Prince’s signing, nurturing and incremental rise to superstardom stands as a classic example of what made Warner/Reprise such an extraordinary record company. Mo Ostin’s 2016 recounting of this fascinating story to Bud Scoppa provides us with an object lesson in artist development at its most inspired.

I appreciate your doing this because I know it’s not something you particularly enjoy.
I’m never comfortable doing it.

Although you’re very good at it. So let's get started. Warners had this extraordinary array of A&R sources, but Prince came in through a regional promotion guy, who sent the demo tape to Russ Thyret. Russ made Prince his personal mission. He believed in the kid; he wanted more than anything to break him—it was a degree of passion you rarely see in today’s record business.
Russ was unbelievably supportive, incredibly aggressive with those records and pushed him and his music as hard as any promotion man could. And you know how good a promotion man Russ was. He was a great, great executive.

But he was more than that, wasn’t he?
Well, he eventually became the chairman of the company. Of course he was.

But you were a brain trust. With that group of executives, it seemed like there were eight or 10 people with complementary skill sets, and they could play in each other’s sandboxes, so to speak, as well.
The great thing about Warners Records was the quality of its people. We had executives who I always characterize as stars, and we treated them as such. We had so many great executives—I don’t think anybody in the business could compare. So it’s true, and Russ was certainly one of the foremost of those people.

Russ brought Prince’s demo to all of us, and the entire A&R staff listened to it very, very carefully. One of the great things about Warners was it always had a superb A&R staff. The department got our highest priority because this is about music. They listened to the record, and everybody felt very strongly about it. Steve Barri was one of our producers on the staff, and this guy could find a single in a haystack. He said, “I hear two singles”—as demos. And in the course of our negotiations, we were faced with Columbia and A&M, and they were only offering him two-album deals. Because the A&R staff felt so strongly about him and felt there was enormous growth potential, they felt that we could go for a third album so that we could win the battle in terms of signing him. They came up to see me, and I immediately agreed, and we were fortunate enough to get him.

Was a three-albums-firm deal unusual at that point?
For new artists? Absolutely. You know, you’d usually do a one-album deal with all kinds of options.

So the measure of your belief was apparent from the get-go?
Right from the start. We knew that he was important. Did we know he was gonna be as great as he was? I can’t say I even knew that about Hendrix.

Was there a point at which you felt completely validated in having made that leap of faith and taking that risk? Because you were committing a lot of dough as well as a lot of time and resources.
Yeah, absolutely. And he was well represented; he had a great management crew in Cavallo, Ruffalo and Fargnoli and one of the strongest lawyers in the industry in Lee Phillips, so we had to make a very strong deal with him. It wasn’t just one of those beginning-artist deals. We made our deal with Madonna only guaranteeing a single, not even an album.

When did Bob Cavallo come on board? Did you connect them?
No, I had nothing to do with that. I think they went after him because of Earth, Wind & Fire and the fact that Maurice [White] felt so strongly about Prince. They chased him and convinced him to come with them. And you know, from Prince’s perspective, I suppose he assumed that [original manager] Owen Husney didn’t have the needed experience. These guys had a wonderful roster of artists that they represented, and they immediately impressed him. When we made our deal with him and had to sit down and do the contracts and go through the negotiations, Cavallo was in the picture right from the get-go.

And you had worked with him closely on Lowell George and Little Feat.
We had a lot of great acts with Bob. He was a very important manager to us, going back to John Sebastian. So I had faith in him as a manager, and he turned out to be a good friend, too. Fabulous guy. And you know the job he did at Disney; he practically turned around that company. He was one of the best executives the music business ever had.

Dennis and I have been talking a lot about this period because Cavallo's company was involved with Warner Bros. and Russ for eight years.
Oh my God, he and Russ were very, very tight.

You can’t downplay the importance of the managers during that era.
They were phenomenal. In addition to probably what was one of the best promotion staffs at Warner Bros., they also had their own promotion man who worked with Prince and was on the road with them and did all kinds of things. You know, our promotion guys were spread over a lot of records. And this guy was exclusively attending to Prince’s records.

They were very gutsy. When we did Purple Rain as a film, they came to me at Prince’s behest and told that me that he wanted to make a film. I mean, here was a guy who had not yet had a huge hit. He’d already made 1999, so that was a breakthrough for him, and we knew that he was very important. But the world didn’t know. I went to see Mark Canton, the head of production at Warner Bros. Pictures, and he was willing to take a flyer. He liked the whole concept; he loved the music—but the film company, the financial and executive people, didn’t feel comfortable about making a deal with a guy who had never made a movie before and who was not yet a superstar. So the management firm either talked Prince into it, or maybe it was Prince’s idea, but they agreed to take a million dollars and put it into the budget to help subsidize the film. Then they put a $7 million budget on the film company, and they came to me and I told them I would—Warner Bros. Records would—guarantee that if it went over budget, we would cover the over-budget. So that’s how the film got made. When you think you have the goods, you’ve got to support that situation and go with your instincts.

