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In 1977, Prince appeared on “The Gong Show,” but no one has ever talked about the episode, until now
We were astonished to find out recently that our contributor Michael Dare saw Prince performing at a live taping of TV’s “The Gong Show” in the summer of 1977, but the episode never aired and hasn’t even been talked about, as far as we can tell, until now.
We dug around a bit and were able to find out that this taping actually took place the same week that the 19-year old Prince had come out to the west coast to sign his first record deal with Warner Bros. Records, in Burbank, California.
It’s the kind of story you won’t hear about in any Prince documentaries — including those we’re offering to our subscribers on Night Flight Plus, like Prince: Up Close and Personal — but we figured Prince’s “Gong Show” adventures might be something our readers would want to know about, so we asked Michael to tell us all about it.
During our casual chat, Michael told us a few of the details he remembered — it was a long time ago, after all — but he says his first impression was that Prince was “a little guy with a big Afro” who played “hot shit guitar.”
“The Gong Show,” of course, has recently been in the news, because the original show’s co-producer, Chuck Barris, died on March 20, 2017 (he was 87).
We’re also awaiting more news about the show’s reboot, which was announced last fall. Comic actor Will Arnett is executive producing a new “Gong Show” for the ABC network.
In the summer of 1977, Prince Rogers Nelson — he was born on June 7, 1958, and the first anniversary of his passing is coming up later this month, on April 21st — was well known in the North Minneapolis funk-rock scene.
The hometown hero was already the talk of the town, and had been for years, after mastering several instruments — he began playing piano at age six, guitar at thirteen, bass soon after that, and had mastered drums at about age fourteen — and his band, Grand Central (later known as Champagne, and featuring both André Cymone and Morris Day, later of the Time) had been a top draw in the clubs for years.
He was, at the time, already mastering the recording studio too, spending most of his off-stage hours at Sound 80 recording studio.
Everyone in Minneapolis already knew he was going to be a star, but by 1977, Prince was careful not to make too many local appearances, later saying his ambition was to be a national recording star, and so “he did not want to wear out his talent in local clubs.”
He’d recently agreed to pose for photos taken by fine-art photographer Robert Whitman, who was, like Prince, still at the beginning of his very promising career.
At the time, Prince had already recorded several demo tapes, one of which was actually produced with the help of his first manager, Owen Husney, a former concert promoter who was now president of two companies, the advertising agency The Ad Co., and American Artists Inc., a management company.
Husney — who bought new instruments for Prince and helped to produce a demo for him at Sound 80 — had told representatives for several labels, including Columbia, A&M and Warner Bros., that another one of the other labels were flying him to Los Angeles for auditions, which, of course, wasn’t true.
He stressed to each of them that Prince was a unique artist who wrote, performed and produced his own music, and in some respects, he was the “next Stevie Wonder” that they’d been looking for.
Husney’s ruse worked, touching off a bidding war between several labels.
Husney’s great pitch had a particularly strong effect on Russ Thyret, Warner Bros. Records’ head of promotion at the time.
Thyret brought Prince’s demo tape to Mo Ostin, and told him that Husney — their promotions guy in Minneapolis, he later became Prince’s manager — had said that A&M and Columbia were also interested, and if Ostin liked what he heard, they really should make a deal to sign Prince as soon as possible.
Thyret learned from Husney that Columbia was offering Prince a two-album deal, and so Ostin said, “Let’s offer him a three album deal,” and Thyret went back to his office and called Husney and told him what Ostin had said.
He then told Husney they were messengering him two TWA airline tickets in order to show that they were serious, and that’s how Prince ended up flying to Burbank, California, in the second to last week of June, 1977.
(Left to right): Russ Thyret, Prince, Mo Ostin, Owen Husney, and Barry Gross after Prince’s signing with Warner Bros. in June 1977
On June 25, 1977, Prince signed his huge three-album contract with Warner Bros. Records — for a nearly unheard of six-figure sum, and the promise to let him produce his own recordings — at their offices in Burbank, California.
At the time, it was reputed to have been one of the largest recording contracts ever signed by a brand new artist.
Prince — who had turned 19 years old earlier that same month — knew he had made the right choice, as Warner Bros. offered the kind of artist-friendly culture he was looking for.
