When the 2016 Grammy nominations were announced, true to form Numero Group had landed a shot at a prize with their heavyweight boxset capturing the output of Ork Records, the New York punk/new wave LP in the best album notes category.
I’ve got the Ork boxset (all 4kg of it) on my well reinforced bookshelf along with some of their previous releases. The beauty of a Numero boxset aside from the sheer quality of the package is that whilst the music is unerringly of high quality, you probably haven’t heard it before. It is therefore the gift (to oneself) that keeps giving.
One of the releases that I keep going back to is “Purple Snow: Forecasting The Minneapolis Sound”. The box set’s goal was to capture the sound of the twin cities of St Paul and Minneapolis just around the time that Prince was breaking out with his Warner Brothers contract.
A quick geography lesson first. The twin cities are adjacent but with separate boundaries and characters, St Paul being the state capital of Minnesota and featuring historic Victorian architecture whilst Minneapolis is the younger city with skyscrapers. The area is close to the Minnesota, Mississippi and St Croix rivers.
The area has a variety of significant ethnicities including Hmong and Somali communities, but not a noticeably large black population.
It is also pretty much the coldest major urban area in the USA on account of its northerly inland location. It is a seriously climatically inhospitable place. It was also relatively geographically isolated with the nearest major city, Chicago, 300 miles away.
Not the obvious candidate therefore for creating one of the most significant catalogues of African-American music at the end of the 70s and start of the 80s. The sheer volume of music that is close to the rock-funk template that Prince honed from his early albums through “Dirty Mind”, “1999” and “Purple Rain” is just incredible. Prince was central to it. He played on many of the tracks on the box set and it features musicians with whom he latterly played like Andre Cymone and Morris Day. The scope of the influence on American music in the 80s and 90s is huge, including in its alumni Jimmy Jam Harris and Terry Lewis who wrote and produced much of Janet Jackson’s “Control”. The great Alexander O’Neal was also part of the scene and crops up on the box set in his pre “Hearsay” days.
The music in the music really resonates with me. Growing up in the Black Country in the 80s, there were a number of scenes that co-existed. Whilst the punk and new wave scene prevailed, most of the nightclubs played dance music, much of it pre-house and post-disco, imported from the USA. In essence, this was hugely derived from the music on the Purple Snow box set. Indeed the cover shot of the box set which features a group of the musicians could have been taken in pretty much any night club in Wolverhampton or Dudley.
So what prompted the collective outbreak of music in the city at that time? Looking back, it is clear that this differs from many geographical scenes which rely on a lack of musical skills and access to musical instruments leading to frustration and angry energy. The Minneapolis scene was based on talented musicians playing relatively expensive instruments. This didn’t develop overnight though and owed its genesis to the usual scene generators. The city’s Soma Records in 60s hit it big with “Liar” by The Castaways and “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen. However the revenue was recycled into a network of distribution and recording facilities.
Fathers had a role to play too with established musicians like Cornbread Harris and John Nelson helping to teach their sons Jimmy Jam and Prince respectively.
Success was embraced and then built upon. This was an incremental scene and therefore had deeper and more musical routes. Multi instrumentalists were common, meaning that less musicians could be spread further. Not only Prince but people like Pierre Lewis and Sonny Thompson could handle a variety of instruments. Lewis appears on one of the highlights of the set, The Lewis Connection’s “Higher” which is a funky blend of Earth, Wind And Fire and Stevie Wonder and features a wonderful slap bass introduction. The Connection managed to release one self titled album made with the money that they received after they had written off their 1975 Buick Century. The band were one track short of finishing the LP when they cut “Got To Be Something Here”. Needing to flesh out the sound, they ended up going with Minneapolis’s go to gun for hire – Prince Rogers Nelson.
Prince broke out first and furthest but others followed with differing degrees of success. Cynthia Johnson who was an overnight success ended up doing the vocals for “Funky Town” by Lipps Inc, that staple of 80s club nights. Alex O’Neal took his lover man schtick over to the UK to huge success – my local Black Country pub, The Red Lion, seemed to have “Criticise” on constant rotation in the mid eighties on the video jukebox.
Jam and Lewis became the hottest producers in LA. Andre Cymone tried to make a go of it whilst remaining Prince’s touring bass player until 1981. He never quite got to where he wanted, despite his best endeavours but found some success writing and producing for Shalamar’s Jody Watley amongst others.
