Owen Husney, who will likely be known — at least until the end of time – as the man who discovered Prince, recalled the first time he met the pop icon.
They had talked on the phone, Husney and the 18-year-old Prince Rogers Nelson of north Minneapolis, and Husney had heard a demo tape of four songs that Prince and a friend, Chris Moon, had put together. Husney was impressed with what he heard, especially when he learned that Prince had sung all the vocals and played all the instruments on the recordings. After successful stints as a musician, concert promoter, booking agent and ad agency executive, Husney was moving in the direction of artist management, and here was a young, unknown artist with seemingly unlimited potential whom he might want to manage. The date and time were set. Prince and Moon were to show up at Husney’s house to get acquainted.
There was a knock at the door. Husney could see Moon through the upper door. But where was Prince? Was Chris here to tell him that Prince had backed out? He peered through the window. There was Prince and his Afro. He was crouching down. It looked like a practical joke, in other words. But When Husney opened the door, he realized this was no joke. Prince was only 5-feet-2.
They talked. Prince laughed at Husney’s jokes. Quite soon, as Husney tells it, “I looked at this youthful, beautiful, talented creature with a smile on his face and thought, “Oh, my God, I’m in love. He was a raw, uncharted talent, an uncut diamond, freshly plucked from the music mines of Minneapolis.”
18 months introducing Prince to the world
Drawing on the chutzpah and imagination he seems to have been born with – at 11, he ran a carnival in his backyard in St. Louis Park, charging the neighborhood kids a dime a ticket – Husney spent the next 18 months introducing Prince to the world, guiding him, promoting him and carefully engineering a three-album, million-dollar record deal with Warner Bros. that was the biggest contract ever signed by a major label with a new artist.
It’s a story that’s been told and retold, but never with such close-up detail — and such emotion — as Husney presents it in his delectable new memoir, “Famous People Who’ve Met Me” (Rothco Press). Prince lived with Husney and his then-wife, Britt, off and on during late 1976 and most of 1977 in Minneapolis and later, as the first album went into production, in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
They were a domestic unit. They painted the house together and played practical jokes. At one point, Prince told Husney and his wife that they had become the only family he had ever known – “and you’re white,” he added. And as the record was about to be released, the two of them hit the road, visiting radio stations and staying in cheap hotels throughout California. (Prince, it turned out, couldn’t go to sleep unless music was playing near him – loud music. Husney, who slept in the next bed, got very little sleep during that tour.) And, as might be expected, within hours after Prince died — at 57 at his home in Chanhassen, April 21, 2016 – an army of TV, radio and print reporters gathered outside Husney’s home in Sherman Oaks, California, hoping for a comment from Prince’s first manager.
“I’m sure my neighbors thought I had murdered someone,” Husney said, speaking by phone from his home in Sherman Oaks. “Everybody had drug questions about Prince,” Husney said. “But that wasn’t the guy I knew. In the period of time I was with him, there was none of that.”
Shortly thereafter, a publisher offered Husney an advance of $150,000 to write a book about Prince, a tell-all. He turned the publisher down. “I wouldn’t do a tell-all on Prince any more than I would do one on my children,” he said. “You don’t do a tell-all on the people you love.”
Husney was, in fact, already working on a memoir when Prince died. He was teaching a course at UCLA titled “The Business of Music,” which gave him ready access to writing courses. He attended a few of them and then began writing down memories and stories he had been telling for years at dinner parties. His intention was to chronicle what he calls his “crazy, passion-driven up-and-down adventure” through life, showing how this “chubby Jewish kid from St. Louis Park who got beat up a lot in high school” charts an eventful course through the many avenues of the music business, starting out as a food-service provider backstage at rock concerts and ending up as a high-powered executive in the boardrooms of K-Tel and Musicland/Sam Goody and its 1,200 retail stores around the country.
Stories of Hendrix, Elvis …
Along the way he met just about everyone who counted in the music business, from Elvis to Jimi Hendrix, from Al Jarreau to Janis Joplin. One night at Met Sports Center, which sat on the land now occupied by the Mall of America, he faced the wrong end of a gun held by a concert goer who was angry because Sly Stone, the evening’s headliner, hadn’t shown up, and the audience was screaming “Sly. Sly, Sly… .” Stone and his band finally arrived an hour late, and no shots were fired.
He tells of a weighty late-night conversation with Jimi Hendrix in the famous guitarist’s hotel room, and how he managed to find a round bed, 10 feet in diameter, for Elvis to sleep on at the downtown Marriott. On another occasion, he found out to his horror that Buffalo Bob Smith, creator of Howdy Doody, an icon of ’50s children’s TV, had no intention of bringing the Howdy marionette onstage with him during a mid-‘70s nostalgia concert at the Orpheum. NBC, Smith said, owned Howdy and his image, so it was just going to be Buffalo Bob out there alone answering questions. “If you don’t bring Howdy out there, the audience is going to demand their money back,” screamed Husney. A scuffle ensued, during which a famous marionette lost its head. Show biz, it seems, has a dark side.
