The Man Who Discovered Prince
Owen Husney opens up about working with the headstrong 17 year old prodigy, securing a million dollar deal, the fraught recording of Prince's debut, and more.
Prince with at a record store meet and greet. His manager Owen Husney pictured far right.
Last month I talked to Prince’s first manager, Owen Husney. He was the man that discovered Prince when he was just a teenager living in a basement in Minneapolis, the man who brokered Prince’s first record deal, and who helped him assemble the players in his band. Husney was there during the lengthy recording of Prince’s debut album For You, standing behind him when the headstrong 18-year-old told the label he wanted to be the sole producer, despite his lack of experience. Prince played everything on For You—including finger cymbals—and last month the album finally had its vinyl reissue, which is the reason I called. I wanted to find out how Husney first came across the diminutive, driven teen, and how For You finally came to fruition—all of which takes on a fresh and painful poignancy in the wake of Prince’s sudden passing. Four weeks after my conversation with Husney, Prince was gone. It may not have been the album that brought him wide acclaim and international adoration (that came a year later with his eponymous follow-up), but nevertheless, it was a bold, silky-smooth collection straight out the gates, but its birth was anything but easy.
By the time Owen Husney met Prince Rogers Nelson in the mid-70s, he was well placed to steer the young prodigy’s career. In the 60s Husney played guitar (and managed) garage rock band The High Spirits, who scored a hit covering old blues tune “(Turn on Your) Love Light”—the success of which afforded them notoriety and a tour of the US.
“We had the groupies, we had the small bus, we didn't have billions, but, you know, it was a pretty crazy life,” he explains. “And it was during the 60s, so there was a lot of awareness of coming into being, shall we say, and we took advantage.” You can take from that that The High Spirits partied pretty hard. After the band, Husney cut his teeth in the industry by wearing many hats—he spent time as a music booker, but he also set up his own art company, creating print ads for bands; he went on tour with Sonny and Cher, and even provided catering services backstage at a Minneapolis venue where everyone from Janis to Stevie to The Stones to The Who rolled through.
“By the time I was managing Prince, I’d heard all of the arguments between the artists and the managers while folding baloney in the backroom, getting their food ready,” laughs Husney. “I was privy to a lot of these discussions, and I was able to see how a manager-artist relationship sort of worked.”
In 1976 Husney received a call from his friend Chris Moon, who owned a small studio in the city. Moon sold Prince thusly: "I’ve got the next greatest thing." At the time Husney was busy and blasé—he’d heard that one a million times before—but when he finally heard Prince’s demos, his interest was piqued. The songs were flabby 10-minute workouts, but the musicianship was instantly impressive. “Boy, if I can get my hands on this,” thought Husney. We’ll let him take it from here…
Owen Husney: So I asked Chris Moon, “Who was in the group?” and he said, “It's one kid, he just turned 18, he's playing every instrument, and he's singing everything. I co-wrote a few lines with him, but basically he's doing all the writing.” I was like, “OK, give me his phone number right now. Period. We're done.” [Laughs.] So I called. He was staying with his sister in New York and they were trying to get a record deal on these demos. They really would not have gotten a record deal.
Noisey: Because the demos were too long and not focused?
Yeah. For sure. Both these kids had worked very hard putting the demos together, but they weren't commercial quality. Usually when people are extremely talented like Prince, they tend to do long songs because they want to show everybody they can do everything. At any rate, I got on the phone and he was very shy, his sentences were very short and halting, but I could tell just through the phone that he was special. My only pitch to him was, “Come on back, I've just heard this demo and I can tell you right now, I believe in you. But you're gonna have to have somebody that's gonna protect you. I've been through the business, and it can eat you alive." He was completely untested, but I believed in him.
So what was the next step?
He was still living with his best friend at the time, André Cymone, in André’s mother's basement [Cymone ended up as Prince’s bassist for Pre-Revolution]. This was the beginning of the fall of ’76 and he still wasn't sure whether he should trust me or not, but I just started doing things. When he first came back from New York after my phone call, he came to my house where I had a piano and several guitars. The minute he walked in the door, I looked at him, and I knew intrinsically that he was the real deal.
What did he look like? What were your first impressions?