Prince with Mo Ostin in 1979
While Prince was in the Los Angeles area, Warner Bros. music execs were falling all over themselves trying to impress their future young star that he’d made the right choice signing with them.
At a private luncheon thrown in his honor, some of them even offered to personally show Prince around town. They also invited him to swingin’ Hollywood Hills parties, anything to make his six days in late June ’77 a memorable time.
They asked Prince if there was anything in particular he wanted to do, and Prince told them that he’d really like to go to a taping of “The Gong Show.”
Ostin remembered that Prince didn’t speak first unless he was first spoken to. Ostin later described Prince as being “incredibly shy, very taciturn”
He also turned out to have what Ostin called a “terrific sense of humor.”
Ostin remembered that his face lit up when he told Prince that he just happened to be good friends with the show’s producer and popular host, Chuck Barris.
Barris was an established TV game show producer by then (“The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game” were also popular Barris-produced shows), and he and Ostin had become good friends over the years.
In fact, Prince would later recall that Ostin’s bald head had only recently stopped peeling from the sunburn he got when his family and Barris’s had gone on a waterskiing vacation together at the Colorado River, earlier that same summer.
Their paths crossed frequently, and since they were both based in Burbank, they often had lunch together too. “The Gong Show” was shot at Studio 3 over at the NBC studio complex at the time, on W. Alameda Avenue, which was walking distance from Warner Bros.’ “ski chalet”-style offices.
At the time, “The Gong Show” were taping on Fridays, all day long, five episodes in one day, and it just so happened that the luncheon that they’d thrown for Prince was happening on a Friday, so Ostin went to his office and called Barris, and asked if he could bring over his new label signing and a small entourage.
Barris said sure, he’d be delighted to meet Prince and roll out the red carpet for Warner Bros.’ newest star.
Ostin, Prince, Husney, Thyret and some other assorted hangers-on walked over to NBC that very afternoon, and were swiftly ushered backstage, where the show’s crew were busy setting lighting rigs and preparing to shoot another episode.
It was a chaotic scene, Prince would later recall, standing backstage and shyly shaking hands with some of the crew and a few of the celebrity judges, including Jamie Farr (of TV’s “M*A*S*H”), movie critic/snob Rex Reed and foxy singer Jaye P. Morgan, who pinched Prince’s cheek and told him he was cute.
Prince was reportedly thrilled in particular to meet Eugene Patton, a stagehand-turned-dancer better known as “Gene Gene The Dancing Machine,” who was usually asked to come out and dance when time ran short during the taping of an episode.
Prince also remembered that he met a stand-up comedian named Murray Langston, who appeared on the show and elsewhere as the “Unknown Comic,” telling deliberately awful jokes while wearing a brown paper bag over his face.
However, later, when asked what the comic actually looked like without the bag, all Prince could recall was that he had a “porn star mustache.”
(Read Nathan Rabin’s AV Club interview with Langston here).
Prince also recalled that he was a little afraid to talk to too many of the contestants, who were crowded out in the hallways.
Some of them were clearly insane and had taken Greyhound buses or driven themselves across the country in order to appear on the show for the show’s grand prize, a check for $516.32, the Screen Actors Guild’s minimum pay for a day’s work at the time. They’d also be given the show’s “Golden Gong” trophy.
In fact, by this point, “The Gong Show” was so popular that there was both a daytime version of the show — which had begun airing on the NBC network in June 14, 1976 — and there was an evening version too, airing in its first-run syndication.
They get even more their taped appearance was shown on the syndicated version, which was originally $712.05 but later increased to $716.32.
Barris really took to Prince, and asked him if he’d like to appear on an episode of the show that they were taping, which surprised the young Minneapolis musician.
Prince wasn’t initially interested — he told Ostin that he was especially afraid of being “gang-gonged” — and he wasn’t sure what to do about Barris’s invitation, particularly since Barris usually put people on television precisely because they seemingly had no business being on TV, or even performing in public at all.
Husney then told Prince that an appearance on the show — with Barris introducing him as Warner Bros.’ new recording artist — would be a great opportunity to reach millions of people in one fell swoop.
After a half-hour’s worth of discussion, Prince was eventually talked into appearing on “The Gong Show.” He borrowed an electric guitar from a musician in the show’s band.
Barris told Prince that he wouldn’t be allowed to talk to any of the show’s judges, because any “off-camera fraternization between producers and contestants” was considered a violation of FCC rules, and so he was escorted to a dressing room, where he waited with Ostin and the small entourage until they were ready to begin taping.
