A hustler from Brooklyn, Pepé Willie spent his teen years as a valet for his uncle’s hit group, Little Anthony and the Imperials. He learned the ins and outs of the business and set out to become an actor and a singer. Despite near misses in both arenas, Willie became a tireless, behind-the-scenes networker, meeting everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley to Muhammad Ali and Whoopi Goldberg.
Willie met a 12-year-old Prince when he was dating the youngster’s first cousin, whom he married (and divorced). In Minneapolis, Willie became a mentor to Prince, introducing him to the recording studio and helping him stage his first concert after signing with Warner Bros. in 1977.
Willie had his own band — 94 East, which recorded with Prince on guitar — but became more of a Twin Cities scenester.
Willie can drop more famous names than Rolling Stone’s Random Notes column (where he’s been mentioned) and invariably uses his Prince connection as an entree. In Willie’s “If You See Me: My Six-Decade Journey in Rock and Roll,” the index indicates that Prince is cited on more than 250 pages of a 368-page book.
The 72-year-old author, who splits his time between the Twin Cities and Nevada, is talking to producers about making his memoir into a movie.
On why he wrote the book
The charismatic Willie likes to spin stories about his days in Brooklyn, hanging out backstage with a parade of stars including Stevie Wonder and Mary Wells. One of his unforgettable yarns is when Dusty Springfield asked him to go buy a set of dishes, which she promptly threw against the dressing room wall as a way to relieve stress. Factor in numerous anecdotes about Prince, and, for years, friends have badgered Willie to put these stories in a book.
“I remember everything — all those long-distance memories,” said Willie. “I remember stuff my uncle don’t even remember.”
On co-writer Tony Kiene
Kiene — who has written for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder and worked for various nonprofits including the Minneapolis Urban League — introduced himself to Willie at a benefit concert at Paisley Park. They became friends and played basketball together. For the book, Willie shared the narratives while Kiene did the writing and researching of historical facts and contexts.
“I took 10 years to put the book together,” Willie said. “I didn’t want this to be a Prince book. I wanted it to be my story, and Prince is in it — a big part of it.”
On the most Brooklyn thing — and most Minnesota thing — about him
“We’re as hard as concrete. We don’t fall for anything,” he said of Brooklynites. “I got a lot of strength out of Brooklyn on how to survive.”
When Willie first came to Minneapolis, he was hard, didn’t take anything from anybody, as he put it. “Minnesota Nice changed me. That’s why I decided to stay here.”
The people, the cleanliness and musical talent appealed to him. “I told one of my friends from New York, ‘I’m gonna make this the next Motown here,’ ” he thought back in the mid-1970s. “I can teach these guys how it’s done, how I did it or how my uncle did it.”
On what he was to Prince
When Prince was 15, he asked Willie about music publishing. A year later, he took Prince’s band, Grand Central, into the recording studio for the first time at Cookhouse in south Minneapolis. Willie also enlisted Prince to play guitar on recordings of his own band, 94 East.
After Prince signed with Warner Bros., Willie accompanied the budding star on promotional tours and lent his south Minneapolis house as a rehearsal space for the newcomer’s band.
Over the years, Willie served as mentor, producer, adviser, interim manager, consultant, big brother and confidant to Prince, not to mention cousin by marriage for a short time. If there was one word to describe Willie’s role, it would be protector.
“I never took a dime from Prince,” said Willie, who was collecting disability from the Army and later worked for the U.S. Postal Service.
On his biggest payday
Over the years, Willie has marketed different versions of the music 94 East recorded with Prince. Pepe Music Inc. received about $400,000 for a London licensing deal for that material.
On the best of Prince
“In the studio, he soaked it all in. Prince would just ask: ‘What is this? What does it do?’ I tried to keep up with his work ethic, and I’m a hard worker. I could not keep up. He was like a rocket ship.
“This was a guy who really wanted to make it. I always admired his talent in music. He was a true genius in music.”
On the worst of Prince
During a 1978 promotional appearance at a North Carolina record store full of fawning fans, Prince got spooked by stardom, telling Willie, “I felt like a piece of meat.”
Willie tried to counsel Prince: “When it gets too much, you go seek out your friends or your family or watch a basketball game or a baseball game to bring you back down to like a normal human being. But it didn’t happen. He got star-itis. He just stayed away from people. We used to call him the Lonely Guy.”
On the last time he talked to Prince
Circa 2002, Prince called Willie to complain about his image being used illegally on the cover of a Willie-affiliated album in Europe. After assuring Prince that the issue would be addressed, the mentor suggested, “Let’s go hang out, let’s go play hoops or something.” Prince responded: “I don’t talk to people.” Said Willie now: “How do you answer that? The weirdness was out there.”