Prince: The Story of 1999, Episode 3: The Idolmaker

Prince: The Story of 1999
Prince: The Story of 1999 (Courtesy of The Prince Estate)
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Prince: The Story of 1999 is a four-part audio documentary series brought to you by The Current in collaboration with the Prince Estate, Paisley Park, and Warner Records. Listen Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Central, and read a written version, below. The series is also available as a podcast on multiple platforms.

Andrea Swensson: Who is Jamie Starr?

Duane Tudahl: Ooh. Jamie Starr – that's a trick question.

[♪ "Don't Let Him Fool Ya" ♪]

VO: This is Prince: The Story of 1999, brought to you by The Current in collaboration with the Prince Estate, Paisley Park, and Warner Records.

I'm Andrea Swensson. I'm an author and host at The Current, and this is the third of four installments of our deep dive into the making of Prince's 1999 and the new Super Deluxe reissue of the album, which includes 35 never-before-released recordings from his vault – like this one. It's called "Don't Let Him Fool Ya," and Prince recorded this one alone at his home studio in Chanhassen, Minnesota in the spring of 1982.

I've had a chance to talk to a lot of people who knew Prince in the early '80s as he was developing 1999, and one theme that's emerged is that he loved watching movies. This is something that has been true about Prince for his entire life. In his memoir, he revealed that he had a transformative experience seeing Woodstock in the movie theater with his father. And later in life, he would rent out the Chanhassen Cinema for late-night viewings with his friends. I actually got a chance to see a movie with Prince there once; it was after a show at Paisley Park. He rented out the theater, and a few dozen of us watched the James Bond movie Spectre with him sitting in the back row.

A handful of movies from this pivotal early '80s period clearly had a direct influence on his artistic output. They included the droning, dark Eraserhead, which he watched on a loop at his Chanhassen house; and Quadrophenia, which jump-started his fascination with trenchcoats and planted the seed for the creation of his own rock films.

[♪ "Don't Let Him Fool Ya" fades out ♪]

Another movie Prince watched repeatedly when it was released in 1980 was The Idolmaker, a more obscure and long-out-of-print film about a visionary yet controlling manager who molds the careers of two unsuspecting young teen idols.

Dez Dickerson is one of the people who remembers watching that movie with Prince.

Dez Dickerson: It's well-known at this point in time that he loved the movie The Idolmaker. And I think that was just an idea that hit him and stuck, and he wanted to do the updated version of that. When he had an idea, he wouldn't let go until he did it.

VO: In Prince's imagination, his new Svengali manager role even came with its own name: Jamie Starr, the first of a long line of pseudonyms that he used while working with other artists. And Prince didn't just stop at coming up with a new name; he and everyone he worked with started insisting that Jamie Starr was a real person. He even staged a photograph of this new, over-the-top producer, with Prince himself wearing dark sunglasses, sticking out his tongue, and counting a stack of cash alongside one of his protegés, Morris Day.

Dez Dickerson: We all thought it was hilarious that people thought that Jamie Starr was a person, because Jamie Starr was more a composite – Prince primarily, but then you had Morris's input, and I had a little bit of involvement, and there were a bunch of people who had a little bit of involvement. So at the end of the day Jamie Starr was a creation of people's imaginations. [Dez laughs] They believed what they wanted to believe.

[♪ "International Lover (Take 1) - Live In Studio," as Prince says, "Thank you for flying Morris International. Don't touch the cymbals. The next time you fly, fly the International Lover" ♪]

Duane Tudahl: There is no Jamie Starr, although he swears there was.

VO: That's Duane Tudahl, my author friend from Los Angeles. Duane and I both contributed liner notes to the 1999 reissue.

Duane Tudahl: Jamie Starr was his manager, engineer, the head of the Starr Company, but he was a creation from Prince, and I think that's part of the fun of what Prince was doing, is he would make these games that would take us a long time to decipher, and by the time we figured it out, he'd already moved on two or three steps.

Jamie Starr was the voice that would be sort of like Morris Day. He was the guy that would complain on some outtakes, saying, "You're fired." And he was the guy that supposedly produced all of The Time and all of Vanity 6 and I think even Apollonia 6. Prince wanted to spread out the credits a bit, whether it was the writing credits or the producing credits, and not seem like it was all him, so it seemed like a movement. So it seemed like an army, as opposed to just seeing like coming out of one guy, out of one guy's house. And I think that's what he created, is this appearance of an army coming from Minneapolis, and put Minneapolis on the map.

