It’s hard to believe, but on Thursday, June 7, Prince Rogers Nelson would have turned 60 years old, had he lived.
It’s even harder to fathom (even after more than two years) that he isn’t around to celebrate that milestone.
But there was a milestone he likely did celebrate 40 years ago. On his 20th birthday – June 7, 1978 – Prince released the first single from his début album, For You, an LP that itself was already two months old by the time his label Warner Brothers began promoting singles from it.
That first single release was “Soft and Wet,” an uptempo blend of pop, disco, soul, funk and even rock; a keyboard-synthesizer lover’s dream pop tune that, in retrospect, was one of the future Purple One’s most provocative 45s issued to radio.
Right off the bat, the Boy Wonder let us know what had been on his 19-year-old mind (at the time of the song’s recording) with the opening line: “Hey, lover, I got a sugarcane… that I wanna lose in you, baby can you stand the pain?”
That was just 25 seconds in.
And although a song with a title like “Soft and Wet” sung by a 19-year-old boy-turned-man with raging hormones just begged for even more innuendo, things from there got a little less metaphorical in the remaining 2:36 of the song’s run time.
With that somewhat lewd “sugarcane” reference out of the way, the dirtiest Prince’s young mind would get from that point on was a PG-13 reference to his love target being “as wet as the evening rain,” which was certainly tame by today’s standards, even if it was clear that Prince likely didn’t intend for listeners to envision a driving rainstorm as he wrapped his young falsetto voice around that line.
As quick as it was in revealing its sexual premise while leaving little to the imagination, “Soft and Wet” got off to an inauspicious start chart-wise. With the album having predated it by two months, Prince’s label made it clear that marketing their new signee’s potential hit single was not a top priority. The 45 had been released on his birthday in early June, but it would be nearly two more months before it even charted.
“Soft and Wet” finally entered Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles 100-position chart on July 29, 1978 – as the lowest new entry at No. 98 – without a bullet. From there it began its slow, two-month climb to the top 20 where it would eventually peak at No. 12 in September. It would also later crossover to the pop charts where it peaked at No. 92 (spending only four weeks on the Hot 100). It sold an estimated 350,000 copies at the time of its release, not bad but far short of what was required for a gold certification back then (one million).
While modest, those numbers were nothing to sneeze at considering the song’s lyrics (which caused some stations to avoid it like the plague) and the fact that the artist was previously unheard-of. That “Soft and Wet” was even able to compete with hits by the day’s soul music heavyweights, including the Jacksons, Emotions, L.T.D., Earth, Wind & Fire, and label mates Funkadelic and Ashford & Simpson, had to be somewhat satisfying for Prince, a well-documented perfectionist who had made it clear to his label bosses that it wasn’t those artists with whom he wanted to compete. Instead, uninhibited by racial stereotyping and pigeonholing, it would be the Fleetwood Macs and Rolling Stones of the world that Prince had set his sights on (and whose chart success and album sales his would eventually rival).
But in the beginning, Prince, who would quickly develop a reputation for being hard to please when it came to his own music, worked obsessively on that first album, having played nearly all the instruments on it. As such, For You would be the first of many times we’d see the words “Produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince.”
The exception was “Soft and Wet,” whose lyrics were contributed partly by Chris Moon (who recently put his half of the song’s credit up for auction). “Soft and Wet” is thus one of the few songs in his catalogue on which Prince shared writing credits. (Fans are left to wonder which of the two – Prince or Moon – contributed that dubiously clever opening line about “sugarcane.” The answer could be revealed in the demo video at the bottom of this article, before Chris Moon got his hands on the song.)
But soft-porn lyrics are not what made “Soft and Wet” a hit (or non-hit, as it were). Its moderate success was as much a tribute to Prince’s musicianship as any lyrics he and Moon could have conjured up. Think about it, who could deny that quirky upbeat melody? And what the juvenile lyrics lacked in nuance, “Soft and Wet” made up for in its catchiness and Prince’s now-famous falsetto vocal delivery.
In just over three short minutes, Prince delivered a fun but powerful punch that was unlike anything R&B radio had ever laid its hands on. It was certainly more worthy of being a début single than anything else on For You.
Forty years later, “Soft and Wet” is still one of Prince’s most underrated and unrecognized singles. Many people falsely believe his career began a year later with his self-titled follow-up album and its lead-off hit, the No. 1 R&B/ No. 11 pop song, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” or worse, that it started with 1999 or Purple Rain.
But “Soft and Wet” laid the groundwork for all of that. Without it, who knows what direction subsequent singles and albums (Prince, Dirty Mind, Controversy, 1999, etc…) might have taken.
And for all his first song’s (and album’s) perceived shortcomings – mostly of the lyrical kind – many fans and critics alike agreed that the young artist’s potential for growth was already evident. Certainly Warner Brothers recognized the goldmine they were sitting on as they rewarded Prince with longer-term contracts and bigger album budgets. In turn, Prince rewarded them with future records that were more accessible to radio and consumers and landed much bigger sales numbers (before the artist and label’s relationship turned contentious in the years to come).
We all now know of Prince’s phenomenal legacy since “Soft and Wet,” one he honed for nearly four decades with many albums and singles (and those famous B-sides). He was perhaps the most prolific artist of his generation – having released, on average, an album per year for 38 years.
Yet it was in those first few months while “Soft and Wet” was popular that Prince’s genius and his mojo was first revealed to us, even if the song itself wasn’t among the best of its day; it was certainly the best the album For You had to offer.
And it made many of us take notice of Prince – the post-teenage phenom who would become rock and soul music royalty within a few short years – and one of the most important musicians of all time.
Here’s to the 40th anniversary of Prince’s first single, “Soft and Wet.”
And Happy 60th Birthday To Prince as well!
As a bonus, here’s an unearthed early demo of “Soft and Wet” recorded two years before the song’s official release (no “sugarcane” here, btw).