Owen Husney is a man with a plan…
Prepping for the release of his new memoir “Famous People Who’ve Met Me,” we sat down with legendary music manager Owen Husney to talk about how his book came together, Prince’s shocking death and Minnesota’s music scene.
Tell me about the origins of your book, when did you first start writing it?
I started writing my book the day I was born – I’m pretty sure that’s when my life began. It could have started a few thousand years before but I had no way of recording it. – I actually started collecting things from my life when I was 12 or 13. I had a secret storage box that I kept hidden in my parent’s cedar closet. I still have it to this day. Inside is a tape recording of Sputnik beeping away as it circled the globe – there’s letters from me at YMCA camp, and from my parents to me at camp, notes from when I built a little radio station that broadcast to the neighborhood, and odds and ends from my life back then. Once I got in my band I started collecting every bit of memorabilia from that time; my band contracts, pictures, articles, etc. As a promoter I kept posters, articles, and tickets from the day. Interesting is that Rolling Stones tickets were $2.50 back then in 1972! Around this time I started keeping serious notes in a box about my life – right on up to Prince and beyond. I collected so much stuff that eventually I got a small storage place in Minneapolis. I still have it to this day. Two years ago I returned to Minneapolis and made some impactful discoveries that caused me to get on with my memoir and finish it.
At what point when you were writing it did you find out that Prince died. How did that impact you?
Seriously, I just finished writing the chapter on him. My phone rang at 7:50 a.m. and it was an investagative reporter from KSTP Television in the Twin Cities. He wanted a comment on a body they found in Paisley Park. I told him it was probably an employee and he should call Prince’s publicist for a comment. He said he thought it was Prince and I hung up on him. A few minutes later he emailed me the Sheriff’s report stating it was Prince. I stared at that email for almost 15 minutes until he called me again and asked for a statement. It hurt on so many levels; first, he was younger than me by almost 11 years so he was supposed to outlive me, second, Prince never did ANY drugs that I was aware of – so it was a shock to my system, third, was the fact that I did not know the man as an icon with bodyguards and an entourage – I knew the young, vulnerable, beautiful teenage kid who showed up at my door with a few song demos, neatly ironed jeans, and a gift of intelligence beyond anything I had ever experienced – and that is who I mourned. It took me months to come out of it. Even today I get flashes of disbelief that he’s gone.
You talk about a visiting Minnesota and going through your storage bin. Tell me about a few of the items you found.
Old out of print local Minneapolis music publications going back to 1965, band posters from that era, recordings from that era, etc. I also found recording masters from my studio that included Minneapolis bands, both signed to labels, and local bands going back to the early 80’s. And drawings! To kill time we’d sit around the kitchen table in San Francisco and draw images. My wife was good, Prince was good, I sucked.
One of the things that excited me about reading your book is how you talk about how Prince would hide cassette tapes of songs he’d written for you to find. Do you find any of these tapes? If so, what can you tell me about them?
Prince would hang at my house while I was at work. I had an early Roberts tape recorder that that could overdub tracks, so, in effect, he could create multi-track recordings. He’d hide the finished cassette recordings because he did not want me to listen to them in front of him. So he hid them, like under the sofa or behind a plant. Then, he’d call after he left the house and tell me where they were.
What surprised me the most is that before you discovered Prince, you helped Al Jarreau find an audience. How would you compare the two? What did they have in common?
They were both thoroughly gifted original artists who created something brand new during their time. Neither were derivative in any way. I wasn’t into management at the time I was working with Al and helping him get gigs. We were great friends and I just wanted to see him succeed. I helped him get out to Los Angeles with the aid of my client, Golden Star Productions, a northern California promoter. Soon, Patrick Rains, a Minneapolis native living in LA managing acts signed Al to Warner Bros Records. When Pat called me and told me the good news I was so happy, yet so jealous it brought tears to my eyes. I thought I’d blown my one chance to sign a true talent to a major record label. Shortly thereafter Prince walked in the door.
