From the 1960s R&B scene in New York City to the Minneapolis Sound of the 1980s, Pepé Willie has been up close and personal with some of the most explosive American-grown music and musicians of the latter half of the twentieth century.
The nephew of Clarence Collins of Little Anthony and the Imperials, Pepé Willie spent his Brooklyn youth surrounded by groundbreaking R&B and soul musicians. He worked as a valet for Little Anthony and the Imperials and the many legendary acts who shared the stage with them—from Ray Charles and Patti LaBelle to the Four Tops and the Supremes. Pepé rubbed elbows with the hottest stars of the day and got an up-close look at the inner workings of the music business. The experience inspired him to pursue his own musical dreams.
After meeting and marrying a Minneapolis native, Pepé moved to Minnesota in 1974. He was brought to a family gathering to see a performance by the band featuring his wife’s cousin, Prince Rogers Nelson. From this first exposure to Prince and his band Grand Central, Pepé knew that this precocious teenager had extraordinary talent, and he set out to take the youngster under his wing, educating him on the ins and outs of songwriting and music publishing. In December 1975, Pepé brought his cousin-in-law into the studio for a session with Pepé’s band, 94 East. This first recording of Prince, the so-called Cookhouse Five sessions, was a pivotal moment in the rise of an unparalleled musician.
While he continued to serve as mentor, confidante, advocate, and, briefly, manager for Prince, Pepé Willie left his own indelible mark on the burgeoning Minneapolis Sound with 94 East. (The 94 East song “If You See Me” opens the definitive compilation album, Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound.) He also became a mentor to other musicians in Prince’s circle, such as André Cymone, Morris Day, and more. Pepé himself was inducted into the Minnesota Black Music Hall of Fame in 1988.
In this autobiography, Pepé Willie tells of his journey through the music industry and chronicles working alongside Prince, helping the rising star make his own way in the business.
Also of interest:
Prince: Before the Rain
Sights, Sounds, Soul: The Twin Cities Through the Lens of Charles Chamblis