Backstage, they talked about what song Prince should perform, and Ostin has recalled previously that there was some discussion about how he shouldn’t perform one of his originals but instead that should do a cover version, a song that everyone knew, and then slay everyone in the studio audience with one of his incredible guitar solos.
Michael Dare told us that he’d been to tapings of “The Gong Show” a few times, but he hadn’t appeared on the show (“I didn’t appear, good God no, I played classical guitar and getting gonged was NOT one of my dreams, I was a Hollywood film critic, such things were beneath me, but I did sit in the audience a few times and took photos.”)
He hadn’t remembered seeing Prince until he hauled a giant box of old proof sheets out of his storage locker in the Sonoran Desert up to his home in Seattle, but then he didn’t have an AGFA loop so it took another couple years before he bothered to do hi-res scans of the proof sheets, so he could blow them up enough to see what was on them.
That’s when he was surprised to see the photo he’d taken.
“I wasn’t even sure it was Prince, at first. I had several rolls of tri-ex that I’d never printed, and when I took a closer look, I saw what looked to be Prince, and then it all came rushing back to me. I’d remembered seeing this little guy with a big Afro, who played hot shit guitar.”
We asked if he remembered what song Prince performed, and, after a long pause, Michael told us, “Yeah, as I recall it was a Stevie Wonder song, ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life,’ but he added this little bit from ‘You are my sunshine, my only sunshine’ too, but what I really remember was that he played this really hot shit solo.”
It turned out that Michael also had a shot of Prince appearing on “The Dating Game” among his photos too, but no one seems to know anything about it and Michael says he doesn’t even remember taking the photo.
In the photo, you can see that Prince is wearing the same clothes he’s wearing in the photo Michael took at the “Gong Show” taping, so it may have even taken place the same day. No one seems to remember anything about it.
That is, except Mo Ostin, who has said that his friend Chuck Barris was delighted that Prince was going to appear on the show (Prince wasn’t gonged, by the way), but we here at Night Flight HQ were able to find out that shortly after Prince appeared on the show, the Warner Bros. record man went to his friend Barris and asked that they cut Prince out of the episode, before it aired.
Ostin explained that, according to a clause in Prince’s own recording contract, he’d given his new star a right of first refusal for any televised appearances, and that Prince had re-considered his decison, once he’d returned home to Minneapolis and given it some thought.
He’d decided that he didn’t want to appear on the show after all, and that it wasn’t the best way to show he was a serious artist, and that’s what he told Ostin.
When his friend called and told him what they’d decided, Barris agreed to edit out Prince’s appearance. He even went so far as to give Ostin the raw videotape footage, trimmed from the show’s air master, which was then given to Prince, who destroyed all evidence that he ever appeared on the show.
NBC’s publicists working on “The Gong Show” were also told by Barris to not mention Prince at all, and even after he became famous worldwide, Barris and NBC both politely denied that Prince had ever appeared on the show.
Thankfully, we have Michael Dare’s own recollections and these photos to confirm that Prince actually did appear at a taping in late June of 1977.
We asked Michael if he had anything to add, and here’s what he told us:
“I had way too many friends on ‘The Gong Show.’ Some, like Taylor Negron, had done a half-dozen ‘Dating Game’s and were ready to move on. At least on ‘The Dating Game,’ you were TRYING to win, but the ‘Gong Show’ needed a non-stop supply of acts who were trying to lose. Winners were rewarded with pitiful and useless prizes, but losers? They got to say they were gonged. Everyone from the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo to two hippies eating popsicles showed up for the chance to make union minimum for what could turn out to be only seconds of work, depending upon the itchy trigger finger of whoever was holding the gong mallet. Some were so good at coming up with idiotic performances that they wore it as badge of honor to have been gonged multiple times.”
For years after Prince’s appearance, Ostin would often draw his friend Chuck Barris into conversations about the show (Barris didn’t usually talk about the show at all, when they were having lunch or taking vacations together), but whenever he brought up Prince’s name, the game show producer would grow silent and tell his friend “drop it.”
Prince’s debut Warner Bros. album, For You, released on April 7, 1978, would end up peaking at #163 on the Billboard 200 chart, but of course, as we all know, his promising career was still just beginning.