The scene also helped deal with the racial divides in way that Sly and the Family Stone had in the 60s and 70s. Whilst the black community in the Twin Cities wasn’t as proportionally sizeable as other American cities, the white musicians started recruiting black frontmen, bands such as Haze and Prophets Of Peace. This resulted in a unique sound that sustained the scene and also much of Prince’s career. The divergence really started to tell when he introduced a greater pop influence into his work around the time of “Around The World In A Day.”
The connections were also peripherally made to other local scenes. A tremendous amount of bands emerged in the post punk era – The Replacements, Babes in Toyland, Soul Asylum amongst the most successful. Hüsker Dü were also part of that guitar driven scene and they used a rehearsal space common to many musicians in St Paul.
The space was owned by a Mr Dickerson whose son Dez was Prince’s guitarist. The black owner helped the local white musicians by having the central meeting place necessary to propagate a scene.
The music that was the sound of Minneapolis was recognisably funky if not completely or startlingly original. Lyrically it tended to cover relationships, love, matters of the heart. It wasn’t political or particularly radical. What it was though was very danceable and I can imagine during those cold winter nights, any of these bands pumping from a PA would get the place rocking.
Within the stories of people moving from band to band, filling in for different members as they switched jobs and allegiances, there are the stories of those individuals who didn’t get to live the dream.
People like Sue Ann Carwell, who almost got pulled along within the gravitational force field of Prince’s burgeoning career but fell from his orbit.
Carwell’s “Should I Or Should I Not” is at the other end of the musical spectrum, a snappy electronic confection that is close to what Prince ended up doing on the “1999” LP, akin to “Lady Cab Driver” and “Delirious”. This is where America was heading musically, a more mechanised version of funk, partly lead by Jam and Lewis.
Her career though is a story of what might have been. From a musical family, her father had played with Billy Eckstein and Dizzy Gillespie. He was addict and a criminal though and she first ran away from home aged ten. Her father had a number of children by different partners, one of whom Carl was a friend of Phil Bailey of Earth, Wind and Fire in Los Angeles.
She auditioned for the Minneapolis band Quiet Storm and began getting work on the local scene. It was whilst performing in 1978 that she was noticed by Prince, newly signed to Warners. He and Andre Anderson wanted to build their own roster of artists and were keen on Carwell. Prince gave her studio time, tutored her on playing instruments and even gave her a stage name: Suzy Stone. Warners didn’t like the tracks though. Remember this was pre breakthrough when Prince’s word wasn’t gospel. Carwell got frustrated with the time being taken and ran away again, ending up in yet another foster home. That was it for Prince, who withdrew his support. Carwell believed that Prince was taking her in too poppy a direction anyway.
Carwell fell in with Prince’s old associate, Owen Husney who got her demo time. Now Husney had also fallen out with Prince too, but he still had the ear of Warners and managed to get Carwell a deal. She went to LA, met up with her brother Carl who had just recorded his own debut record with EWF’s backing. Husney started touting Sue Ann’s demo, pitching to Quincy Jones for a production job. Quincy was busy – he was dealing with a young singer by the name of Michael Jackson. He approached Georgio Moroder too with more success, as the Donna Summer producer oversaw Sue Ann’s recording. Husney trusted Georgio and headed home.
But the record was a miss. Husney said:
“This is so exciting, this is Georgio Moroder, and they wrote all the songs. So I get this thing, put a joint in my mouth, get in the car, pop it in and I’m driving. And about half way through the album I’m going, “There’s nothing here – no hits”
Husney got Moroder to do another track as a single “Let Me Rock You” which led out the “Sue Ann” LP. Carwell returned to the Twin Cities and waited whilst the single hit the heady heights of 72 in the charts. It was back in Minneapolis that Carwell laid down “Should I…” and waited for the world to come knocking. But it never did. She went back to the local gig scene and her moment passed.
The Purple Snow album is available in the UK at topping £38 from Amazon on CD but it is worth keeping an eye out online for it as Numero often have special offers. It is worth shelling for the physical copy as the accompanying sleeve notes are captured in a very fine purple suede hardback book.
Failing that, the album is available on Spotify to stream. The Numero Group website has some really good additional information as well here.
The music contained is consistently high quality soul, funk and r’n’b. It is a glorious and unique snapshot of local scene peaking. This happens often enough but the difference here is the direction and genius of Prince that looms over the box set.
Have a listen – you won’t regret it.