Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Pepe Willie, Prince & how the journey started

94 East was named after I94 that runs thru Minnie and it was one of the bands Prince was a part of prior to finding his own path.  He was 17 when they began.

They were formed by his earliest champion and mentor Pepe Willie (the nephew of  Clarence Collins, the guitarist for Little Anthony & The Imperials)

Pepe got his start in music biz in NYC as a gopher for his uncle running errands for Diana Ross and Dusty Springfield. He eventually formed his own band and found his way to Minneapolis after marrying Shauntel Manderville who had a young cousin everyone affectionately called Skipper but whose given name was Prince.

Pepe first met Prince when he was just 12 and was wrestling with his cousin Charles so Pepe didn't think too much about it because "hey just kids."

Three years later Prince called him up out of the blue and wanted to know about music publishing and copyrights. Pepe said they would talk when he was back in Minnesota and they reconnected at a ski party when Prince was playing with his band at the time called Grand Central. They played high school dances and at this party were jamming covers of Earth Wind & Fire songs.  Pepe was blown away...was this the same little kid he had seen wrestling in the living room not so long ago?

Morris Day was also in Grand Central and LaVonne Daughtery,his mom, was the band's manager. She thought Pepe was a producer and to this day he still thinks that is hysterical. The band was also helped along by Andre's passionate and dedicated mom Bernadette Anderson aka Queen Bernie, a divorcée and mother of six who went back to school and was so devoted to her community the local YWCA was renamed in her honor. She became Prince's adoptive mom. He lived with their family thru his teen years.


Grand Central: (clockwise from left) Morris Day, William Doughty, Andre Cymone, Linda Anderson

But he knew they had something so he agreed to help them and set up a rehearsal space in Morris Day's attic. Pepe liked their covers but said if they were going to make a go of it they would need original material. Prince said he had a song called Sex Machine and the band played it FOREVER. It went on and on and on and Pepe suggested they edit it down. Short and sweet is the name of the game if you want to get your stuff on the radio. "I told them the hook in the song has to appear at least three times, because that’s what people are going to remember."

Grand Central: Linda Anderson, André Cymone, Morris Day, Terry Jackson, Prince, and William Doughty.

Prince's childhood friend Andre Cymone was part of the group as well. Prince lived with Andre's family and the two would have epic contests to see who could write the most songs. Thru Pepe's mentorship Andre came up with a song called You Remind Me Of Me. And Pepe thought it sounded good except the lyrics to his keen ear seemed muddled and incomprehensible.

They got a chalkboard and wrote out the lyrics and discovered that no one was singing the same thing. Once they got the lyrics worked out the band came together as a solid unit with Morris on drums, Prince on guitar, Andre on bass, his sister Linda was on keyboards William "Hollywood" Doughty was on percussion.

Morris Day and Prince

It was during these incredible rehearsals that Pepe got his first glimpse at Prince's musical gifts. He said at first he was watching everyone equally but noticed that Prince would frequently go to each player to show them how to master chord progressions etc on their individual instruments. That stood out to Pepe, he was blown away by Prince's passion and vision from that moment on.

None of the young artists had ever been in a recording studio before so Pepe decided to change that and enlisted them to join him with his band 94 East(The lineup included Wendell Thomas, Dale Alexander, Pierre and Andre Lewis and, after Alexander's departure, Bobby "Z" Rivkin.) They rehearsed on their own for a few weeks which included Pepe giving Prince a cassette of himself playing rhythm guitar and doing the vocals so Prince could practice his own parts. Then they piled into a car like Our Gang and rode over to the Cookhouse Recording Studio to record the 5 songs Pepe had written.  "Games," "If You See Me," "I'll Always Love You," "If We Don't" and "Better Than You Think." Pepe said, "Practice this with two leads." They became known as The Cookhouse Five

Games featuring Prince

The Cookhouse Five recordings were mixed by Dr Fink and were eventually donated to the library at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.

(Pepe’ Willie took Prince on his first promo tour. This at a signing at a radio station in North Carolina via PepeMusic)

When it came time to record it was a little awkward for everyone because they had all practiced their parts individually so no one really knew what the others were bringing to the party until it was on. They had 4 hours to record 5 songs live. Pepe hoped for the best throughout the process and it wasnt until all was said and done tha he heard the tapes.

