Prince’s Former Mentor Pepe Willie Recalls the Star's Early Days

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Around 20 minutes into a phone call with Pepe Willie – the Brooklyn-bred songwriter who married Prince’s first cousin Shauntel in the early ‘70s, and later introduced Prince to the recording studio – the veteran musician and producer suddenly stops talking about what a joy it was to work with Prince. His voice drops an octave, and he shifts from ebullient to morose.

“I am so, so devastated over the passing of this brother that my brain cannot wrap around it,” he tells Yahoo Music. “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.”

As the nephew of Clarence Collins, the guitarist for Little Anthony & The Imperials, Willie learned about the music business as a teenager. He saw how record companies operated, the way tours were organized, and how musicians made their money. So when he moved to Minneapolis to live with his wife and work with his own band, 94 East, Prince turned to Willie for advice and tutelage, and eventually became the guitarist of 94 East.

“By the time we started recording, he was already totally amazing,” Willie says. “I had played guitar for years and he beat me out. I was totally freaked out about what he was playing and how the band sounded.”

Prince recorded 14 songs with Willie in the mid-‘70s, one of which, “Just Another Sucker,” Prince actually wrote. Working with Willie was invaluable for the burgeoning superstar, and the two artists remained close even after Prince launched his own career with 1978’s For You. In the early ‘80s, as Prince’s star continued to rise, Willie admits the two had a minor falling out, but they later reconciled and remained friends until recent years.

During a long, personal conversation, Willie reveals what Prince was like at the beginning of his career, why he identified with the color purple, when he became a ladies’ man, his incalculable importance to the Minneapolis music scene, and how fame eventually got to his head.

YAHOO MUSIC: When did you first meet the young Prince?

PEPE WILLIE: I landed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Dec. 10, 1970 to visit my girlfriend Shauntel, who was Prince’s first cousin. We went over to some relative’s house and Prince and his cousin Charles were wrestling on the floor. He was 12 years old. I just thought he was a kid. We was doing grownup things and the kids were playing. He was a normal kid that you would see playing in the living room, laughing and having fun. I married Shauntel a little later and I went back to Brooklyn to work for the New York telephone as a cable splicer. When Prince was 15, he called me and he wanted to know about publishing and songwriting. I told him, “I can’t really tell you over the phone about publishing and copyrights, but when I come to Minneapolis we can talk face to face.”

Did that eventually happen?

Not exactly. I went to Minneapolis in 1974 and I met up with Shauntel because we had broke up and got back together. I was putting together my band 94 East, going into the studio, recording a little bit here and there. At the same time I went to a ski party that my wife’s father was throwing and Prince’s band Grand Central was playing at the party.

Did you go to the party specifically to see Prince?

I didn’t even know Prince was doing music before that. All I knew was that he wanted to know about publishing and copyright. I wasn’t even thinking about Prince and what he was doing. I was just trying to keep my marriage together and my music career, also. When I saw his band they were playing Earth, Wind & Fire covers and they sounded pretty good. They were tight. [Vocalist] Morris Day’s mom was their manager. They thought I was some big-time producer, which is really hysterical. I knew a lot about the business, but I wasn’t claiming to be a producer. But I could see that they were young enough to do something with. So I told her that I’d really like to work with the group, and she was cool with that. We started setting up rehearsals at her house up in the attic.

Was Grand Central a serious, professional band?

[laughs] They were all still going to school and they were playing covers. I went up to the attic and I asked them if they had any original songs. I knew they’d have to have original music to make it in the business. Prince had a song called “Sex Machine.” They counted it off and played it and played it and played it. The song lasted forever. I said, “Listen guys, this song is way, way too long. They wouldn’t even play this on the radio because it’s too long.” I gave them a basic lesson about how to write songs for the commercial market for 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. They’re not going to remember the lyrics until they buy the record and they actually sit down and listen to what you’re saying. So they started writing songs using the formula I gave them. [Bassist] André Cymone came up with a song called “You Remind Me of Me.” And they were rehearsing it and playing it. I came over and they played it and it sounded good. The music was good, but the vocals were garbled because I couldn’t understand what they were saying. They had a blackboard in the attic. I took some chalk and said, “Let’s write the lyrics down to make sure everybody’s singing the same thing.” We started writing down the lyrics and nobody was singing the same thing [laughs]. So I got that together and I realized they were really good. Morris Day was the drummer, André Cymone was the bass player, Liam Dowdy was the percussionist, Linda Anderson, André’s sister, was playing keyboards, and Prince was playing guitar.

