Sunday, November 17, 2019

"Heaven on Earth, We All Want to Find" - Theology and Prince

I am thrilled to be one of the contributing authors of Theology and Prince! The academic collection will be released via Lexington Books in December. My chapter is called "'Graffiti Bridge:' Prince’s Sacred Triumph over the Profane." I analyze the message of the film in the context of Prince's real-life spiritual journey.

Other essays explore everything from Prince’s ideas of the afterlife to his spiritual alter egos. Click here to pre-order (use code LEX30AUTH20 for a 30-percent discount through Nov. 30).


Click here for our Spotify playlist, in chapter order, of the songs selected by each author.

Subscribe to my e-mail list for updates on my book on Prince's spiritual journey. Click here.

Friday, November 15, 2019

"Just Like My Mother" - Prince's Most Autobiographical Songs


Many of us are still digesting Prince's memoir, The Beautiful Ones, which was released last month. In a post about the book, Prince Vault asked fans to compile a list of the artists's most autobiographical songs.

My attempt is below, with a couple limitations. I stuck to official releases that could be found on streaming services.

1. "When Doves Cry"

Prince wanted to utilize his memoir to address the impact of his parents' relationship on his life and work. Though his book was unfinished, we can refer to this song for emotional insight.

2. "The Sacrifice of Victor"

Desegregation busing, epilepsy and a neighborhood matriarch are just a few subjects in this extremely personal song.

3. "Hello"

If you want to know what happened the night of the "We Are the World" recording, listen to this song.

4. "Paisley Park"

"Paisley Park is the place one should find in oneself, where one can go when one is alone. ... I think when one discovers himself, he discovers God. Or maybe it's the other way around. ... It's a feeling." - Prince, Rolling Stone, 1985

5. "Anna Stesia"

Prince spoke to the media about the spiritual awakening that prompted the Lovesexy album, and much of that experience is detailed on this song.

6. "Cream"

Prince claimed to have written this No. 1 song while looking in the mirror, and I believe him. It came out at a time when he seemed intent on scoring a hit after the disappointing performance of the Lovesexy and Graffiti Bridge albums.

7. "Dolphin"

A beautiful song that showcases both his spiritual interests at the time, as well as his contentious relationship with Warner Bros.

8. "In This Bed Eye Scream"

Written for Wendy and Lisa and Susannah.

9. "The Holy River"

A revealing song about personal redemption.

10. "Friend, Lover, Sister, Mother/Wife"

The soundtrack for his first dance as a married man.

11. "Let's Have a Baby"

The soundtrack for the wedding night.

12. "Comeback"

A heartbreaking love letter, likely written with his son, Amiir, in mind.

13. "Breakdown"

Prince told Rolling Stone that the song comes from a "sensitive ... nude" place.

14. "Don't Play Me"

Prince is coming to terms with his place in the industry, artistic independence and spirituality.

15. "The Everlasting Now"

Now turn the page, at an early age
This brother on stage, he was all the rage
He taught an integrated world to sing
The color you are don't mean a thing
Everybody's a star all the everyday people sang

He changed the funk, put it in a bag
Then he changed the colors of the flag
But you can't teach a dog new tricks if his tail don't wag

Don't no matter how much money u made
All the cars you got and all the women you laid
Mess with the flag and to them you are still a spade

16. "Beautiful, Loved and Blessed"

"It was so heavy spiritually for us, he was like, 'You know we can never perform this song again.'" - Ashley Támar Davis

17. "Reflection"

Now, when we hear Prince sing, "I was just thinking about my mother," we have pictures in his memoir to bring life to his memories.

18. "June"

"Shoulda been born on the Woodstock stage..."

19. "Way Back Home"

This just feels personal, and I'd like to think Prince has found his way back to The One.


Click here for my Spotify playlist.

Subscribe to my e-mail list for updates on my book on Prince's spiritual journey. Click here.

Friday, November 8, 2019

"Life is Just a Party" - A Chat with a Prince Fan, Collector & Podcaster


I love scrolling through Jason Breininger's Instagram account, @pressrewind75. His pictures are full of brightly colored, neatly organized Prince music and memorabilia. It's a vision of what could be possible for me if I spent time collecting and curating my home.

