Never one to hold his tongue, Prince was always precious about his incredible music (and musicianship, in general). Hearing that he once had Grammy-winning R&B tentpole Alicia Keys essentially audition in order to include a cover of one of his songs on her album doesn’t exactly ring as the biggest shock, but it still makes for a pretty damn good story.
Keys was recently a guest on Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Broken Record. There, she shared a moment from her days as a debuting artist. While she was developing her first album, Songs In A Minor, Keys—who was, at most, 19 years old at the time—had the daunting task of reaching out to The Artist in order to cover his song, “How Come You Don’t Call Me.” Back then, Keys had the benefit of a hit single to legitimize her request: To this day “Fallin,” the runaway, Grammy-earning hit that she released as the album’s leading single, is still considered one of her signature songs nearly 20 years later. But how much does any of that matter when you’re a budding artist in the face of a serious icon?
“I hadn’t spoken to people that I adored like him ever before that phone call,” she shared. “That was not a normal occurrence — even today if he were still alive, and I was calling him, I would still feel nervous about calling him.” After a handful of transfers from personnel to personnel, Keys finally managed to get Prince himself on the phone:
“I start talking to him, and he was super friendly and encouraging, saying he heard what I’d been working on and that he knows I’m writing and producing my stuff. He said to keep that up. I asked if I could play [the song] on the album, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come to Paisley Park and play it for me?’”
So she headed to Minneapolis and played the song in front of Prince. He must have liked what he heard: Not only did the song become her third single, but he ended up doubling as her mentor. “I never met anybody like that, who just knew the pulse of new music so well,” Keys said. “That was him.”