VO: The first Jamie Starr Production was The Time, a fierce funk group that was mostly made up of former high school rivals that Prince used to compete against in Battle of the Bands in North Minneapolis. In true Svengali fashion, the first Time record was actually recorded primarily by Prince, with help from his high school bandmate Morris Day, who would emerge as the leader of the band. The rest of the musicians weren't even recruited until it came time to take a band photo for the album's cover.

Drummer Jellybean Johnson was a founding member of the Time, and still performs with the band to this day. He got his start playing in the hot North Side band Flyte Tyme in the 1970s.

Andrea Swensson: [to Jellybean Johnson]: So you were in Flyte Tyme with Terry?

Jellybean Johnson: I was in Flyte Tyme with Terry and Jimmy and Monte, and Alexander O'Neal was gonna be the singer for The Time. So they had the fateful meeting out with Prince out there on 394, and Alex needed some paper. Anybody that knew Prince knew that was not gonna go over too well with him at that point. So anyway, they came back and Prince told Morris, "Well, you know, you could be up front. You get Bean to play the drums." And so I ended up being in the band. Morris always wanted to be the drummer. He didn't think he could be a frontperson, and Prince taught him how.

Andrea Swensson: Right. Did it surprise you that Prince was mainly forming this band of people that he'd known since he was young?

Jellybean Johnson: It kinda surprised me because we were rival bands – we came up. But to me it just showed me the respect he had for us, you know, even though he'd dog us out, he knew we all had talent. And he could see that and he could harness that, and he took advantage of it and he made a great band. Only thing – it turned into Frankenstein after a while, but he didn't know that at the time. He didn't know we were gonna be as good as we were.

[♪ "Bold Generation," a funky song featuring vocals by Prince and Morris Day ♪]

VO: This is "Bold Generation," a long-lost recording of a song Prince likely intended for The Time. If it sounds familiar, that's because it was eventually reimagined as "New Power Generation," and included on the 1990 soundtrack for Graffiti Bridge. This original recording from January 12, 1982 is included in the 1999 Super Deluxe reissue, and captures Prince's idea for a growing movement of people who were united in their fearlessness and their artistic freedom.

[♪ "Bold Generation" swells, plays for a few seconds, and fades out ♪]

Jellybean Johnson: He wanted The Time to be his alter ego, the ultimate R&B band. We was his R&B side. The Revolution was his experimental and pop – he knew we had to get the pop crowd – the white people – on his side to get to that next level.

Andrea Swensson: Right.

Jellybean Johnson: But we was his black R&B urban side. That's what The Time was.

Andrea Swensson: Yeah.

VO: In the winter of 1981-1982, Prince had so many ideas pouring out of him that he was recruiting more and more people to help him express his vision. One of those people was Brenda Bennett, who would become a core member of the groups Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6.

Brenda met Prince in 1980 when she was engaged to Roy Bennett, Prince's lighting designer, and the next year Roy invited his new wife to come along on the Controversy Tour. Brenda had two jobs on that tour: she ran the video camera, and gave Prince VHS tapes of his performances to review each night – which is actually a job she took over from Morris Day, who had graduated from cameraman to frontman of The Time. And she helped manage Prince's evolving wardrobe of outfits and accessories. One night, when she was backstage working, Prince walked in and realized something: Brenda could sing.

Brenda Bennett: They had given him one of the locker rooms for his dressing room, and I was in there setting everything up, and I'd set up all his stuff on the table for his hair, makeup, jewelry, whatever. And he came in and looked at me and we said hello, and he had a little boombox that I had set up on the table, and he put a cassette tape into the boombox. And so I started singing along with it, and I started singing little pieces of harmony with it and stuff like this, and I turned around and looked, and he's sitting there, staring at me in the mirror – [Brenda laughs] – saying, "I didn't know you could sing."

He didn't waste any time. It wasn't like he thought about it and then talked to me later. He just turned around and looked at me and he said, "You could be the other hooker." I just looked at him and I said, "Sure, okay." And I turned around and walked away and went back to one of the trunks or something I was messing around with, with his clothing and stuff like this. And he said, "No, no, no, I'm serious." So I looked at him and I said, "What do you have in mind?" He said that he had an idea for a three-girl singing group. And then he said, "Would you be interested in something like that?" And I looked at Roy, and Roy smiled, and he said, "You'd be a fool not to do it." And I said I'd love to do it.