Breininger doesn't necessarily specialize in extremely rare items; he just chooses what he likes. And the joy comes through his photos!

Additionally, the Missouri-based superfan runs music website pressrewind.net, and hosts Press Rewind: A Prince Lyrics Podcast. I've had the privilege of being a guest on the show a couple times.

I spoke with Breininger about his projects and love for Prince's music. He also shared pictures of some items from his collection. Check it all out below!

What's your earliest memory of Prince?

I turned 8 in '83 about the time that Prince really became big. I've always been obsessed with music. I lived on a farm in rural Wisconsin. There were no children my age anywhere near me, so I couldn't just jump on my bike and go play at Billy's house or whatever. So it was me, myself, my siblings and my parents.

I distinctly remember [my sister] coming home with "Little Red Corvette" and "1999" [on vinyl]. I really can't explain why, but I was attracted to them completely, from the way they sounded to the way Prince sang the songs. I was very confused; was "Prince" a band? Was it a person? None of that information was readily available. I didn't have MTV. I didn't really know who Little Richard was, but, to this day, I always think Prince never looked more like Little Richard than he did on the cover of the "1999" 7" single.

Breininger now owns every 7" single released by Prince (this is just a portion)

How did you respond to the Purple Rain mania?

We left the farm, and now I'm living in a town with kids all around me. And so I took my love of Prince and I helped my friends experience his music. We all really got into Purple Rain, like really, really. We would listen to the album daily. We would pretend to be members of the band. At that point, we did have MTV.

Breininger's repurposed Purple Rain VHS box,
which is lacquered over a hand-stained wooden box 


Following Purple Rain, did you always keep up with Prince's music in real time?

I really loved pop music for a while. Then, I moved on to hair metal. So I was really getting into bands like Poison and Guns N' Roses and Mötley Crüe. And then, by 1988 or 1989, I was really heavy into hip-hop. So I was listening to a Public Enemy and LL Cool J and NWA. ... I would check [Prince's] stuff out and I loved what I heard, but I wasn't always on board, day one, with his new album.

Then, shortly after the Love Symbol album, I kind of lost Prince. His music was seemingly more insular. I knew his stuff existed. I knew he was releasing music at the same pace he had always been. I'd go to Best Buy and there'd be a display of his triple album, Emancipation. I was like, "Holy shit, that's just so much music!" And then, years later, you've got this four-disc album, Crystal Ball. I personally couldn't keep up, and it wasn't what I was looking for anyway. So the '90s I completely missed out on. I've had to revisit the '90s.

The Prince cassette tapes from Breininger's youth

How did you get back to him?

It took the Musicology album for me to revisit Prince's music. I was out of school and I was married, and now I was living in northwestern Wisconsin--about an hour and a half away from the Twin Cities [where Prince lived]. And they would play Prince's music on The Current [radio station]. The Current really reintroduced me to Prince.

How did you react when he passed away?

We take our artists for granted. Once he passed, I realized, "Holy shit, he's never going to release another album." You just always could count on a new record from Prince every other year. Even toward the end of his career, he had some breaks that were uncommon for him at the time, but he always came back and he was always out there recording and touring.

Why did you create pressrewind.net?

I've always had an interest in artistic endeavors like writing and music and film. But it was never a path for me to take as a career because of self-doubt. About three or four years ago, I [thought], "There's so many avenues where people can express themselves creatively these days. What's wrong with just taking up a hobby just to write your thoughts down?" I utilized the blog as an avenue of creative expression. The idea was to attach memories and attach experiences to music. I have so many things to say about what [Prince] meant to me. So I want to capture some of that, but then also shine a light on some of the other musicians and artists that I really loved and still love.

 Breininger purchased this alphabet/musician art by Monsters of Rock at the Strange Folk Festival in St. Louis

Why did you start Press Rewind: A Prince Lyrics Podcast?

I'm not a musician, so I'm not somebody who is going to be able to intelligently and eloquently break down how Prince created some of the songs that people love so much. Like, what are the things that make this song unique? How did he create studio tricks? That's not something that I feel comfortable enough talking about.

I talk solely about the lyrical content behind Prince's music. ... I decided to go from the beginning all the way to the end [in chronological order] to see his growth as a songwriter through his lyrics, and make connections between songs.

