first album, which really showed the tender side of Prince. It showed how multifaceted he was. There were probably several personalities swimming around in there. There was that “So Blue” side, which was the spirited, vulnerable person. One of the songs that really stood out to me, because it was on the demo, was a song called “Baby.” “Baby, what are we gonna do?” It was about young teenagers getting pregnant. They were dating and his girlfriend got pregnant. “Baby, what are we gonna do? There’s [barely] enough money for two.” Where are you going to go with that? At the very end of the song, he says, “I hope our baby has eyes just like yours.” He wasn’t talking about abortion or anything. It was very, very sensitive for an eighteen-year-old to be writing that shit. He could see all sides of everything. He was so bright. It was just like I said before—people like him don’t come along very often.

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