The other leap of faith you made was to allow Prince to produce himself.
When we signed Prince, we wanted Maurice White to produce, because Prince had never produced a record before. He was 19 years old! Although we loved what we heard, we wanted somebody experienced in the studio with him. Finally, because he was so persistent that he wanted to do it himself, we told him to go in the studio and show us his wares. Lenny [Waronker] and Russ went into the studio with him and he played them some songs, and they were so impressed and they knew the kid had the goods and that they’d heard enough. But he had come in with a whole prepared routine of what he was gonna do, and he insisted that he do everything that he’d prepared to do, and so they sat through all of it and were blown away and had no objection to his going into the studio and producing it alone.

Then he said something quite interesting to Lenny. He said, “One of the things I want to make sure is that you don’t make me Black.” He just wanted to be treated like all artists. He wanted to be Fleetwood Mac; he wanted to be The Beatles, The Rolling Stones. He didn’t want to be restricted to being an R&B artist. He was right—when he went into pop, when he went into rock, whatever he did, he did it extraordinarily well. I remember when we signed Duke Ellington at the very beginning of the history of Reprise, Duke said to me, “I don’t want to be categorized as a jazz artist.” He said, “I’m a musician and do every kind of music.” And Prince had pretty much the same idea.

I suppose that could be said of many of the artists during the golden age of Warners. Van Morrison was pretty wide-ranging.
Oh, you look at the list of artists that we had on the label and it was quite impressive.

But Prince is arguably as important as any Warner Bros. artist ever.
I certainly would agree with that. I don’t know that I could say which artist was the greatest on Warner Bros. I mean, you talk about Sinatra, Neil Young, Van Morrison—it’s an enormous list. It’s hard to say who was greater than who, but Prince certainly belongs there at the very, very top of the list.

The first record that we made with Prince was called For You. And it started quite modestly. It eventually went gold, but it really didn’t put him on the map as an important artist at that time. Then we came with the second record, which was called Prince. We had a #1 R&B single called “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” and that album went platinum. So the first record was gold; the second record went platinum. The next record, Dirty Mind, was highly controversial. Prince was a guy who never recognized any sexual boundaries, and you could see that from the androgynous image he had, where he dressed with high heels, wore makeup and dressed like a fashion model, because he believed in freedom in every area. And one of those freedoms was to be whoever you were, and nobody should inhibit you in any way from being yourself. Dirty Mind had songs like “Head” and “Sister”—one girl was sick; the other one was insane. All of that exemplified his basic belief in what I would call freedom. A few years later, “Darling Nikki” was one of the records that caused Tipper Gore to start the Parents Music Resource Center, who wanted us to censor our records. Prince was a big motivating factor for her to do that.

“Little Red Corvette” was the first hit off 1999.
Yes, but we put out “1999” first. We thought that was the first hit. We put out “Little Red Corvette” next, and it became a big hit, and then we put out “1999” again, and it was really his breakthrough record. It was on the strength of “1999” that we were able to get the film studio to at least listen to us about Prince. So 1999 was his breakout album, and it was followed by Purple Rain, which exploded and made him a superstar.

“When Doves Cry,” which came out in front of Purple Rain, was his first #1—a magnificent piece of work.
It was. Lenny said that when Prince played it for him, Prince knew it was the single right from the start and that he knew even then that it was gonna be an important record. But he was concerned about the fact that there was no bass on the record. It may have been the first time anyone put out a record without a bass—or it’s certainly one of the first times. So he was concerned about it and wanted Lenny’s response to it. Lenny said that when he heard the bass drum and the guitar-chord part, he realized that this was a unique record by virtue of the fact that it didn’t have any bass. Lenny felt very, very strongly that the record was done and he should put it out as it was. So that’s the way the single was actually determined.

Did Prince have the album done before he made the movie? Or did he do them in parallel?
I don’t know, because he came up with the idea of making a movie to begin with. He was incredibly smart, tremendously intuitive, had a wonderful business sense, and I think he recognized what the potential was if he could do a musical film that would represent his music. And as you know, that album was on the charts for 24 weeks in a row at #1—half a year. It won an Oscar for him for the musical score; it won Grammys. So that gets us to when he truly exploded on a worldwide basis. There were other significant albums, but this gives you a buildup historically of how it all began.

And that also gave him the autonomy to go in any direction he wanted to.
No—he always had autonomy. I mean, the power of the creativity, his inventiveness, daring... He was always pushing boundaries. All of those things made us say to ourselves, “Hey, this guy is the real deal.” Norman Granz once said to me, “I never tell Oscar Peterson how to play piano. Don’t get in the way—get out of the way.” So that didn’t give him autonomy; we already knew how good he was. And he was what he was.