Why is Prince important to you?

I own more Prince music than any other artist, and not just because he made more music than any other artist, but because I've sought it out. Prince has always been there for me. When I was a kid, he was an integral part of my upbringing and an integral part of who I was. I have so many memories with my family and with my friends where Prince's music is interwoven.

This poster of Prince with lyrics from "Let's Go Crazy" was given to Breininger as a gift


Subscribe to my e-mail list for updates on my book on Prince's spiritual journey. Click here.

Friday, November 1, 2019

"A Case of You" - A Record Store Owner's Guide to Joni Mitchell

     Amy Kesting, co-owner of Spoonful Records in Downtown Columbus. 
      Photo courtesy of Kesting. 

It's no secret that Prince loved Joni Mitchell's music. He covered her song, "A Case of You," and integrated her lyrics into other compositions. Two recent books, Morris Day's memoir and Prince's own autobiography, provide even more insight into Prince's fascination with the folk singer.

Mitchell remembered seeing a teenage Prince at one of her shows and, several years later, they became friends. Learn more about Prince's connection to Mitchell here.

So, why is Joni Mitchell so special? I decided to ask a record store owner for an education. Below is my Q&A with Amy Kesting, who runs Spoonful Records with husband, Brett Ruland, in Downtown Columbus. If you live in the area, check out their "Joni Mitchell Fan Meet Up" at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 7.

Why is Joni Mitchell important to you personally?

Joni has always been an alternate female voice/role model saying, "It’s OK if you don’t want to have kids, don’t want what other women want." She represents, to me, all things a woman can be, and none of it is stereotypical. She’s the counterpoint to so many ideas of "woman" I grew up with as a child of the '80s--everything from Barbie dolls to TV moms to Madonna.

And here’s Joni singing about people at the bar, parties, travels, her mean old daddy, the complicated side of romantic relationships, what her analyst told her, ice skating, small towns and suburban ennui. You can tell through her lyrics she’s just living some other kind of life.

Art keeps coming up all over her lyrics. One of my favorite songs is “The Jungle Line” about Henri Rousseau, laden with a Burundi beat she sampled before that kind of thing was a thing. She’s also a painter and that meant a lot to me in college as I was discovering her and trying to make paintings of my own. More than anything, Joni proves that it is possible to stick to your ideals and live the life of an artist.


What is Joni Mitchell’s significance in the history of folk/popular music?

Well, her reach is way beyond folk and pop. I love that photo of her, David Crosby and Eric Clapton sitting on the grass and Clapton’s expression is, "What just happened?!” She devised more than 50 different [guitar] tunings, which really allowed her to break free of the standard approach to harmony and structure.

In the course of her music career, she was a fearless innovator, composer, poet and lyricist, who shaped and stretched and experimented with all her music could be. She is so sophisticated, in a completely unforced and organic way. It’s beautiful. She is an artist, revealing her whole inner self along her journey.

"The last album I loved all the way through was [Joni Mitchell’s] 'The Hissing of Summer Lawns.'" - Prince, 1985

Rank your three favorite Joni Mitchell albums.

#1 – The Hissing of Summer Lawns

[It] retrained how I listen to music. It taught me to appreciate the way songs could blend into each other, how a whole album could convey a story, a mood, a zeitgeist. It has instruments and sounds in it I’d never heard used like that before. There are creative interludes, spoken parts ("When are you going to be home, Harry?"), lyrics not arranged in catchy, pop-music phrasing--all with masterful jazz-fusion artists (Joe Sample, Larry Carlton, Bud Shank, Wilton Felder) backing her up. I had never heard anything like it.

The album title refers to the sound the sprinklers make in the mornings in suburbia, and the album makes you feel holed up, stuck, bearing the ennui of a planned middle-class life. In some kind of existentialist way, the knowledge and awareness of these things is also the breaking out, [the] escape. Like if you can see it and sing about it, you’re going to be OK; you can still be free.

Also, I think Joni’s singing is really great on this record. There’s a ton of variation, confidence and power to her vocals. Sometimes, her early stuff comes across as girly, or overly innocent, but on this album, her singing is so clear and intentional and smart.