He was wearing jeans with an ironed crease down the middle of them. [Laughs.] Some kind of brown boots. It was very well put together, even though they were not classy clothes, because he couldn’t afford it. He was getting stuff right away when I met him, understanding things, and he had these great eyes that were really magnificent, and they were, I don't want to say truly almond-shaped, but they were just beautiful eyes. He had real dark eyebrows. He was not a very tall guy, as you know. Then he had a huge afro. But he was very reserved. He probably played guitar at my house, maybe played the piano just a little bit, but mainly he wanted to talk. We were sizing each other up. I could see he was a very bright young man. There was no bullshit: he had the emotional maturity of a 40-year-old CEO of a company, and even though he did not understand the business side of it, I could see he had a focus. You know Little Richard?
Yeah for sure.
I've seen pictures of Little Richard when he was in a band before he was Little Richard. They're all sitting around, one of them is looking off right, one's looking off left, one's looking down, and then there's a very young Little Richard, and his eyes are laser focused on that camera. You can see the burning; you can see there's something else. That was the feeling I had about Prince. There was a focus, there was a brilliance of intelligence. He understood concepts. And this guy was just out of North Minneapolis—he'd just graduated high school practically. Most kids that age are driving cars a 150 miles an hour, doing stupid things, and testing their testosterone. He was not like that. From hearing the demo and meeting him in person, I knew I had to move quickly and get him signed to a contract.
Somebody tried to get him away from me and gave him a golden guitar [as a sweetener]. Actually I never knew if that was BS or not but we were about to sign the contract, and there was maybe 12 inches of snow, the wind is howling, and he comes over with another guy. He opens up this case, and there's this golden guitar, and he says, "Well, somebody else wants to sign me and he gave me this golden guitar." And I just looked at him and I said, "You know what, I'm not here about a fucking golden guitar. You go to that person and you have him sign you, I'm done with you, you can leave now." I watched him walk out my door into the snow. I felt like the love of my life had just walked out on me—that I’d just thrown her out. But I knew I had to sit tight. I couldn't eat, it was over a weekend, and I was just like, "Oh, where is she? Where is she? Why doesn't she call?" I was sick to my stomach and probably by Monday or Tuesday I get a call, and Prince says, “Alright, let's go. Let's go do this.”
Did you meet his parents? What was their situation?
He had moved out. He had a stepfather that I don't think he liked and I don't think the stepfather was particularly nice to him, although I don't have the details. So he ran away from home and moved in with André in the basement. And André's mother was a pillar of the black community. She was at the YMC or YWCA, directing activities and programs. She was a taskmaster. She was like, “Is your homework done? Are you doing this? Did you get this done?” André and Prince lived in the basement and in order to have dates over, they drew a line with paint down the middle of the and Prince was not allowed to come into André's part, and André was not allowed to go into Prince's part. They put up a curtain. [Laughs.]
Ha! So old school. So once you wooed Prince, the next stage is you brought in an attorney, and producer David Z [Etta James, Neneh Cherry, Billy Idol] as well as musicians to build out the band…
We needed to get those songs shortened, then we needed money. So the attorney knew a couple of people, and I put together a presentation kit and we went and pitched—one was a doctor, the other was an attorney, and we raised $50,000 from them. And from there we were able to buy Prince any instrument he needed. We got him out of the basement and into a little apartment in South Minneapolis.
Your ad agency was successful at the time. Did you have any apprehensions about leaving it behind?
I believed in Prince enough to walk out of my ad agency—doing millions of dollars worth of business—and just put my life into him. I really loved him as a human being. People say, "Well, wasn't he strange?" Well, yeah, we're all strange. I've never met an artist who wasn't strange. And so the fact that he was a little aloof and quiet—not around me, but around everybody else—never bothered me. I was happy he was that way. If he had been, “Hey, come on over, let's smoke a joint and have some fun,” I wouldn’t have managed him! [Laughs.] So eventually we signed Prince to a contract, the demo tape was put together.