Could you tell Prince was musically gifted?

Oh, definitely. Prince went over to Linda one day and said, “Let me play this keyboard for a second.” He took off his guitar and he started playing these chord progressions that he wanted Linda to play. I’m looking at him and I’m going, “Wait a minute. I didn’t know Prince could play keyboards.” He walked over from the keyboard and said, “André, let me hold your bass.” André gave him the bass and he started thumping. I mean, he was playing amazing. That’s when I really started paying attention to him. Before, I was paying attention to everyone equal. Morris Day had a seven-piece drum set and he would only play three drums. And I said, “Dude, you gotta play all the drums if you got them here.” But then when I found out Prince played multiple instruments, I was really impressed.

When did you enlist him in 94 East?

I said, “Prince, have you ever been in a recording studio before?” And he said, “No.” So I told him, “You’re going to go in the studio with me and my band. I’m in the studio right now and I want you to play guitar.” Because of that, he worked so hard on his guitar parts for the songs we did. I gave him a cassette of me playing rhythm guitar and doing the vocals and melody for five songs. We had two weeks to rehearse and then I picked everyone up, because they didn’t have drivers’ licenses. We looked like Our Gang with Spanky and Alfalfa and those guys [from The Little Rascals]. Everybody had instruments, but nobody had cases. Prince was just carrying his guitar. We went to Cookhouse Recording Studios and recorded the five songs I wrote.

Did the session go well?

Yeah, but I wasn’t sure it would. Everybody had learned their parts on their own and I didn’t know exactly what parts everybody would play, because we never rehearsed it. I just hoped they’d all be in key and we’d have a meeting of the minds in the studio. So we counted everything off and started the first song, and we kicked it off. We had to do five songs in four hours and it worked. It really worked. I didn’t know how it sounded at that time because everyone was playing at the same time. But when I got home and listened to the tapes of the day, I was in total amazement over the guitar work. My bass player, Window, called me up. He said, “Man, did you hear what Prince is playing?” I said, “Yeah, man. I can’t believe it. How did he come up with this?” 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.

Could you tell who his influences were?

Man, he didn’t have any influences. He was playing crazy funk rhythms and riffs and things you wouldn’t expect from a 17-year-old. What he recorded was something I had never heard before. And I’ve heard them all. I grew up in the business. He didn’t model himself after anyone. He taught himself guitar and invented his own language.

You say his playing got you signed?

Well, my friend Teddy Randazzo, who wrote “Going Out of My Head” and “Hurt So Bad,” helped me out and did some editing and mixing on those tapes and added some strings and Mellotron. Then I went to New York to shop it. I walked the streets of Manhattan, going up into every record company that was around in New York. You could do that back then. You could look in the directory and see, “Oh, here’s RCA Records on the 30th floor.” And you’d take the elevator right up. Now you have to have security just to get in the building. So I got a deal with Polydor, and when I came back to Minneapolis, Prince and everybody was happy.

Did you record a full album with Prince?

I was gonna use the guys in my group. Bobby Z was my drummer and we were rehearsing and trying to build a show. We were under the tutelage of Hank Cosby, who produced for Motown and worked on a lot of Stevie Wonder’s songs. He came to Minneapolis and we were going to record our single. Prince wasn’t with us. He was starting up his own thing. So we go into Sound 80, and guess who we see coming out of there? Mr. Prince! He was coming out with [music producer] David Z and [musician, producer, and artist manager] Owen Husney, who I had met earlier when I came back from New York. Prince had said, “I want you to meet Owen and [producer] Chris Moon.” I said, “Well, who are these guys?” Prince was my cousin. I didn’t want nobody stepping on him and trying to rip him off. He said, “No, Pep, they’re really good people.” So I met them and they were really cool. But anyway, we went into Sound 80 and Prince looks at us and goes, “What are you guys doing?” I said, “We’re getting ready to go record our single.” Prince goes, “Nooooo.” I said, “Yeah, man.” He said, “Can I play on it?” I was like, “Yeah, come on!” What am I gonna say, no, when I know what he can do? I should have been thinking about him playing on it from jump street, but I didn’t. And it was just by pure luck that he happened to be coming out of the studio when I was going in and he asked to play on it. Hank [Cosby] wrote “Fortune Teller” for us and Prince did background vocals and also played guitar on it. And then I wrote “10:15” and he played guitar on that.”