He was stunned and his bass player Window equally dazed asked "Man did you hear what Prince was doing? That was amazing" Pepe said in an interview "He did these professional, studio-musician-quality guitar parts! He was totally on. I was amazed by that, and he made all of my songs a lot better than they were. His playing made the songs, which got us signed to Polydor in the ‘70s."

Yahoo Music asked Pepe who were Prince's influences at the time and here is where the magic comes to the fore, Pepe said he didn't have any that were discernible to his ears. What Prince was doing even at the tender age of 17 was so unique and fresh that 40 years later he still is in awe of the experience of recording with him. "He taught himself guitar, he invented his own language"

Pepe & Prince first collaboration was on a song called Just Another Sucker and even in his earliest musical incarnation the musicianship and  production was apparent and delectable.

Bobby Z was Pepe's drummer when it came to record a single for 94 East. They were being mentored by Hank Cosby(Motown) at the time and he was a big damn deal for his work with Stevie Wonder.  By this point Prince had connected with Owen Husney and was forging his own path.

 Pepe and Bobby were at Sound 80 getting ready to record when they bumped into Prince with Owen and Prince wanted to know what they were up to. When he found out they were recording he asked if he could join them. He did and Hank Cosby wrote a song for them to do called Fortune Teller. Prince did background vocals and played guitar on it.

The music business has always been a beast and it had its way with 94 East and these recordings. Hank got fired the band got dropped and the songs they did disappeared from the radar. But Prince wanted to finish the project and despite the financial constraints they were able to get back into a recording studio to do more songs including Lovin Cup. The new Sound 80 recordings included Andre. Pepe said through it all he felt like he was the professional following the amateur because even so early in his career Prince knew what exactly he was doing. Pepe recalled in an interview last year: "...he had that thing. There’s not a word that can describe what Prince had. It’s more than “desire,” even though desire was a real big part of it. He had that desire that was overwhelming. And he excelled at anything he did musically. He picked it up like getting on a bike for the first time and then the next thing you know you’re doing wheelies. It came natural and he had that kind of talent on guitar, on bass, on drums. Everything."

After Prince died Pepe was asked if he knew he would be a superstar. Pepe said he was too close to it at the time to answer that but that he knew Minneapolis was special and was the new Motown in large part due to Prince and also Andre. He said it was their passion and their playing that kept him in Minnie even after his divorce and even when friends in NYC would call him and ask what the hell he was doing in Minnesota.

People outside of the  Minneapolis didn't seem willing or able to grasp just how truly special the music scene was. Of course there was Bob Dylan and The Andrews Sisters but once Prince hit everyone knew his music was what made Minneapolis MINNEAPOLIS.

A few years went by when Pepe and Morris were hanging out and Prince, who by then was blowing up big time, showed up and slid a cassette in the car stereo and Pepe thought the song sounded fantastic. Morris laughed "dude that's YOUR song" Prince had reworked a 94 East song called If You See Me. His version was called Do Yourself A Favor. He had planned to put it on a future album but somehow it never happened.

Here is the original

And here is Prince's variation recorded in 1982

When Prince didn't use it Jesse Johnson asked Pepe if he could record it and Pepe was down and let him. This was recorded in 1986 for his album Shokadelica

After 94 East, Pepé let Prince and his burgeoning band (it would become The Revolution) rehearse at his house because their own studio had been robbed. The band practiced at Pepé’s house 12 hours a  day for a year.

Pepe was instrumental to Prince's long term success in so many ways including urging him to tear up a shady contract by a label that questioned his voice. Do a cursory google search and you will see it all comes back to Pepe.

Fame for all of its perks and glory can also be tough on friendships, and this one was no exception. The last time Pepe saw Prince was in Vegas in 2007. He said he didn't recognize his protege and that the business and fame had changed him. When Pepe said hello to Prince there was no warmth in the response "just showbiz". But despite the distance that had grown between them Pepe's deep love and profound respect is unmistakable, palpable and genuine. And so is the cataclysmic anguish of the loss:

“I am so, so devastated over the passing of this brother that my brain cannot wrap around it,” Pepe said in an interview after Prince died. “I’m in my car driving, and they got color billboards of him out here in Minneapolis. They say, ‘Prince: 1958 – 2016.’ And I look at the pictures and I just scream. I’m in the car by myself and I just scream his name. ‘Priiiiiiiiinnncceee!’ It kills me. It just kills me. I see a picture of him and I can’t quite accept that he’s no longer with us. I wake up crying. It’s so horrifying.”