Editor’s Note: SoulTrain.com contributor Montrose Cunningham invites you to join him on a trip down memory lane in this two-part series celebrating the 25th anniversary of Prince’s seminal double album, Sign O’ The Times. He sat down with the legendary Susan Rogers to get a glimpse into the making of the album and the brilliance of this extraordinary artist.
Part two of our interview with Susan Rogers begins with the story behind the recording of the song “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” Prince commissioned engineer Frank De Medio to custom-build a recording console for his home studio–the same type of console that De Medio built for Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, where Prince normally recorded when he wasn’t recording at home. Long story short, De Medio was taking much longer than anticipated to complete the console and Prince, being extremely eager to record, finally issued an ultimatum that De Medio deliver the console that week. The console was delivered and installed but Rogers hadn’t gotten the opportunity to test it properly. Tested or not, Prince was ready to record and did so, even though, as it turns out, the console wasn’t working properly, only operating on half the power, causing it to have a very dull sound. However, technical issues aside, Prince recorded the Sign O’ The Times fan favorite, “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”.
Susan Rogers: Right. I hadn’t finished testing the audio wiring or anything; in other words I had just soldered the last connection and Prince said, “Let’s record.” He had been asleep and had this dream about a woman and a bathtub and a waitress and all that, he scribbled down all those lyrics very quickly and called it “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” So he came running downstairs, we put in fresh tape and started recording. As always, he’s playing every instrument and I’m just panicking on the inside because something doesn’t sound right–it’s really dull, there’s no high end and I can’t wait for this song to be finished because I’ve got to check it out and see what’s going on. Of course the song is coming out really well and the whole time I’m thinking, ‘I wish he would just stop,’ (laughs) but that’s not going to happen. The whole time he hasn’t even said anything, hadn’t even commented on it and I know he hears it but he’s really happy because he likes this song. At the very end, he gave me my final instructions and he said, “There’s something about this console that doesn’t sound like the one at Sunset Sound, it’s really dull,” and then he goes upstairs and goes to bed. I’m thinking, ‘Hell yeah it’s dull, there’s no high end at all!’ (laughs) But he conceived of the song in a dream so he didn’t mind that at all because it gave it this dreamy-like quality.
SoulTrain.com: I’ve heard other artists, like Sheila E., mention that Prince isn’t as concerned with everything being technically perfect in the studio; he’s more concerned with the music being right.
SR: He was a perfect example of an artist who didn’t need to rely on any special kind of tool, any special conditions, any special kind of situations; he didn’t believe in any voodoo or magic associated with the work. If you’ve got the goods you can show up at any studio with any console with any microphone – he didn’t care if he used his expensive microphone or his cheap one, he didn’t care – you can record under any circumstances if you’re the real deal and that’s how he was. He wasn’t going to let a little thing like no high end stop him from making music.
SoulTrain.com: A friend of mine told me that she didn’t become a Prince fan until she recently heard the song “Adore” on the old school station. I always hear that song played on old school stations. It’s an incredible ballad and still stands the test of time. Was that one of those “core songs” you mentioned before?
SR: “Adore” represented Prince’s conscious effort to write for black radio in an attempt to counter criticism that he was primarily a pop writer and that his status was diminishing as an influential R&B artist. I know this because he said so while we were tracking it. The organ and vocal arrangements on “Adore” are purely gospel. I am not sure I’d say he considered it one of the most critical songs on the record because it stands alone on Sign O’ The Times. It’s interesting how easily he could adopt the gospel style in his arrangements but so rarely did. I think his critics were accurate; Prince was a pop artist, and personally I think that’s high praise. Pop in and of itself is not a style; the pop chart only reflects the condensed versions of more pure styles (e.g., hip-hop, dance, country, punk). Prince wrote funk and R&B and arranged these songs in a popular style.
SoulTrain.com: In regards to a couple of fan favorites, “Housequake” and “U Got The Look,” is there anything that comes to mind about those songs as far as the concept or recording of them?
SR: “Housequake” was done at Sunset Sound during a period when Prince was re-examining dance music. I believe his exploration of funk at this time was considering the influences of rap and hip-hop, now firmly established as more than just musical fads.
SoulTrain.com: And with “U Got The Look,” how was it recording with Sheena Easton?
SR: “U Got The Look” was also tracked at Sunset Sound. We spent much longer on it than usual–several days rather than the typical 24 hours it took Prince to track, overdub and mix a song. I recall that it was tracked over the Thanksgiving weekend. We had planned to take Thanksgiving Day off but we were in the middle of the Sign O’ The Times album and stopping momentum was not easily done. The thing I remember most about Sheena’s visit was that when Prince asked her if she’d like to take a minute and warm up vocally, she replied that she was always warm vocally. For most singers this is a hollow boast, but it was true in her case. She has an excellent voice and did the vocal very quickly. I’m sure that Prince was aware of “U Got The Look”’s single potential. He experimented with tempos; it started as a slower jam. Once he bumped it up to dance tempo, much of the instrumentation changed. The hook is really strong–perfect pop material.
SoulTrain.com: Why do you think the Sign O’ The Times album still resonates with music listeners and is still so relevant 25 years later?
SR: I think the relevance of Sing O’ The Times must be rooted in the strength of the writing–lyrics, melodies, harmonies, and rhythm. It is astonishing how well Prince’s music holds up over the decades. Not only are the arrangements solid but the writing is pretty invincible. Most of these titles can be stripped down to just their melodies or just their rhythm tracks and they would be compelling and interesting. Lesser recorded works are only viable because of novelty in the arrangements or the cult of personality surrounding the vocalist him- or herself. If you can imagine stripping down a lesser song to just its melody and lyrics and then learning its chord progression, you may find that it is pretty insubstantial without the arrangements and recording techniques that support it. Prince understood the art of recording more than practically anyone I can name. He understood how a record functions for the listener; it needs to work in multiple contexts and formats. It is one thing to be a gifted writer or performer but quite another to be a recording artist.
SoulTrain.com: What kind of music did you listen to growing up? Were you familiar with Prince’s music before you began working with him?
SR: When I was a kid growing up my favorite artists were Sly Stone, Al Green and James Brown. Those were my favorites and that was the music of my childhood, that’s what I knew and that’s what I loved. When I first heard Prince, I was young, I was in Los Angeles and I became an instant fan. He was my favorite artist in the world. If someone had asked me in early 1983, “What would be your dream, if you were to write down on a piece of paper your fondest wish and hope?,” I would have written down “to work for Prince.” And that actually happened…the dream literally came true. I was so lucky and I cherished every moment.
Montrose Cunningham is an independent funk/rock/soul artist and devoted music aficionado residing in Dallas, Texas. When he isn’t digging through the crates–digital and analog–he’s jamming with his band or hanging with his daughter, sometimes at the same time. Purchase his latest release “Inertia” at www.MontroseMusic.com, visit him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter @MontroseC.