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.