Why didn’t those songs come out until years later?

A year after we did them Hank got fired from Polydor and we got dropped because a new crew was coming in and we didn’t see eye to eye. We got dropped before our single even got released. I told Prince and André, “Man, I got dropped from Polydor.” Prince was shocked. He was more upset than I was! Prince said, “André, we gotta go back in the studio with Pepe.” I’m looking at him and André looked at me and then we looked at Prince and I went, “OK, let’s do it.” And in the back of my mind I’m going, “How am I gonna pay for this?” The studio cost $100 an hour and I didn’t have the money, but I booked it anyway. And that’s when Prince and I wrote “Just Another Sucker.” And I wrote “Dance to the Music of the World” and another friend of mine wrote “Lovin’ Cup,” and we went into Sound 80 and recorded it all with André.

At that point, were you still showing Prince the ropes?

No way, man. He had it! I wrote the music and he said, “OK, Pep, look. It should go like this instead.” He said, “Check this out.” And then he put some guitars on there and started working on it, and I went, “Yeah, that’s great!” And then he said, “I got an idea for the lyrics for the song.” So maybe what I was doing was following him. I was the professional, but I was following the amateur because he knew what he was doing. And 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.

Could you tell Prince was going to be a superstar?

I could not. A lot of people would go, “Yeah, I seen it in him” like they’re psychic or something. That wasn’t me. My thing was I knew that Minneapolis/St. Paul was the new Motown. That’s what I saw. There was a wealth of musicians and they were young and amazing. My people from New York would be calling me asking, “Man, what are you doing in Minneannapolis?” They couldn’t even say it right. And I’m going, “Hey man, this is gonna be the next Motown because there is talent beyond compare here. And Prince and André both are so talented that it is unbelievable. But Prince had that extra added thing.” André could play all the instruments also, and whatever Prince played, André could play right away. These kids just blew my mind, and that’s what kept me here even after my divorce from Prince’s cousin.

To what extent is Prince responsible for the Minneapolis music scene?

He made Minneapolis! He put the city on the map. Before that it was Kenny Rogers, the First Edition, Bob Dylan. But Prince really made Minneapolis what it became, and Minneapolis supported him. When he first got signed to Warner Bros., the local media ate it up. It was gigantic for the Twin Cities, and because of that and because of his success ,we have better radio stations and better studios. We have more musicians that are writing their own songs and producing and people coming here from all over the world, just so they can feel the vibe of Minneapolis so they can do their own songs. Prince was so important to this town, they’re thinking about making the color purple our state color right now.

When did he develop a fascination with purple?

Prince liked sports, so the first idea was for the football team the Minnesota Vikings, because their colors were purple and gold. That’s how it started. Later, Prince realized purple is the color of sexual freedom. And “Prince” also means royalty. So you combine them all together, and you get Prince.

Was he a ladies’ man when he recorded with 94 East?

He sure wasn’t. He was pretty quiet and shy around girls until he got signed. Once he got signed, all the girls started talking to him. We’d be walking in Minneapolis and he’d go, “Pepe.” And I’d go, “What?” And he’d say, “Last year that girl wouldn’t ever have talked to me.” And he remembered them, too. So now he had all these girls and they were calling me up too, because me and Prince were tight. André was tight, Morris Day. All of us were a tight bunch. And me and Morris used to hang out all the time. Then we’d run into Prince because we all had the same friends. One day Prince comes over to the car where me and Morris were hanging out, and he gives us this cassette. We put it in the car stereo and it’s playing this song I didn’t even recognize. Morris looks at me and goes, “Pepe, that’s your song!” I listened to it and went, “Oh, shoot, that is my song.” It was one of the songs we did in 1975 called “If You See Me.” Prince had redone it and called it “Do Yourself a Favor,” which was another line in the lyrics. And he totally rocked it out. I got a copy of it, too. Prince told me he was going to put it on one of his albums, but he never did.

