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The Magic of Prince’s Early Tours: ‘You Weren’t Ready for How Good He Was’

Ted Cohen worked with Prince from 1980 to 1984. He went on the road with Prince for the Dirty Mind tour, a road trip with "three station wagons and a van."

Ted Cohen is known as a digital consultant who headed digital development for EMI Music and worked with early digital companies ranging from Liquid Audio to RioPort. But decades ago, Cohen was an artist development rep for Warner Brothers Records. From the early ’70s to early ’80s, he worked with such artists as The Who, Van Halen, Fleetwood Mac, Robert Palmer, The Sex Pistols, Roxy Music and Prince.

Cohen says Prince was one of the top three artists he got to work with, along with Fleetwood Mac and The Who, and he was there as Prince evolved as an artist. “Working with The Who was exciting, but it wasn’t the same.”

He had an artist development role for Warner Bros. and worked with Prince from 1980 to 1984. Cohen went on the road with Prince for the Dirty Mind tour, a road trip with “three station wagons and a van.” “I was assigned to help expose this multi-talented kid to a new audience. The tour was supposed to move him from the first two albums, which was tender R&B, to Dirty Mind.” 

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The tour stopped in such places as The Metro in Boston, the Ritz in New York — Mick Jagger was there and later offered Prince an opening slot on a tour — The Rainbow in Denver, The Stone in San Francisco and Flippers, a disco roller rink in Los Angeles owned by the founder of Shelter Records, Danny Cordell). “It was unbelievable. You weren’t ready for how good he was.” On the Controversy tour, a reported asked Ted to describe a show at the Santa Monica Civic Center. “There wasn’t a dry seat in the house,” Ted responded.

“We hung. We spent a lot of time together. The band was very close. Prince didn’t isolate himself. But he was the first artist, this is 81 or 82, this was the first artist I went on the road with… I wasn’t supposed to set up interviews, or bring people back to the dressing room. I was just supposed to get people out. My job was to get (disc jockey) Sky Daniels to his shows, to realize this was the embodiment of everything that made rock and roll cool and everything that made soul cool.”

Prince didn’t want to do in-store appearances, either. “I got him to do one in-store in San Francisco and a girl reached over and scratched his cheek and that was the last in-store he did for 25 years.”

“We built him a studio in his house in Minneapolis because it became apparent it would be cheaper than studio time in Chicago or New York — which we also ended up doing anyway. That’s where he made Dirty Mind and Controversy. He could record 24 hours a day.”

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Prince is seen as a rebellious artist but Cohen says he was way ahead of the industry. “Warner treated him like a God but they weren’t set up to do what you can do today with digital.”

“He was so prolific [that he] wanted to record something on Monday and release in by Friday. He would record in April and it would be released in September for an October or November tour. He hated that. It wasn’t about royalties.”

“He wanted to release stuff as he created it. He didn’t want to be caught up with construct of five songs on an EP or 10 songs on an LP. He believed — there was a strong concern — that he would create something new but by the time it came to market any artist on the street that heard him play in a club would appropriate what he created and by the time he released it it would sound like he was them.”

Speaking about Prince’s innovative approaches to digital distribution, Cohen says Prince’s online NPG Music Club, a service that gave subscribers access to songs and perks, was similar to David Bowie‘s Bowie.net and Todd Rundgren‘s Patronet. “The parallels between Todd and Bowie…they’re very similar in terms of mindset. They’re three of the most creative artists I ever got to work with.”