“The last time I was in this building was 1984.”
Owen Husney is standing in the doorway of 430 Oak Grove, a high-end apartment complex on the south edge of Loring Park in Minneapolis. As soon as the doors swing open and he steps into the marble atrium, you can see the memories pulling him backwards through time, back to when he was a young ad executive renting out an office on the first floor, and toying with the idea of switching back to working on music full-time.
“I moved here in about 1976, and we had just one little office. I think the rent was $120 a month, and I was screaming. How can anyone charge $120 a month? Let me go talk to the manager of the building!” he recalled, chuckling.
Soon after Husney enters the lobby, the door swings open again and he is joined by André Cymone, a musician who Husney would meet shortly after settling into his 430 Oak Grove space. Cymone was best friends and bandmates with a young undiscovered artist named Prince Rogers Nelson, and almost exactly 40 years ago they recorded hours of unreleased tape known as the Loring Park Sessions in Husney’s office and studio.
The Loring Park Sessions have taken on a certain mystical quality for Prince fans in the last few years, ever since Husney found the tapes in his storage space and had them digitized. The sessions were recorded just a year before Prince would release his debut album, For You, and were captured in that hazy and heart-pounding space between when Prince had signed to Warner Bros. and when he would make his first step onto the national stage.
With Prince on keys and guitar, André on bass, and Bobby Z on drums, the trio pummel through a genre-bending set of eight instrumental songs that swirl together funk, disco, R&B and jazz. The songs sound more like a group of Los Angeles session players laying down tracks for a major studio than a group of teenagers just feeling out their vibe as a live band.
Husney and Cymone returned to the space on April 24, 2017, at the urging of a Dallas-based DJ and Prince devotee, Jessie Jessup, who was visiting the Twin Cities for Paisley Park’s Celebration and quickly realized that neither the larger Prince community nor the building managers at 430 Oak Grove had realized the exact location of these historic recordings, or Owen Husney’s office space. She called up the building to ask if she could present them with a plaque, and with the help of Lori Holmquist of People of Paisley Park, gathered Cymone and Husney for a touching ceremony to honor their contributions to Prince’s story.
The meeting also offered an unprecedented first-hand tour through these significant players’ memories.
After meeting in the atrium, Husney and Cymone head outside and start walking along the south end of the building, trying to recall which unit was Husney’s office. Even though everything inside has changed — his old office space and studio are now two separate one-bedroom apartments — Husney recognizes the location immediately.
“Right in this window right here, if you had a time machine and looked in there, you would see a young Chris Moon waiting in that office to meet me with a demo tape he made with Prince,” Husney recalls. “I wouldn’t see him for two days. I had heard enough stories about people who thought they had the next greatest thing, and so I wouldn’t see him. So many parents would come to see me and say, ‘My child is so good,’ I’d listen for five seconds and say, ‘Well, it’s promising, have him come back in ten years.’ But finally, I let him into my office, and Chris put the tape on and I was just mesmerized.”
The first demos featured both Prince and André, and contained a rough recording of what would become Prince’s very first single, “Soft and Wet.”
“What I heard was people going for another sound, not just trying to be Sly Stone. Not just trying to be Jimi Hendrix, whatever. But they were actually combining these sounds,” Husney says. “I had a conversation once, with André and Prince, I remember saying, ‘What’s your favorite group?’ And he said Grand Funk Railroad. I was like Grand Funk Railroad?! And then you could hear stuff being incorporated. They were combining all the elements, regardless of genre of music.”
But the recordings were far from record label-ready. Husney and Cymone both laugh as they recall how epic some of those first songs were.
“They were like 12-minute songs,” Husney says. “There was a song called ‘Aces,’ and it was like a 12-minute song. And I knew that it had to be condensed, because A&R people at record labels have the listening ability of a fly. I knew you had to grab people.”
“We had no idea,” Cymone adds. “Because conceptually, at the time, George Clinton had 15-minute songs, Donna Summer had a song that was 12 minutes.”
“Actually they were over at my house and we were listening to ‘Aces,’ and I turned it off and I said, ‘You gotta give me a nursery rhyme. You gotta give me an intro and a verse.’ And they walked out of my house. And then the next day there was a cassette on my doorstep, and it was just labeled ‘F*** you.’ [laughs] And I played it, and it was this ditty that never came out, but it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. It was two and a half, three minutes long,” Husney recalls.
“I think that’s the first time that Prince had ever had anyone tell him something like that,” Cymone says. “So I think your first reaction is ‘F*** you,’ but after you go away and you think about it, and it makes sense. Because who was going to tell us that? Who? Before you, nobody told us anything about songwriting. We didn’t know anything about publishing. None of that kind of stuff had ever entered our consciousness. But you kind of said, no, you can’t do a 12 minute song that just meanders around. That’s not a hit. And you go away and you think about it, and you’re right. ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ Or ‘Everyday People.’ ‘Hot Fun in the Summer Time.’ I think you actually literally said that: look at titles of songs, and they tell you the story right in the title. And that’s when I realized the concept of writing a basic song. It’s like, oh! I get it.”
The pair start walking further down the sidewalk, and pause at a door that Cymone and Prince used to use to enter the building. The door is just to the left of a studio Husney eventually built out for the budding musicians to use, which was the site of the 1977 recordings and was also later used by Cymone to record his solo albums.
“Prince used to hang out here and record,” Husney recalls. “It’s interesting — I think behind the walls that they put up, everybody signed that. Everybody signed that wall: Prince, André, Tina Turner, so many acts that actually had been around the globe. If they could take it down, it would be so historic it would be ridiculous. It’s probably somebody’s bedroom now. These are apartments. So every place that we hung out, you and Prince and Bobby Z walked around in, is now somebody’s kitchen. People who live here probably have no idea what went on.”
In addition to Husney and Prince meeting for the first time in his office space, 430 Oak Grove was also the location where Prince first met Bobby Z, who would become his drummer in the Revolution.
“Bobby was my runner. He would get my dry-cleaning and everything, before I met Prince,” Husney recalls. “And then when I met Prince, it was like, ok, now you’re going to run around and get Prince’s dry-cleaning done, and if Andre needs anything, you’re going to run him around. And Bobby had played with a band, 94 East, before that, but no one was taking him seriously until we started jamming. And then that was so cool.”
“Originally we had just assumed Morris [Day] was going to be our drummer,” Cymone adds. “And you know, Prince was adamant that he’d love to find a drummer that varies the board, so to speak.”
“He wanted a rainbow,” Husney says.
“Like a Sly and the Family Stone thing,” Cymone says, nodding his head. “And Bobby is really good — because we did those sort of jazzy things, in the Loring performances, and they’re amazing.”
With the owner of 430 Oak Grove enthusiastically giving directions over the phone, a maintenance man runs inside to get a hammer and proudly hang Jessup’s plaque right outside the door of Husney’s old office. As Cymone and Husney approach the plaque to look at it, the maintenance man hands them a purple permanent marker and instructs them to sign their names right on the wall next to the plaque, ensuring that this time their signatures would be preserved forever.
“It almost makes me want to cry,” Husney says. “You have no idea that you’re helping to create something that is going to probably outlive you. The music that André and Prince created right in this back wall here, you have no idea what you’re doing. You’re just living your passion.”
“We had so much fun,” Cymone adds, smiling wide.
“We laughed a lot more than people ever would think,” Husney says. “You’d think it all would be serious, and André and Prince were serious — no, we were having a good time, and we were laughing.”