It was at that moment, it was solidified that I had accepted his offer to become a part of his musical family.

VO: Many of those closest to Prince in this era refer to his tight-knit circle of friends and collaborators in the same way – a purple family. As Roy Bennett recalls, as soon as Prince trusted someone, he began dreaming up new roles for them in his expanding vision.

Roy Bennett: He knew she could sing, and I think a lot of that was the reason why he chose her. He was also very much into including people that were close to him and around him in building these projects. At one point he even asked me to do one. [Roy laughs] I said, "Absolutely not. I'm not gonna do that. I do a completely different job for you, so thanks but no thanks."

Andrea Swensson: Something that I've been thinking about with 1999 the album, and the song too, is that it's really one of the first moments that other people are credited on a Prince record and are singing on a Prince record. You know, even "1999," starting with not Prince's voice. You hear Jill Jones and Lisa and Dez, and it's interesting to me to think about, was this a time in his life where maybe he realized he did need more people to help him do what he was gonna do?

Roy Bennett: Yeah, I believe so. But these are the people he was close to. It was his family. It was also kind of like his labyrinth of things that he could draw from. We were – we were the ingredients that happened to be sitting on the shelf close by.

Andrea Swensson: You're going in the pot.

Roy Bennett: Yup. You're going in the pot, buddy. [Roy and Andrea laugh]

VO: As soon as the Controversy Tour wrapped up, Prince asked Brenda to come to Minnesota to work on the new project. The name Prince had initially envisioned for the group – The Hookers – quickly evolved into Vanity 6. Despite the name, the group only had three members: Brenda, Susan Moonsie, and Denise Matthews, who would soon be known to the world as Vanity.

Brenda Bennett: We went to this house, a split-level house at the back of a cul-de-sac. I heard the music coming from downstairs, and I went, "Oh, is that the studio downstairs? Oh, this is cool. He's got it right here in his – is this where he lives too? This is cool!"

And when I heard "Nasty Girl," I went, "Oh, my god, that song is gonna be a hit."

VO: It quickly became clear that this wasn't just a one-off experiment: Prince was building a three-band revue that could help him express the many facets of his musical identity.

Brenda Bennett: It wasn't until I was at his house working on the Vanity 6 album that I learned, as we were going along, that The Time was involved, and virtually, we were a family. That we were a musical family. That actually [Vanity 6] was complementing what he was doing on the feminine side of, say, his story. And The Time was pure funk, and more street-wise, more caricatures, and there was the definite difference between the three, but it still all gelled.

[♪ "Vagina" ♪]

VO: With his two opening acts solidified and two new albums in the can, it came time for Prince to turn his attention back toward his own album, 1999, and the singles that would soon make him a chart-topping artist.

As Prince's longtime drummer Bobby Z recalls, the idea for the song "1999" came to Prince on the road, when he and his band watched a particularly disturbing documentary hosted by Orson Welles.

Bobby Z: We were traveling on the road, and there was a hotel sign, and it said, "Free HBO." That was a big deal. So everybody got to their room, turned on HBO, and there was an HBO documentary about Nostradamus and the prediction of the end of the world – 1999! 1999. And we're all blown away by this thing. You could feel it in the hotel rooms. They were just glued to the TV.

So, of course, like normal people do, the next day the water cooler talk is, "Did you see –" And for Prince, he had written this song. So there explains the difference between mere mortals and Prince. We're all going wow, and then he just embodied the whole thing with "1999" the next day.

VO: Prince recorded the song in his home studio on Lake Riley in Chanhassen, Minnesota. Lisa Coleman was one of the people Prince tapped to sing the opening lines of the song.

Lisa Coleman: That was really the most methodical. Like I remember I got to rehearsal in the morning, and he was actually at my keyboards and had the drum machine going, and he was like playing the [Lisa sings opening synth line], and he said, "Come here." And then so like as each person arrived at rehearsal that day, the drum machine never stopped, you know, like it just kept going and going, and everyone would add in their part. That night, he had us come to his house. At first I sang that verse line by myself, but we added Jill because Jill just has – [Lisa laughs] I hate to say it, but she has a better voice than me.

[♪ The first line of "1999": "I was dreaming when I wrote this/ Forgive me if it goes astray" ♪]

Lisa Coleman: She just had like that fiery – it just was better for, like, the opening line of a song.

So I remember doing that, and then I remember doing like the – [Lisa sings, "Parrr-tay!"] – the vocals at the end.