Best one-liners:

“The band sounds like typewriters”
“Winds of change patriarchs/Snug in your bible belt dreams”
“Like a priest with a pornographic watch”
“All these vain promises on beauty jars”
“The perils of benefactors, the blessings of parasites”

"Prince used to write me fan mail with all of the U’s and hearts that way that he writes." - Joni Mitchell, 2005

#2 – Ladies of the Canyon

There’s so much happening in this album. The title track is a tribute to the ladies of Laurel Canyon, where Joni bought a house and made her home, where Graham Nash wrote “Our House.” She paints portraits of the women around her and you want to know them all. “Big Yellow Taxi” and “The Circle Game” became very well-known songs off this album, with cyclical/cynical viewpoints of life.

Her original version of “Woodstock” appears; it’s a haunted sort of melancholic cry for the festival she had to miss. But Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young took it and made it a brilliant anthem for a generation.“Morning Morgantown” is a favorite of mine, so simple and pretty. I sing it out loud when I’m getting my record store open. But my absolute favorite from this album is “For Free,” a song about a talented musician standing on the street corner of some anonymous place. As she listens, she ponders why she plays music and what it means to play for no one, to no audience. In a sophisticated, generous ending, a window opens, and you hear the street musician (Paul Horn) playing the refrain on clarinet, and it just breaks your heart and lifts your spirits at the same time. I absolutely love this song!


#3 – Blue/Miles of Aisles

Blue
truly contains my most favorite Joni songs, except that I like the songs on Blue better on Miles of Aisles (her live compilation with Tom Scott and the L.A. Express backing band), where you find jazzier, upbeat versions of “All I Want,” “Carey,” “Blue,” “A Case of You” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard.”

Also, it’s really hard to pick this record and not get wrapped up talking about Joni’s personal life. It’s so autobiographical. Every song is about a time in her life. It spans four romantic relationships, and sends a prayer out to the baby she had to give up for adoption before she left Canada (“Little Green.”)

Blue ends with “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” I don’t want to go on a rant here, but I can’t tell you how often I’ve contemplated this song. I believe it is a cautionary tale of when a poet/artist/thinker gives in to societal pressures and consumerism. We become boring adults holed up with our things, and we sort of give up the fight. It is so hard to maintain passion and it’s so easy to romanticize a time of our lives, maybe the college years or the travel years, and settle for memories. The line, “All good dreamers pass this way someday” scares the living hell out of me, especially now, in my 40s. If you’re really listening to Joni, she’s capable of putting a great fire under your ass.

Best line: “Acid, booze, and ass/Needles guns, and grass/Lots of laughs, lots of laughs”

#4 - For the Roses

Well, you asked for three, but I can’t not mention this record. This is where I relate to Joni the most and appreciate her viewpoints on exes, parents, love, criticism and lots more. I would say this is a record for women, but then a bunch of guys are going to tell me it’s their favorite.

"He sent me a song once, 'You are my emotional pump, you make my body jump.' And I called him up and I said, 'I can't sing this, I'd have to jump around in a black teddy.' ... He said, 'Oh, Joni, we don't do that anymore.' ... He's a strange little duck, but I like him." 
- Joni Mitchell 

As you know, Prince covered “A Case of You.” In your opinion, why is that song (Mitchell’s version) so compelling?

"A Case of You" is a surprising song. It doesn’t have the repetition you find in other pop songs. The music notes for each verse are totally different, so it’s just a piece of poetry put to song. The rhyming couplets (if you can call them that) are barely noticeable and really long.

I’m not a musician, but I love good lyrics and I believe it’s a great song from that perspective. And of course many glasses of wine have been consumed discussing the meaning of, “I could drink a case of you, and I would still be on my feet.” To me, these lines say, I can handle everything. I’ll take you at your worst, ugliest, grieving, sad, depressed ... and all the good parts, too, and still I’d stand beside you, be proud to be with you, stand up for you. So, yeah, it’s a perfect love song in that it never comes out and says, “I love you.” But that first line throws a wrench in it, doesn’t it?

“Just before our love got lost.” Damn. That’s life, isn’t it?


What do you think Prince and Joni Mitchell have in common as singers or songwriters (if anything)?

