Lenny Waronker remembers signing Prince in the '80s
Credit: Sherry Rayn Barnett /Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Before the platinum records, chart-topping hits, or larger-than-life persona, Prince Rogers Nelson was just an ambitious young musician from Minneapolis. And while the titanic contributions he made to music and pop culture at large were entirely his own, he owed much of his early success to the unprecedented contract he landed from Warner Bros. Records in the late ’70s.

“One of the things that had a big effect on me was the fact that he was doing it all himself,” Lenny Waronker, who helmed the label’s A&R department and signed Prince, recollected to EW after Prince’s death last week . “He’s an 18-year-old kid and he had total command of not only the songs, but of the production and the ability to do it all on his own. I mean, this was a time where there was no technology. You didn’t have drum machines; you didn’t have anything. The only other person I can think of that was capable of really doing that was Stevie Wonder.”

Prince impressed Waronker so much that the record executive granted him a lucrative deal that also guaranteed Prince nearly total creative control over his records — a rare degree of freedom that gave the musician the leeway to convert his creative vision into masterpieces like 1999, Purple Rain, and Sign O’ the Times.

That very contract, of course, led to the conflicts that later plagued Prince’s relationship with Warner Bros. and led him to write “slave” on his face in protest, change his name to a symbol to regain control, and ultimately part ways with the label. But despite those problems, Waronker — who became president of Warner Bros. Records during the ’80s — still remembers Prince fondly as both a gifted musician and a discerning businessman. Below, the longtime record executive discusses signing the Purple One, working with him throughout the ’80s, and eventually parting ways with him in the ’90s.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you discover Prince and sign him?
LENNY WARONKER: I had a meeting with Prince and [his manager] Owen Husney. I got to hear some of the songs that were on his demo tape — except when you listened to it it was far from a demo. The presence of Prince was also interesting because he had an incredibly strong vibe to him. His silence was powerful and when he did say something you listened. It was the beginning of something that was very special, based on this massive talent and this young kid who was not like anybody else.

There were other record companies that were trying to sign him and almost everybody was fixated on finding the right producer. We were sitting [there] with six or eight songs and they sounded finished. I didn’t think [he needed] a producer. I felt that he was so unique that if you brought somebody else in — especially some of the high-powered people that other companies had pursued — you wouldn’t get the personality that existed on that tape. Because it wasn’t just the songs, it was the way they were performed. What you didn’t want to do was get in the way of that.

Do you think that telling him he’d have this creative freedom helped sealed the deal?
I think so. Warner Bros. had a pretty good reputation about creative freedom. We were interested in helping develop incredibly talented people. Most great artists stand out because they have their own way of doing things and their own personality. And it stretches into not only music but production and almost everything that goes on in the making of a record. The creative freedom part of it was a natural place to go when you’re dealing with people that hopefully are smarter than you — and we had a bunch that were. If you’re building a record company you’re hopefully surrounded by artists that are a step ahead of you. If you have to tell an artist what to do and how to do it, it’s usually a losing game.

Tell me about being a record executive in the ’80s when he’s coming to you seemingly every year with these groundbreaking albums. What was it like working with him in that period?
It’s one of those things where you pretty much stood out of the way and enjoyed it. He liked to be there and play whatever album it was for the company. You always knew when he was coming in that you were about to go on some sort of wonderful musical ride — you couldn’t predict what it was going to be like, because he was so unpredictable and covered so much musical ground. I don’t know that anybody ever put together so many different genres and did it so gracefully.

There were times where there was something to say. Like any great artist, if it’s valid criticism, they will listen — and ultimately they’ll make up their own minds. There were occasions where he actually took the suggestions and responded. In the case of Diamonds and Pearls, “Gett Off” was the last thing he wrote. It was a response to the urban part of the label [which was] concerned there wasn’t [an urban single] on the record. I was very, very excited about the album — it was unbelievable. The fact that there was concern about the it was bothersome for me.

I called [Prince] and said, “Take this for what it is and do with it whatever you want to do,” because I wasn’t passionate about what had gone on. He listened for about 30 seconds. I could hear his brain going back and forth and then he stopped and said, “Well, sounds like you got a marketing problem, figure it out.” End of conversation. My sense was “This is not over. I know him, he’s gonna think about this, and if it makes artistic sense, chances are he’s gonna do it.” All he really cared about was how good it would be.

The following Monday, I get a call from him. He said “You got a new baby. I got something to play you.” He came in and he played “Gett Off.” It was the first single and did incredibly well, especially in the urban world. And the rest is history in terms of Diamonds and Pearls.

How did you deal with Prince’s conflicts with Warner Bros. in the late ’80s and early ’90s?
The biggest concern we had was the amount of stuff that was coming out. We were worried that it would saturate the marketplace and that it could hurt him. We tried as best we could to have some control over the amount of stuff that came out over a certain period of time. That was the beginning of [Prince] feeling like he didn’t have the freedom to release music the way he wanted to. But there was never a time I can remember that anybody said anything to him as it related to his music and his freedom as a creative force. It was much more about marketing.