There's nothing unusual about a singer recording another artist's song, but usually the composer is someone who writes in classic pop and rock formats (like an Elvis Costello), or whose work has a wide commercial accessibility (like the Bee Gees).
You wouldn't think that Prince, despite his popularity, would be a likely candidate for what are known in the music business as "covers." After all, the Minneapolis renegade writes offbeat songs that reflect his strongly defined, often controversial image.
But that hasn't discouraged artists as diverse as Chaka Khan, Cyndi Lauper, the Pointer Sisters and Mitch Ryder from recording his songs. And in many cases it's the Prince composition that highlights the album.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that the Minneapolis renegade became the 1984's overnight sensation.
"Prince's records are liked and bought by millions of people," observes actress Jayne Kennedy, who included an instrumental version of his "D.M.S.R." on "Love Your Body and More," her latest exercise album. "It's not strange that a lot of artists would like to capitalize on his success. This is a follow-the-leader industry."
Prince's co-manager Robert Cavallo insists that his organization hasn't actively sought outside versions of Prince's material. "Most of the covers are gotten by virtue of the impact of Prince's songs upon the artists and their producers," he says, "not by virtue of the old song-plugger method. We are not aggressively selling his music."
LaToya Jackson, who recorded Prince's "Private Joy" for her recent "Heart Don't Lie" album, tells a different story. "Prince's publishing company (Controversy Music) approached me about recording songs of his that hadn't gone over too big the first time around," she says. "They submitted several songs and I picked 'Private Joy' because it sounded so up-to-date."
Prince's own version of "Private Joy" (on his 1981 "Controversy" album) fairly drips with salacious intent. Surprisingly, the rock tune's racy metaphors don't get short-circuited by Jackson's deft version. Note for note, she matches Prince's intensity with her own hard-edged snap, crackle and pop.
"Prince's music is deceptively simple," she says. "You hear it and think, 'Oh, I could easily sing this.' But there are complicated levels to his songs.
"I do like Prince, and I like the feeling behind his music, but I'm not always crazy about his lyrics. I'm not as daring as Prince.
Jackson agrees that "Private Joy" was the best cut on her album, but it was never released as a single. "I loved the song and my record company loved it, but my father (Joe Jackson) manages me and it was his decision to not release that cut.
"Oh well," she sighs. "You win a little and you lose a lot."
While most of the covers of Prince's songs have been the more obscure selections from his early albums, Stephanie Mills chose "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore" for her "Merciless" album after hearing him perform it in concert. Says Mills: "He had never recorded the song before, but I heard from his management company that he was real pleased with my version. And he later put it on the B-side of '1999.' "
Mills' husky contralto lends a sinewy, slow-drag blues feeling to the song. The sheer extravagance of her expressed displeasure gives it a witty, theatrical flair, and you can almost feel her grinning as she savors every line. "I love that song because it has the kind of emotion I can really sink my teeth into," she says. "Most of Prince's songs would be too risque for me, but I love the emotion in them. On 'How Come,' I think the level of my emotion is the same as his."
In 1980, Prince recorded "When You Were Mine" on his "Dirty Mind" album, and he approached the sordid tale of a menage a trois in a fey, almost understated manner. Since then, there have been three covers of this song. Hi-Fi, a Seattle-based rock unit featuring veteran folkie Ian Matthews, recorded it on its 1982 "Moods for Mallards" album, giving it more rockish bounce to the ounce and even embellishing the line "Just like a train/You let all my friends come over and eat" with Amtrak sound effects.
Cyndi Lauper also improved on the original on her "She's So Unusual" album by speeding up the tempo and infusing it with a Betty Boop-ish poignancy. But Mitch Ryder, on last year's "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie," really gives the tune its definitive treatment. Prince's version smolders, but there aren't any flames. Ryder's white-soul delivery set to a rugged, whiskey-sotted arrangement makes the song almost combustible.
"When I first heard that tune," said Ryder in a phone interview from his home in Detroit, "I thought it was classic rock 'n' roll. The fundamental layout was there; I just tried to interpret it according to my own image." Ryder concedes that the sales on his version "didn't do much for Prince. But he must have liked it because I got plenty of free passes to his show (in Detroit) at the Joe Louis Arena."
Prince's singing on "I Feel for You" from his 1979 "Prince" album burned with shy-boy fever, and he's almost petulant in his plea for romantic relief. Rebbie Jackson covers the song on her recent album, but she doesn't fit comfortably within the tune's flirty framework and when she sings the line, "I wouldn't lie to you, baby/It's mainly a physical thing," it just doesn't ring true.
The Pointer Sisters gave the song a gospel-edged flavor on their 1982 "So Excited" album and even slowed down its tempo. The results were neatly buffed and manicured, but lacked the sneaky leer and wink of Prince's version. "I don't even remember Prince's version," claims producer Richard Perry, who says that he chose the song for the trio to record only after Prince's publishing company submitted it for consideration.
Chaka Khan, whose current version of "I Feel for You" quickly rose to No. 1 on the black charts, offers the least reverent, most radically different version of a Prince song to date. With its inspired, off-the-wall mania the song is actually a tribute to the studio wizardry of producer Arif Mardin, who throws in a bit of rapping by Grandmaster Melle Mel and a brief portion of Stevie Wonder's 1963 hit "Fingertips (Part 2)." The song isn't even recognizable as a Prince tune by the time Mardin sends Khan through her sexy paces, but that's what a good cover should do: improve and expand on the original.
Prince's music contains a nervy originality that should inspire other risk-taking artists to tackle it and give it a swift kick in the genre. Who wouldn't love to hear Talking Heads do a quirky, raw-boned cover of Prince's "Let's Work"? Or how about a vinyl version of "Let's Pretend We're Married" by Tina Turner? She does it in her live show, and it's a hard-driving effort that deserves to be preserved for posterity.
But the current trend of singers doing Prince's material may be short-lived as he improves: If his originals become the definitive renditions, no one else will want to tackle them. He's already the ultimate interpreter of at least one of his songs. Says Richard Perry, "Nobody is ever going to touch 'When Doves Cry.' "