I’d definitely put them both in the Tireless Artist and Fearless Innovator category, always reshaping the medium, experimenting.

Read more in Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe.


Subscribe to my e-mail list for updates on my book on Prince's spiritual journey. Click here.

Friday, October 25, 2019

"Lights, Camera, Make a Scene" - Prince on VHS


In the 1990s, there was a ton of Prince content to be had on VHS cassette. I'm jealous of anyone who got to see "Violet the Organ Grinder" on the Gett Off video EP, or the 3 Chains O' Gold short film in real time. If they ordered those, they likely bought The Sacrifice of Victor and The Undertaker, which featured concert and studio footage, respectively.

I do not have a complete collection of Prince material on VHS. Like a true oddball, I started my VHS collection in the early 2000s. I purchased all of his feature films, a couple concerts and 3 Chains O' Gold. I also began using blank cassettes to record Prince's performances on TV. (In my defense, I was a broke college student without access to DVR; YouTube was new; and Prince pulled his stuff from the internet.)

I've reflected on some of those tapes below.


I. 


I consider myself incredibly lucky; I became deeply interested in Prince's music in 2002, and he resurfaced in the mainstream just a couple years later. He released a new album, embarked on a tour, received an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and opened the Grammy Awards with an unforgettable performance co-starring Beyonce. I had my college roommate tape it for me while I was at a band rehearsal or something.


II.


Dig if you will the picture, of not being able to watch any Prince videos online. I had to rely on compilations that came on MTV, BET or VH1. After one such marathon, MTV broadcast a Prince performance, including an all-acoustic set. I can't lie; I feel a sense of pride knowing I had access to this for over a decade, while some folks saw it for the first time on YouTube earlier this year. Finally, I used this tape to record the premiere of Prince's video for "Te Amo Corazón" ... and misspelled the title.


III.


Prince gave one of his greatest televised performances at the 2005 NAACP Awards. God bless my family and friends for allowing me to play this tape for them (I think I even hauled my VCR over to an ex's house). They knew it was funky! I also recorded some "American Idol" episodes on this cassette. This was when the show was still worth watching. Speaking of which ...

IV.


Prince graced the "American Idol" stage in 2006 to promote his new album, 3121. According to host Ryan Seacrest, he walked in the building, performed his two songs and walked right back out to his car. That's star power. They were lucky to have him and they know it.


V.


When you have artists like Prince and Stevie Wonder paying homage to you, you know you're an icon. The two performed a tribute to Chaka Khan, whom Prince long admired and eventually befriended. He also attempted to help her career in the '90s by writing music for her and inviting her on tour. "Sweet Thing" was one of his favorite songs to play.


VI.


This performance is extremely personal for me. I can't really watch it without choking up. I wrote more about my experience in a forthcoming article. Stay tuned ...

Does anyone else still have VHS tapes of Prince's performances? I'd love to see your pictures!

Subscribe to my e-mail list for updates on my book on Prince's spiritual journey. Click here.

Friday, October 18, 2019

"Gigolos Get Lonely Too" - Review of "On Time"


The best part of Morris Day's new memoir, On Time, is his discussion of music. Prior to the release of The Time's self-titled debut album in 1981, Day and Prince were immersed in musical study. They picked apart hits by The Brothers Johnson and Shalamar. Day brought Prince's attention to Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa, while Prince broke down Miles Davis's early career.

"Maybe because Prince's dad was a jazz musician or maybe because Prince could wrap his mind around bebop, he talked about Miles's records on the Prestige and Blue [Note] labels," Day wrote.

Prince tried to turn Day on to Joni Mitchell--he'd later name one of the The Time's albums after one of her lyrics--but Day wouldn't bite. But they both admired Bob Dylan, and spent long periods of time listening to the Beatles.

For so long, Prince's musical tastes have either been glossed over or, worse, attributed to the "education" he received from white peers after he broke into the business. Sure, we can hear the influences in his music, or cite the covers he'd do at shows throughout his career. But it's refreshing to hear people like Day expound on their musical passions during the early days.

However, Day isn't alone in telling the story of his life and association with Prince. At the suggestion of his co-writer, noted biographer David Ritz, Day employs Prince's voice as a literary device. The result is an ongoing conversation between Day and Prince, who often challenges Day's accounts of events.