On Sign o’ the Times, he brought in a three-LP record, and everybody wanted to reduce it to one record, because they thought in that way you could get the very best material and have a huge, huge hit. But he rebelled against it and wanted to put it out as it was. Lenny talked to management and said, “You know, instead of putting out a three-album set, let’s reduce it to two, which would make it stronger and better and more effective in the marketplace.” Management told Prince what Lenny had said. And so Prince called Lenny, and he said, “I hear you don’t like my record.” And Lenny said, “No, that’s not the case. I only think there should be some editing of the record.” And then Lenny did something very interesting; he talked about Maxwell Perkins, who, you may remember, had a biography written about him by Scott Berg called Editor of Genius, and he told Prince about how Perkins edited Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Tom Wolfe. And he said every one of them permitted him to do it, and in every case, it improved the book. When Prince heard that, he said, “You know what? I’m gonna go back to Minneapolis,” because he was at Sunset Sound at the time they were talking. He went back to Paisley Park, worked all night and cut the record down to two albums.

That was brilliant on Lenny’s part.
Absolutely. It was a fantastic analogy and one that would really have an impact because Prince was smart enough to understand the values of those literary figures.

Lenny knew who he was talking to.
Well, Lenny has incredible instincts, and there’s nobody I know who can relate better to artists.

The next album, Around the World in a Day, had “Raspberry Beret,” an amazing song. The last #1 Prince had was “Cream,” which came out of Diamonds and Pearls, which itself was a #3 record. Then he made The Black Album, which is probably the most-bootlegged album ever.

I imagine so, since you decided not to put it out—which you didn’t want to do in the first place.
No, we battled over it. It was a huge clash. And, of course, there was Batman. It’s interesting because Jack Nicholson said he recommended Prince to do the score. Tim Burton directed the film, and it was an enormous success. Jack told me he made more money from that film than any other film he made—and you know how successful he’s been. But we had a #1 with [the soundtrack album's] “Batdance” and he got an Oscar for it. And it produced a very interesting song called “Scandalous” that he did with Kim Basinger.

Now, you have to also recognize that Prince was a very strong proponent of artists’ rights, as you can tell from the contretemps we had. He felt strongly about creative people owning their work, and he always fought to protect copyrights—you know what his streaming positions were with the various companies. So it’s something that should be recognized because now you’ve got an organization specifically dealing with artists’ rights and lobbying on their behalf.

The other thing that has to be mentioned was what an amazing performer he was. He could have been the best performer ever.

Yeah, I think you could make that argument, and back it up.
He was a guitar hero. Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards—all the great guitarists talk about Prince as being the greatest. I mean, he’s up there with Hendrix. When he got inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, you may remember he did “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood and Dhani Harrison. It brought tears to people’s eyes. And then, of course, there was that incredible Super Bowl performance. He did “All Along the Watchtower,” “We Will Rock You” and he closed with “Purple Rain.”

And he somehow summoned the rain. Yeah, he actually encouraged the rain. You know, the guy had godlike qualities. But the thing that should be noted is the range of the guy’s talent; he was an artist, a composer, a guitarist. He was a great keyboardist. He could play every instrument. He was the head of a label, a film actor, a filmmaker, a video star. He was a great dancer, and on and on. The guy was just so enormously talented that it was mind-boggling.

And he was an early artists’ advocate, as you pointed out. In a sense, he’s the first 21st century artist in that he anticipated the issues that were going to confront the business and artists in the 21st century. So, wow, what a legacy.
There’s no question it’s an enormous loss. You could tell from the response. I was overwhelmed by the amount of news space he got, television coverage, specials made about his life, the response from all of the artists and the public. Look what happened in Minneapolis; huge crowds came to Paisley Park with flowers and to pay him homage. Bruce Springsteen opened one of his concerts with “Purple Rain.” Purple lights on the Empire State Building. It’s just been an overwhelming expression of regard.

Prince’s fight for his masters set him up as more than just a guy who’s in the studio and onstage; he was also on the battle lines. Unfortunately, you turned out to be the bad guy, at least in his mind, which is the incredible irony of this whole thing.
I never got crazy-angry about it. Annoyed? Yeah. I did understand where he was coming from. When we started Reprise, it was owned by an artist, and Frank felt very, very strongly that we create an environment that would be the best possible in terms of the aesthetics, the artistry and the economics. And when we made our deal with Warner Bros. to sell Reprise and they didn’t agree on price—there was a half-million-dollar price difference in the amount that Warner wanted to pay for Reprise—to compromise, we told them we would come in at their price if they would give Frank ownership of his masters, which he always wanted. During the Capitol days, he wanted to have his own label. So I understand the passion.

To find yourself on the other side of that, it’s just so weird.
Yeah. Because as you know, there wasn’t a more artist-oriented company in the world.

But at the same time, the recorded masters are your business, the basis of your business.
Exactly. I mean, this may be the most important asset you have, other than your people. No, no. Actually, the artists are the most important.