Prince Pre-Fame: Gibson L-48

Way back in 1977 Prince was taking his first steps towards stardom. Armed with a demo tape, his manager Chris Moon was struggling to make any impression on prospective record companies. He needed assistance marketing and selling Prince and his music.
Chris Moon enlisted Owen Husney, a local advertising agent with a background in the music business. Chris Moon approached him with Prince’s demo, and Husney immediately paid an interest. He commissioned a local photographer, Robert Whitman, to provide some portraits for a press pack to be distributed to music industry executives.

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Prince pictured with the Gibson L-48 in Owen Husney’s home, and in the studio (Photos: Robert Whitman, see links)

Robert Whitman’s photos are iconic. They show a teenage Prince without the protective shell he created as he found fame. Whitman skillfully relaxed his subject enough to capture a natural smile – a rare occurance in photographs later in Prince’s career.

During these photo sessions Prince poses with a Gibson L-48 acoustic guitar. I’m not aware of any pictures of Prince playing this guitar, but according to Husney, Prince used this to perform demos and work-in-progress versions of some of his earliest songs.

A bit of history: Orville Gibson started out making mandolins in 1894, and four years later he patented his “archtop” design – a guitar with a hollow, arched body and “f-holes” similar to that of a violin. In 1936 the company produced the first widely used Spanish-style acoustic with an electric pickup – the ES-150 (so named because it cost $150). The ES-150 became widely used by jazz musicians. After the second World War Gibson produced a range of lower cost L-series archtop acoustics. The L-48 was made with an arched top of pressed wood (rather than carved). I have read that this model cost around $35 new when launched, although it’s hard to confirm.

It’s not clear how Prince came by the L-48, however we do have some clues. Husney has said that when he was first introduced to Prince he invested in some instruments for him, in recognition of his future potential. He also provided him with a small amount of spending money. I suspect that the L-48 was one of the instruments that Owen Husney purchased. Given his father’s heritage as a jazz musician Prince will have seen and heard  the ES-150 being played, making the more affordable L-48 particularly attractive to him. I can imagine him seeing it hanging in a local second-hand guitar shop and instantly taking a liking to it.

One clue about its origin is that the same guitar was listed for auction by Nate D. Sanders auction house in 2016, along with a number of other items that were sold by Husney. It would seem that the guitar remained in Husney’s possession for almost 40 years. An alternative explanation could be that it was an instrument that Owen Husney owned prior to meeting Prince, and just loaned to him from time to time?

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The 1959 L-48 that Prince used, as listed for sale in 2016

These days an L-48 can be purchased on ebay or Reverb for around $1,500. It’s difficult to find any that are in spectacular condition, with all original components – in particular the tuners appear to have been swapped out by many owners (no doubt due to the cheap quality of the originals). Owen Husney’s L-48 auction started at $60,000. It’s not clear what the final price was, or if it sold at all.

Robert Whitman’s book “Prince Pre-Fame” is available via his website below.

Links:

Prince Pre-fame – Robert Whitman’s photos
Before the purple rain: Prince in 1970s Minneapolis – The Guardian
Nate D. Sanders Auctions – Gibson L-48 used by Prince

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