You used it for your 1985 album, Minneapolis Genius.

At that point I was in the business long enough to know when someone says they’re gonna do something and then they don’t do it for so long, it ain’t gonna happen. So I called up Prince’s management team and told them, “I’m gonna put out my own album and I want you to tell Prince.” And Bob Cavallo said, “Well, I don’t think that Prince wants to know about that right now.” In the back of my mind I was thinking, “What do you mean Prince don’t want to know about this? Me and Prince are tight!” But I just left it alone and said, “OK, well, can you tell Prince I called and I’m using the song?” I thought it was a little weird, because when I first called Prince’s management up they wanted me to work with them.

Why didn’t you?

Because I didn’t want things to change between us. See, Prince and I were so tight the management team said, “Pepe, you have to work with us because Prince only listens to you.” But at that point Prince was becoming famous and his whole personality started changing. He had a lot of yes-people around him. Anything he wanted, someone would go, “Oh, I’ll do it.” They’d run his errands, get gas for his car. And he started liking that. I was seeing a change in him that I’d seen in a lot of artists growing up. I knew that one day he was going to say something to me that was out of line. I’m not gonna like it. It’s gonna be something disrespectful and I didn’t want that to happen. That’s why I didn’t work with him. I probably would have been with him forever if I had taken his management up on their offer, but I would have taken a lot of abuse. And I’m from Brooklyn. We don’t do that. So I didn’t do it. In that way, Prince and I remained friends.

Did you and Prince ever have a falling out?

He might have got a little salty because I didn’t work with him. Also, Jesse Johnson [the original guitarist for the Time] heard Prince’s version of my song “Do Yourself a Favor” and he said, “Pepe, can I do that song?” I said, “Sure, go ahead, ‘cause Prince ain’t doing it.” So Jessie went ahead and recorded it. And when I came back to Minneapolis after finishing my own record, I seen Prince at First Avenue. I went, “Yo man, what’s up?” And he said, “I heard Jesse’s doing ‘Do Yourself a Favor.’” And I went, “Uh, yeah.” And he said, “I thought I was gonna put that on my album.” And I said, “Yeah, but you didn’t do it. You put out two albums and my song is not on there. What am I supposed to do, wait forever?” And that’s when we had our first argument. And then he says, “Well, what about Minneapolis Genius? And I said, “What about it? I called your management people and told them to tell you what I was doing.” And he said, “Well, they didn’t tell me.” I said, “That’s not on me, that’s on your people, because I told them.” So it got a little heated there. He walked off and I walked off mad.

When did the two of you iron out your differences?

Jessie put “Do Yourself a Favor” on his Shockadellica album and we sold 400,000 copies, which was good for me. Bobby Z [a bandmate of Prince from 1978 to 1986] gave a party one day, and that’s where we made up. We sat down and talked, and we were cool again.

Were you in contact with Prince in recent years?

No, the last time I seen Prince was in Las Vegas at the 3121 Club at the Rio [All-Star Hotel & Casino] in 2007. I went to one of his rehearsals and said hello to him. And it wasn’t like it was before. I could tell he had changed. I thought that maybe when he saw me that he would be happy and give me a hug or something. And it was just very plain. It was like, “Hi.” And I went, “Hey man, what’s up?” And that was it. Show business definitely had an effect on him. But nevertheless, he was one of the best. I might not have liked all the things he has done in his career. And some things might have disappointed me. But I still love him.

Did you go to the private family service after Prince was cremated?

No, I didn’t go to any of the memorials. I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t. But I wanna do my own tribute. I know there are gonna be a lot of people in a lot of bands who want to do the same thing, but all of my members are still here. 94 East is still out there. This is the first band Prince played with in the recording studio on a professional level. So I wanna get something going, but we have to find a guitarist that could play Prince’s guitar parts [laughs]. I have the master recording that I own, so I can solo out his guitar parts for someone to learn if they can learn it. So we’ll just have to see what happens.