What was it about Minneapolis in the late 70s and early 80s that made it such a music hub? In one corner you had Prince’s camp, the other you had the Husker Du & Replacement camp, but at the heart of it you have Bob Dylan? What makes the Minnesota music scene so robust?
First of all, Bob Dylan had to leave the Twin Cities in order to make it. There was no business infrastructure to help him back then. Think Detroit with Berry Gordy (Motown Records), Sam Phillips in Memphis (Sun Records, Sun Studios – Elvis to Johnny Cash), Gamble & Huff in Philadelphia (Philadelphia International Records with The O’Jays – Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes), and Chess Records in Chicago with Lenard and Phil Chess (Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy). In each of these cities the business side met the creative side and the town developed a “sound.” Minneapolis became a robust music scene with the rise of recording studios, managers, booking agents, recording engineers and clubs. Once there was a business infrastructure the talent remained in town and the music scene thrived. I’m quite sure that if there were no studios, managers, etc. Prince, and all the other acts would have left to one of the coasts to make it.
What comes across in the book is how many of your friends from high school end up being the same people who help you break Prince. Can you tell me about how that happened?
They say it was in the drinking water! We were all from St. Louis Park, MN. We all went to “SLP” high school. A creosote plant that made tar coatings for power polls had contaminated the groundwater in the small suburb. Everyone knew it but the city never cleaned it up until recent history. Everyone who went to SLP says the same thing! And that goes for: Bobby Z, David Z, the Coen brothers, Thomas Friedman from the NY Times, Al Franken, Peter Himmelman, best selling author, Alan Weisman – even me. And there are so many more who went to SLP high school. On a serious note, there are many incidences of cancer among the residents that may be attributed to the groundwater.
It’s not a run of the mill music bio, but reads more like a collection of great short stories. How did you develop your style? Who are you literary influences?
First, a bio is the story of your life, memoirs are stories from your life – and a memoir is the route I chose to take. Since I can remember I’ve been fascinated with the biographies of famous people, mostly show biz people and authors: from P.T. Barnum to the men who built Hollywood, to F. Scott Fitzgerald, to Billy Rose, to music moguls like Colonel Tom Parker, and on. So putting together a string of stories of famous characters I met in my career seemed like the natural thing to do. Second, I was a radio announcer at one point in my life so my original concept was to do a memoir in the form of a podcast. I actually wrote and recorded several of my first stories. As I played them back for people they said that the stories would make an interesting book, and even asked me to repeat the stories at dinner parties – so a book it was, and so here I am.
You said there are a lot of life lessons in the book, tell me about the one that inspires you the most.
I’ll give you three: 1) When it comes to business you’re better off keeping your mouth shut and letting people think you’re an idiot than opening your mouth and letting them know for sure. 2) You can fool all the people some of the time and that’s enough to make a damn good living. 3) Follow your passion but work f*cking hard at it.
You found a letter Prince wrote you. What can you tell us about it?
The letter was written on three white inner sleeves from vinyl album jackets. In the letter, Prince explained himself to me. He let me know that I led him to believe that he was going to be worth a great deal of money, because he’s gonna be around for a long time. But what it came down to was this: He didn’t want to come off as a prima donna. But he absolutely did not want to be responsible for anything “normal”, because he just wasn’t good at “normal”. He couldn’t go to the drug store, because he couldn’t be seen at a drug store. And he couldn’t be taking 45 minutes away from rehearsal for guitar strings, or anything, because those were 45 minutes he could be teaching the band arrangements, or dreaming up the next essential piece of music. While I was reading the letter I kept thinking, he’s exactly right, it just isn’t the time to be making these types of demands yet, we’re still working on his very first single. He told me he loved me, and respected me, and if there were anyone better at being his manager, he would have found them. There was more, of course. But that was the gist.
Looking back on your life is there anything you would change?
There is nothing I would change. I’ve been lucky enough to live and work within my passion since I was 16 years old. Sure, there were ups and downs, but isn’t that life? Oh, and now I have a second passion – as an author.
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