Rock and Roll Book Club: Pepe Willie recounts his life as a musician and early Prince mentor

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Book cover: Pepe Willie, 'If You See Me.'
Book cover detail: Pepe Willie, 'If You See Me: My Six-Decade Journey in Rock and Roll.' (Minnesota Historical Society Press)

Prince fans who read the liner notes to the artist's self-titled sophomore album might have wondered who Pepé and Willie were. The two names were separated by a comma by someone at the record label who didn't know Pepé Willie was one person, a significant figure in Prince's early career.

That's all the more important since, of course, there wasn't much of Prince's "early" career: he was still a teenager when his self-produced debut album was released in 1978. Just three years earlier, Pepé Willie invited the 17-year-old Prince into a Minneapolis recording studio then known as Cookhouse, the Nicollet Avenue space that had already been the site of historic recordings by bands like the Trashmen and the Castaways.

Prince played lead guitar on several tracks by Willie's band 94 East, including the Willie-penned song that inspired the title of Willie's new memoir (a book written with Tony Kiene, buy now). The tracks became legendary for Prince's participation, but it wan't until the inclusion of "If You See Me" on the 2013 Numero Group compilation Purple Snow (after Willie remastered the track at Paisley Park) that the other band members started to get their own due.

Willie's history in music didn't begin in Minnesota, though. He was born in 1948 — a decade Prince's elder — in Brooklyn. Music was all around the young Willie, and he had a close connection to greatness in the form of his uncle Clarence Collins, who wrote the foreword to If You See Me. In 1957, Collins co-founded the group that became known as Little Anthony and the Imperials. That group's breakout hit, "Tears on My Pillow," was a top five hit in 1958, the year Prince was born.

The young Pepé started working for his uncle as a valet, expanding his duties to assist other artists on the stacked bills the Imperials would play, often assembled by DJ and impresario Murray the K. The first few chapters of If You See Me are full of anecdotes about having his shirt literally ripped off by lovestruck girls just because he was carrying snacks for Chubby Checker; swooning for the knockout Mary Wells; stumbling into Dionne Warwick making out with a producer in what Willie took to be a bid to have her set time extended; and needing stitches in his finger when a member of the Chiffons slammed a door on it in an attempt to blow off a catcalling member of another band; buying dishes for Dusty Springfield to smash ("this is how I release tension"); and being suspicious of the very virile "Little" Stevie Wonder when that legend-in-the-making dated Willie's sister.

Willie himself started dating a girl named Shauntel — a visitor from Minneapolis whose aunt was named Mattie Della. Yes, that was Prince's mother, and when Willie eventually visited his girlfriend in Minneapolis, he met her 12-year-old cousin Prince. "He was a shy little cat who didn't say much," writes Willie. "My clearest memory of him during that time was watching him wrestle with his cousin Chazz."

The relationship between Pepé and Shauntel would undergo some ups and downs, but it was their marriage that brought Willie to Minneapolis in 1974. By this point Willie was a songwriter himself, and given his history in the music world, the family asked him to lend a hand to young Prince's high school band: Grand Central. Both Prince and his bandmate André Cymone wrote songs for the group, but as Willie recounts, they still needed a little help with nuts and bolts.

I showed them how to construct a song. I talked about intros and outros, verses, the hook, the chorus, the bridge, and everything in between. I was impressed with how well they took direction. It didn't take but another rehearsal or two to see them get the hang of it — not just with their songwriting and musicianship, but with their whole approach to learning new things. Their attitude delighted me. They were young and hungry. You could see it in their eyes. The way they walked. The way they talked. These kids were serious.

Willie put together a band, named 94 East after the highway the bandleader would take if he ever wanted to head back to Brooklyn, and booked some time to record his songs — including "If You See Me," inspired by his divorce from Shauntel. In December 1975, Prince joined the band to lay down the tracks, but they'd be shelved for over a decade after a record deal with Polydor fell through. Meanwhile, of course, Prince's career took off like a rocket.

The story to this point brings us to about the halfway point of If You See Me, which continues as a view of Prince's career as seen by a man who remained a trusted friend (at least, as much as anyone could remain a trusted friend of the mercurial prodigy) but who wouldn't again play a major role in his career. What, exactly, Willie did with himself for most of the time between 1975 and 2020 remains somewhat opaque, but the author knows that's not really what you came for. You want his Prince stories.

Those stories continue, flavored by Willie's longstanding connections to Prince's longest-standing contacts and collaborators. The book actually opens with a dramatic anecdote from the Purple Rain era, as Morris Day grapples with being more or less cut off by Prince just as that movie was catapulting the Time to stardom. It was Willie who landed Day a ticket to the Purple Rain screening, and who helped make the industry connections that allowed Day to launch a solo career independent of Prince.

(As it happens, Willie and Day would have their own beef when the latter declined to compensate the former for his services. Their dispute eventually landed in Rolling Stone, with Willie saying Day had "a drug problem" and the Time frontman shooting back that Willie had "a brain problem.")

Prince did record with 94 East again, including a session at Sound 80 in 1977, co-writing the song "Just Another Sucker" with Willie. Willie continued as a friend and advisor while Prince assembled and rehearsed his first touring band, with rehearsals moving to Willie's basement after a break-in at Steve Raitt's Seven Corners garage cost the band some expensive equipment ("I promise you that nobody is coming up in this motherf---er," accurately said Willie, who had grown up running with the Brooklyn gangs). It was Willie who booked the Capri for Prince's solo debut in 1979, and Willie who consoled Prince after some technical difficulties left the industry brass thinking the young artist wasn't quite ready for prime time.

Poignantly, Willie recounts, it was Owen Husney — Prince's first manager — who called in 2016 to share the news of the icon's death. Willie admits that his relationship with Husney was a little rocky at first (as was Husney's with Prince, who let him go in 1980), but the two remain close: they were there together at the beginning of one of the most fabled careers in show business.

Once Prince broke big, things changed. He kept in touch with Willie, who had occasional meetings and exchanges with him over the years — including on one occasion when Prince handed Willie a cassette that included Prince's own rendition of "If You See Me," reimagined as "Do Yourself a Favor." Prince said he'd put it on one of his own albums, though he never did; his version was widely bootlegged but not officially released until the 1999 Super Deluxe edition last year. Jesse Johnson also recorded that song for his own 1986 album Shockadelica...an album name that Prince stole for a song as part of an ongoing flame war with his former collaborator.

In a career that relied on a lot of help and contributions that often went uncredited, Pepé Willie was one of many people who remained at Prince's side. Just how close he got to that side varied depending on what was going on in Prince's life, but Willie was there again and again. He has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it role in Purple Rain, he helped get Prince's mom into a Met Center show on the Controversy tour, and eventually he got a form of the band — 94 East — back together for gigs at the Prince Family Reunions at the Cabooze. In 1988, he ws inducted into the Minnesota Black Music Hall of Fame.

If You See Me ends with an afterword by Willie's 94 East bandmates Marcy Ingvoldstad and Kristie Lazenberry. Ingvoldstad remembers singing "Just Another Sucker" and looking over at the songwriters. "The best part was when Kristie and I split off into our harmonies," she writes. "I would notice Pepé and Prince looking at each other, smiling and nodding as though we had nailed it."

Pepé Willie and Tony Kiene will appear at a virtual book launch party for If You See me on Wednesday, Sept. 23.

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September 10: Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell (buy now)

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September 24: My Life In the Purple Kingdom by BrownMark (buy now)

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