How Prince’s No-Nonsense Demeanor Led to the Creation of ‘Controversy’
Chris Williams is a Virginia-based writer
In the summer of 1981, Prince traveled to Hollywood Sound Recorders in California and worked feverishly to complete his fourth album, Controversy. Photo Credit: Virginia Turbett/Redferns On the fifth Anniversary of Prince’s death, take a look back at the creation of Controversy, an album that highlighted topics such as gun control, segregation, war, religion, and sex.
In the late ’60s, Minneapolis, Minnesota was embroiled in back-to-back chaotic summers. Protests and riots occurred due to the constant mistreatment and discrimination of Black residents by the police and Jewish business owners. The North Side of Minneapolis was labeled as a “negro slum” on planning maps by the city’s political brass. Restrictive housing covenants prevented Black residents from buying property in other parts of Minnesota.
Because of these uprisings — which were part of the “Long, hot summer of 1967” — the mayor of Minneapolis, Arthur Naftalin, came to the North Side of the city to listen to the Black community. One of the results from this interaction was the creation of a community center called The Way. Created by boxer turned civil rights activist Spike Moss, The Way was a space where young Black creative youth could nurture their creative gifts. It was here where the beginnings of Prince Rogers Nelson’s ascension to superstardom took flight. Inarguably, his ability to hone his musical chops were borne out of local activists fighting to give Black children a place to utilize their creativity.
During this time, Prince began to take music more seriously by mastering the piano and tinkering and experimenting with multiple instruments inside and outside of school. During his teenage years, he participated in various local groups such as 94 East and Grand Central (they would later change their name to Champagne) and competed in several competitions against rival bands: The Family, Flyte Tyme, Mind and Matter, and Cohesion. These groups contained future collaborators like Sonny Thompson, James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III, and Terry Lewis. While working with Champagne, Prince met Chris Moon, the person who would transform his capabilities inside a recording studio and introduce him to his future manager, Owen Husney. Under their tutelage, he secured a six figure three album recording contract with Warner Brothers Records that gave him full artistic control. Dubbed as the next Stevie Wonder, Prince was only 18 and in total command of his craft.
Once his debut album, For You, was released in 1978, he was widely regarded as a wunderkind. With his next self-titled offering, he avoided the sophomore slump, resulting in his first platinum-selling album. As he ushered in the new decade, he pushed the proverbial envelope by showcasing a more androgynous image and salacious lyrics on his gold-selling third effort, Dirty Mind.
Since his debut, his sound was a fusion of musical genres, ranging from rock & roll to funk. During this juncture, he incorporated his backing band, The Revolution. With Prince serving as the mysterious conductor, more controversial days would be ahead for the prodigious talent.
Beginning with the making of Prince, Prince found a favorite studio to craft his lyrics and sounds in California. Hollywood Sound Recorders became one of his secondary homes to supplement his creative impulses. Through the summer of 1981, he worked feverishly to complete his fourth album. Alongside Prince was Ross Pallone, a veteran engineer, who joined him from Hollywood Sound Recorders. His experience became a valuable asset while assisting Prince by setting up the equipment that captured Prince’s eclectic flare and unparalleled recording prowess.
On October 14, 1981, Controversy was released. It peaked at number three on the Billboard charts. The album spawned two chart-topping singles, “Controversy” and “Let’s Work.” The platinum-selling album highlighted controversial topics such as gun control, race, segregation, war, religion, and sex. All these years later, these same issues continue to be central within American society. In celebration of the album’s 40th anniversary and commemoration of Prince’s untimely passing five years ago, we spoke with engineer Ross Pallone, who provided a lucid account of Prince’s tireless work ethic while creating this album.
What is the story behind you becoming involved with this project?
Ross Pallone: At the time, I was an independent engineer, but I had started my career at Hollywood Sound Recorders as an assistant and a gopher. After the first two years I was there at the studio, they made everybody independent contractors. Hollywood Sound would call me in for projects. If they had a project coming in, and they didn’t have an engineer, they would call me in. I remember the first day I got there, and I didn’t really even know what it was about. The person who called me was the studio manager, Ramona Ritchie. She called and said, “Hey, can you come down here? We need you to work on a project.” I came down and then she told me, “We’re going to work on Prince’s new record.” Prince had already worked there the year before with another engineer that I knew, Bob Mockler, on Dirty Mind. Prince was familiar with our studio. When I got there to see her, she said, “You have to go down to (Los Angeles International Airport) and pick up Prince.” I jumped in my little car, and I drove down to LAX and picked up Prince. I had never spoken to the guy before, and I tried to make conversation with him. I found out real quickly that was kind of impossible. He would answer in one-word sentences. I turned on the radio, and I asked him, “Do you like any of the new songs on the radio?” He just replied in a monotone voice, “I never listen to the radio.” I don’t think he ever listened to anybody else’s stuff, unless someone specifically handed it to him. Then, I took him to a hotel first, and then he rented a car or whatever. The next day, we started working on the record.
Since he was a man of few words, can you describe your interactions with Prince in the studio while recording this album?