[♪ 1999 "party" section ♪]

Lisa Coleman: And like Prince was looking at me like, "Come on, Lisa, go, go." And I was really shy. I was sorta humiliated, but I was going for it and clapping my hands and "party" vocals. Props to Jill Jones, because she's a really good singer, and she added a lot to the track.

And having everybody sing a line, that was kind of a cool thing, and it was very Sly Stone, so that was kind of like yeah, that's right, that's right, we can do it – just like The Family Stone.

VO: As Dez Dickerson recalls, "1999" was a great example of Prince's evolving aesthetic – which would soon be labeled by critics as "The Minneapolis Sound."

Dez Dickerson: Part of the Minneapolis sound was Prince growing in his ability to kind of just assimilate everything around him, and keep the best stuff and get rid of the stuff that didn't work. So to me, the LinnDrum and the polyrhythm thing, along with the Oberheim – the OB8 – the horns being simulated by a synth – that was the Minneapolis sound. But what he did was find a way to do that with more of a pop motif. So you could have a song like "1999," which still kind of has this rhythmic thing and has the horn stabs, but it's purely pop, almost to the point at times of being almost silly it's so poppy. But at the same time it's apocalyptic, so you know what I mean? He found that sweet spot.

Andrea Swensson: Yeah. What do you remember about recording on that track?

Dez Dickerson: What I remember is, he called me: "Dez. Prince. Can you come over?" So the first thing he did was actually put up the "1999" track. And he had recorded it in such a way that it could've been, you know, alternating verses where one singer sings the first verse in its entirety, one sings the second, and so on. So he just had me come in and actually had me sing most of the song. It's not just the lines that ended up on the record, but he had me sing through most of the song. The pitched-down, spoken "1999" on the vamp out? Well that's me. He had me as almost an afterthought, because he had already done the, "Don't worry, I won't hurt you."

[♪ "1999" opening: "Don't worry, I won't hurt you" ♪]

Dez Dickerson: But he evidently got the inspiration – let's kind of bookend that with this thing going out, so that was my voice.

[♪ "1999" ending ♪]

Dez Dickerson: On the one hand, he was incredibly sort of inspired and spontaneous, but at the same time he was also very calculating. In a good way. So I think that he had learned along the way.

His first album, he was just trying to go boldly where no man had ever gone before. And then the second album, the label had put him the pressure of, "Yeah, you gotta have a hit." And so by the time 1999 came around, he had really kind of found – I would compare it to, like, an NFL quarterback. By the time you've been playing for five years, the game has slowed down, and you see exactly what's happening before it happens. By 1999, that's kind of where he was. So that record was just this masterful combination of – it's got the funk elements, but it's got the pop, and it's got the hooks, and it's got the stuff that's uniquely him.

VO: Dez Dickerson was also in the studio when Prince was putting the finishing touches on what would become his first top-10 hit: "Little Red Corvette."

[♪ "Little Red Corvette" ♪]

VO: For the first time in his recording career, Prince gave a song's now-iconic guitar solo to someone else.

Dez Dickerson: Well, I mean we had actually had a conversation, I think two tours before that, was it? And I think it was in St. Louis. Like I can see the room. And he said, "I'm going to start playing guitar less and less." He said, "You know what?" – people aren't going to believe this, but he said, "You know, you're a better lead player anyway. I'm just going to front. I'm going to focus on being a frontman, and I'm going to have you do most of the lead stuff from now on." And that's what he did.

Andrea Swensson: Put that on the résumé.

Dez Dickerson: Yeah, it's a huge deal. Looking back now it's like – of course again, at the time, being an arrogant kid, I thought, "Well, it's about time."

[♪ "Little Red Corvette" guitar solo ♪]

VO: As more of the songs on 1999 were completed, Prince invited more and more people into the studio to hear what he had been working on. Bobby Z remembers returning to Prince's Lake Riley house to start tinkering with new electronic drum pads, including the Pearl Syncussions that he would play on the 1999 Tour.

Bobby Z: I go out there and we put the Pearl Syncussion toms on "Corvette," and the bombs on 1999 that are so iconic.

Dez Dickerson: [laughing] One of the things he also told me one time was – this was back before Pro Tools and all stuff, obviously. And every once in a while, you'd get a take, and the energy and the feel of the take was good enough – was so good that even though there might've been a mistake technically, you wanted to use the take. So he said, "You know what, when there's something in the track that you want to keep but there's something in the track that you don't want in there, just put an explosion over it." [Dez laughs] That was it. So now you know studio secrets with Prince. Put an explosion over the mistakes. There you go.

