Composer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, actor, director. Those are some, but not nearly enough of the words one could use to describe Prince Rogers Nelson, the artist best known as Prince; another heartbreaking loss in 2016, the annus horribilis. Prince was discovered unresponsive in his Paisley Park recording complex in his hometown of Minneapolis on April 21.
Incurring monstrous album sales, blurring genres with ease, and turning heads with regal, flamboyant stage outfits was all very much in this man’s nature. If there is only one story to best typify him, it should perhaps be the tale of his performance at the 2007 Superbowl: during the build up, it began raining very heavily; one of the organisers called Prince to ask if he was still happy to perform. His quick reply was, “can we make it rain heavier?” Knowing his eccentric nature as we do, it’s possible to believe that some part of the master craftsman thought he could conjure the very elements themselves.
Born to jazz musician parents, Prince was raised in in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a city with which he shared a great bond. He was named after his father’s stage name, Prince Rogers. When asked for the reasoning, his father said, “I named my son Prince because I wanted him to do everything I wanted to do.” He was born with epilepsy and suffered from seizures at a young age.
Prince wrote his first song, Funk Machine, on his father’s piano at the age of seven. His parents divorced when he was 10-years-old, and switched between living with his father and mother in the period following the separation. He would eventually settle in the home of his neighbour, where he befriended the son of the family, Andre Anderson. Together with Prince’s cousin, Charles Smith, the trio formed Prince’s first band, known as Grand Central. At this time, Prince just played piano and drums, and the group performed covers in clubs and at parties around Minneapolis. They gradually began to write their own material, then influenced by the likes of George Clinton, Parliament, Earth Wind and Fire, and Miles Davis.
Prince has never been known for his modesty, and around this time, he released an album with his band 94 East entitled Minneapolis Genius – the Historic 1977 Recordings. As such a lofty title suggests, it didn’t take long for Prince to start seeking the immense solo success he craved, despite only being 17. In 1976, he recorded a demo with producer Chris Moon, and thanks to the help of Moon’s contacts, the new music garnered interest from several labels including Warner Bros and Columbia Records.
Prince secured his deal with Warner Bros and recorded his first album, For You, at Record Plant studios in Sausalito, California, where he had relocated. The album’s notes state that Prince composed, arranged, played, and produced all of the 27 instruments on the album. The album’s cost exceeded double the advance he was given, and its success was modest, but Prince now had his foot in the door. It was at this time he formed his first band as a solo artist, and they performed together at the Capri Theatre on January 5th, 1979. Warner Bros executives were in the audience, and were of the opinion that Prince needed more time to develop his music. They didn’t have to wait long – later that year he released his self titled opus, Prince, spawning the hits Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?, and I Wanna Be Your Lover, which sold over one million copies. Prince was also becoming infamous for his disregard for members of the media; he gave American Bandstand host Dick Clark a torrid time by only giving one word answers during an interview.
His following album, Dirty Mind, continued his upward spiral, however it was the album Purple Rain that propelled his success to monstrous proportions. It was released on July 25th 1984, two days before the film of the same name; the film for which the songs were the soundtrack, and where Prince made his acting debut. He reached the top spot of the charts at last with When Doves Cry and Let’s Go Crazy.
The title track only reached number two, but Purple Rain had a grander destiny; it was to become his signature song, and the colour purple would forever be synonymous with Prince’s legend. The album itself sold more than 13 million copies, and spent 24 weeks at the top of the Billboard chart. And thanks to it being a soundtrack album, Prince also bagged himself an Oscar for it. Another accolade of sorts was the founding of the Parents Music Resource Center, the group responsible for placing ‘parental advisory’ labels on albums with explicit content. The inspiration came when founder, Tripper Gore, heard her 12-year-old daughter singing along to Darling Nikki from the album, a song which alludes to sex acts and masturbation.
The follow up to Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, was released to the dismay of his fans, when Prince announced he would no longer perform live or make any music videos. This turned out to be a false alarm, as he collaborated the following year in 1986 with choreographer Louis Falcao on the video for Kiss from the album Parade. This album was also a soundtrack album, however Prince’s directorial debut, Under the Cherry Moon, was notorious for all the wrong reasons and won the Golden Raspberry award for worst film.
Prince’s rising success coincided with a rising of eccentricity – he withdrew the release of his Black Album, with plenty of speculation as to why. Some say he became convinced the album had become an evil omen, and must never be released; some say he became overcome with guilt about its explicit content; while some friends of his say it was all due to a bad ecstacy trip. Either way, many believe its bootleg sales were the highest of all time. At the end of the '80s, Prince was writing songs with Madonna, and also lent his immense guitar playing skills to her album, Like a Prayer. He also accepted director Tim Burton’s request to write songs for his film, Batman.
The Black Album came to be known as such due to it having a completely black cover with no text, and Prince carried this idea on when releasing an album in 1992 with just a symbol on the cover, the symbol itself being the title. The symbol was purported to be the combination of the male and female sex symbols, which of course went well with his Bowie-esque androgynous appearance and effeminate nature. To make life even more difficult for journalists everywhere, Prince decided to adopt the symbol as his stage name; Warner Bros had to scramble to send floppy disks with a custom font en mass so that Prince’s new unpronounceable name could be printed. He was shortly after content to be referred to as 'The Artist Formerly Known as Prince'.
In these years, Prince’s commercial success had been in decline, and his album Come barely shifted 500,000 copies. His relationship with Warner Bros had deteriorated, particularly with his decision to credit the album to 'Prince 1958-1993'. The label became very aware that its peculiar star was deliberately releasing back to back albums as a means to escape his contractual obligations to them
The Love Symbol tag was dropped only when his label contract finally expired, reverting to Prince and stating that his unhappy association with the name and Warner Bros was over. His early noughties albums, The Rainbow Children, and N.E.W.S, showed a strong jazz influence; meanwhile in 2004, Prince was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Despite some of his albums not selling well, Rolling Stone magazine named him the highest earning musician in the world; Prince’s huge, elaborate shows were still compensating him very handsomely. His Musicology tour extended to a whopping 96 concerts.
2007 saw one of the biggest moments of Prince’s career, when he performed at the Superbowl halftime show (a slot famously reserved for a very select few of the music industry). His symbol was used as a stage, the stadium was entirely basked in purple, and 140 million people witnessed the event. Right up until his death, Prince never stopped performing, or releasing albums, each of which experimented with a new sound. His battle with the music industry was ongoing, and today it’s virtually impossible to listen to him online – as soon as he won the rights to his music, he pulled it all from sites such as YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music. Right until the end, Prince was a vocal critic of the lack of fair compensation for musicians.
Prince has been likened to jazz great Miles Davis in his ability to shift from genre to genre throughout his career, shifting from pop, rock, funk, and more without batting an eyelid. He was a virtuoso of many instruments, most notably guitar, and his combination of baritone and falsetto singing will forever be his trademark. There is no question that he was both a fashion icon and a sex symbol, and like David Bowie, was never content to be pigeonholed by his music, his gender, or his racial background. He is truly now The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, but his legend is assured, his contribution immeasurable, and no chance of him ever being forgotten. May you rest in peace, your Purple Majesty.
Words | Adam Protz