Owen Husney reflects on meeting a teenage Prince: ‘He was not an icon then. He was a brilliant human being who was living in a basement’

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Earlier this month, the longtime promoter, manager, advertising executive, and musician Owen Husney released his long-in-the-works memoir Famous People Who’ve Met Me. Owen is best known in the Prince universe for his role as Prince’s first manager — specifically, the one that was at Prince’s side helping to negotiate his historic three-album deal with Warner Bros. Records in 1977 — but as the book reveals, his story doesn’t begin or end there.

Owen’s book is an entertaining read, told in a straightforward, no-B.S. style, and it offers a rare front-row view of a Twin Cities music industry that was just taking shape in the ’60s and ’70s and the young artists and professionals who were doing whatever they could to make it work. There are tales about touring the burgeoning rock and roll circuit in the 1960s with his chart-topping garage rock band, the High Spirits, and stories about racing around backstage fulfilling riders and coaxing performances out of mega-stars like Janis Joplin and Sly Stone.

And at the heart of the book there’s the straight-ahead, impressively detailed recounting of the entire arc of his relationship with Prince, from meeting the young artist when he was just a teenager living in André Cymone’s basement in North Minneapolis to opening the envelope that contained Prince’s first advance from Warner Bros. Records and traveling alongside him on his first tour.

I called up Owen at his home in Los Angeles to talk more about Famous People Who’ve Met Me and some of his takeaways from his time spent with Prince. The following is an edited transcript of our wide-ranging conversation.

Andrea Swensson: This book covers a lot of ground. Prince makes up a big part of the middle of it, but you also get into your own personal life and your musical life, starting with your band, The High Spirits, which I thought was fascinating to learn about. Do you feel like the experience you had performing in that band and touring around that circuit prepared you for what would come next in your career?

Owen Husney: I think you’re exactly right. I think that people thought maybe that my life began and ended with the artist Prince. And so one of the reasons I wrote the book is that I had some very crazy experiences; it was to show the events in my life – crazy, humorous, serious – that prepared me. It was my kind of college that prepared me for the moment that I would bump into Prince.

For instance, in my band our record started to take off back in 1902, back in the days of horse drawn radio. First you’re playing the local dance halls, then it gets a little bit bigger. But I started to notice that the money we were making wasn’t quite making it back into our pockets. So I did an investigation and decided to take over the band myself as manager. I started to work directly with our booking agent, Dick Shapiro, insisting on dates and working all that kind of stuff out, and then making sure that the money got divided up equally in the band. So I think that was my first realization that there’s two words to show business: show and business. And you better have both going for you. I kind of live by that motto.

We had a great run with that band – four years of playing not only around the Midwest, but our record was hot in 19 other cities. The second realization was that one day it was over. I called the agent to see what other dates we had coming up. He said, “There’s not really anything.” I said, “What do you mean? We’re stars.” He said, “I do have a week at the Holiday Inn in Duluth for you guys.” I’m like okay, I’m out of the band. But the problem was we had spent all the money. We were young. We had cars. Who knows what else we did that we shouldn’t have. We had a great time, but when it came to an end there was nothing. So I had to start all over again, and I realized then that this was a serious business, and I would be better off helping other musicians and people in groups attain their goals.

That makes a lot of sense, because something that really struck me as I’m reading about your whole experience working with Prince is that it’s like you knew that this was all fleeting, like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. Then when it comes time for the two of you to separate you seemed kind of at peace with it. 

That’s a great observation, and I’ll tell you why. I realized for many people outside of Minneapolis, and even in the state and the city, that if you say “Prince” a lot of people automatically picture this icon with an entourage or bodyguards or something. I’m going to ask everyone to take a trip back in history and travel back with me for a moment – to that first time I met him when he came over to my house with Chris Moon. He was not an icon then. He was a brilliant human being who was living in a basement with Andre Cymone. That’s a whole different level. He was very young. He was a teenager. He needed to learn the ropes.

When I met him — and it’s in the book – I saw he was so vulnerable at that period in his life, and I knew the business because I had been in it. I had relationships with Warner Bros. and I had a couple near-misses at signing acts, and I had been managing acts. But I saw my role – and I don’t know if this came down from the heavens or what spiritual effect, but I said to myself, “I’m not here as mister manager in effect. I am here to protect this kid.” I know it’s hard for people when you say “protect” – the icon in front of thousands of people — but take yourself back and just picture an 18-year-old kid coming to your door.

And so I always saw him as someone that I needed to protect, and to make sure that everything was set up perfectly for him, and that we got the right record deal. I didn’t think, “This kid is a prodigy, let’s go to a local booking agent and let’s sign him to some local independent record label.” No, I didn’t want to do that. We wound up making the biggest new artist signing for somebody that young in the history of the business, in 1977. Now because Prince has this ability to absorb information at a rate that us commoners don’t understand, once he got it he was able to just take it into light speed. All I could do is take who and what he was and take that to the level he deserved, for the time that I was with him. And that’s why I don’t have any remorse. I’m very proud about what was done.

I think one thing that people are really going to get out of this book is these early descriptions of Prince, who was just coming into his own as an artist and as an adult. Another thing that I thought was illuminating was the role of André Cymone in Prince’s life at that time. He’s kind of the unsung hero. 

