I have written about 143 Prince songs since April. I still have nearly 400 songs remaining on my Daily Prince Song Randomizer. Something special happened today. The Randomizer chose my favorite Prince song.
I realize it’s a bold statement, but I’ll say it: “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” is my favorite Prince song. The list is long and it could change every day, but there are two songs I come back to consistently: “Dorothy Parker” and “The Beautiful Ones.” If I was forced to pick one I’d have to take “Dorothy Parker.” So, where to begin…
“The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” was recorded on March 15, 1986. It was included in a configuration of his 1986 album Dream Factory that was ultimately abandoned after The Revolution was dissolved. Then it was included on his triple-album Crystal Ball that never came to fruition. “Dorothy Parker” found her place as the fourth track on 1987’s masterpiece Sign O’ the Times. It was considered as a single but that idea was also abandoned.
The timing is eerie with the release of Sign O’ the Times Super Deluxe Edition only ten days away and the Prince Official Podcast telling the stories behind the album every week. Legendary recording engineer Susan Rogers just told the story of Prince recording this song and it had me glued to my speakers. I can’t recommend this podcast highly enough – specifically this episode – so if you’re up for an amazing 40 minutes of Prince talk, click here. If you’re not, let me attempt to retell it.
Prince and his fiancée, Susannah Melvoin, had just moved in to a new house in Chanhassen, Minnesota, just outside of Minneapolis. There was a recording studio in the house that Prince couldn’t wait to use even though there were repairs and testing to be done. In Rogers’ words, “One of the main things to know about Prince is how on fire his creativity was, and it’s coming and coming and coming, and he’s not going to sit in his room with a little four-track recorder and demo things. If he’s going to be playing and singing, it’s going to go to tape, and it’s going to be the canonical version as far as he is concerned. He didn’t demo things. So he could not wait for this console to be finished.” Prince fell asleep one night and had a dream. When he woke he called Rogers and said, “We’re recording whether you like it or not.” Prince’s first recording in his new home was “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” Rogers put in the tape and started recording. Prince began adding every piece of “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” and as he was working, Rogers noticed that everything sounded flat. In her words, it was like a blanket was over everything. But, she had learned from years of experience that you don’t stop Prince once he gets going, so she let him be, all the while wondering, “What is he doing? Does he not hear this? Why won’t he stop?” The further he got, the more convinced she was that when he heard the end result she’d end up getting fired. The console was going to ruin this amazing song that Prince was recording. Finally, at the end of the day Prince came out and said, “I like this console, but it’s kind of dull.” He was aware the whole time. He used it to his advantage. He intentionally altered the song so it would fit the muffled sound he was getting.
The result is breathtaking. I wouldn’t want to hear this song any other way. It sounds simple on the surface, but gets more trippy and complicated with every listen. From the moment the song begins the drum programming is brilliant. The bass drum part alone is remarkable. I can put “Dorothy Parker” on repeat and just follow the bass drum. Of course, the signature Prince Linn drum machine sound makes a noticeable appearance, punctuating the end of every other measure. Then there’s the keyboard that I can only describe as wobbly. Uneasy. The drums and bass do do most of the work on this song, but it’s the keyboard continuously playing chords for whole notes throughout the song that give it the vibe. Let’s not forget the bass guitar. For such a trippy, unique song, the bass is surprisingly funky. If you stripped out all of the other instruments and just listened to the bass line by itself you’d think this was another one of Prince’s funk workouts like “Erotic City” or “Let’s Work.” If you combine the sporadic drum programming, funk bass, and wobbly keyboard notes, then muffle all of them you get something unlike anything else you’ve ever heard before from Prince or anyone else.