The trick works. It allows Day to acknowledge or, at least, imply the instability of memory. It also provides insight into what their exchanges must've been like while Prince was alive. "Most of them are pretty doggone accurate," Day told the Star Tribune.

Unfortunately, Day adds another voice, "MD," representing his often destructive alter ego. It's a little clunky, and takes up space that could be used for more stories. At about 200 pages--including photos--the book feels too short.

Related Content
The Time Outshines Prince in Columbus

Hardcore Prince fans might not come away with a ton of new information, but there are several revelations that make the book worthwhile, in my opinion. To my knowledge, this is the most open Day has been about his struggle with drug abuse. And I enjoyed hearing his perspective on Prince's image, name change and spirituality.

We also learn that Day was present for some pivotal moments in Prince's early career, and that he was reportedly playing drums on certain Prince songs, but didn't receive credit. (I would actually like to hear Day talk more about his drumming and break down some songs live at an event like "Celebration" at Paisley Park.) Day also reveals a bit of a bombshell about Prince and his high school band, Grand Central. Each reader will have to decide whether or not they take Day at his word.

As expected, there have been mixed reviews about the book. Some fans believe Day is too harsh on Prince; others see no ill will. Nothing in the book turned me off, and I feel Day takes some responsibility for his mistakes.

"I had resentments, but it was a love/hate relationship," Day told the Star Tribune. "For me to put it all out there on the table in the book, it was good to be able to bring closure."


Subscribe to my e-mail list for updates on my book on Prince's spiritual journey. Click here.

Friday, October 11, 2019

"Soul Sanctuary" - Interview with Al Bell

Photo courtesy of Reed Bunzel, Al Bell Presents, LLC. 

You could say Al Bell and Prince had a meaningful relationship before they even met. As the former chairman and owner of iconic Memphis soul label, Stax Records, Bell was integral in the development of music that influenced the Minneapolis-born superstar.

Also specializing in funk, gospel and blues, Stax propelled the careers of acts like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, the Bar-Kays, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes and the Staples Singers. The latter group achieved its first No. 1 hit with "I'll Take You There," written by Bell. Nearly 20 years later, Prince would help write and produce two albums for singer Mavis Staples.

But the special connection between Prince and Bell was mutual.

"I can't say this about a lot of artists, but the first time I met Prince was spiritually, and it was on 'Purple Rain,'" Bell said. "I tuned into this brother's soul. ... You talk about being on one accord? Prince and Al Bell."

As a visionary, Bell said he relies on his ability to hear and feel what artists are attempting to manifest through their music. Though he'd heard Prince's earlier music, "Purple Rain" caught Bell's attention.

"I felt the spirit in him and the emotions that were coming from him as he sang that song," Bell said. "It was like, 'I know this guy.'"

Ten years after the release of "Purple Rain," Bell would assist Prince as he was trying to assert himself as an independent artist, and encourage musicians, particularly black musicians, to retain ownership of their master recordings. Bell helped turn Prince's 1994 song, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," into an international hit, which further spurred Prince to continue on his path to complete freedom from Warner Bros.

But before Bell played that crucial role in Prince's career, the Purple One recruited him to co-produce Mavis Staples' 1989 album, Time Waits for No One. 


"Because he had studied 'I'll Take You There' and the songs that I had produced, he knew me as a producer," Bell said.

But instead of working in the studio together, Prince sent demos from Paisley Park in Minneapolis to Bell, who was at Ardent Studios in Memphis. The two men would discuss edits over the phone.

"It was amazing," Bell said. "I never talked to someone by phone who could discuss the details without it being filled with detail-itis."

But what really struck Bell was Prince's composition style on the demos.

"He would sing the song and say, 'Horns,' and then hum out the horn parts and go right back to the lyrics," Bell said. "[He'd say,] 'Background,' and then do the background part and go back to the lyrics while he was playing his guitar. He would arrange it as it came out of his head."

Bell also noticed Prince would send over multiple guitar tracks for one song.

