'That's Prince Before the Icon': Inside the Late Legend's Debut Album on Its 40th Anniversary

For many Prince fans, his 1979 self-titled sophomore album -- featuring his first top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” -- marked the real beginning of his recording reign. All but the late legend’s most devoted disciples are guilty of fast-forwarding past his actual debut LP, For You, which dropped from the purple heavens 40 years ago on April 7, 1978.

But while the album only spawned one minor hit in the frisky falsetto jam “Soft and Wet” (No. 92 on the Hot 100), it launched the career of the artist who would rule like no other, coming on like a one-man band with the multifarious tag “Produced, Arranged, Composed and Performed by Prince.” 

Although the album begins with the a cappella title track -- a cascade of vocals making for a virtual Prince choir -- it quickly shifts gears into the soul-disco swoon “In Love” and then “Soft and Wet,” with its panting hook. For You’s first single -- and thus, the debut single of Prince’s storied career -- is the only one of the nine tracks for which the Purple One shares songwriting credit. The tune was co-written by Chris Moon, who discovered a teenage Prince at his Moon Sound Studios in Minneapolis while the “painfully shy” future star was recording with his early band Champagne.

Moon, a lyricist, began writing songs with Prince, and they landed on “Soft and Wet” for his first demo. “‘Soft and Wet’ wasn’t an arbitrary song that was arrived at,” recalls Moon. “I thought, ‘Guys are probably not going to be the primary audience for a 5-foot-2, falsetto-singing guy. It’s probably going to be girls—and it’s probably going to be younger girls who think he’s cute and sexy.’ But I decided that, because we’re dealing with younger people, the sexual component can’t be blatant, that what we need is a double entendre that infuses his music with some sexual energy. The song is about a kiss, but it can be inferred that that song is about other things as well, which is where most people’s minds go to.”

“Soft and Wet” was conceived as a “marketing tool,” explains Moon, to set Prince up as the Sexy MF who would fully reveal himself on future albums like 1980’s Dirty Mind. “It went through a couple iterations, but [the title] ‘Soft and Wet’ always stayed with it,” says Moon, who earlier this year put his rights to the song up for auction on eBay but didn’t sell in the end. “It was all me in the lyrics initially. He connected with it right away. Over time he changed some of the words to suit his own style a little more.”

Moon went on to connect Prince with Owen Husney, who became the first manager of His Royal Badness in late 1976. “Two days after I met Prince, I gave him the keys to my house,” says Husney, whose new memoir, Famous People Who’ve Met Me, will fittingly be released on For You’s April 7 anniversary. “He did not want to do anything typical or normal. He was intent on making [For You] an album that not only showcased his talent, he wanted to take his audience in a new direction—and he did not want to be locked in [as an urban artist]. He was making music for everyone.

“Warner Bros. was just the right place for him to be because they were a very artist-friendly label. And also, he had turned down a number of top producers that would have produced him on his album. I trusted him so much that I fought for him to be his own producer.”

Indeed, David “Z” Rivkin -- an engineer who worked with Prince at Sound 80 in Minneapolis on For You demo recordings (and brother of original Revolution drummer Bobby Z) -- says, “At one point Warner Bros. wanted [Earth, Wind & Fire’s] Maurice White to produce Prince, and he didn’t want that. He said, ‘No, I’m gonna do it myself. I don’t need that old-fashioned shit.’ He rejected the styles of R&B at that time.”

Lenny Waronker -- the Warner Bros. A&R exec who signed Prince to a three-album deal with the label giving him creative control -- says that the new artist once told him in the studio: “‘Don’t make me black.’ And then he reeled off a series of artists from all genres: Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, Sly & the Family Stone, on and on and on. He was saying, ‘This is what I’m competing against.’ I thought, ‘He just said something to me, and I know it’s important, but I’m not quite sure what it means.’ And of course what it meant -- and we all learned about -- was the scope of his music. He was an artist who was just blazing his own trail.”

Although Prince would produce For You himself, Tommy Vicari -- who had worked with everyone from Billy Preston to Santana -- was brought in to serve as executive producer because, says Husney, “Lenny did say to us, ‘You’ve got to have somebody who’s got gold albums on the wall already.' And David Z suggested Tommy Vicari.”

