More than Prince: 2 new histories of local music explain just what makes us so darn special

Maurice McKinnies (left) was photographed many times by Charles Chamblis.

Maurice McKinnies (left) was photographed many times by Charles Chamblis. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Minneapolis-St. Paul is a special place. Ask anyone who lives here. Or just wait a couple minutes and they’ll tell you so unprompted.

Nearly anything can stir our hometown pride: We’re the fittest state in the Union, we’re more bikeable than Portland, we alone went for Mondale/Ferraro in ’84. But nothing puffs up our chests quite like the music we’ve made, and in a pair of new books from two sharp local music journalists, our unquellable Minnesota spirit of boosterism combines with our indefatigable Minnesota work ethic to produce impressive feats of historical excavation that more than justify our high self-regard.

In Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound (University of Minnesota Press), Andrea Swensson, music reporter for the Current (also a former City Pages music editor), tackles nothing less than the history of postwar African-American music in the Twin Cities. Chris Riemenschneider, music reporter for the Star Tribune, has a narrower scope for the self-explanatorily titled First Avenue: Minnesota’s Mainroom (Minnesota Historical Society Press). (Obligatory disclaimer: I’m friendly with both authors, because this is Minneapolis after all.) Both books address something more tangible than the music “community” we all like to celebrate—they zero in on the material conditions that music scenes need to survive and the struggles fought to achieve and maintain them. More than anything else, musicians need a place to perform, where they can be seen, heard, and maybe even paid.

Though no book can discuss Minneapolis music without addressing the tiny purple elephant in the Mainroom, both of these, remarkably, find new wrinkles in an oft-told tale. Swensson frames her book as a riposte to a Dick Clark comment (quoted in her introduction) after Prince’s 1979 performance on American Bandstand: “This isn’t the kind of music that comes out of Minneapolis!” In that glib statement Swensson rightly hears the erasure of an entire musical tradition, and in response she situates the young Prince Rogers Nelson in the Minneapolis of the ’60s and ’70s, establishing him as a black Minnesotan of a certain age (who also, you know, just so happens to be a genius).

In about just 200 pages, Got to Be Something Here surveys a wide swath of the world in which Prince came of age. Swensson pays homage to a roster of local heroes who put their regional spin on a nationwide sound: doo wop harmonizers like the Big M’s and the Velquins, soul belters like the Amazers and Maurice McKinnies, and funk whizzes like Haze and the Family. Each musical movement builds up its energy, thrives, then seems to die. (There’s a reason the word we use for a gathering of musicians—a scene—suggests something temporary.) But each artist leaves traces for the next generation to pick up on. This is a book that reminds us that culture has no dead ends, only detours.

Got to Be Something Here also chronicles the battles fought over who gets to occupy certain spaces. The displacement of the thriving African-American community in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood began just two years before Prince was born. And incidents of racial unrest along Plymouth Avenue would reshape Near North Minneapolis during his youth.

Segregation also courses through Swensson’s story, with the booking policies of club owners who equate dark skin with “trouble” and the selective policing of integrated clubs effectively driving black musicians out of downtown Minneapolis. So when Prince took the stage at Sam’s in 1981 (less than a year before its name changed to First Avenue), he was making a statement: Finally, here was one black musician that Minneapolis wasn’t able to fuck over.

Of the many venues Swensson writes about, that same club where Prince made his name is probably the only one where you can still go see a show tonight, and Riemenschneider’s book is the story of its unlikely persistence for nearly half a century. You might skim First Avenue for the gossipy anecdotes or the full-color photos, but read closely and it’s also a compellingly told business story, fraught with conflict. The very beginnings of the club are disputed, with Allan Fingerhut, scion of the local mail order giant, and Danny Stevens, a local rocker with a liquor license, arguing over who played the greater role in transforming a bus depot into a rock venue. Thirty-four years later, Fingerhut squares off against his old buddy Byron Frank and the club is nearly snuffed out in bankruptcy. Each step of the way, one basic question keeps arising: How do we keep the lights on?

In fact, First Avenue doubles as a history of the music industry over the past 50 years, through one club’s uncanny ability to keep pace with the changes. Fingerhut has barely opened the doors of the club first called the Depot when he’s already complaining that the professionalization of rock touring is forcing him to raise ticket prices. After that venue’s 15-month tenure, and a one-year hiatus, “Uncle Sam’s” survives the ’70s as part of a national chain of discos. Freed from out-of-state control, “Sam’s” returns to live music just as the industry is destabilized by punk and new wave. Renamed First Avenue, and with the addition of the smaller 7th St. Entry, the club builds its rep under the freewheeling management style of Steve McClellan, which is perfect for the unsettled ’80s, and matures just enough in the ’90s to keep pace with the transformation of indie music into commercially viable alt-rock.

In the late ’90s, its power boosted by media deregulation, national behemoth Clear Channel muscles in on Twin Cities booking and promotion. We’re invited to imagine a dystopian alternate Minneapolis where First Ave is shuttered and Clear Channel’s venue, the Quest, prevails. But that future never arrived, and Riemenschneider closes his book with a healthy rejection of nostalgia, defiantly titling his final chapter, which begins in 2005, “The Real Heyday.” And in fact, as a business and a cultural institution, First Avenue has never been healthier, spreading its reach into St. Paul to renovate the Palace Theatre and acquire the Turf Club.

Both Swensson and Riemenschneider tell quintessentially Minnesotan stories. First Avenue is the one we like to hear: A local business fends off out-of-state interlopers to establish itself as a hometown institution without losing its soul. But the racial inequities that run through Got to Be Something Here are just as much a part of our musical heritage. And as the same code words for “too many blacks” recirculate through our current debates over how to define public life in downtown Minneapolis, it’s a particularly timely story to revisit.