Prince Gets an Unlikely Disco Smash With ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover': 365 Prince Songs in a Year
To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.
“I Wanna Be Your Lover” is one of Prince’s most important songs. It rolled into the market in late-summer 1979 as the lead single from Prince’s self-titled second album and established him as a star. Hitting the top of the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart around Christmastime and cresting at No. 11 on the pop side early the following year, “Lover” put the world on notice that Prince was a star in the making.
After the relatively quiet performance of his debut album For You, Prince’s label, Warner Brothers, pressured the young musician to move in more commercial direction. Given a relatively limited budget and the knowledge that more commercial material would go a long way toward giving him the stardom he coveted, Prince headed into Burbank, Calif.'s Alpha Studios, and cut most of his second album, including “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”
Disco was still very much the rage at the time, with airwaves being ruled by cuts like Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls,” Chic’s “Good Times,” and Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” With its prominent four-on-the-floor beat, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” found a home among club-goers, and the song hit No. 2 on Billboard’s Disco Action chart.
Lyrically, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” is one of Prince’s simpler compositions. Prince is, as A.V. Club writer Jason Heller says in his piece about the song, giving the “hard sell” to a female friend. Framing himself as poor and shy, Prince proclaims himself different from the other guys the object of his affection hangs around with, and adds that not only does he want to be this lady’s lover, he wants to be her brother, mother and sister, too (lyrics that he’d reference eight years later in “Adore.")
Naturally, there’s an overtly sexual element to the lyrics, especially in the chorus. The word “come” is clearly used as a double-entendre, and the space between the last two words in the line “I wanna be the only one who makes you come...runnin’!” feels like a sly wink-nudge. In the liner notes to the compilation The Hits/The B-Sides, former tour manager Alan Leeds notes that “Lover” was originally written with singer/keyboardist Patrice Rushen in mind, but that she turned the song down.
A key component of “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was the song’s lengthy instrumental coda, which takes up nearly half of its six-minute running time. With disco fans fond of long instrumental breaks, this served as a way to keep dancers on the floor without needing an extended 12”-mix.
Having played every note, the song also offered a window into his amazing instrumental talent. The video, embedded above, featured Prince playing guitar, bass, drums and keyboards, solidifying public opinion of him as a one-man band. The clip also established Prince as a visually arresting image, complete with bouncy straightened hair, hoop earring (an extreme rarity among men — especially heterosexual men — in 1979) and a leopard-print top.
“I Wanna Be Your Lover”’s success was the catalyst for a round of promotion that Prince rarely undertook for the remainder of his career. One appearance that’s since become legendary was Prince’s first (and only) appearance on ABC’s American Bandstand.
Watch Dick Clark Interview Prince on 'American Bandstand'
Following Prince and his band’s lip-synced performance, host Dick Clark came out to speak with the artist, as was his custom. Prince offered notoriously terse responses to the interview questions. Years later, Clark told Jon Bream of the Star Tribune "I've always said that was one of the most difficult interviews I've ever conducted, and I've done 10,000 musician interviews." Prince also performed “I Wanna Be Your Lover” on NBC’s late night show The Midnight Special, and captivated the crowd with his stage presence — and the bikini briefs in which he performed. The only other times Prince appeared on any sort of lip-synced musical variety show were in 1983 (when he performed “Little Red Corvette” on Solid Gold) and in 1994, when he sang several songs on Soul Train.
“I Wanna Be Your Lover” was created to be a hit and expose Prince to a wider audience, and it served its purpose. The song’s success led to television exposure, a national tour supporting Rick James, press coverage (most notably in the teen magazine Right On!, whose editor Cynthia Horner was an early champion of Prince) and basically set the stage for the world domination Prince would go on to enjoy a half-decade later. It’s easily one of the most important songs he ever released in terms of his career development, and it still jams today.
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