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Little Red Corvette: The Story Behind Prince’s Breakthrough Song
In Depth

Little Red Corvette: The Story Behind Prince’s Breakthrough Song

Prince’s breakthrough song, Little Red Corvette outpaced the competition with its exploration of casual sex.

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By the time Prince released Little Red Corvette in February 1983, he was on the verge of his long-awaited breakthrough into the pop mainstream. The second single to be lifted from his 1999 album, it was the first of his songs to perform better on the Billboard Hot 100 than on the Black Singles chart, and his first single to enter the US Top 10. From the car that inspired it, to the sexual intrigue that tweaked the public’s imagination, this is the story of how Prince rode his Little Red Corvette to success.

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The inspiration: “Prince was always borrowing my car because it was awesome”

Like many songs in a long lineage of rock and pop tunes in which automobiles provide a metaphor for sex, Little Red Corvette was inspired by an actual car – though it wasn’t red, and neither was it a Corvette, as Prince’s then keyboardist Lisa Coleman revealed to the BBC in 2019.

“Prince was always borrowing my car because it was awesome,” she said – so awesome, in fact, that she still owns it today. Prince himself had actually helped Coleman buy the pink and white 1964 Mercury Montclair Marauder at an auction in 1980, the same year that he released his Dirty Mind album – and the dirty mind at work behind that record was spurred into action while Prince spent an evening in the back of Coleman’s “perfect cruise-mobile”.

Writing in the liner notes to Prince’s 1993 hits collection, The Hits/The B-Sides, Alan Leeds, Prince’s former tour manager and one-time president of Paisley Park Records, said that Prince “wrote the clever song while nodding off” in the back seat of the Mercury Marauder “following an exhausting all-night recording session. The lyrics came to him in pieces as he’d jot something to memory in between catnaps.”

Coleman, however, believes a different kind of nocturnal activity truly inspired Little Red Corvette.

“He was ‘sleeping’ with someone we knew called Denise Matthews” – better known as Vanity, the frontwoman of one of Prince’s side-project bands, Vanity 6 – “and she was ‘sleeping’ in the back of the car, too,” Coleman told the BBC. “So I imagine they were making out, or doing whatever, in the back seat and they probably had a wonderful moment of afterglow, which is when he got the seed of the idea.”

Don Batts, one of Prince’s studio engineers at the time, has suggested that another member of Prince’s entourage could also have come to mind, noting that his then personal assistant, Jamie Shoop, “had the looks and the Corvette, while I was the definite ‘motorhead’, deep into professional racing”. But Coleman recalled discovering physical evidence of Vanity’s involvement in the song’s creation: “I even found some of her hair wrapped around the handle that winds the window down.”

The recording: “He’d kind of throw out an idea, but then he’d let me try things… The rest is a mystery”

Juggling three album projects – his own new record, plus releases by his side projects The Time and Vanity 6 – Prince would hold punishing round-the-clock recording sessions in order to capture his relentless flow of ideas on tape. “You just had to facilitate his creative energy, which was all over the place all the time,” Peggy McCreary, one of Prince’s most trusted studio engineers of the early 80s, told this author, for the book Lives Of The Musicians: Prince.

The basic tracks for Little Red Corvette were recorded on 20 May 1982, Prince creating the song at his own home studio, installed in the basement of in the house he owned on Kiowa Trail, in Chanhassen, Minnesota, by layering forlorn synths over a pulsing Linn LM-1 drum-machine beat. Lisa Coleman later added vocals and guitarist Dez Dickerson was called in to overdub a solo. Speaking to Andrea Swensson for the official Prince podcast The Story Of 1999, Dickerson explained how quickly the guitar solo, later ranked 64th in Guitar World magazine’s best guitar solos of all time, came together:

“He would give me a lot of latitude. He’d kind of throw out an idea, but then he’d let me try things… with the guitar solo I just kind of did five passes, just like one after another, and then we sat and comped it… The rest is a mystery.”

Piecing together the final solo out of separate takes enhanced the disquieting atmosphere Prince sought to capture. “That interval was completely unnatural,” Dickerson asserted. “You’re not going to go from playing that phrase to playing that phrase. People will think it’s genius, but I’m never going to be able to play it again.”

Edited out of Little Red Corvette’s 3.08 single cut, but present on the full 4.58 album version, is an explosion sound effect that acted as a segue from 1999’s opening title track, and which furthered the late-night inner-city vibe which shrouded much of the album (“I see New York a little bit more,” Prince told Musician magazine in 1983, explaining how his experiences on tour had begun to percolate through his music. “In my subconscious I’m influenced by the sinisterness of it, you know, the power. I hear sirens all the time, things like that”). Like the edited-together guitar solo, it was also another bit of studio trickery that he deployed as a means to greater ends, as Dickerson recalled:

“Every once in a while, you’d get a take, and the energy and the feel of the take was so good that even though there might have been a mistake technically, you wanted to use that take. So he said, ‘You know what, when there’s something in the track that you… don’t want in there, put an explosion over it.’… Put an explosion over the mistakes.”

The meaning: “The greatest song about casual sex ever written”

From Rocket 88 – the Ike Tuner song often credited as being the world’s first rock’n’roll recording – to The Beach Boys’ Fun, Fun, Fun and Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, the car song has been a part of US pop culture ever since rubber tyres first squealed on tarmac. The one-night-stand, too, has been long been worried over (Will You Love Me Tomorrow, The Shirelles) and eulogised (Save A Prayer, Duran Duran) in song. And, like the love interest whose car is parked sideways in its opening line, Little Red Corvette sits across these two time-honoured pop-music traditions.