Well, we didn’t sit around and talk about wives, children, or anything like that. That’s for sure. (laughs) It was strictly business. The way we would work is, well, he brought up a bunch of road cases with him, and they had tapes in them and some instruments and stuff with guitars and stuff like that. We went the studio with a bunch of his road cases. He already had tapes of some of the songs that were already started, I guess from back in Minneapolis. I’m not really sure where they came from. They might have been leftovers from the last record that he worked on. We continued working on some of those songs, and then there were new songs that we worked on, too. Basically, the way we worked was, if he just started a new song, then he would go out and play drums in the studio, and I would be in the control room and I would engineer it to record the drum pass. Once he was happy with his drum take, then he would come in the studio, and he would help me set him up to play bass. That would be direct to the console, so he could sit inside the control room and play bass. He wanted to do it himself, so I would set him up, so that he had a good bass sound. Then, I put the controller for the tape machine right next to him. He could sit in the control room and play the bass and punch in and get his bass bar down. He would do that with all the instruments. Anything that had to be done in the control room, he would have me set him up and then I would leave. I would go sit in the lounge and wait for him to call me. When he was satisfied with, say, the bass part, then he would call me in and say, “OK, now I want to play my synthesizer.” Then, I would get the synthesizer all set up and plug it in and get a level and a sound for him on the synth. Again, I would leave and go sit in the lounge and wait for him to call. It could be 30 minutes, it could be four hours, I never knew. He didn’t want to be disturbed, and he wanted to do everything himself. He would just ask for help when he needed it.
He did the same thing with his vocals. I set him up with a vocal mic right in the center of the console, and he would sit there and sing from the middle of the control room. That’s how he did all his vocals. He would do all the tape machines and roll the tape machine by himself. A few times, he would have to have me come in and do a punch in for him because he couldn’t do it fast enough and get back on the instrument. Basically, that’s how we worked for the whole time. I remember, at one point, he brought his band out from Minneapolis. There was maybe four of them? A couple of girls and a couple of guys, and I set that all up so they could all go out and play in the studio. I engineered that, and Prince was in the control room with me. I think they were just there for the one day and into the late night. Then when they left, Prince told me, “I’m not going to use any of that. I just brought them out here to make you happy.”
I felt bad for the musicians, but at least he gave them a trip out to California. That’s the way we worked the whole time. I never knew when to expect him there, but I would just be waiting for him. Whenever he showed up, he showed up. Whenever he wanted to leave, we’d leave. We were there about maybe eight weeks. I never did have a friendly conversation with him. That was all OK. We pretty much just got to our business. He didn’t make any attempt to become pals with me or anything, or to be lifelong friends or anything like that. He was a nice guy, and I’ve worked with some very phenomenal musicians through my career, and he is definitely one of the top three. He was a pretty amazing guy. He could play drums, bass, keyboards, guitar, synths, and do it all and do all the production and the arrangement and everything. The guy was a genius.
You mentioned that you never knew when to expect him to arrive in the studio. What type of studio routine did you all have back then?
I remember the studio was locked out, so nobody could go inside Prince’s studio at Hollywood Sound and do anything. You weren’t allowed in there. I would come in at 2 PM because that was my call time, and I was supposed to work with Prince until he was done. He never ever arrived before 6 or 7 PM. Sometimes it would 9 PM or so. Then, we would work until like 6 AM. It was a weird schedule, but I remember driving home the whole summer when the sun was coming up. We would stay up all night, every night. I think, at that time, AIDS was just breaking out too. I remember listening to the radio and hearing about this new problem while I was driving home in the morning.
All those big studios like Capitol (Studios), Wally Heider (Studios), Sound Factory, and Sunset (Studios) were filled with big stars all the time. Nineteen eighty-one was the heyday. Man, the record business was going crazy. Selling millions and millions and millions of records, and the money was flowing like crazy. Our studio was going for $125 an hour, and that didn’t include an engineer. These people were spending $175 to $200 an hour in the studio, but it didn’t matter because the record companies knew that they were going to get all their money back and then a lot more.
Where would other things be positioned for him inside the studio to suit his comfortability while playing instruments?
For the most part, most of the stuff that he did was inside the control room, because he wanted to do it himself. Now, he didn’t have the technical knowledge to set it up, so I would set it up, and I would get sounds on stuff. Then, he would just have to run the tape machine and hit record. For things like bass, synthesizer, even guitar, we would just run a line from his guitar in the control room outside of the studio and mic the amp out there. He could work in the control room all the time that way he could change the mix, punch in where he wanted, and do as many tracks as he wanted. I would set him up, so that he could just switch tracks and be able to record like five guitar tracks, if he wanted to without any trouble. Everything was done in the control room, except for the drums, of course. They had to be done out in the studio. Then, I would be in the control room recording. Everything else was done in the control room right in the middle of the console in between the speakers.
If someone were to walk into the studio when you were working with Prince, could you describe how it looked from the inside?