While the album was initially supposed to be completely recorded at Sound 80, they ran into some technical difficulties. “We started at Sound 80, but they were so excited that they were going to do this that they changed the soundboard in the studio like a week or so before we got in there,” says Husney. “Tommy flies into town, he starts working with Prince in the studio, and the board has glitches in it because it takes a month or two to break in a new board. And so Tommy said, ‘Let’s go back to L.A.’ And I said, ‘No. I don’t want to put him into that nest out there in the big, evil Los Angeles.’”

Instead, they took the For You sessions to the Record Plant in Sausalito, California, “because it was isolated,” says Husney. “Prince said, ‘Hey, I want André [Cymone, his childhood friend and onetime bassist] to be with us.’ And we became a family in San Francisco. It was Prince, me, my then wife, André, then Tommy joined us a little bit later. We got a three-level redwood home overlooking the [San Francisco] Bay in Marin County. We’re all out there living together, eating eggs in the morning, and I made sure that people took out the trash.”

David Z also joined the For You family out in Sausalito and then in Hollywood, where the album was mixed at Sound Labs. “When it came time to sing,” he says, “Prince knew I had perfect pitch, and he was frustrated singing, so he said, ‘I want David out here to do the vocals.’ We had like 35 tracks of vocals on each song. It was totally overindulgent. I just thought it was too much, and I think later on he said it was too much. We just went overboard.”

One person who wasn’t welcomed by Prince during the making of For You, though, was Jon Bream, longtime music critic at The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, who wrote the 1984 biography Prince: Inside the Purple Reign. “When he was recording,” says Bream, “I reached out to Owen, who I’d known for quite a while, and said, ‘Hey, I’ll come to San Francisco and do an interview with Prince and a story about you guys recording the album.’ Owen said, ‘Fine.’

“So I get there, and Owen, David Rivkin and Tommy Vicari were there. And there was Prince. We were in the control room, he was in the studio. He was behind the drum kit, and he clearly was not thrilled to see me there. He never left the studio. All he did was sit there with one drum stick, hit the cymbal one note at a time like he was bored, like he was counting time until that interloper guy would leave. Owen seemed taken aback that Prince wouldn’t even say hi, wouldn’t be cooperative. It became a bust because I didn’t get the story.”

When he heard the final product, Bream says, “I wasn’t blown away. I thought it showed a lot of promise, but ‘Soft and Wet’ seemed to be about the only fully realized song. Some of the things just sound incomplete.” Still, he adds, Prince clearly displayed “the range and vastness of his talent because he showed off a lot of different styles. There’s R&B, there’s jazz, there’s a little pop, there’s a little blues. But I think the recording is probably more interesting in retrospect than it was at the time.”

Moon had a different issue once he got his finished copy of For You: He says he didn’t get credit for co-writing the breezy, blissed-out “My Love Is Forever.” “I called up Owen and said, ‘Look, I need to talk to Prince to resolve this,’” says Moon. “So Prince called me up, and I said, ‘I guess the only fair thing to do is, since you’ve got a whole song which I wrote half of, I’d like a whole song that you wrote half of.’ We agreed, and he signed over one of the songs that we had done together, ‘We’ll Make It Through the Storm.’”

As for the verdict on For You from Warner Bros., Waronker says, “I don’t think anybody was jumping up and down saying that we’ve got the Prince that we know we ended up with. But I think everybody felt really good about him. It was much more about just being patient and watching this happen. It’s certainly not hard sticking with somebody who’d sold a reasonable amount of records. I knew at some point he’d figure it out.”

For You has gotten more love since Prince’s death, according to Husney: “People are going back and discovering that album. I’m getting more and more people calling me, going ‘Oh my God! This is unbelievable that he was doing that.’ You go back to songs like ‘Baby,’ which blew me away thinking, ‘A freaking 18-year-old kid is writing a song about two teenagers dating, and one day the girl gets pregnant.’ And then at the end of the song, he sings, ‘I hope our baby has eyes just like yours.’ When you go back to that album, that’s Prince before the icon.”