The story of Pepé Willie, the “Godfather of the Minneapolis Sound,” who helped to groom and mentor the likes of Prince, Morris Day, André Cymone, and more.
From the 1960s R&B scene in New York City to the Minneapolis Sound of the 1980s, Pepé Willie has been up close and personal with some of the most explosive American-grown music and musicians of the latter half of the twentieth century.
The nephew of Clarence Collins of Little Anthony and the Imperials, Pepé Willie spent his Brooklyn youth surrounded by groundbreaking R&B and soul musicians. He worked as a valet for Little Anthony and the Imperials and the many legendary acts who shared the stage with them—from Ray Charles and Patti LaBelle to the Four Tops and the Supremes. Pepé rubbed elbows with the hottest stars of the day and got an up-close look at the inner workings of the music business. The experience inspired him to pursue his own musical dreams.
After meeting and marrying a Minneapolis native, Pepé moved to Minnesota in 1974. He was brought to a family gathering to see a performance by the band featuring his wife’s cousin, Prince Rogers Nelson. From this first exposure to Prince and his band Grand Central, Pepé knew that this precocious teenager had extraordinary talent, and he set out to take the youngster under his wing, educating him on the ins and outs of songwriting and music publishing. In December 1975, Pepé brought his cousin-in-law into the studio for a session with Pepé’s band, 94 East. This first recording of Prince, the so-called Cookhouse Five sessions, was a pivotal moment in the rise of an unparalleled musician.
While he continued to serve as mentor, confidante, advocate, and, briefly, manager for Prince, Pepé Willie left his own indelible mark on the burgeoning Minneapolis Sound with 94 East. (The 94 East song “If You See Me” opens the definitive compilation album, Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound.) He also became a mentor to other musicians in Prince’s circle, such as André Cymone, Morris Day, and more. Pepé himself was inducted into the Minnesota Black Music Hall of Fame in 1988.
In this autobiography, Pepé Willie tells of his journey through the music industry and chronicles working alongside Prince, helping the rising star make his own way in the business.
Pepé Willie is a musician and the founder of Pepé Music Inc. He was a mentor to many musicians and is considered one of the godfathers of the Minneapolis Sound. He was the first person to ever take Prince into a professional recording studio, and Pepé's own band, 94 East, was an integral player on the local music scene of the mid-1970s.
Tony Kiene is an author who has worked with several nonprofit and entertainment organizations in the Twin Cities. He writes two Prince-related columns: "Purple Music: Musings on the Minneapolis Sound" for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, and "Alumni Spotlight: Stories from the Park"; for the PRN Alumni Foundation. Some of Kiene's other Prince content has appeared in Insight News, The Theology of Prince, Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men, and Prince: The Day I Was There.
Clarence Collins is a singer, producer, and founder of the legendary R&B group Little Anthony and the Imperials. During their peak in the mid-60s, the Imperials appeared on a variety of television programs and performed live at clubs and venues around the world. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. Collins currently lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Reviews and News:
“The Minneapolis story would not have turned out the same without Pepé Willie. I am eternally grateful that Pepé hired me to play drums with his band, 94 East. I was young and hadn’t gotten it all together yet, but Pepé encouraged me, and I never looked back. Pepé and Prince were looking for a drummer to follow their tempos, create space, and be on the one! Exactly what I wanted to do! 94 East forever!”
Bobby Z., drummer for 94 East and the Revolution
“Whatever metaphor you wish to employ, Pepé Willie lit the fuse, fanned the flames, and fueled the fire of the rebellious yet finessed musical movement that would become known as the Minneapolis Sound. Despite his integral role in elevating and amplifying this futuristic fusion of funk and rock, Pepé somehow remains a footnote in this pivotal period in Black music. Let’s hope this book changes that.”
Jonathan Kirby, author and producer of the Grammy-nominated Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound
“It has been a long time since I’ve read a memoir that was equally informative and entertaining. I could have read it in one sitting, but forced myself to put it down halfway through so as to savor the moment, only to find myself picking it up the next day and starting all over again. If You See Me is a tour de force and a must read for those who fashion themselves students of the Minneapolis Sound. Pepé Willie is an unsung icon in the music industry. With the help of Tony Kiene, this book places Willie in his proper place in the annals of R&B and pop music history. Pepé Willie is a bad mofo; this book is a testament to that fact.”
Judson L. Jeffries, PhD, professor of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University and editor of the Journal of African American Studies
“When I auditioned for Prince in October 1978, it was in Pepé Willie’s basement in Minneapolis. Pepé made me feel like I was part of the family as soon as Prince brought me into the fold. A few months later, with Pepé’s help the new band performed for the first time, at the Capri Theater in Minneapolis. Pepé made me an honorary soul brother after that show, and we’ve been best of friends ever since!”
Matt “Dr.” Fink, keyboardist, songwriter, producer, and member of the Revolution
- Format: Paperback, 368 pages, 40 b/w photos, index
- Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press (Sept.1, 2020)
- Category: Performing Arts, Biography
- Author: Pepé Willie, With Tony Kiene, Foreword by Clarence Collins of Little Anthony and the Imperials