An interesting story about the demo tape: there's a song that's on the first album called "Baby" and he wanted an orchestra. The only orchestra I knew in town at that point was a radio station orchestra, so I brought them in. When I came down to the studio to see how things were going on, Prince was fit to be tied, and these guys were like 90 years old, all of them, and they couldn't quite get it. [Laughs.] Prince worked with them and worked with them—I don't know how much he knew about writing music at that point, but he worked with them to the point where they rewrote and charted exactly the way he wanted it. Here's this 18-year-old kid working with these pretty cool players, orchestra guys, and he rewrote those parts and got 'em to do it.
So now you have the demos up to par, you pulled together a press kit, and then you started shopping him around?
Yeah I called Warner Brothers—I’d done some work for them in my ad agency before—so I called back Russ Thyret [the label CEO] and said, “I'm gonna make up that favor to you, listen, Columbia Records is flying us out. Would you like to hear this young genius I have? Would you like to hear him while I'm out here on Columbia's dime?” And he was like, “Yeah, absolutely!” So now I had an appointment at Warner Brothers to play and then I called Columbia, and I said, “Hey, Warner Brothers is flying us out and while we're here on their dime, would you like to hear the demo of this young genius from Minneapolis?” Then I called A&M Records, and I said, “Listen, I'm out here making presentations to Columbia and to Warners, would you like to hear this?” But I always knew that I was gonna go to Warners. They were just the top artist-friendly label of that era. The other labels seemed cold. So I lied my way into appointments at all of the labels.
These days I teach [the business of music] at UCLA and I teach my students how to lie—as long as people don't get hurt. "Hey, I saw your girlfriend with another guy down there at that bar!" That's malicious lying. But when people don't get hurt and you can get somebody positioned—hey, have fun!
Savvy teachings. So you had three labels interested, but Warners was the one. The deal you ended up brokering was pretty lucrative I hear.
I knew that even though I wanted to go to Warner Brothers I needed to make this a very rich deal for Prince, because he needed a lot of support. I needed a bidding war. And then eventually I would go with Warner Brothers. [Laughs.] I think that we're beyond the statute where they can sue me for saying this. The only label that we presented to that didn’t get it was RSO Records who had the Bee-Gees. I still have their rejection letter: “We think your artist is talented, but we don't think there's much of a future there, so we're passing.” I thought if I could get a bidding war together I could get a shitload of money and I could get three albums to develop Prince, which they won't do today. We got three albums firm and I'm 99 percent sure on this: it was the largest record deal for an unproven artist in history at that point.
How much did you sign for?
I think the whole deal was well over a million dollars. They wanted to take part of his publishing at the time, but I really didn't understand publishing. I just kept saying: I'm not prepared to have that discussion, because I didn't know what the hell it was and I wanted to run out of the meeting and get a book and read up on it. I knew if I said, “What is publishing?” they would have gotten another manager in there immediately. Finally they caved and the reason Prince owns all his publishing was because I didn't know what it was! [Laughs.]
Notoriously Prince fought to produce his debut album despite his inexperience, but that was quite the battle.
They wanted Maurice White [founder of Earth, Wind & Fire] to produce and they threw out a couple of other names of people, maybe Norman Whitfield [The Temptations, Marvin Gaye]. I'll tell you what was really interesting about Prince—and he was not malicious about this at all—but he had already studied all of these artists, like Maurice and Norman and whoever else. He knew about them, and he didn’t want their imprint on his sound—he wanted to develop his own sound and I agreed with him. He even wrote me a little note that said, “Owen, I'm very respectful of these artists and these producers, but I can pick their music apart and I can tell it's not the imprint that I want to have on my sound.”
So now I gotta tell the chairman of Warner Brothers that no one is producing this unheard-of artist who's never made album: he's gonna produce himself. I went in and fought. They agreed to organize a test where they’d fly Prince out from Minneapolis and have him record all the instruments himself. But I told Prince, “Hey, you've got some free studio time, go make a song.” We flew out and Prince lays down a drum track just perfectly, comes back, lays down the bass guitar. Now there's a bunch of people standing around the studio, and he has no idea but they were the top producers of the era: Lenny Waronker, Russ Titelman, Eddie Templeman, plus a couple of Warner Brothers figures there. They were blown away. So the test worked.
