This week at the Local Current, we’re looking back on Prince’s early career as we dedicate our next few history spotlights to stories behind his music. This time, we’re focusing our attention on “Just Another Sucker,” a 94 East song that 18-year-old Prince co-wrote with Pepé Willie.
Recorded in 1977, “Just Another Sucker” came at a shift in Prince’s career: he had recently been signed by Warner Bros. Records, and Polydor had just dropped 94 East after a change in the label’s management.
“I was upset, Marcy [Ingvoldstad] and Kristie [Lazenberry] were upset, the whole band was upset. And who was more upset than all of we were? Mr. Prince. I am telling you, he was more upset than anybody,” Pepé Willie said. “And we were standing outside, and he looks at André [Cymone] and he says, ‘André, we have to go back in the studio and record more songs with Pepé.’”
And so the band recorded three songs: “Just Another Sucker,” “Lovin’ Cup,” and “Dance to the Music of the World.” But at that point, Pepé, who was married to Prince’s cousin at the time and had become a mentor to Prince, wasn’t concerned with getting 94 East signed again.
“Instead of me spending more money into the studio for mixing and editing, Prince was doing well here in Minnesota … So I told my group, I’m going to concentrate on Prince right now. I’m not going to worry about the stuff that we did in the studio. We had our shot, Prince is signed right now to Warner Bros., I’m going to focus on him. I didn’t want what happened to us to happen to him.”
The songs were eventually released under Future Tell Records in 1995, the same year Prince released “The Gold Experience.” The two records tell a story: long before Prince could produce his own album, he learned the ins and outs of the music industry from Pepé and 94 East — though, as Pepé said, “There was nobody that taught Prince anything about his music.”
Pepé hired Prince to play in 94 East after working with his old group, Grand Central, for several months. The cover band had caught Pepé’s attention at a party, and he wanted to help the young musicians develop their craft. At first, he said, no one in particular caught his attention — until he started working with the band regularly.
“The first time I noticed that Prince was a multi-instrumentalist, they were playing a song and Prince unstrapped his guitar and went to Linda who was playing keyboards, and said, ‘Linda, this is what I want you to play on keys.’ And he started playing the chords. And I went like, ‘Oh wait a minute, you play keyboards too?’ … Then he goes to André and says, let me hold your bass. And I’m like, “What do you mean, bass? What are you going to do now?’ So he took André’s bass and he just started thumping. I mean, he was just playing it like it was his main instrument. And in my mind, I was like, ‘Okay, wait a minute, this kid plays guitar, keyboard, and bass?’ … I was just amazed. And I knew at the time that this was a great band.”
Pepé taught the group what they needed to know to be professional recording artists, from how to write a song for radio to how much labels should compensate for hours in the studio.
“They didn’t know any of this. All they wanted to do was play on stage. That was their main goal,” Pepé said. “‘So I taught these guys the finer points of the music industry.”
Impressed with Prince’s talent and work ethic, Pepé hired him to play with 94 East. As he did with all the other band members, Pepé gave him a tape with five songs — “If You See Me,” “Games,” “I’ll Always Love You,” “If We Don’t,” and “Better Than You Think” — and gave him two weeks to come up with his own instrument parts. When the day came to record, Pepé said, they did the five songs in four hours.
“What Prince was playing [on guitar] was so astronomical that the bass player called me that night and said, ‘Did you hear what Prince is playing?’” Pepé said. “I could not believe all of the licks and chords that he was playing, it was just unbelievable … His guitar playing made those songs.”
After Prince moved on from 94 East, Pepé opened his house for Prince and his band (which became The Revolution) to rehearse, after their studio had gotten robbed. The band practiced at Pepé’s house for about a year, he said.
“They practiced for 12 hours a day. You wanna know why this guy was so good at what he did? These guys practiced from 10 in the morning and the cutoff time was 10 o’clock at night,” Pepé said.
He has memories of Prince’s characteristically exceptional work ethic:
“One time, when they were finished rehearsing, I couldn’t get Prince on the phone. He lived on France Avenue, and I thought, I gotta go over there, because I can’t reach him. So I go over there and I see his car parked outside He had a Datsun 310 or 210 that he bought with his money from Warner Brothers — I went to his house and I knocked on his door and I’m ringing the bell and I couldn’t get an answer. So I walk around the side of the house and I’m hearing this little tapping, and I’m like, what is this? And I peeped through the downstairs window in the basement window and Prince is down there playing drums. This is after 12 hours of rehearsing. Playing drums for another 2 or 3 hours. This guy, he would not give up. That was his dream, and he made his dream come true. And anything he could do in his power, he did it. Over and beyond, he did it.”
From the start, Pepé was there to help Prince navigate his early career, even saving him from a bad deal with a record label who had told him they were “interested in his music, but not his voice.” (He was under 18, so Pepé simply told him to tear up the contract). He remembers bringing Prince to New York, where he drew a crowd as he jammed in a music store, and traveling to North Carolina, where Prince signed over two thousand copies of his album.
“I had wondrous times with Prince and I’m missing him dearly,” Pepé said. “I taught him a lot of stuff and supported him, but now I’m learning from him. This is when the teacher is learning from the student. Every time I turn on the music or start to play, I’m thinking about Prince. There hasn’t been a time in my whole career since I met him that I haven’t thought about him, and how he’s playing and how he’s doing. He’s my muse now.”
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.”