Early Prince Mentor Still Struggles with Star's Death

April 21, 2017 06:08 PM

Pepe Willie wasn't close to Prince in the final years of his life, but he's forever bonded to the superstar because he was there at the beginning.

"We thought we were going to have him forever," Willie says now. "The industry has lost a real icon. A real icon."


Willie was once married to a cousin of Prince. He first saw Prince perform in a high school band he had formed called "Grand Central." Willie immediately spotted his talent.

"He's talented!" Willie remembers thinking the first time he saw him. "This guy was so talented it's just unbelievable."

Willie knows talent because he comes from a musical family. His uncle is a member of "Little Anthony and the Imperials," a 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee.

Prince was so talented, Willie wanted him to perform in his band, "94 East." Willie was a musician and aspiring music producer who took Prince and his band under his wing. He even gave the band rehearsal space at his house near Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis.

He was stunned when he saw Prince could play almost any instrument better than anyone else. Willie watched as Prince went from one band member to another to give them pointers on how to play a certain song.

"And I went my God, this guy plays guitar, bass and keyboards!" he said. "It just blew me away."

MORE: Prince: One Year Later

Prince eventually agreed to play guitar in a "94 East" recording session. It would be the first time Prince was ever in a recording studio.

"I gave him a tape of five songs for him to rehearse and he did all the guitar parts for it," Willie said recently in an interview at his home studio in Maple Grove. Willie couldn't believe how quickly he picked up all the music and even improved it.

"If he didn't get signed by Warner Bros., Prince would have been a permanent member of 94 East," Willie says with a laugh.

Willie helped manage Prince's career in the early days, but quickly realized he needed someone with more experience because he was about to take off. Willie knew Prince was talented, but admits he didn't know he'd become an international superstar.

"I know a lot of folks say I knew he was going to be this and be that," Willie said. "I didn't know that!"

Prince was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.

Willie and Prince eventually had a falling-out after Prince recorded a song Willie had written, but never released it on an album. Willie eventually grew impatient, and when another musician asked if he could record it, he told him he could. Prince later found out and it led to their falling-out.

Willie says he told Prince he had to make a living, too. "He never put (the song) out. He put out an album, my song wasn't on it. He put out another album my song wasn't on it."

The two patched up their differences years later, and Prince's death last year was like a death in the family for Willie.

"Every musician around the world admired Prince. They loved him. And they miss him. I miss him."


Tom Hauser

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