Like Prince, Minnesota music journalist Andrea Swensson was always perplexed by Dick Clark’s comment to Prince on “American Bandstand” in 1979: “This isn’t the kind of music that comes out of Minneapolis.”
So Swenson set out to research the R&B scene in the Twin Cities pre-Prince. The resulting book, “Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound,” is an illuminating slice of Twin Cities cultural and political history.
The book starts with the first R&B single recorded in Minneapolis, the Big M’s “Silent Lover” in 1958 (coincidentally the year Prince was born), and concludes with 1981, the year Prince crossed over to the mainstream with his sold-out concert at First Avenue. The story tells of a segregated music world — from radio to clubs to publications — where black and white seldom mixed, until the 1970s and until Prince broke through with his intentionally multiracial band.
A music journalist broadcasting and blogging for 89.3 the Current, Swensson, 34, takes readers through neighborhoods like north Minneapolis and Rondo in St. Paul, visits clubs like King Solomon’s Mines and the Flame, and discusses such groups as Dave Brady and the Stars, Haze and the Prince Rogers Trio, which featured Prince’s parents.
Swensson will celebrate the publication of her first book with a historical concert Saturday in St. Paul featuring some of the key players in her book — Wee Willie Walker, Wanda Davis, the Valdons, the Family Band and André Cymone plus recent R&B voices PaviElle and Nooky Jones.
Swensson discussed her project in a recent interview.
Q: What sparked you to pursue this topic?
A: Everything dated back to the Secret Stash compilation [2012’s “Twin Cities Funk & Soul: Lost R&B Grooves from Minneapolis/St. Paul 1964-1979”]. When I was at the rehearsals for their big show to celebrate the release, it was upsetting that I wasn’t more familiar with all these musicians and they weren’t embraced in the larger conversation of what we talk about as our musical heritage as Minnesotans. It propelled me to want to learn more about them and capture their memories while they’re still here with us.
Q: What’s your biggest takeaway from the book?
A: I tried to answer the question of where does Prince come from and why does that matter? But, for me, the big takeaway is that we still have issues that plague our state and spread to our music community — issues of racial inequity.
Q: What was the biggest surprise for you?
A: The music. I discovered so much amazing music. I became kind of an eBay shark looking at a lot of different 45s. The Amazers had this song “It’s You For Me.” It’s next-level. The harmonies are insane. The composition is so good. Napoleon Crayton wrote it.
I have a much better record collection now. I bought a couple 45 boxes, maybe 20 to 30 LPs from this era. The most expensive one was the Big M’s, the first R&B 45 from the state of Minnesota. I spent a few hundred dollars on it. It came from Chicago, but the person was originally from here. It has an address label from north Minneapolis. I believe it belonged to a sister of guys in the band.
Q: How much of the book was archival research and how much was original interviews?
A: There was a base of archival research before I interviewed a single person. I probably spent a year looking for clippings and trying to paste together the social history. I’d say 40 percent is bedrock research and then 60 percent is interviews with more personal narratives.
Q: When you talked to Prince in 2014 at Paisley Park, did you tell him you were working on this book?
A: No. I told him I was researching the era. It was very early in me working on the project. He seemed very willing to talk after I asked him about the Charles Chamblis pictures [on view that year] at Minnesota History Center. Does that bother you that people want to look at your high school band? He said that was history. That was valid.
Q: Who are the heroes in this story?
A: There are so many. I feel like Wee Willie Walker is someone who needs to be celebrated. He opens the first chapter. He started his first band in like 1960. And he’s still performing at a high level today. Everything I learned about Maurice McKinnies indicated he was an absolute rock star but he couldn’t break the racial barrier.
Q: Name three sources you wished you could have interviewed if they were alive or reachable.
A: I was disappointed I never got to interview Maurice McKinnies. He was too ill. I’d love to go back in time and talk to Napoleon Crayton. He was such an incredible songwriter and he was in so many different groups. He seems like a very undocumented figure. And maybe Prince’s dad. I’d love to know more about his band.