His name was Prince, then it wasn’t, then it was again. One of the most fascinating artists of the Eighties, the pocket-sized legend was born Prince Rogers Nelson in Minneapolis on 7 June 1958.
He was named after his father’s Minneapolis-area band, The Prince Rogers Trio, in which Prince’s mother Mattie was occasionally featured as vocalist.
At the age of seven, Prince began to teach himself piano (at age thirteen, guitar; at age fourteen, the drums) and compose.
He ran away from his mother and step-father’s home, drifted from friends to his real dad for a few years – playing in bands through junior high and high school.
By the time he graduated at the age of sixteen, he had already been the driving force behind the Minneapolis-local ‘Uptown’ sound, along with his band Flyte Tyme, which included drummer Jellybean Johnson, bassist Terry Lewis and singer Alexander O’Neal.
A year later, in 1976, a studio engineer named Chris Moon offered him recording time in exchange for a little piano session work, and with Moon’s guidance, Prince cut a three-track demo that wowed Warner Bros. record executives. So at the age of nineteen, he was offered a long-term contract and for his first record, a budget of $100,000 and total artistic control.
He played every instrument on this funk-pop debut album, called For You. It took five months to produce and went lavishly over-budget – little did the Warner Bros. boys know, that would probably be the least of their Prince-induced headaches.
The record wasn’t a big success, but it was certainly enough to get the ball rolling. His self-titled second release had two hit singles – Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad? and I Wanna Be Your Lover, which went to #1 on the R&B charts. He assembled a touring band at this point, with Andre Cymone on bass, Gayle Chapman and Matt Fink on keyboards, Bobby Z on drums and Dez Dickerson on guitar.
Prince hit his commercial stride when his third album Dirty Mind appeared in 1980. This was the same year that Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory in the US presidential elections; a time when America was engulfed in a wave of ‘hard work’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘God-fearing family values’ sponsored by the Moral Majority.
Into this climate came Prince – a man who sang about sex with his sister and sex with just about everybody else, telling us all he wanted to do was take off his clothes and party. The album’s title was not exaggerated.
One of the few songs that wasn’t too naughty for the radio, Uptown, did well on the R&B charts. This is the record that When You Were Mine comes from, incidentally, which wasn’t released as a single at the time, but would go on to become his most widely covered song (Mitch Ryder and Cyndi Lauper among its coverers).
For this tour, Lisa Coleman replaced Gayle Chapman on keyboards, and after it, Cymone left to go solo.
These were the shows in which Prince’s onstage, sexually explicit . . um, histrionics, were coming into full effect. He had plenty of fans, but he also had plenty of people who had no idea what to make of him. When, for example, he took the stage as an opening act for The Rolling Stones in a trench coat and black bikini briefs, the dumbfounded Los Angeles fans promptly booed him off the stage.
Prince followed up this success with Controversy; another album that guaranteed the eyes of the world would be firmly fixed on his crotch area.
A year later he released the album 1999 which gave him two major hit singles – Little Red Corvette and the infectious title track – and a huge cross-over audience.
Prince sold over three million copies of the album and plastered video-waves on the just-emerging MTV. For the 1999 tour, he and his band, The Revolution, were supported by two other Prince creations: The Time, made up of old Minneapolis cronies from Flyte Tyme, and Vanity 6, a three-girl protégé group whose album he produced under the pseudonym ‘Jamie Starr.’
When Doves Cry, the brilliant first single from Purple Rain stayed at the top of the US charts for six weeks in July 1984. It was also his biggest success in Britain, and as the Purple Rain album went ten times platinum, it also pulled the two-year-old 1999 back to the charts. In exemplary 80’s audio-visual fashion, the movie sold the music, the music sold the movie, and the video sold both. Prince was a megastar!
The Purple Rain album also won Prince the attentions of one Tipper Gore, who was inspired enough by the lyrics of Darling Nikki to launch her Parents Music Resource Center – which led to Senate hearings, which led to the record industry’s eventual ‘album-stickering’ warning policies. So, as only The Beatles and Elvis had done before him, he had the raised eyebrows of parents – and all this by the way, at the ripe old age of 26.
He continued doing what he does best – making music, leaving at the end of the year on a 100-date US tour, accompanied by the latest of his female discoveries, Sheila E (daughter of Santana percussionist Pete Escovedo).
Prince used the millions he earned from Purple Rain to build his legendary Paisley Park studio complex on the outskirts of Minneapolis, never leaving the city because the cold “keeps the bad people out”. After enjoying a creative partnership with backing band The Revolution until 1986, he disbanded the group and holed himself up in this concrete building, living and breathing his work.
He followed Purple Rain with Around The World In A Day in 1985, Parade – Music From Under The Cherry Moon in 1986, Sign O’ The Times in 1987, Lovesexy in 1988 (‘The Black Album’ was also recorded that year but was recalled by Prince after being pressed after the artist experienced a religious epiphany and proclaimed the album “evil”) and the soundtrack to the movie Batman in 1989.
Graffiti Bridge, a quasi-sequel to Purple Rain, also hit the screens in 1990, and with a new band called The New Power Generation, he released 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls; its single, Cream, went to number one.
In 1993, Prince announced his retirement from studio recording and on his 35th birthday, changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph – an amalgam of both the male and female gender symbols which endlessly frustrated Warner Bros. and his friends in the fourth estate.
When a British journalist dubbed him “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince”, the long moniker thankfully stuck – anything was easier for typesetters than that rascally glyph.
The AFKAP went head-to-head with Warner Bros. about possession of his master tapes and about not letting him release as much music as he wanted to. He then appeared at an awards show and in photo sessions with the word “Slave” written on his face and vowed never to record new material through the label again.
The dispute finally wound down in 1994, when he released two albums, The Gold Experience and Chaos and Disorder, to fulfil legal obligations. To commemorate his exit from the Warner Bros. legal quagmire, he released the declaratively-titled triple album Emancipation, in 1996.
Lest you think he’s too intense, in 1997 he guest-starred on the season opener to The Muppets Tonight (Raspberry Beret became Raspberry Sorbet). See, Tipper – not all the lyrics are nasty.
He sold a forty-track box set of unreleased material called Crystal Ball, first on the Internet and then in stores; he re-released the remixed 1999 (The New Master) for the millennium, largely because his old friends at Warner Bros. were trying to cash in on the old 1999; and he signed with Arista and released RaveUn2 the Joy Fantastic in 1999.
So we’ve got albums, movies, production and writing credits for himself and for many, many others; we’ve got the ‘Minneapolis Sound’ from the early days, and his hybrid funk-pop-rock-soul from the rest of the days; we’ve got angry politicians, delighted Muppets, and a staunch fight for all artists’ rights; fans who have been mesmerised at his live shows and mesmerised at home, with just the headphones on and hopefully, the aforementioned break-out show of dance; we’ve got overt sex and overt spirituality and everything in between.
There are a lot of musicians who won’t get out of bed unless they’re compensated, but it’s written that to see Prince perform is to see a guy who would be playing even if you, the fan, were nowhere near.
The Artist Formerly Known As Prince/Glyph/Squiggle eventually began using the name Prince again and became a Jehovah’s Witness.
In 2007 Purple Rain was named as the greatest soundtrack of all-time in a US magazine writers’ poll. It topped a list of 50 compiled by the editors of Vanity Fair magazine for a one-off publication called Movies Rock.
The intensely private musician was found dead at his home in suburban Minneapolis on Thursday 21 April 2016 at the age of 57, shocking millions of fans around the world and prompting glowing tributes by fellow musicians.