This article was first published by Crain’s Detroit Business.
By Leslie Green
Some rock and a whole lot of funk, that was “Soft and Wet,” a track from the 1978 album “For You” that put Prince on the cover of Right On magazine. That cover was my introduction to the artist I would romance in my dreams for the next 30 years.
Over the course of his career, one cut short too early, the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist had many names and no name at all. He was Jamie Starr, Alexander Nevermind, The Purple One, and a symbol we replaced with The Artist Formerly Known As. He started bands, refreshed flagging careers, created cult classics and brought us to a new level of understanding when it came to creativity.
He wore guy-liner, a term that hadn’t been applied when started, frilly purple threads and platform boots; but he oozed a manly cool that had me plastering his photos — posters, album covers, magazine tear sheets — on every flat surface of my bedroom, windows included. Every year, I would walk the mile or so from my University District home to the record store on Curtis just west of Livernois to buy the latest Prince album. This was the only reason I ever saved my allowance.Whether he was in costume singing in falsetto on “I Wanna Be Your Lover” or taking it deep and serious in a T-shirt and jeans on “4 the Tears in Your Eyes,” on the “We Are the World” benefit album, his music was charged with unrivaled passion and a freakish level of originality.
Prince’s first “Saturday Night Live” appearance (1981) marked the first time I stayed up long enough to watch the entire show. The performance was epic. He and the band that became The Revolution played “Partyup,” from his “Dirty Mind” album, then Prince kicked over the mic stand and the group stormed from the stage. Prince did everything on his terms. And for this rebellious teenager, that marked the picture-perfect epitome of defiant nonchalance.
While those national visions of Prince added to the artist’s heft, it was the Electrifying Mojo — a renowned Detroit radio DJ (WGPR, WJLB, WHYT and WCHB) whose real name was Charles Johnson — who revealed Prince as both human and otherworldly. Despite comparisons to Jimi Hendrix and James Brown, Mojo made it clear Prince was an artist unlike any other.
The DJ’s devotion to Prince’s music and Prince’s obvious appreciation lured Mojo’s followers into becoming die-hard fans. Mojo not only played the A-sides heard on national radio but also those B-side tracks, long versions and records under Prince aliases no other DJ played. “Madhouse 8” anyone?
Often, Mojo pitted music by Michael Jackson against Prince’s music, playing songs from each artist (and only those artists) throughout the night and asking listeners to call in and crown the real king. On Mojo’s “Midnight Funk Association,” he featured Prince far more than the other favorite funk artists (Parliament, Rick James, Teena Marie, Gap Band…) that he played.
While it took NBC another 20-plus years to get Prince back to “SNL” and talk show hosts spent years trying to coax more than a few words from the reclusive artist, Mojo didn’t have to lift a finger to have a conversation with the Purple One.
At least twice during my youth, Prince called Mojo out of the blue and expressed his love on air for his Detroit fans and thanked us “purple people” and “motor babies” for our support. I recall Mojo asking Prince why he wasn’t out partying and Prince laughing, saying it wasn’t his style. Instead, the artist who broke rules throughout his career said he was watching an Eddie Murphy movie. That was Prince. He was all about the business of making good music and putting on a show you couldn’t stop talking about.
There was another time, when Prince said he was going off to watch “Purple Rain,” again. Mojo then called on his fans to do the same. We did.
After I paid to see the movie (released June 25, 1984) at least five times, it came to a little discount theater called the Norwest, on Grand River Avenue just east of Southfield. Saying we had a dozen viewings is probably conservative. Plus, a friend worked there, so my boyfriend and I got free popcorn. We repeated this scene a couple of years later when he released “Under the Cherry Moon.”
Prince’s love for Detroit resulted in numerous concerts here, including his concert last year at the Fox Theatre.
The most memorable concert for me happened in 1982. I was about (mumble)teen years old and doing chores in my pajamas — vacuuming, I think — when a WJLB DJ announced tickets were going on sale for Prince’s “1999 Tour.” My brother yelled, “Let’s go,” not giving me time to dress. We jumped in his truck and headed for Northland Mall.
I waited in the car — remember, I was wearing pajamas — while my brother went to the Hudson’s ticket office. Soon, he was back outside with tickets in hand and a couple of girls trailing behind him. He had purchased tickets for all of his friends on a whim but didn’t have enough money. The girls, strangers, had loaned it to him. My brother then reached in the truck, scooped out mounds of loose change and handed them their payment. Prince would have been proud.
A few months later, on Dec. 1, we were looking down at Prince, Wendy, Lisa and the crew as they performed on the Masonic Temple stage. It was beautiful. I still recall the way Prince flipped himself over the sports car for “Little Red Corvette.” On the way home, Mojo continued the concert by playing Prince and only Prince for the rest of the night.
On June 7, 1986, his birthday, Prince played one of several sold-out shows at Cobo Arena in Detroit. After the “Around the World in a Day” concert, Prince and Mojo talked again. Have a listen here and here.
“Money is one thing, soul another,” the king of rocking funk said, adding why he continued to return to Detroit. “You can feel the love in the room. That means more than money.”
Until his death Thursday, I didn’t realize much of my life was measured by Prince’s music.
“Controversy” marks my father’s irritation during a family road trip from Detroit to New York and Niagara Falls when my brother and I were singing lyrics to the album’s less-than-wholesome songs. My high school class song was “1999,” despite having graduated many years before that. In my first summer as a camp counselor at The Roeper School in Bloomfield Hills, my 7-year-old charges performed Prince and the Revolution’s “I Would Die 4 U” in the talent competition. Radio play of “Kiss” marked whether I was late for classes in my sophomore year at Wayne State University. “Kiss” in the parking garage meant I was on time, on the freeway, egad, I was late. “Batman” marks me as a happy newlywed; “Sign of the Times,” a short while later, as grieving divorcee; and “Diamonds and Pearls” marks my foray into publishing. That’s when I met and interviewed Maurice Brandon Curry, the man who choreographed the Prince and The New Power Generation “Diamonds and Pearls” video. “Let’s Go Crazy”? Who hasn’t sung that at karaoke?
I recently started a new career that likely will be marked by yet-to-be released gems, old Prince songs and movie re-releases.
The seven-time Grammy Award winner released four albums in the last 18 months, including two on the streaming service Tidal. Which was unusual. Prince had a habit of shunning streaming services and making sure his music never stayed on YouTube for long.
He also became a less reclusive in recent years. Earlier this year, he began performing at more intimate venues — in Atlanta last week as part of his “Piano and a Microphone” tour, he put on a stripped-down show that featured a mix of hits like “Purple Rain” or “Little Red Corvette,” and some B-sides from his extensive library. Recently, he held several late-night jam sessions where he serenaded Bay City native Madonna, celebrated the Minnesota Lynx’s WNBA championship and showcased his latest disciple, singer Judith Hill.
Last month, Prince surprised all by announcing Spiegel & Grau would publish his memoir The Beautiful Ones in fall 2017. A news release about the memoir said: “Prince will take readers on an unconventional and poetic journey through his life and creative work” with stories about his music and “the family that shaped him and the people, places, and ideas that fired his creative imagination.” Now, it’s unclear if we’ll ever read it.
Regardless of what we read about Prince in coming weeks and months, there is no doubt he has affected the course of music.
Remember “Starfish and Coffee”? Prince proved, singing about school days and breakfast on “The Muppet Show,” that his creativity was innate and he could make music out of anything. As a result, we all have higher standards.
– The Associated Press contributed to this report.
©Leslie Green  and Crain’s Detroit Business.