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Music History Spotlight: Prince’s First Avenue debut on March 9, 1981

by Jackie Renzetti

May 15, 2016

It's hard to imagine now, but in 1981, Minneapolis was still getting familiar with Prince as he made waves nationally with Dirty Mind. When people read about his upcoming show at Sam's in Sweet Potato and the Star Tribune, they jumped at the rare chance to see the budding star from their hometown.

“People had told Steve [McClellan], this guy is hot,” said PD Larson, who manages the Jayhawks and was a music critic at the time. “He was largely an unknown quantity to a good chunk of Minneapolis. So First Ave essentially took a chance.”

The sold-out Monday night show marked a new step for Prince and his relationship with his hometown audience.

"That was kind of the fuse that lit it all, going forward with First Avenue," music critic Jim Walsh said.

While The Replacements and Husker Du played Sam's (soon to be First Avenue) multiple times a month, Prince still hadn't played many shows in the city, aside from his days with previous bands.

"There were bands in town at the time that often did three night stands at clubs. Prince was on another level — he was showcasing. He was a major label artist," Walsh said. "In some fashion, everyone else was a bar band and working those rooms and playing those gigs. I think Prince had a vision that he wasn’t going to do that. He had no interest in that, and he was right ... They were a finished and ready to go band, whereas maybe everyone else was rehearsing in front of crowds, they were not. They came with it."

Meanwhile, Prince was still emerging as a national music act. Later that same year, a Los Angeles crowd booed him off the stage when he and his band opened for the Rolling Stones, just before the release of Controversy. His still-developing career as an artist, coupled with the fact he wasn't playing bar shows like other big local bands, contributed to his relative lack of recognition in Minneapolis — until, of course, they saw him play.

In his tribute to the late artist on KEXP, former First Avenue staffer Kevin Cole remembers, “It was just a phenomenal show … I knew from the second I saw him that I was seeing something magical and something special. This was really the first time, I think, Prince had found his audience in Minneapolis … He came out and just blew everybody away. And what was cool, was not only that, but I think he was blown away too. You could see on his face and as he was playing, in the confidence, that he was also being fueled by this love and acceptance that he was feeling from the audience. That was really his coming out gig in Minneapolis.”

Months before, Prince was giving away tickets to fill out a concert at the Orpheum, Cole said in his tribute. Though it's hard to pinpoint why exactly he was struggling to get a crowd, one reason offered by PD Larson has to do with how Warner Bros. was billing him as a rhythm and blues act, though his music was largely unclassifiable.

Prince and Dez

"And at that time, Minneapolis, for a lot of reasons, demographics being one of them … was not a big R&B market,” Larson said. As a result, Prince’s shows were selling out in areas with large rhythm and blues scenes -- St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago -- and not in the Twin Cities, he said.

Regardless, Prince had no problems that night at First Avenue.

"As it turned out over the next 30 years, he clearly loved playing small venues where you can connect with the audience more. The First Ave crowd, without exaggerating too much, it was kind of like a connoisseur grade environment ... It was a perfect kind of crucible for Prince to plant the seed," Larson said.

Larson and Walsh both said they remember being awestruck by the band's perfectly polished nature.

"I remember they were very well rehearsed, and not like a lot of garage bands that were coming up at the time. They just destroyed the room," Walsh said. "His band was just electric and really, funk and punk rock and everything we were listening to at that time. He and Dez Dickerson ... they’d just have these duels throughout the show and it was just dance nirvana."

"That only happens once," Walsh said. "A debut gig like that where it was obvious to everyone in the room that this was bigger than — you can’t predict the future and all of that — but God they were special, that band was special ... They were so tight and so choreographed and the songs were great and so sexy, and he was phenomenal — and almost naked. It was great, it was raw, and wonderful." 

This week on the Local Show, we’ll be hearing the soundboard recordings of that First Avenue show, including a performance of "When You Were Mine." 

Jackie Renzetti is a student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. She is an editor at the Minnesota Daily and co-hosts Radio K’s “Off the Record.”

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.