Prince Collaborator Chris Moon Remembers Mentoring the Legend Before the Fame

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Prince performs live at the Fabulous Forum on Feb. 19, 1985 in Inglewood, Calif.

Once you’ve heard one of Prince’s blood-curdling, spine-tingling, feel-it-like-the-holy-spirit screams, it’s hard to imagine him ever being mic-shy. But the artist born Prince Rogers Nelson—whose voice was forever silenced two years ago today when he passed away on April 21, 2016—packed more of a whisper than a wail as a timid teenager.

Chris Moon—who, at his Moon Sound Studios in Minneapolis, discovered Prince when he was recording with his early band Champagne—found out that the unsigned prodigy had some serious projection issues during his budding solo sessions. “It was time to drop the vocals on a couple songs we had worked up,” says Moon, who was initially impressed by Prince as a multi-instrumentalist. “I really hadn’t heard him sing, but I assumed he had a good voice. We start recording, and I see him singing, but the meters aren’t moving. Then I walk into the studio, and there he is singing—I mean, his lips are moving—but I really can’t hear him. So I walk right up to him, and he’s barely audible. I say, ‘Hey man, you got to sing a little louder!’”

The co-writer of Prince’s 1978 debut single (“Soft and Wet”) came up with an unorthodox way to get Prince to overcome his vocal inhibitions. “Eventually,” Moon says, “I arrive at this idea of turning all the lights off in the studio, put a pillow on the studio floor, and I said, ‘Lay down, put your head on the pillow.’ I covered him up under a blanket and made a little bed for him in the middle of the studio. I took the most sensitive mic I could find, and I said, ‘All I want you to do is just hum.’ Eventually I got him humming, and then he started humming a bit louder, and I said, ‘Just start [singing] a couple words out of the chorus.’ Over the course of quite a bit of time, I coaxed this voice out of him. It was surprising to me that the voice that came out of him was this little, high falsetto because I wasn’t quite expecting that.”

But that wasn’t the first time Prince had surprised Moon, who one day noticed this legend in the making working apart from the rest of Champagne. “One afternoon the band takes a break and goes across the street to Baskin-Robbins for ice cream,” he recalls. “But I look into the studio, and one musician hasn’t gone to the ice cream shop. He’s playing bass guitar, and then he’s over on the piano, and then he’s over on the drums. To my surprise, I discovered that he actually had some proficiency on each of the instruments he was playing. So I go over to Prince, who I maybe had said two sentences to, and I said, ‘Listen, I’m a lyricist and I’m interested in producing some original material. Would you be interested in doing some songs together? In the process I’ll teach you how to produce and record. And I’ll try and make you famous.’”

It didn’t take Prince long to (sheepishly) accept Moon’s offer: “He looked up at me and he kind of nods, and I said, ‘Is that a yes?’ He went, ‘Uh-huh.’ I barely got a word out of him. So I reached in my pocket and I handed him my other set of keys to the recording studio. I said to him, ‘I work at an ad agency during the day, so come over after school, let yourself in, and each day I’ll leave two songs on the piano. Pick which song you like best, work up the music, and when I get back we’ll produce and record it.’ And that was that.”

As Moon set to work on Prince’s first demo, the two just had a handshake agreement. “When we hooked up,” he says, “I said, ‘Here’s the deal: I’ll record you, I’ll produce you, you pay nothing. The only thing I want is that any songs we do together, we share the royalty on. I’m not trying to lock you up for life, I’m not trying to own you. I just want to write songs with you and try and help you get out there.’”

Moon watched Prince develop his swagger over their sessions. “When he [first] walked into that studio,” Moon says, “he was a shy, timid, quiet, unconfident young male who I later learned had been teased a lot in school. He was somebody who had been damaged and had withdrawn fairly far within himself, just from his home life and his school. Over the course of the year of working with him in the studio, I believe it was a metamorphosis for him. He was in an environment that was safe and nurturing. He became more confident with his singing, and I taught him how to write and structure songs. It was really a beautiful process.”

Prince grew so confident that he challenged Moon when it came time to pick his stage name: “I said, ‘Fortunately you’re a Prince! You have the perfect name for an artist. It couldn’t be any better, and it doesn’t need to be anything more than that one word. That one word says it all, positions you [as] royalty in music.’ And he looks at me and he says, ‘I will never use that name. I hate that name because in school they always used to tease me and call me ‘Princess’ and stuff like that.’”

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer had a decidedly less rock-star name in mind for himself, says Moon: “He said, ‘I want to be known as Mr. Nelson, and there is no room for discussion on this.’ So I said, ‘Look, here’s the first problem: There’s already a Mr. Nelson out there. His name is Willie. And besides, I just don’t think that name’s as strong as Prince.’ So we had a knockdown, drag-out fight that lasted three months long. It was the most significant disagreement we had during the entire course of working together. Neither one of us was giving in.”

Moon finally gave Prince an ultimatum. “I did not see a success built around an artist named Mr. Nelson,” he says. “So I said to Prince, ‘It looks as though we’ve come to an impasse. And I’m not prepared to go forward any further if I’m packaging up an artist named Mr. Nelson.’ So he said, ‘Wow, I don’t have a choice in this, do I?’ I said, ‘Well you do have a choice, but you don’t have a choice going forward with me.’ But I’ve often pondered: Would it have been possible for him to be who he [became] if he had won that argument?”

As Prince went on to rule the music world, Moon always remembered him as “the little guy in the studio who couldn’t sing” while they had less contact. Once, though, Moon recalls that “he did call me after he was doing pretty well, and he said, ‘You know, it’s really difficult being famous. I never imagined it would be this lonely. I had no idea that when you’re famous you can’t trust anyone around you, because everyone around you wants something. I just don’t know who to trust anymore. You’re the only person who’s ever done something for me and not expected something back.’”

The last time they talked, Prince—following the massive success of Purple Rain—had become the music royalty that Moon envisioned. “He calls me up,” says Moon, “and he goes, ‘I’ve just made another movie that hasn’t been released yet, but I wanted to tell you first about it. The movie’s called Under the Cherry Moon. The movie’s all about you. Under the Cherry Moon—get it? C. Moon. In the movie, I play a playboy, just like you were back in the day, and [his name is] Christopher.’ I mean, it was mind-blowing to me.”

One particular scene in 1986’s Under the Cherry Moon gave Moon chills. “There’s one point in the movie where the camera slowly pans over to Prince’s bed, and on the bed there’s a message,” says Moon. “The camera zooms into the message, and it says, ‘Christopher, call me.’ I always thought that meant I was supposed to reach him, but I didn’t have his phone number so I couldn’t call him.”

Since Prince’s death, Moon is left with some questions about the mysterious man behind the icon. “There are times,” he says, “when I think that if I hadn’t discovered him—and let’s say he had never become famous—then he might have married an average girl and lived in an average house and had a couple of average kids. And I’m not sure his life might not have been better. I always figured that he’d outlive me because he was younger. But the question I had always wanted to ask him was, ‘Was it what you wanted?’”