Much later, after he had moved to Los Angeles, Husney had one of those odd, serendipitous encounters that seems to happen with some frequency in the City of Angels. One day, out walking his dog in the Hollywood Hills, he was invited into the big, ramshackle home of T. Marvin Hatley who, being somewhat ramshackle himself, was the principal composer for the Hal Roach studio in the 1930s, having written background music for the Our Gang comedies as well as the Laurel & Hardy features and short films. He told Husney he wrote the theme that opens the Laurel & Hardy pictures, “Dance of the Kukus.” Laurel bought it from Hatley for $25. Not having worked for decades, Hatley was understandably looking for his next big break and hoped that Husney, being in the music business, might help him. They shook hands goodbye and never saw each other again.
Good stories, told well
Husney tells good stories, and he tells them well. He had written most of the book, including a long and revealing chapter on Prince, before Prince died. A month or so after the death, Husney flew to Minneapolis to attend the memorial concert in Prince’s honor. During that visit Husney sifted through boxes of memorabilia he had put in storage many years before.
“That stimulated a ton of memories,” he said. “I found letters that Prince wrote and all my planning sheets for the release of the first album. I also found a letter – it was me telling Warners not to call him The Prince or Prince Rogers Nelson.”
As a result of finding that material, he wrote a final chapter in the book devoted to Prince’s death and its aftermath. That and the section concerning his breakup with Prince in 1978 were the hardest parts of the book to write, he said.
They’re painful to read as well. As Husney tells it, in the months before the first album was released, Prince became more and more demanding. In one instance, while the band was rehearsing, Prince insisted that Husney find a space heater and bring it to the rehearsal room in another part of town. Husney said he was busy but named someone else who could run the errand.
Prince: “Well, if you won’t bring the heater, I’ll find a manager who will.”
Husney: “Well then, find another manager.”
On another occasion, in the dead of winter, Prince’s car needed a battery boost. Husney brought jumper cables and hooked up the two cars. Prince got out of the car and ran off. “My fans can’t see me doing this,” he shouted, leaving Husney with two cars in the middle of the street.
The tone of these stories isn’t recriminatory. Husney’s affection for Prince appears to have been genuine and unshakable. “He had the genius, and it was my job to facilitate that genius,” Husney said. Recalling the nights in motels with music blasting away because that’s the only way Prince could get to sleep, Husney said, “That was the basic fact about Prince back then: This kid sleeps to music, records music, plays it and writes it. He was the embodiment of music. It’s like the song we can’t get out of our head. Music was singing in his head all the time. In his youth that was good for him. But I think it became almost a burden toward the end. What happens when you can’t stop the music? As you get older and your body starts to break down. I remember Prince telling one of his band members after ‘Little Red Corvette,’ ‘The easiest thing for me to do is write a hit song.’ He was, as I say, the embodiment of music. And, as we all know, that’s a blessing and a curse.”
Does any performer coming up today bring Prince to mind? “I don’t think I could even find Prince today,” Husney said. “There’s a lack of development today at the record labels. They want to see you produce hits right away, and if not, get out of here. Whereas, Warner Bros. really believed in Prince. By now, Prince’s first record has gone gold. But it didn’t go gold right away. Most record labels would have dropped him after the first album.”
On the ‘Minneapolis sound’
In Husney’s view, if there ever was such a thing as a “Minneapolis sound,” Prince created it. “Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis continued that sound, as did Jesse Johnson. Andre Cymone helped create it. Between a unique way of using synthesizers in the ‘80s and the work of certain producers and engineers, there was a special sound. Andre and David Rivkin worked on Jody Watley’s album years ago, and that sounds very Minneapolis to me. Some hip-hop stuff has come out of there that I’ve heard is really good. But I don’t think it’s anything like it was in the ‘80s.”
The last time Husney saw Prince onstage was in 2011 during a run of 21 concerts that Prince performed at the Inglewood Forum just outside Los Angeles. Husney went three times. “At various points I thought, ‘Oh, my God, he has surpassed even what I thought he would achieve,’ and I thought he was going to be a major star. He had so much come into his own that he didn’t even need his band.”
The last time he talked with Prince was a few years earlier at Prince’s home and studio at Paisley Park in Chanhassen. Husney was working on a record with Bobby Z (Robert Rivkin), from Prince’s band. Prince walked into the studio. As Husney recalled it, “He was in full stage regalia – the makeup, the outfit. I said, ‘Hello. How ya’ doing?’ ‘I’m perfect, just perfect,’ he said, running his fingers through his hair. Then he turned around and left. He had changed, and perhaps I had as well. We were no longer running around together doing practical jokes and shooting each other with squirt guns.”