Andrea Swensson: That changes everything. [Andrea and Dez laugh]

Dez Dickerson: It does. George Clinton said, "It's not funky until you put a nursery rhyme in it." Prince said, "Put an explosion in it."

[♪ Explosion from the beginning of "Little Red Corvette" ♪]

[♪ "Let's Pretend We're Married" ♪]

Bobby Z: Then he plays me "Let's Pretend We're Married," and then he starts playing me this other stuff that's Morris's group. And it's just like okay, and this is Vanity's group. And so whatever energy came out of that Stones thing – and he didn't sleep, and that was the beginning of the spark, and the ignition that pretty much followed him for the rest of his career – "I've just got this" – and he just was on fire. And it was song after song – all the outtakes you hear on the box set. It's just endless amounts of recording, mixing – to the point where they had to decipher the boxes because he was moving so fast.

VO: There was one more movie that Prince watched repeatedly in this era, and which undoubtedly shaped his visual aesthetic: Blade Runner, which Prince told his photographer Allen Beaulieu to watch for cues on how to photograph him and his band. For Bobby Z, the true signifier that Prince was entering a new phase of his career came when he showed up one day in a new custom-made jacket that could have come straight out of that film – the shiny, almost metallic looking purple trench coat that Prince is wearing in the album photos, tour publicity, and music videos for 1999.

Bobby Z: We were gonna shoot some photos for "1999," [and] the [video] for "1999." And he walks into rehearsal and they brought it to him, kinda like this moment, where all of a sudden there it is shiny purple trench coat, and he puts it on, and it's like all of a sudden he's Joseph with the Technicolor Dreamcoat. He just came alive and I just went wow, here we go. We're going for showbiz now. This is gonna be a whole different direction. It's not gonna be punk. It'll be rebellious because he's always rebellious, but it's gonna be glamorous, and the glamour came in and never stopped, of course. He was one of the most glamorous characters that ever lived.

[♪ "Little Red Corvette - Live at Masonic Hall, Detroit, MI, 11/30/1982," featuring Prince's intro, "This one's for all the fast girls in the house" ♪]

VO: Up next on Prince: The Story of 1999, we'll talk about the massive 1999 Tour, also known as the Triple Threat Tour, which featured Prince, The Time, and Vanity 6.

Brenda Bennett: Oh, my gosh. Um – that tour was fun, fun, fun, fun.

VO: Prince: The Story of 1999 is produced by The Current and supported by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. This program was produced in collaboration with the Prince Estate and Warner Records, and with their support. This story was hosted and produced by me, Andrea Swensson; produced and edited by Anna Weggel; mixed by Corey Schreppel, with script editing from Jay Gabler, and production support from Brett Baldwin, Lynn Elliot, Cecilia Johnson, Jim McGuinn, David Safar, and Derrick Stevens.

Thanks to Trevor Guy, Michael Howe, Giancarlo Sciama, and Duane Tudahl.

To learn more about The Current, visit TheCurrent.org. If you haven't subscribed yet, search for Prince: The Story of 1999 on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Also, to learn more about Prince, please visit Prince.com.

[♪ "Little Red Corvette - Live at Masonic Hall, Detroit, MI, 11/30/1982" fades up, fades out ♪]

'1999' Giveaway


Use this form to enter for a chance to win a CD or LP version of the Deluxe Reissue of Prince's '1999' between 8 a.m. Central on Tuesday, December 3, 2019 and 11:59 p.m. Central on Tuesday, December 10, 2019.

Five (5) winners will receive one (1) 2CD copy the Deluxe Edition of Prince '1999.' One (1) winner will win the 4 LP LP Deluxe edition Prince's '1999.' Four (4) back up names will be drawn. Winners will be notified via email.

Prize retail value, CD: $16.99; LP $67.99

We will contact the winner on Wednesday, December 11, 2019. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. Central on Friday, December 14, 2019.







This giveaway is subject to Minnesota Public Radio's 2019 Official Giveaway Rules.

You must be 13 or older to submit any information to American Public Media. The personally identifying information you provide will not be sold, shared, or used for purposes other than to communicate with you about American Public Media programs. See Minnesota Public Radio Terms of Use and Privacy policy.

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