If you don’t know about the contributions of Pepé Willie, Pepé Music Inc., or 94 East to the development of the Minneapolis music scene, you haven’t really been in the loop. Pepé Willie, Marcy Ingvoldstad, and Kristie Lazenberry are the original members of 94 East and owners of Pepé Music Inc. Their inconspicuous presence has had a profound effect on the birth and consequent growth of Minneapolis as a leading force in the music industry.
Pepé Willie learned the ground rules of the business in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1960’s as a valet and “gopher” for Little Anthony and the Imperials (his Uncle, Clarence Collins is an original member). Little Anthony and the Imperials were at the height of their career at this time with hits like Shimmy, Shimmy, Koko Bop; Going Out of My Head; and Tears On My Pillow topping both the R&B and pop charts. Willie watched and listened, absorbing everything he could about the business and the making of hit songs. Willie hung out with the likes of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, Chubby Checker, Marvin Gaye, and many others. He then began writing and recording on his own. It was this experience and knowledge that Willie brought with him to Minneapolis.
Pepé Willie came to Minneapolis in the mid-70s from Brooklyn, New York, when he was married to the Prince’s cousin, Shauntel Manderville. During his visit, Willie had the opportunity to hear an audition by the band, Grand Central Station, who at that time included Prince, André’ Cymone, Morris Day, William Dowdy, and Linda Anderson (André’s sister).
Pepé began working with the members of Grand Central Station when they were only 15 and 16 years old, teaching them song construction and facts of the business. He also started using Prince and Andre’ as studio musicians for his own demos, making these sessions the first times Prince and Andre’ worked in a studio professionally.
When Prince first signed with Warner Bros., Pepé helped him through the complications during that time period. Willie let him use his house for six months as a place to audition new band members and practice in preparation for his first tour. Pepé’s company, Pepé Music Inc., produced Prince’s first concert at the Capri Theatre in North Minneapolis. Pepé assisted Prince in finding suitable management after his breakup with first manager, Owen Husney. Pepé also traveled with Prince on some of his initial PR tours.
The single that 94 East recorded for the Polydor label was co-produced by Willie and Hank Cosby (My Cherie Amour). The single featured a song titled, 10:15, written by Pepé, and a song written by Cosby titled, Fortune Teller. Cosby brought in a then relatively unknown artist named Colonel Abrams to record the lead vocals. Polydor let go of Cosby just before the single was to be released and consequently the single never hit the shelves.
Minneapolis Genius, 94 East recordings done in 1975, featuring Prince, Andre’ Cymone and Pepé Willie, was released here in 1986 and also released in Japan and England in 1987. Do Yourself a Favor, written by Pepé, appeared in the B side of Jesse Johnson’s single, Lovestruck, and also on Johnson’s previous Shockadelica album. Prince recorded the same song in the early 1980’s, but never released it. In March 1995, the original versions of the Minneapolis Genius songs were released along with 5 additional songs called the Cookhouse Five on a 2-CD set titled, 94 East featuring Prince, Symbolic Beginning.
94 East featuring 10:15 & Fortune Teller with Prince on Guitar was released in 2003 on the Reo Deo label. It featured two songs (10:15 and Fortune Teller) that were ‘found’ by accident in the Cookhouse Studios archive – all the rest of the tracks were newly written. In 2011, in honor of the 35th anniversary of the Cookhouse Five recordings, Reo Deo released 94 East’s The Cookhouse Five; Original 1975 Session. This CD was subsequently accepted into the collection of the Rock & Foll Hall of Fame Library & Archives in Cleveland, Ohio.
More recently, the Numero Group published an epic collection including vinyl lps, 45s, CDs and a coffee table book titled, Purple Snow; Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound. 94 East was featured in the book and their single, If You See Me, has been the biggest seller. It was nominated for a 2015 Grammy for Album Notes.
Pepé has been working through his own company, PMI, writing, recording, producing, and consulting various veteran and budding talent in the area. Under his label, Reo Deo, are E-Klass, Monaye Love and Micailah Lockhart. He has also influenced, through consultation, the careers of Morris Day, Rocky Robbins, Dez Dickerson, Sue Ann Caldwell, Cynthia Johnson, Morris Wilson, and others.