I walked out into the hallway and they said, “Look, he obviously knows how to make a record, and it might cost us a throwaway album, but he'll get there.” There's not a label in this day and age that would do that. They wouldn't even take that kind of a chance. Prince probably wouldn't have succeeded now simply because of the constraints they’d have put on him. So we’d accomplished some greatness: the biggest record deal in history at that time for a new artist, we had that new artist be his own producer, and convinced the record label that he was gonna play all the instruments.
So the plan was to keep the whole production in Minneapolis and record with the engineer Tommy Vicari [Michael Jackson, Whitney, Justin Timberlake]. But then Vicari couldn’t do it in the studio for various reasons, and you didn’t want to make Prince go to LA. In the end you compromised and planned to lay down the record in Sausalito, across the bay from San Francisco, but that cogs didn’t exactly run smoothly in that situation either…
Right. About one week into the recording in Sausalito, Prince comes home and he says to me, “I can't work with the engineer.” I said, “Come on. I just got Warner Brothers to give us everything we wanted, and now I gotta get rid of their engineer?! They'll stop the project! It's all over!” He says, “Well, you gotta fire him. I'm gonna do it for you.”
Why didn't he like him?
He’s an incredible engineer, he's won Grammys, he's a top-notch guy. It doesn't mean he was bad, it just meant—he's not on my wavelength. Here's an interesting thing about Prince: he has the uncanny intellect and ability to absorb whatever’s going on in the room. It's very, very special and I think it's one of his great attributes. Two weeks in that studio with Tommy Vicari and he got it, “OK, I know how to do this.” [Laughs]. So, then I had to tell Warner Brothers.
And did they freak out?
Oh, they were freaking out. At one time Warners got nervous, because I wasn't calling them and letting them know how things were going, that the President of Warner Brothers, and the VP of Promotion, Russ Thyret and Lenny Waronker flew up. They wanted to hear what was going on. Prince is recording the first song called "So Blue," on For You, and there was no bass in it. Lenny says, “This could be great when you get a bass on there.” And Prince looks up and says, "There will be no bass. Get out. Get out of my studio." He just kicked the President and the VP of Promotion—the guy who's got to get his record played, you know. [Laughs.] Just threw them out of the studio! And so I go out into the hallway, and my voice is cracking and they looked at me, and they said, "We get it. Let him go. Let him roll."
Wow. That's very understanding.
They were! That's why Warner Brothers had so many hits. If you look at Warner Brothers hits of the 70s, it's one after the next. So that was it, they never bothered us again. He spent a long, long, long time making that album, but he wanted it to be perfect, which, really, you don't want a perfect album, because perfect albums can be sterile; imperfections give it depth.
Let’s talk about some of the songs…
He did a song, an a capella song called "For You," it's like, 30 Prince voices overdubbed again and again and again, and it's just so cool and so right on and it’s the first song on the album. Most of his songs, "My Love Is Forever," "So Blue," "In Love," we had demoed before we got out there into the big time. Prince's focus, his brilliant creativity, I've seen it very rarely in this business where it's that complete. I actually think Michael Jackson's fairly unbelievably brilliant for what he was able to do and write and pull off and be in charge of what he’s done. Is Prince up there with John Lennon and Bob Dylan? Maybe, maybe not. If he's not, he's very close up in that realm. It’s a long-lasting career that has matured and he’s taken his audience on his trip, a journey over the years, and they've matured with you.
Do you have any stories about recording specific songs?
There's another song called "Baby" on the album that we also did as a demo. That's the one where I brought the orchestra in. Picture this: this kid just turned 18, he wrote the song about getting your girlfriend pregnant and now what are we gonna do? And the dilemma that you're faced with, and then, finally, at the end of the song, he says, “I hope our baby has eyes just like yours.” It's just so tender, and you know, Prince is a badass funk master, but there's a tenderness about a lot of stuff that he writes. If you listen to the lyrics, you get chills. "So Blue" is the same kind of thing. I think during that time, he got turned on to Joni Mitchell, and I think that's his homage to Joni.
But then he also had this rocky side to him.
Right. The first thing Prince told me after we got signed is he did not want to be pigeonholed as an R&B artist. Very few people had broken down the barriers before him. Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone had broken down the barriers between white and black radio, but he didn’t want to be pigeonholed. If you were a black artist in those days, you had to go to your black base, which is black radio stations, and you had to build it and then crossover. He didn't want to do that and that was exemplified on his second album when he had "I Wanna Be Your Lover," which broke through on top radio. He didn't want the walls. The walls repulsed him. He just wanted to make great music and he had the ability to do it.