The studio that we worked in was Studio B. Studio A was a little smaller, actually. Studio B was actually the flagship studio there. Although both of those rooms were good rooms. As you walked through the door to go into the studio, if you veered off to the right, you’d go into the control room. If you veered off to the left, you’d go into the recording room. That recording room was big. Half of the room was carpeted and half of it was stone floor with a big tile like black sleek tile. Part of the walls had this fake rock on it. It wasn’t actually fake, but it was real rock that was made to put on the walls. It had a lot of that, and then part of the studio was covered in bark. It was panels of bark. Then what wasn’t covered in either bark or stump, was covered in soft panels, which were plywood with insulation laid on top and covered them like upholstery. Those panels were up on a lot of the walls. I helped to build them.
The control room was mostly soft panels. It had a carpeted floor, and those soft panels were all over the place, except in the very front of the control room which had wood paneling near the main speakers. The control room wasn’t huge, but it was big by today’s standards. You could probably put maybe 10 people in there. Maybe five or six behind the console and then maybe another three to five people could be down in front of the console. There was a little area down there with a big couch. Unfortunately, there are not very many pictures of the inside of that control room. It just didn’t happen. We didn’t carry around iPhones back then. There weren’t as many photos made as I wish we had. It was a nice control room. It had a low ceiling.
I know Prince wanted to be in the studio by himself while he was playing instruments and getting his ideas down. Did you witness him doing any type of rehearsal before recording?
Well, it’s possible that there could have been some songs that he had done as demos back in Minneapolis and then rerecorded them here. When I was out of the studio, he was in there doing takes, so I guess you could consider that rehearsing when he was doing multiple takes of an instrument. As far as I know, there was no actual rehearsals done. He had most of this information in his head. I know he wrote a lot of the lyrics while he was there in the studio because I saw him. I saw that he had a legal pad where he would scribble out the lyrics on. I wish I would’ve grabbed some of those. (laughs) I will tell you this, he was always dressed like he was going to go on stage. He wore black jeans with these silver studs all the way down the side. He wore black boots with a chain around them that clinked whenever he walked and shirts that he might wear on stage. He dressed like that all the time.
For this particular album, was Prince mixing the record with you and the other engineers?
Prince mixed it just like he did his overdubs with bass or anything else. I would set him up, and I would put the song up. Then, I would bring it up on the faders, and I would do a little bit of work on that. After that, he would take over and send me out of the room. He would work on that mix until he was happy. Then, he would call me back down, and we would print the mix onto a two-track. He did it himself. He mixed the record himself. I basically assisted him in the mix more than actually doing the mix. He’s the one I would credit with the mixing. He would have me set up things for him because he didn’t know how to do it. I would set up his reverbs and set up his delays, and if he wanted, the tape slap. The final actual mixing was done by him.
Are there any other interesting tidbits or stories during the making of the album?
One other thing that did happen, after that record, he came back there to work on a record called The Time. Well, funny thing about The Time was when he came in — I worked with him for about a week on that record, with him and the singer from The Time, Morris Day. Morris Day and him were there. I think we were doing vocals. We were either doing vocals or we might have been doing some guitar overdubs or something. It was different with him. We would take breaks and play pool in the lounge area. He was pretty personable with Morris Day, and we all talked and joked around and stuff. It was a little bit more relaxed for some reason. Funny thing about that record is that they didn’t give me any credit on it. The other was one time he had some girl come and hang out with him, but for the most part, he was there by himself all the time. I think the girl was named Lisa Coleman. She might have done some of those vocals at Hollywood Sound during that period of time when I told you that he brought his band out.
It seems he was pleased with how things went during the recording of this album.
It was totally fine. I never had any complaints about working with him. He wasn’t mean or over demanding or anything. He was just a quiet guy. That’s all I can say about him. I would never say anything negative about him. He never got mad at me or was disappointed with anything that we did. He was happy with everything every day so I didn’t complain. Once I figured out after the first couple days that I wasn’t going to be his pal, I just went along with it, and I did my job. When you get a new client, you have to figure out, does he want to be pals with me, or does he just want to work and not talk about anything else? All these artists have their quirks. All of them. They could be the nicest guy on earth, but they’re going to have some oddities and that was Prince’s oddity. I think he was that way with most other people, too. He wasn’t a guy that you would sit down and have a long, fun conversation with. Maybe he had certain people that he did that with, but I don’t know who they were.
As you look back 40 years later, what would be the way you would define your experience with Prince now that he’s no longer with us?
I didn’t really know what to expect when I first met him. I didn’t know that much about him other than I knew about his music. There are certain people that you work with throughout your career that stand out. He stands out for me. He’s one of the standouts because I’d never seen anybody so good at playing all these different instruments. He was an amazing guitar player, and he was equally as great a keyboard player and bass player. He was just so good on all the instruments. It really blew my mind. Some of the time, he would have me stay in the control room because he couldn’t do the punch-ins because we were working on analog tape back then. We didn’t have Pro Tools. I did get to see him actually playing the instruments firsthand. I just have a lot of respect for him because he was so talented. I’ve worked on thousands of projects between live and studio records. I’ve worked with many, many artists. Big artists, little artists, all kinds of artists, and he was just one of those top guys that stands out to me.
Chris Williams is a Virginia-based writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Red Bull Music Academy, EBONY, and Wax Poetics. Follow the latest and greatest from him on Twitter @iamchriswms.