"I would say to him, 'I hear you're doing several different guitar tracks. Which one are you going to use?'" Bell said, laughing at the memory. "He said, 'Oh, I'm going to use the one that's supposed to be used and we'll know that when we get it finished.' ... He was a visionary."

By the early '90s, Bell had moved on from working with major labels; he'd followed up his stint at Stax with a position as president of Motown Records Group. He founded an independent label, Bellmark Records, in 1992.

In March 1993, Bellmark distributed the double-platinum song "Dazzey Duks" by hip-hop duo, Duice. Then, two months later, the company released Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)" by Atlanta-based duo Tag Team. It reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

"These guys had shopped that record throughout the industry and nobody would take it," Bell said. "Even my staff was saying, 'Man, these guys are whack.' I didn't know what 'whack' was. ... [I said,] 'All I know is this is a hit record.'"


As Bellmark's success was ramping up, Prince's relationship with Warner Bros. was crumbling. Prince argued that he should be able to own the rights to his music, and dictate the pace at which it was released. Eventually, Prince changed his name to the Love Symbol to be able to control future output.

But Prince did approach Warner Bros. about releasing "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World."

"They told him that he had over-saturated the marketplace [and] that the song was dated," Bell said. "He asked them, 'Well, can I release it as a single myself?' And they laughed and said, 'Yes, go ahead.'"

At the time, Bell was mentoring Kerry Gordy, the son of Motown mogul Berry Gordy, and former Vice President of Prince's Paisley Park Records, which Warner shuttered in 1994. Gordy encouraged Prince to ask Bell about releasing the song.

"Prince called and said, 'Al, can you release a single on me and market it and turn it into a hit?'" Bell said. "I said, 'No, Prince, I can't--unless you send me a hit first.' He laughed."

The next morning, Prince sent over "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." Bell said he played it nonstop in his office for 30 minutes, as his staff members gathered outside to hear it through the walls.

Bell was impressed with Prince's sincere performance, and the song's message to women.

"I said, 'I don't see how these people at Warner Bros. could miss this,'" Bell said. "'This is a masterpiece.'"

Bell agreed to release the song--under Prince's symbol moniker--in partnership with Prince's NPG Records. But before signing the agreement with Prince's lawyers, he called Warner Bros. Chairman/CEO Mo Ostin to confirm that Prince had permission to release the song.

"I don't think I ever told [Prince]," said Bell, who wanted to be respectful of Ostin, whom he considered a peer. "[Ostin] said, 'I've authorized him to do that, no problem. But does he have that girl with him?'"

Bell assured Ostin that Prince was releasing a solo song and never asked whom Ostin was referencing. But he suspects it was Marvin Gaye's daughter, Nona, who was working on projects with Prince.

"I think she had gotten their attention at Warner Bros.," Bell said.

The song was released on February 24, 1994. An EP, The Beautiful Experience, followed in May. Initially, Bell faced resistance from primary and secondary radio markets. The program directors admitted they were overwhelmed by Prince releases. In response, Bell decided to break the song in smaller, tertiary markets.

"I told my staff, 'We're going to go into 'I Ain't Never Heard of It, Louisiana,' and treat it like New York City because this is a hit record.'"

"The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" CD single. Photo by Phil Simms.

The process gave Bell a sense of déjà vu. Back during his Stax days in the '60s and '70s, he had to navigate a racist system, which forced him into smaller markets.

"We didn't have but a few stations that would play the product," he explained. "And then you had retailers that wouldn't stock black product, and especially the kind of product that we had at Stax. And what I'd have to do in many instances was let them have the product on consignment, persuading them, 'OK, when you sell through, then pay me what you sold.'"

There were also some black radio stations that would not play Stax music.

"They didn't want the blues," Bell said of some black consumers. "It reminded them too much of slavery. ... And here we were, just a few inches away from what they considered blues music. So it was 'Bama' music or 'too southern.'"

Bell said he even had trouble getting Otis Redding's music played on the top black radio station in Atlanta.

"I was able to take advantage of those experiences and all of those pains and be able to apply it differently with Prince," he added.

His strategy with "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" paid off. The tertiary markets were appreciative and excited about the song. Unable to ignore the word-of-mouth buzz, the primary and secondary radio stations began calling Bellmark.