There was no doubt about it. When we decided to go to San Francisco and record, I made a great deal at the Record Plant in Sausalito. So I’m booking all the tickets, and I bring everything to Prince, and he says, “That’s great, but I absolutely have to have André with me.” A lot of managers would’ve freaked out. It’s going to add extra expense; it’s going to do this. I got that, totally, because they were so close. I saw them. They were at my house together playing, jamming. I had seen them when we rehearsed – I had set up rehearsals at my office over there on Oak Grove. There was no question in my mind that they were connected on a level that was very rare. And both of them talented as all get out. And good-looking! But to answer your question, there was no question that André should be there with us. They were kind of musical soul mates. Andre would be slamming that bass and Prince would be playing guitar. They’d be working together. And it was mandatory, I felt, that André be there because Prince had never made a full album before. It gets really nasty. There’s so much pressure. It can get frustrating. Things can happen, and the only clear answer was to have his musical soul mate with him.

And then you went on to later work with him and get him signed to a label and help him create his side project, The Girls.

We did The Girls. He did an Evelyn Champagne King album. He had his own career going on at the time. There was this kind of blanket created by Prince because he was coming up so quickly. It kind of muted other artists for a while. But the record labels all saw André as a serious talent, which he is, and this new album, 1969, is very good. André in my mind is as much a part of the birth of the Minneapolis Sound or the Minneapolis scene, whatever you call it – he’s in there, and his mother, by the way, who was terrific. Bernadette. So they’re kind of ground zero of the birth of this Minneapolis Sound.

I love the way Bobby Z. enters the story too — that he starts as a gopher for your company, and then eventually we discover that he’s also a drummer and that he can fit in with this mix.

David Z., his older brother — who is a producer in his own right — David Z. and I have been friends since 11th grade. We used to to over and jam at David’s house – at his mom’s house – and we would jam in the basement, and then little 8-year-old Bobby would get on the kit and we would laugh if he tried to reach the pedals. And then one day David and I are jamming in the basement, and little 8-year-old Bobby gets up and he breaks into a groove. I’ve known him since literally he’s been eight years old.

He was a drummer on the side, obviously, trying to do stuff, but I made him my runner in my marketing company. “Bobby, go get coffee; go get sandwiches; get my dry cleaning.” When I signed a management contract with Prince I just assigned Bobby to driving Prince around. They really bonded in that car, that little Pinto of Bobby’s. I remember one day Bobby telling me that he had just gotten done doing something with Prince driving around town, and he said, “It’s really cool. Prince wants to have a rainbow band. He wants to make music for everyone and he wants to have this” – and this is probably before the signing of the project to Warner Bros. – “and he wants to have this rainbow band. He really wants to make music for everyone.” I think at first Prince probably didn’t consider Bobby for the gig. He had several other people, but then as they bonded and as we started rehearsing at my office on Oak Grove, I would push the desks aside and they would come in all night and jam. I think it formulated on a musical level and a few other levels.

Owen Husney with the Time at the Minnesota Black Music Awards (Photos courtesy Owen Husney / Rothco Press)

I wanted to ask you more about that whole concept of the rainbow band, and you’ve got a quote in the book – Prince telling Warner Bros., “Don’t make me black. I make music for all people.” That seems like such a prescient thing for a young person who was just getting in the industry to know and say. What do you think was informing Prince’s attitude about wanting to break down those racial barriers?

First of all, it’s a natural gift that he had. Secondly, part of his genius was the realization that he could do that. The third part is that he had the hutzpah to pull it off and insist. I think very early on he knew what his gift was. I don’t ever like to forecast what I think somebody else is thinking. But just from my observation, I think that he knew what his gift was and he knew he considered himself a rock and roller, which we found out he was. When I sat down with him and I was going to do his press kit, I said, “Give me one of your favorite bands.” I’m thinking James Brown, etc. — and he blurts out “Grand Funk Railroad.” So that let me know right away.

I have two very nerdy final questions for you.

I’m a self-admitted nerd. I was beat up in high school and I waved my nerd flag high.

I came across this quote from Prince from 1978, and he’s talking about hearing himself on the radio for the first time while driving around in his Datsun, and he had this moment where his heart dropped to his knees. It’s such a sweet quote. I was wondering what radio station would’ve been playing “Soft And Wet” in 1978, presumably in Minneapolis.

It probably would’ve been KMOJ, and the reason I say that, is that I gave them the first airing of Prince. I’ve actually got it on tape where the announcer is going, “And that’s from the Twin Cities Bus Driver’s Association, and now we have a new record by –.” And so it would’ve been KMOJ, I’m sure.

That’s so cool.

I’m going to say that 100%.

And then the second question is – so I have been really interested in the lore around Prince’s Cloud guitar, and from talking to Dave Rusan, who built that guitar, and then talking to André, who had originally played the bass guitar that it was modeled after, he remembered buying the Cloud bass in San Francisco when they were out there working on For You. I was wondering if you knew where would that have been?

We were living in Marin County, which is north of the Golden Gate, and I know I’ve had some conversations with André about this. We were just north of the Golden Gate overlooking the bay, and it was wonderful. André has also told me subsequently – it’s kind of like I was dad, and he’s now just admitting that the kids were sneaking out and taking the car. André says, “I would take the rental car and Prince and I would drive off, and I didn’t have a license.” I was ready to send him to his room! I think in San Rafael there was a music store, and I’ve heard André talk about that before. I don’t have firsthand information, but I know they bought a guitar out there. And they used to go to these music stores and jam. That’s all I know about it.

The mystery will live on, I guess. Maybe we will never know where that bass came from.

I wish I could say I designed it and gave it to them and they loved it, but no.

Those were the nerdy questions. Thank you so much for talking to me. 

Thank you, Andrea.

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