How Prince Got His Start With 94 East and ‘Just Another Sucker’
Because of his role in the careers of the Time, Vanity 6 and others, one could be forgiven for thinking that Prince created the Minneapolis R&B/funk scene by himself. In fact, it was thriving locally before it began, and one of the biggest bands was 94 East, named after the interstate that splits Minneapolis in half.
The band was led by Pepé Willie, who happened to be married to Shauntel Manderville, Prince's first cousin. At the time, Prince was in high school and playing a cover band called Grand Central that included Morris Day on drums and André Cymone, Prince's best friend, on bass. After seeing Grand Central play at a party, Willie decided to mentor them, and quickly realized just how talented Prince was when he stopped by one of their rehearsals.
“The first time I noticed that Prince was a multi-instrumentalist," he told the Current, "they were playing a song and Prince unstrapped his guitar and went to Linda [Anderson] 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.”
But rather than attempting to school them or sharpen their sound -- “There was nobody that taught Prince anything about his music,” he said -- Willie, who had been the road manager for Little Anthony and the Imperials, mentored Prince on the ins and outs of the music industry, teaching him about copyrights and publishing. In addition, he asked Prince and Cymone to join him when 94 East went into the studio to record some demos.
As Willie told Rolling Stone, "I gave him a cassette of five songs that we were recording: "Games," "If You See Me," "I'll Always Love You," "If We Don't" and "Better Than You Think." I said, 'Practice this with two leads,' and that was it. That's basically what I'd done for everyone in the band."
Two weeks later, all five songs were recorded in the four hours they had booked at Cook House Recording Studios. And even though it was his first session, Prince wasn't nervous at all. "Prince played better than a professional session player, and I've been to a lot of sessions," Willie said. "None of the guitar players I'd worked with played as well as Prince for his first time in a recording studio."
Everybody noticed. “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?’" he continued. “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 the session, Willie went to New York with the tapes in the hopes of securing a deal. He got one with Polydor, and returned to Minneapolis about six months later. He took Prince back into the studio to play guitar and sing backup vocals on their first single, "Fortune Teller" and "10:15."
About a year later, 94 East got dropped when their contact got fired from the label. Prince had already signed to Warner Bros. by then, but Prince wasn't going to let the bad news break up the band. "He told Andre, 'We have to go back in the studio with Pepe,' Willie said. "So we went back in the studio and did 'Just Another Sucker.'"
"Writing that song with him was fantastic," Willie continued. "I would come up with some ideas and he'd go, 'Check this out, Pep, tell me if you like this.' And I would go, 'Oh yeah.' I liked everything he did. It wasn't like I would go, 'Nah, man. I don't like that part, man.' [Laughs]. He was just phenomenal. I did the music and he wrote the words and it was just amazing."
Hear Prince Play "Just Another Sucker"
But even with "Just Another Sucker," as well as "Dance to the Music of the World" and "Loving Cup," it wasn't meant to be. Willie ended 94 East and devoted his time to helping his protege get his career off the ground, allowing Prince to rehearse his band in his house after their rehearsal space was robbed. There, he saw Prince's famous work ethic in overdrive.
"One night, at around 10:30, I tried to call Prince and I didn't get an answer," he said. "So I went over to his house ... and I see his car parked in front of his house. I rang the bell, knocked on the door and I didn't get no answer. Then I hear this little tapping sound, and I went around to the side of the house and I peeped through the basement window, and Prince was down in the basement playing drums. I mean, he was wailing away. And this was after 12 hours of rehearsing. It was just unbelievable. ... But after that experience, I had said to myself, "Gee, no wonder why he's so good. This guy practices all the time."
Eventually, the 94 East sessions were released, first on 1986's Minneapolis Genius and under different names several times since then. "If You See Me" also appears on 2013's Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound, an excellent Numero Group compilation of Twin Cities funk from the mid-'70s to early '80s that includes tracks from Cymone, Alexander O'Neal and Flyte Tyme, which featured Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and morphed into the Time.