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‘For You’: How Prince Gifted His Debut Album To The World
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In Depth

‘For You’: How Prince Gifted His Debut Album To The World

Recorded when he was still a teenager, ‘For You’ introduced Prince as a precocious young artist who was already ‘streets into the future’.

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Prince had only just turned 19 when he signed with Warner Bros, in the summer of 1977, but he was already something of a legend in his Minneapolis hometown. Future Prince guitarist Dez Dickerson later recalled local musicians having “hushed conversations about… the next Stevie Wonder”, and, after securing his charge’s place on Warners’ roster, Prince’s then manager, Owen Husney, declared the deal the largest ever for an unproven artist. Now committed to delivering three records – each of which would mark the rapid development of his artistic vision – Prince set about recording his debut album, For You, across a gruelling few months that would leave him a self-described “physical wreck”, but which would also serve notice that a landmark talent had arrived.

Listen to ‘For You’ here.

“You have to play like it’s your only shot”

In an unprecedented move, Prince had insisted he be allowed to produce the album himself. Having already learned to use studio equipment in Minneapolis’ Moon Sound and Sound 80 facilities, he knew how to capture his music the way he wanted. When Warner Bros suggested that Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White oversee the For You sessions, Prince refused to be burdened with a disco style he felt was on its way out.

“They – the people in power – tried to put me in with what was the happening sound, the few cats on top,” he later recalled for Ebony in 1986, by which point albums such as 1999 and Purple Rain had proven Prince was more than capable of creating a world-conquering sound of his own. “I wanted to get away from that.” After recording one of his new songs, Just As Long As We’re Together, from scratch in the studio, as Warners execs took surreptitious peeks at how their new signing handled himself, the label came to a compromise: Prince could produce the record, but experienced producer Tommy Vicari (Billy Preston, Patrice Rushen) would be on hand in case any problems arose.

“Prince plays the studio as if it were a musical instrument”

Flying out to the West Coast, Prince, Husney, Vicari and Husney’s then wife, Britt, settled into a rented house in Corte Madera, overlooking the San Francisco Bay, from October through to December 1977. Prince, however, spent most of his time in the studio, The Record Plant, just south, in Sausalito, as he painstakingly pieced his debut album together. Eventually credited with performing 27 instruments on the record, Prince layered his drum and bass rhythm tracks with guitars, keyboards and synthesiser, plus multiple vocal overdubs, working with all the intensity of a young artist determined not to miss his chance.

“I think the main reason artists fall when they try to play all of the instruments is because, either thy can’t play all the instruments really well… or they don’t play with the same intensity each track,” Prince later told The Minneapolis Tribune. “So every time you go into the recording booth, you have to play like it’s your only shot.”

This was no problem for Prince, who often stayed in the studio until 3am as he sought to capture the sound of “a whole band that is playing with the same intensity”. His virtuosity wasn’t the only thing on display. Equipped with the top-of-the-range Oberheim 4-voice synthesiser, Prince laid the first foundations for what would become his patented “Minneapolis sound”.

“He was streets into the future”

Fashioning a new take on R&B music, in which the synths sat in for expensive – and time-consuming – horn sections, Prince’s use of synthesisers ensured he could “make an album that would sound different right away” in a mainstream market saturated with Saturday Night Fever cash-ins. “I created a different kind of horn section by multitracking a synthesiser and some guitar lines,” he explained. Released as his debut single, Soft And Wet was the standard-bearer for this new sound; hitting No.12 on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart it signalled a post-disco revolution gathering on the horizon.

Despite doing well with an R&B audience, Prince’s music perplexed both white and Black radio stations. Speaking to this author for the book Lives Of The Musicians: Prince, former Warner Bros executive Marylou Badeaux, then a radio plugger charged with getting Prince’s music played by R&B DJs, recalled that white radio “didn’t know how to handle it”, but that Black programmers were no less flummoxed. “It didn’t fit within their conception of what R&B music was. The sound was very different from what he was coming up with. He was streets into the future.”

“I just did what I wanted to do. And that was it.”

A first-time listen to For You, which hit the shelves on 7 April 1978, wouldn’t have done much to clear the confusion. He’d already warned his label not to pigeonhole him – “Don’t make be Black. My idols are all over the place” – and though it leant heavily into R&B, For You bore this assertion out: the intricately layered vocals on the album’s opening title track – over 40 in total – recalled the complex self-harmonising found on records by Joni Mitchell, while the acoustic ballad So Blue owed its lightly jazz-tinged vibe to mid-70s Mitchell albums such as Court And Spark and Hejira. Elsewhere, Baby, which addressed a surprise pregnancy with mature lyrics that belied Prince’s age, found him writing an unabashedly intimate slow jam, while album closer I’m Yours unleashed an explosion of AOR fretwork that nodded to his love of Santana.

Yet the album hung together cohesively, thanks to the strength of Prince’s performances. Covering their hometown hero’s debut, The Minneapolis Tribune noted, “Prince plays the studio as if it were a musical instrument. Overdubs and multitracks band together into a shimmering, lushly produced whole.”

For You entered the lower reaches of Billboard’s Top LPs & Tape chart, but made a greater showing on the Soul LPs chart, where it peaked at No.20. As many listeners marvelled at the work of this one-man band, some also detected the early stirrings of a distinctly sexualised world view – one which would come into to full flower just two years later, on the Dirty Mind album. Recalling how Soft And Wet was deemed “filthy” by some listeners, Prince shrugged the whole thing off, telling Musician magazine, “I really liked the tune… I just did what I wanted to do. And that was it.”

“I told them it was about deodorant. I don’t think they believed me”

Not quite ready to stage a live tour, Prince promoted For You with a selection of radio interviews and in-store signings. Deflecting questions about his birth name – yes, Prince – and the meaning behind Soft And Wet (“I told them it was about deodorant. I don’t think they believed me”), the rising star was himself taken aback when a few thousand fans rushed him at an event in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It was hysterical… the crowd started getting too large… and we had to leave. It got really bizarre,” he said.

The intense recording sessions, the refusal to do things on anything other than his own terms and the early, if unsettling, brushes with fame – it was all crucial experience for a young artist on his way to becoming not only one of the best 80s musicians, but also one of the most influential musicians of all time – a game-changing icon whose art would forever leave the world a different place.

In the short-term, however, Prince had a follow-up record to make. Simply titled Prince, his self-titled second album would refine everything he’d laid out on For You, helping him to break into the mainstream. Later reflecting on all he’d learned up to this point, Prince asserted: “I knew how to make hits by my second album.”

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