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Soft And Wet: The Story Behind Prince’s Debut Single
In Depth

Soft And Wet: The Story Behind Prince’s Debut Single

Shaping post-disco funk and revealing his taste for provocative lyrics, Soft And Wet was the song that put Prince ‘streets into the future’.

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By the time Prince released his debut single, Soft And Wet, on the same day that he turned 20, his Minneapolis hometown had already been abuzz with what his future guitarist Dez Dickerson would describe as “these hushed conversations about… the next Stevie Wonder”. Landing just outside the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart, the song went no small way towards confirming the rumours – but it was only the beginning. Containing an early pass at the lyrical concerns that would fuel many of the best Prince songs, and sowing the seeds of the synth-driven funk he would hone into the “Minneapolis sound” on his breakthrough 1999 album, the song Soft And Wet announced the coming of an artist who would soon take his place among the most influential musicians of all time.

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The backstory: “They wanted to come out on top and prove that they were the best”

Before setting out on his own, a teenage Prince cut his teeth with several bands on the Minneapolis music scene, leading his own high-school group, Grand Central Station, featuring future Time frontman Morris Day on drums, and lending a hand in the studio with local acts such as The Family, led by future New Power Generation bassist Sonny Thompson, and 94 East, a short-lived outfit formed by his cousin and early manager, Pepé Willie. Throwdowns at local events such as the Minnesota State Fair, or in the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center, gave Prince the opportunity to establish himself as a performer on stage with Grand Central Station, treating each booking as a life-or-death battle-of-the-bands – whether it was billed that way or not. “They wanted to come out on top and get the most claps and cheers and adoration,” Minneapolis music historian Andrea Swensson told this author, for the book Lives Of The Musicians: Prince, “and prove to each other that they had rehearsed the hardest and were the best.”

Soon singled out as the best of the best, Prince caught the eye of Chris Moon, owner of Moon Sound Studios, where, under the new name of Champagne, the Grand Central Station musicians had begun recording material. Gravitating towards the one-man-band who often played his bandmates’ parts for them, Moon gave Prince a career-boosting 18th-birthday present: the keys to the studio, plus unlimited free recording time, in return for help with his own songs. The partnership would soon become official with Soft And Wet, on which Moon would receive a co-credit, and which, two years later, Prince would release as his debut single.

The demo: “Nobody believed I could play all the instruments”

One of a clutch of songs that Prince collected on a demo tape, this first pass at Soft And Wet was built on a suitably squelchy synths and assured guitar as Prince sang in his trademark falsetto of a lover who “came too quick and… left too soon”, throwing in Larry Graham-like interjections and double-tracking his own vocals with all the confidence of someone who knew he had a destiny-changing song on his hands.

A trip to New York City to shop the demo around proved fruitless (“I got two offers,” Prince would later tell New York Rocker magazine. “The only problem there was I didn’t have a cat in there fighting for me, to get me artistic control over the production end of it”), but back in Minneapolis Prince met just the man he needed: Owen Husney. “First of all, nobody believed I could play all the instruments,” Prince later recalled of incredulous record-label heads – and even Husney himself – who would hear Prince’s recordings and assume they were the work of a full band. But after Warner Bros offered him a three-album deal, plus a guaranteed co-production role in the studio, Prince signed with the label and settled in at the Record Plant, in Sausalito, on the outskirts of San Francisco, to record his debut album, For You, in a gruelling three-month search for perfection at the end of 1977.

The recording: “I created a different kind of horn section by multi-tracking a synthesiser and some guitar lines”

Living with Husney, Husney’s then wife, Britt, and Warner Bros’ co-producer of choice, Tommy Vicari, in a shared house overlooking the San Francisco Bay, Prince pulled 14-hour shifts in the studio, often finishing at 5am and eventually emerging a self-proclaimed “physical wreck”. He exhausted Vicari, too, whose role was reduced as the sessions wore on, Prince gleaning all he could from the experienced producer before pushing him aside and taking over the controls himself.

In its final recorded version, Soft And Wet delivered on all the early promise of the demo, the original squelchy soundbed replaced by a sleek post-disco construction, Prince deploying an arsenal of cutting-edge equipment to ensure his debut single would frame him as an artist leading the charge into the new decade (he would credit himself with playing a total of 27 instruments on For You, with Polymoog, Oberheim 4-voice and ARP Soloist synths among the nine appearing on Soft And Wet alone). Recording everything himself, Prince would later reveal to The Minneapolis Tribune his ingenuity in ensuring the song remained recognisably funky, even as he began to map out a new trajectory for funk music: “By not using horns on this record, I could make an album that would sound different right away. I created a different kind of horn section by multi-tracking a synthesiser and some guitar lines.”

Lyrically, too, he had developed the song further, building on Chris Moon’s demure foundations to make a bold declaration right from the off: “Hey, lover, I got a sugarcane/That I want to lose in you, baby can you stand the pain?” Acknowledging the “many things that you do to me”, Prince ensures that, by the end of three sweaty minutes, both parties in Soft And Wet are left well and truly wrung out.

The release: “He was streets into the future”

Tasked with getting such explicit material on the air, Warner Bros staffer Marylou Badeaux, then working in the department that promoted new releases to Black radio stations, recalled that Prince “found it damned funny that people would get all riled up about these things”. But Soft And Wet’s lyrical content wasn’t the only challenge the label faced in seeking airplay. In a segregated music industry, where white artists were marketed to white audiences, and Black artists were marketed to Black audiences, Prince had demanded that the label treat him as an artist who could – and soon would – appeal to both.

“They didn’t know how to handle it,” Badeaux said of mainstream pop radio’s reaction to Soft And Wet. However, she explained in Lives Of The Musicians: Prince, the Black stations had an equally tricky time getting their head around Prince’s post-disco funk: “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.”

Released on 7 June 1978, Soft And Wet not only marked Prince’s 20th birthday, but it also gave him his first taste of success. Though the pop market never quite managed to comprehend what it heard (the song made it to No.91 on the Billboard Hot 100), Black audiences understood this was the sound of a major talent in the making, and sent the song to No.12 on the Hot Soul Singles chart. With the largely acoustic album track So Blue issued as its B-side – Prince sounding one part lovelorn balladeer, one part sensitive Joni Mitchell acolyte – the fledgling star was already asserting himself as a genre-straddling virtuoso.

Confident in the studio, Prince was less comfortable with interviewees set on asking him probing questions about his personal life. Having exposed two sides of himself with Soft And Wet and So Blue – the sexual provocateur set on pushing boundaries, and the vulnerable romantic dealing with heartbreak – he felt his art was more than capable of doing the talking for him. “If people would just listen to the music,” he told Marylou Badeaux, “they’d know where my head’s at.”

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