Then there’s the vocal performance. I can think of few other people who could deliver this vocal performance. Erykah Badu did it at the 2016 BET Awards and she’s one of few people capable of pulling off such a feat only because she has a voice unlike anyone I’ve ever heard before. Still, there’s nobody like Prince. There’s no chorus to “Dorothy Parker,” but instead Prince telling a story in a sing-song fashion. He’s jumping from full voice to falsetto to speaking in low tones. Part of the beauty is in the imperfection. There’s no autotune on this track. It sounds more like he recorded the vocals fueled by emotion and creativity, and if he missed a note here and there, it was part of the vibe. It was meant to be there. When he sings the line, “You’re kind of cute. You wanna take a bath? Bath. I said cool, but I’m leaving my pants on…” he’s all over the place vocally and it’s somehow perfect and imperfect at the same time. If it was too polished it wouldn’t fit with the song. This happens in numerous spots throughout the song. I also like that he’s singing the Dorothy Parker lines in the song himself. If he had a female singing the Dorothy Parker lines it wouldn’t have had the charm of Prince doing it himself. I’d rather hear him sing the line, “sounds like a real man to me,” than hear someone else. Prince is telling the story. I’m glad he handled the vocals himself. I know Susannah Melvoin contributed some background vocals, but I think the story has more impact being told in Prince’s voice.
I’ve said this about a few songs, but I’ve never meant it more than I do when writing about “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker:” This is Prince’s songwriting at its best. Not only is Prince’s musical creativity and one-of-a-kind voice on A+ display on this track, but it’s also peak songwriting. Few have ever painted a picture so vivid using only lyrics and sound as Prince does on “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” Right from the start, “Dorothy was a waitress on the promenade. She worked the night shift. Dishwater blonde, tall and fine. She got a lot of tips.” Goddamn, I’m getting goosebumps just typing about the greatness of this song. It’s a simple story about Prince getting in to an argument with a lover, then being tempted by Dorothy Parker. It’s not the story, but the way he’s telling it. He orders a fruit cocktail. She didn’t see the movie ’cause she hadn’t read the book first. It’s so much more artistic than most music. Prince paints a picture. He emphasizes mundane details. The combination of the lyrics and his delivery make this a Prince song like no other. There are hundreds of Prince songs, but none sound or feel like “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.”
After Prince completed the song he asked saxophonist Eric Leeds and trumpeter Atlanta Bliss to put a horn arrangement on the song. That version was previewed on the podcast last week and as much as I enjoy the work of Leeds and Bliss, it was a bad idea. Leeds actually agrees. Here’s his quote from the podcast: “Prince came to me one day and asked me to just put a horn arrangement on it, and I was surprised because that — we all just considered that to be a gem, to just be a perfect little boutique kind of song, and my brother came up with the characterization of certain kind of Prince songs that were referred to as boutique songs — things that are just really just so distinctively Prince, but otherwise not really easily categorized. And I think that’s kind of the quintessential boutique Prince song from my perspective. I didn’t think it needed anything. But if Prince is asking me to do that, it’s a compliment to the fact that he even considers that there might be something I could add to it that could have value. When he did not use the version with the horns, I was not surprised.” Prince was wise to leave the horns out. This song is as close to perfect as you can get without them. I’m curious to hear the version with the horns, but something tells me it’ll be one of those things I wish never existed.
A few other quick notes about this song. There was a writer and poet named Dorothy Parker born in 1893. According to her Wikipedia page she was known for her “wit, wisecracks, and eye for 20th-century urban foibles.” She seems to fit the description of the Dorothy Parker that Prince is singing about, but apparently that’s pure coincidence. As I mentioned above, Prince wrote the song after a dream. When he was asked about the real Dorothy Parker he was not aware of her existence.
Prince gives Joni Mitchell a shout out in the middle of “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” He references her 1974 track “Help Me” as Dorothy’s favorite song. I’m sure this was not by accident as Prince consistently referred to her as one of his favorite singers, musicians, and inspirations. This song alone got me listening to Joni Mitchell, someone I probably wouldn’t have thought about twice otherwise. Always remember: If you’re tired of the music you’ve been listening to and you’re looking for something different, find out who inspired the musicians you love and start going through their catalogs. You can’t go wrong. Loving D’Angelo and Prince led me to Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and James Brown. Don’t ever say you’re tired of the music that’s out. There’s always something amazing that you haven’t heard.
Where do I go from here? I have nearly 400 songs remaining on my list, but “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” is the perfect song for the Daily Prince blog. I don’t know too many people who know the song outside of hardcore Prince fans. These are the songs I want to put a spotlight on. If you haven’t heard “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” yet and you’re just hearing about it for the first time here, you’re in for a treat. A Prince masterpiece. An easy 5 out of 5 stars. I’d say it’s all downhill from here, but there’s so much more amazing Prince music to explore. I can’t wait to see what we get tomorrow.