Your wife at the time was doing Prince's hair during this period too right? A whole family affair.
Well, everybody moved, lock, stock, and barrel to Sausalito and to Los Angeles, and yeah, we just took care of Prince because he was very young. We just made sure he had breakfast, lunch, and dinner; that the sheets were clean, that his hair was taken care of. Britt would do that, even in the letter he wrote me, he talked about Britt doing his hair.
It's so, so wild when you think about him being a teenager.
It's so wild. I don't even know if he had his driver’s license by that point. Seriously. I've managed other bands that have been living in the same house for a year and doing gigs—that's one thing—but he had nothing. It was zero. There was nothing. He was living in a basement.
You currently teach at UCLA. What’s your advice to young artists?
[Sighs.] You got five hours? Firstly, Prince is an anomaly. Not everybody is as ballsy as him and can tell everybody to fuck off, get their way, and make it happen. I think the one thing that I want to tell a lot of musicians today is, work with other people, get songs together, get out there, get experience working with a lot of people—don't hole up and just think you're gonna do it yourself, or you don't want anybody to help you write. And look, you can take advantage of social media today. There was nothing like that in existence during Prince's time. There are ways to use that your advantage. I'll give you the advice that I give first day of class. Understand this: there are two words to show business. It's not show art, it's not show friends, it's show business. Get your fucking business side together, because you will get screwed.
Regarding the Warner Brothers deal, it was for three records, but then when he re-signed to them, that was the deal that he then ended up rebelling against, when he was writing "slave" on his cheek?
I can give you conjecture on that point, because I agree with Prince. Let's say you're an artist and you do these fabulous paintings. And you come to me and you say, “Owen, I need money, I want to quit my job and just paint.” And I agree that you're a great artist and you should do your paintings. And you say, “Can you loan me some money to do the paintings?” So I loan you 25,000 so you don't have to work for a couple of months and you can make your paintings and make them phenomenal. You do that, your paintings become kind of famous, you pay me back the money I leant you, but I own your paintings. That's how the business works. You sign to a record label, they give you all this money up front to make your album, they give you money to promote your stuff, and if you're successful, you pay them back. But once you've paid them back, they still own your shit. So I understand.
Prince likes to control things—that's no secret—and I agree with him. It would be abhorrent to have creativity like he has and have somebody own it. So he wanted out from that point, but he had to change 30 or 40 years of the way the business was run to do that. Also I think that he wanted to come out with an album when he felt like it, and Warner Brothers, they were calling me at that time—and I was not managing him—but they were calling me, “Well, what are we gonna do? And I said, “Look, if you try to stop Prince's creativity, you're gonna lose him.” They felt he was coming out with too many albums and would dilute his audience. And Prince is a machine of quality. He's a machine of the real. He doesn't throw shit out there. It’s good, well thought out stuff. And it might be a little bit too much, and you do have a tendency to dilute your audience. But if you put limits on him, and put him in chains so to speak, he'll want out.
There's a law called termination reversion and I know that he's gotten a lot of the songs back. He wanted to just own his music, and then license it to record labels for distribution. He didn't want them owning his shit. I understand that, I really do.
What is your most treasured piece of Prince memorabilia?
It's probably a letter that he wrote to me. I don't want to go into it, but it was a great letter, and in it, he professed his love for me, and what he wanted to do. It was probably right around the time we were breaking up. I didn't want to carry on, I felt I had done my job: to take somebody who had never been in a studio, practically, and make all this happen. There was a point when I just didn't want to do it anymore, and so I told him I was out. And he wrote me a long letter. At the time, I thought, “God, now he's just turned into this ugly prima donna.” I realized retrospectively now that he really needed that kind of support. And he really needed these things to be done [for him] so he could put himself 150 percent into the music. I don't have a whole ton of stuff, but what I have is pretty uniquely interesting. And that letter will never go anywhere. It will probably be with me until I die.
Owen Husney is currently working at UCLA and working on his memoir.
Kim Taylor Bennett is a an editor at Noisey and she's on Twitter.