When Owen Husney first met Prince Rogers Nelson, the musician was barely old enough to vote — and still going by his government name. “When you meet someone before they became the unapproachable icon, you tend to have a different relationship with them,” he says.
Husney became Prince‘s first manager and helped negotiate the deal that would lead to the release of his early albums. Following Prince’s death Thursday at the age of 57, NPR’s Audie Cornish asked Husney to share a few memories of the boundary-smashing artist he knew as a precocious teenager. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
What was Prince like when you first took him on as an artist? Because I think one thing that set him apart from really all others is that he seemed to straddle a lot of different genres, and he did that across racial boundaries as well as musical ones.
Owen Husney: Yes, and he never wanted to be pigeonholed into one specific genre of music, because he always felt that he was capable [of more]. Even at that young age, he was very focused, very directed and highly intelligent. And he just wasn’t mimicking his influences — he was combining their sounds. He was making a whole new sound, which later would be defined, I guess, as the “Minneapolis sound.” He had the rare ability to not just mimic the sound of an artist that influenced him but to take it another level.
You knew him as Prince Rogers Nelson — when he first came on the scene, before he became just Prince. Can you remember something, an anecdote or a story from that time that really drove home to you that he knew who he was?
You know, he had just turned 18, and it was very much a co-working atmosphere between he and I at that point. Once he went on to his second album and all the subsequent albums, obviously, he became Prince, and he was very much in charge. But he was very willing to listen to me and to take my direction, which I think is probably the only time that ever happened, to be honest with you [laughs].
We had had a fight early on about something, and he walked out of my house in a huff. He called me several hours later, and he had written a song — you know, not about me or anything. It was a song called “So Blue” that went on the first album. And he played me the song, and it just was his way of saying, “I know what happened between us and I’m sorry.” I just remember sitting on the kitchen floor and listening to that song and getting tears in my eyes. And then we were patched up and on we went.
The thing that always strikes me about Prince is his ability to focus and have a direction of where he wants to go, and then making it happen. He was exhibiting the work ethic of a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. He was beyond anybody that I had ever met.
He’s someone who was both very private and at times appeared very eccentric. What can you remember of his personality?
Well, all I can tell you from that level is that I consider myself to be a sensitive manager. And I think all managers need to be this way, but when Prince came along I noticed he was shy and a little bit removed. And I never sought to change him into something else — to say, you know, “Why can’t you be more like Sly Stone?” or something. I saw who he was, and there was a mystery about him even then. And so as a manager I noticed that, and I was able to just make that a part of who he was in all of our publicity and everything going forward. We did a first press kit with him that said very little, because Prince said very little. Because his music does the talking.
Is there a song you’d like us to remember him by?
I think, more than a song, you should remember … what he did to break down barriers. There are only a handful of artists that have broken down barriers between all the musical genres, and I think that’s how he should be remembered. I think he just has to be understood for the body of work he’s going to leave us — and I’m talking beyond just what we call traditional rock ‘n’ roll and funk and everything else. I think he’s got things that are in the vaults at Paisley Park that we will be unpacking for years to come, and we will be amazed.
I understand that, as his first manager, you helped him arrange his contract with Warner Bros., which allowed him a good deal of creative control over his music — considered, I think, unprecedented at the time. Can you talk about his legacy there? Because it seems, over the years, he has always been an advocate for creative control.
There has been no doubt. And when we signed the deal with Warner Bros., I had the great job of going to the chairman of Warner Bros. and saying that an 18-year-old artist, who has never made an album before, is going to be producing his own album and having complete creative control. I didn’t relish that meeting!
We kind of organized a test where they watched him in the studio. And at the end of him maybe getting halfway through the song, Lenny Waronker, who was president of Warner at that time, he pulled me out in the hallway and said, “We’re going to give him the complete control that you’re asking for.” So there’s an inner talent, a drive, and then there’s this ability that’s — you either have it or you don’t.
Prince is, to me, one of the greatest artists of our time. And I think he’s one of those legacy artists of which there’s maybe 10 or 11. I put him up there with Miles Davis, with Hendrix and Dylan. I put him up there in that stratosphere.