According to Bell, they'd ask, "Do you guys have a record called 'The Most Beautiful Girl in the World' by Prince? Why haven't you sent us a copy of it?"

As Bell worked the single, Prince shot a video, which he was eager to release. But Bell insisted they wait until the song advanced on the Billboard charts.

"He wouldn't argue, but he would call back and say, 'Is it time now?'" Bell said, laughing.


Eventually, the video was released, and the song peaked at No. 3 in the U.S. And it became Prince's first and only No. 1 hit in the U.K. It was certified gold, selling 700,000 copies.

"It was hard work, but it was enjoyable," Bell said. "And I must tell you, I learned more about marketing recorded music and working with radio and retail during that period of time than I have throughout my entire career."

Bell said Prince's name change--the media was calling him "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince" at the time--and his appearances with "slave" on his face only added to the popularity of the song. And he personally called Prince by his birth name or "my brother."

Marketing aside, Bell understood and supported Prince's concerns.

"He had all the right in the world to feel the way that he felt and to take the positions that he was taking," Bell said. "The artists and producers were, at best, treated as indentured servants and, at worse, slaves [at major labels]."

The success of "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" also boosted Bellmark and Bell's confidence.

"It gave me another burst of, not only energy, but conviction that I did know something about what I was doing," Bell said. "It let me know for certain, 'You're not crazy. It's just that this racism that you're fighting out here is real.'"

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As for Prince, Bell knew the artist was ready to focus on building up NPG Records.

"He wanted to see different kinds of music and artists than these companies were allowing to be released in the marketplace," Bell said. "He didn't think small."

Although they never worked together again, other people would share what Prince was saying about Bell. These are conversations Bell recounts with pride. For example, Prince acknowledged the trials Bell experienced at Stax, which had, coincidentally, lost its ownership of its catalog to Atlantic Records--and its parent company, Warner Music Group--in the 1960s. Though Bell built Stax back up as an independent label in the '70s, it eventually went bankrupt.

"Prince said, 'That man was brutally assassinated by our industry,'" Bell heard someone say. "And it's amazing for him to be still alive [in this business]."

On another occasion, journalist Tavis Smiley called Bell to share Prince's words about "Wattstax," the famous 1972 concert and subsequent film released in commemoration of the seventh anniversary of the Watts Riots in Los Angeles.

"It was a phenomenon that America hasn't really given you credit for--putting together and pulling off 'Wattstax," Smiley told him. "Prince said that's one of the greatest things he's ever seen. ... I just thought you'd appreciate hearing [that]."


These days, Bell, 79, is the CEO and chairman of Al Bell Presents, LLC. He has returned to his home in Arkansas, where he is a visiting professor at the University of Arkansas. He is also working to build a music ecosystem in the northwestern part of the state, which has financial resources--major companies like Walmart and Tyson Foods have headquarters there--and ambitious performers.

"There's so much more to be done in this business," he said. "The authentic music that's indigenous to America is the music that comes from the African Americans. ... I'm about preserving and perpetuating that music."

In recent years, the legacy of "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" has been muddied by allegations that Prince plagiarized the song from Italian artists Bruno Bergonzi and Michele Vicino. Currently, the Prince estate is being sued by, ironically, Warner Chappell Italy.

Bell said he is unaware of the details of the allegations, but offered a couple perspectives.

"[Musicians are] trying to figure out another way to make another nickel or a dime or a penny to stay in business, or just to make some money for their livelihood," he said. "[And] Prince, like any other successful artist out here, or any other progressive human being, was influenced by somebody. Somebody influenced you, whether you were consciously aware of it [or not]. ... So I don't know."

For Bell, there is no question about the legacy of Prince, whom he calls brilliant, and a "good guy."

"I don't know if you could place Prince in a genre of music," he said. "Maybe you can say inspirational because it was a lot of inspiring music, and some of it you'd have to think about twice to really get it, or you'd get it subconsciously."

“I really don’t like categories, but the only thing I can think of [to describe my music] is inspirational." - Prince to Larry King, 1999

It's high praise coming from Bell, a Grammy Trustees Award recipient, who has worked with countless legendary artists.

"[Prince] is one of our rarest spiritual beings performing the musical art form that I've ever seen or heard," he said.


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