Under the Cherry Swoon: The first time I heard Prince
“Do me baby, like you never done before.”
My brown-skinned face turned red. My ears twitched with every note the singer contorted into erotic sighs.
“Give it to me till I just can’t take no more.”
The loud screams of sexual ecstasy soon gave way to primal grunts. Not incoherent either; these were rhythmic, coordinated. Who was this singer on the radio? And was she really having sex?
My pre-teen mind had never heard anything like this before.
The track featured a woman full-throated and clear petitioning her lover to “Do Me Baby”. I was done.
Black radio in the early 1980s, long the benevolent realm of soulful crooning and disco-doused screams of pleasure, had descended into something much more primal: Unbridled sex.
That it was packaged in a piano ballad made it all the more carnal in its relevance and impact. As the song — or the session, as it felt — cascaded into a slow melt, I patiently waited for the deejay to coattail at the end of the song and gamely interpret what it was I’d just heard. Who was this fierce, desperate siren who recorded her sexual fantasy for the airwaves?
Donna Summer? Nope, too powerful. Was it Diana Ross? Nope, too bold. This was a new woman vocalist on the scene no doubt, someone who was about to rewrite the chivalrous rules of two-step balladry.
The name shot out of the deejay’s mouth so fast and assuredly that I thought he was referring to a band. “Prince.” That’s what he said, “Prince.” Aaaah, so it was a band named Prince with a lead female vocalist, I thought to myself. Surely… yeah, that’s what it was. That’s what it had to be.
But then, a couple of nights later — you had to wait until the nighttime before the real, less-commercial music was played — the song “Do Me Baby” came on again. For the second time in a row, I didn’t catch the first verse, but this time I was ready with my cassette recorder: I was going to tape this woman.
Captured on Memorex, the song exposed the sexual innocence that I would not encounter until quite a few years later. I was still listening to early party rap and the get-down grooves of Kool & the Gang and Earth, Wind and Fire, which dominated the airwaves at the time. I wasn’t ready for the urgent pleas for physical satisfaction.
This time, listening closely, you could hear Prince give away his gender in one of the ad-libs, his voice crashing down several octaves. This was a dude.
For good measure I kept recording after the deejay came on after the song. The deejay again said “Prince” but this time followed it up with “He.” And that’s when it dawned on me that something big was happening, that I was listening to a shifting of a major music paradigm: His name was Prince. And he was funky.
But who was he? How did he look? MTV was hopelessly blind to black artists and music, at least early on.
Sightings of black artists were so rare that we’d have to rely on “Soul Train” and “American Bandstand” to catch a glimpse of black musicianship, and that was them in performance mode, far from the artistic vision that music videos offered.
Still, MTV would slip up every now and then and I’d catch Prince’s “Head” video, which featured the singer in a leopard print bikini drawers, long stockings and Marksalot-like mascara around his eyes.
Back then our heroes were Billy Dee Williams, O.J. Simpson, Bill Cosby. People who we thought we knew and looked like us. Prince’s look was so over the top that he would not be full-on accepted by cool black households until we could prove he was a ladies man.
If anything, that’s what “Purple Rain” — with its “purifying” of Apollonia, did for many of his black fans.
Black artists didn’t get a fair shake or showing on the new music channel back in the day. Only after Prince’s “Purple Rain” hit did MTV really play his back material, including “Controversy” and “Dirty Mind.”
He was respected for his “Controversy” album, but many of his songs showed a penchant for rock music and an unattainable yearning for acceptance from the MTV crowd. To black fans, his sexual petitions from “Do Me Baby” left us knowing that although he had a stomach for rock, he at least had a heart for soul music. But when would he return? Would he abandon his base for the fast-money and big fame of enduring the stoic questionings of Kurt Loder and European new wave?
Because of his musical indecision, Prince was regarded on black radio as a sideshow maverick, and surely not a rock god. Like a god, he would soon create music in his own image, for the likes of Vanity 6, Sheila E. and the Time “the only band I was afraid of,” he would tell renown Detroit deejay Electrifying Mojo in 1986.
Because of the emergence of MTV, the fledging BET and the identity struggle between “urban contemporary” music and soul, black listeners back then were being herded into two decidedly different camps: Michael Jackson’s, with his mighty Motown heritage and birthright, and Prince’s, with his own string-tinged brand of sexual blasphemy. The choice was especially urgent because in the early ’80s the soft glow that had created an aura around Michael Jackson’s solo career was about to surge red-hot. It would soon leave American music in its wake.
For me, that period would mark the beginnings of a 30-year musical relationship impossible to track, impervious to coherent narration. The journey of Prince’s music is just that nuanced. Through nearly 40 albums, no artist experimented as much, with as much success and outrage from his fans, as Prince did. And that says nothing of his various incarnations on other projects from Chaka Khan, Tevin Campbell, Sheena Easton and more.
We’re talking about someone who reached his peak at age 25, when “Purple Rain” was both a movie, an album a movement and a verb. Just one year before it, the phrase “Party Like it’s 1999” entered the American lexicon and never left, even now years into the new century. Thus is the Purple One’s impact and majesty.
There is no doubt that his vaunted Vault will unleash tons of raw R&B tracks, the ones he teased us with for 30 years on tracks such as “SHHHH” and “Mellow.” These saw there genesis in the success he had with “International Lover,” and, yes, “Do Me Baby.”
To sum it all up. Prince did us, baby. That’s what he did. And now, after nearly 40 years of sharing glimmers of his musical talents, we — like him now — are done.