As songs such as Darling Nikki (from the Purple Rain album) and I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man Many (from Sign O’ The Times) have made abundantly clear, many of the best Prince songs offer frank explorations of fleeting affairs which barely last the night. It was with the neon-lit Little Red Corvette, however, that Prince first served notice to mainstream record-buyers that he was a master of the boudoir ballad. Hailed by Slate writer Jack Hamilton as “the greatest song about casual sex ever written”, Little Red Corvette also hid in its trunk plenty of references that, in more overt guises, wouldn’t have made it onto the air in the censorship-heavy 80s.

Amid the automobile-themed euphemisms for sex with a “too fast” woman (“Move over, baby, gimme the keys/I’m gonna try to tame your little red love machine”) and a sly humour that threads its way through much of his work (“I say, the ride is so smooth, you must be a limousine”), Prince includes a number of lyrical nods to the wider concerns of the decade. With sound effects that almost conjure smoke rising from a sewer grate in some darkened back alley, Prince immediately sets the scene of this doomed “love ’em and leave ’em fast” tryst, his pensive delivery and repeated “I guess” shrugging going on to hint at an uncertainty at the heart of the encounter.

Like a lyrical Trojan Horse, his reference to “a pocket full of horses/Trojans, and some of them used” is more than a setup for “all the pictures/Of the jockeys that were there before me” which he encounters in his lover’s bedroom. Written during the early days of the AIDS crises, Prince was smuggling a reference to Trojan contraceptives into a song which also warned of the health dangers that could blight promiscuous sex lives: “Honey, you got to slow down/… ’Cause if you don’t, you’re gonna run your Little Red Corvette right in the ground.” More than a quickie tune about abandoning oneself to a moment of ecstasy (“But it was Saturday night, I guess that makes it alright/And you say, ‘What have I got to lose?’”), Little Red Corvette flashes its hazard lights and pulls up to the kerb with a message promoting safe sex.

The release: “All of a sudden it shifted, drastically”

Released in the US on 9 February 1983, with the altogether more playful All The Critics Love U In New York as a B-side (a UK release would follow on 4 April, featuring the non-album track Horny Toad on the flip; the song was then reissued in the UK seven months later, backed with the 1999 album cut Lady Cab Driver), Little Red Corvette became Prince’s highest-charting US single to date. Speeding to No.6 on the Billboard Hot 100, it was not only the first Prince single to outperform itself on the mainstream pop chart (it peaked at No.15 on the Black Singles listing), but it also improved on the single release of the song 1999 song, which had to make do with a No.44 peak until a reissue turned it into the pop hit it was always destined to be.

“He never said it directly, but it was obvious” he was searching for a crossover hit, Dez Dickerson told Andrea Swensson. “We talked about radio all the time. We talked about the compositional demographic makeup of the audience… And it wasn’t about neglecting or devaluing our existing fanbase. It was about never wanting to be limited… If you look at the population as a whole, our fanbase should look like the population as a whole and not a small portion of it.”

Bolstered by a promo video whose red lighting and Venetian blinds only added to its X-rated allure (“The basis of what we were doing was creating this very sensual, sexual world of intrigue,” Roy Bennett, Prince’s lighting and set designer of the time, told this author for Lives Of The Musicians: Prince), Little Red Corvette was picked up by MTV, becoming one of the first promo videos by a Black artist to receive heavy rotation on the channel, and reaching a white rock audience keen to see what the purple-lamé-clad star who’d done the splits on their TV screens could offer live in person.

As Prince’s audiences grew, so did the size of the venues he could fill, with arenas being added to the itinerary as the 1999 Tour unfolded. And with the bigger crowds came a broader fanbase. Monte Moir, keyboardist with The Time, who, along with Vanity 6, were brought out as support on the tour, recalled that Prince’s shows had attracted “90 per cent Black” audiences “until Little Red Corvette came out. All of a sudden it shifted, drastically. It got to be half and half, if not 60-40 white.”

The legacy: “It’s not about sex as fun – or at least it’s not just about that”

A central part of Prince’s live shows during the 1999 and Purple Rain eras, Little Red Corvette was, bar a few quick spins, largely put in storage in the years that followed, only to be souped up in the 2010s and given a new arrangement in which Prince invited the audience to join him in a moody call-and-response. It remained a song close to his heart. During the first of two shows performed at Arts Centre Melbourne on 16 February 2016, at the start of his solo Piano & A Microphone Tour, Prince, who took to the stage mere hours after learning of the death of Vanity, dedicated an emotive performance of Little Red Corvette to his former lover and protégé, in a medley which detoured masterfully into Dirty Mind and back.

With the world reeling from the shock announcement of Prince’s own death, just months after that concert, on 21 April, Slate’s Jack Hamilton acutely observed why, 34 years on from its release, Little Red Corvette was Prince’s “masterpiece”:

“What makes Little Red Corvette so great is how seriously it takes casual sex: It’s awash in ambivalence, vulnerability, and fear. It’s not about sex as fun – or at least it’s not just about that, but rather about the entirety of the act: its physical, emotional, psychological, even spiritual dimensions.”

As the song returned to the Billboard Hot 100, parking sideways at No.20, it’s clear that a legion of Prince fans in need of physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual comfort felt the same way.

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