Former Prince mentor Pepé Willie shares memories of the late legend

“The fact that this song [“Do Yourself A Favor”] was never previously released is testament to just how much of a roll Prince was on in the ’80s. The sweetest of soul-pop kiss-offs, this is irresistible bliss.” – Billboard Magazine

“I mean “Do Yourself A Favor” is probably the most interesting song for me [from the 1999 super deluxe reissue] because that goes back to before my entrance onto the scene when [Prince] played with 94 East.” – Dez Dickerson

A little more than 37 years after its debut, Prince’s landmark double album “1999” has received the “super deluxe” treatment from his estate and Warner Bros. Records. Now available as a five-CD or 10-LP set (each of which contains a live DVD of Prince’s December 29, 1982 concert from Houston), there are a total of 65 tracks from the era, including the original remastered album, B-sides, outtakes, remixes, edits, a November 1982 concert from Detroit’s Masonic Hall, and two-dozen previously unreleased gems from Prince’s fabled vault.

Among those titles in the vault are classics that have circulated on the black market for years, such as “Turn it Up,” “Purple Music,” and “No Call U.” Yet, one of the most bootlegged tracks in the collection happens to be the only song that Prince didn’t write himself: Pepé Willie’s composition “If You See Me” (later rechristened by Prince as “Do Yourself a Favor”).

A fan favorite—denoted by its inclusion on this “1999” reissue—“Do Yourself a Favor” has storied and rather ironic history that also happens to represent Prince’s first experience in a professional recording studio. 

Pepé Willie spoke to the MSR recently and shared the colorful backstory to that song and more.

The Backstory

For the better part of the 1960s, Pepé Willie worked as a teenage valet for Little
Anthony and The Imperials, the group that his Uncle Clarence Collins founded in 1957 (as The Chesters). And, it was during the famed Rock and Roll Revues that took place at the Paramount and Fox theatres in his native Brooklyn where he studied and absorbed the business first-hand at the feet of musical icons like Jackie Wilson, Dionne Warwick, Chubby Checker, The Ronnettes, Dusty Springfield, Dion, The Belmonts, Teddy Randazzo, and a Who’s Who of Motown Records.

In July of 1969, 21-year-old Willie, now an aspiring musician and songwriter in his own right, was with Little Anthony and The Imperials during their two-week stand at the legendary Copacabana nightclub in New York City. That’s when a member of the group, future two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Sammy Strain walked into the dressing room and asked, “Who’s the girl out there with the green eyes?” Without hesitation, Willie blurted out, “She’s with me!”

As it so happened, Willie had absolutely no idea who the girl was nor had he so much as seen her before. But since he “knew Sammy had good taste,” he was determined to meet her. The girl, Shauntel Manderville, was in town from Minneapolis to visit her Aunt Kahlua, who, by a strange twist of fate, was dating Willie’s Uncle Clarence.

Almost instantly, Willie and Manderville became inseparable, eventually marrying and settling down in Brooklyn. After a protracted separation, the couple ultimately reconciled, and this time around, Willie chose to join Manderville in her hometown. This was not Willie’s first time in Minneapolis.

He’d been to visit Manderville and her family back in December of 1970, where for the very first time he met her younger cousin Prince. “I was into grown folks stuff, so I didn’t pay him that much attention,” Willie explained. “He was wrestling around on the floor with his cousin Charles. Charles would have been 14 and Prince was 12. But Prince was just so little. He looked more like eight to me.”

While he might not have noticed Prince then, that would certainly change when he relocated to Minneapolis four years later. “The very moment I arrived in town, I was off to a ski party that was being thrown by Shauntel’s father Eddie,” recalled Willie. The musical entertainment that evening was Grand Central, which at the time consisted of Prince on guitar, André Anderson on bass, Andre’s sister Linda on keyboards, Morris Day on drums, and William “Hollywood” Doughty on percussion.

“I didn’t realize it at first, but Shauntel had led them to believe I was some sort of big-
time producer out of New York” laughed Willie. “Of course, I wasn’t, but I figured since I was here, I might as well try to play the part.” So, after a brief discussion with Day’s mother LaVonne, who was managing the group at the time, Willie agreed to work with Grand Central.

It was during the second or third rehearsal in Day’s attic, that Willie realized there was something special about Prince. “He could play everybody’s part, everybody’s
instrument. And brilliantly at that,” lauded Willie. “I’d never seen anything like it. I mean, the kid was only 16. Wow!”

After about a year or so working with Grand Central, Willie was in the process of putting his own band together and booked some time at Cookhouse Studios on Nicollet Avenue South. Willie remembered, “I asked Prince if he’d ever been in a recording studio. He said, ‘No.’ So I asked him to come along to play guitar with my band.”

Prince and Pepé

Pepé Willie’ (left) with Prince and members of 94 East/ Photo courtesy of Twitter/@94 East

Of the songs cut on December 4, 1975 which history has come to know as “The Cookhouse 5” was a five-minute 47-second midtempo number titled “If You See Me,” the chorus of which declares:

So if you see me, walk on by girl
Don’t say nothin’, walk on by girl
Do yourself a favor, walk on by girl
Don’t say nothin’, just walk on by
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

The irony of this particular song is that, by this time, Willie and Manderville had split for good. And this was, in essence, his break-up song to her. “I never told Prince that,” confessed Willie. “Not sure if he had a sense of what or who it was about. Of course, Prince was really close to Shauntel. After all, their mothers, Mattie Del and Edna Mae were twins.”

With “If You See Me,” and four other tracks now in hand, Willie, along with his bassist Wendell Thomas, returned to his old stomping grounds in New York in search of a recording contract. After being rejected by several labels, he landed a deal with Polydor, which tapped original Motown Funk Brother and songwriting legend Hank Cosby to work with Willie’s band, which, at that moment was still without a name.

 After consulting with bandmates Kristie Lazenberry and Marcy Ingvoldstad, who would also become his business partners in the newly formed Pepé Music Inc. (PMI), Willie settled on a name 94 East. And, in short order, 94 East recorded a pair of songs for Polydor, Willie’s “10:15” and the Hank Cosby penned “Fortune Teller, both featuring Prince on guitar.

Following a change in leadership at the company, Cosby was relieved of his duties and soon thereafter, 94 East was dropped from Polydor as well. Nonetheless, Prince would record with 94 East again. All told, in addition to The Cookhouse 5, late ’70s sessions at Sound 80 in Minneapolis, New York City’s Sound Palace (which also included the contributions of André Cymone), and Prince’s first home studio on France Avenue South, yielded a total of 14 songs Prince recorded with Willie. Not just on guitar, either.

Prince added his talents on bass, drums, keyboards, synthesizers, and even clavinet to several of those tracks, which included “If You Feel Like Dancin’,” “Lovin’ Cup,” “Dance to the Music of the World,” “One Man Jam,” and the Prince/Pepé co-written song “Just Another Sucker.”

In the meantime, Prince, now signed to Warner Bros., was doing his own thing. And, since Willie was without a deal himself, he decided to dedicate all his time to help Prince. This included promotional tours to cities like Chicago and Charlotte.

Then, when Prince’s rehearsal space was robbed in 1978, his band (the initial incarnation of The Revolution) spent the next six months rehearsing 12 hours a day in Willie’s basement studio prior to his first professional gigs at the Northside’s Capri Theater, which, were in turn, produced by PMI.

After Prince broke from his first manager Owen Husney, Willie took the role on in the interim before helping Prince secure the services of Bob Marley’s manager Don Taylor, who was the bridge between Prince’s famed management team of Bob Cavallo, Joseph Ruffalo, and Steven Fargnoli.