- Anthony Aiello
A version of this article originally appeared in African American National Biography.
rock and pop musician, songwriter, producer, and actor, was born Prince Rogers Nelson in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was named after his father's jazz band, the Prince Rogers Trio. Both parents were well-known local musicians: his father, John Nelson, worked as a plastic molder at Honeywell Electronics and was a pianist; his mother, Mattie Shaw, a homemaker, sang. They had a daughter, Tyka, in 1960 (there were four older stepsiblings from other marriages), but divorced when Prince was ten. Around age twelve Prince moved in with his father, who gave his son his first guitar (Prince began playing piano while his parents were still married). Prince did not remain long with his father. He lived briefly with various relatives before finally moving in with the family of his high school friend André Anderson (who later performed as André Cymone).
Already largely self-taught on guitar, piano, and drums, Prince began studying music in high school. With Anderson, he started the band Grand Central, later changing the name to Champagne. Recording at a studio in early 1976, he came to the attention of the studio's proprietor, Chris Moon. A songwriter, Moon offered Prince the chance to put music to Moon's lyrics. Not quite out of high school (he would graduate in late spring 1976), Prince dissolved Champagne to work with Moon.
Prince spent virtually all his free time working on compositions for Moon's lyrics and learning how to operate studio equipment. With Moon's help, he put together a fourteen-song demo of original material, on which he played all the instruments. With a new manager, Owen Husney, he landed a three-album deal at Warner Bros., just weeks after turning nineteen. The
contract gave Prince unprecedented autonomy and control for such an untested and young musician.
Written, performed, and produced by Prince, his first album, For You (1978), made a splash on the R&B charts with the single “Soft and Wet,” but was otherwise unremarkable. Prince (1979), which featured songs moving into a pop vein, with strong melodies, complicated harmonies, and sparing production, resulted in a number 1 hit on the Soul Singles Chart, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” By 1980 Prince had put together a backing band that included his longtime friend André Cymone on bass, Matt Fink on keyboards, Bobby Z on drums, and Dez Dickerson on guitar. A second keyboardist, Gayle Chapman, was replaced by Lisa Coleman, who quickly became a close and briefly intimate friend with Prince. His third album, Dirty Mind (1980), however, was still a solo project. Prince's new songs were sexually explicit in ways that his previous material had not been. Sex had always played a role in his music, but the graphic treatment of it along with his exploration of deviant sexuality and taboos like incest pushed the boundaries of acceptability. The album was full of musical experimentation, too, including New Wave and rock. Though not a commercial success, it received excellent reviews in Rolling Stone and New Musical Express and helped launch Prince's reputation as one of the most talented musicians of his generation.
For his fourth album, Controversy (1981), Prince continued to experiment with New Wave influences, employing electronic textures and cold synthesizer-based rhythms combined with rock guitar, funk bass-lines, and multi-voice harmonies. In addition to explicit tracks like “Sexuality,” and slow seduction songs like “Do Me, Baby,” he also exhibited the beginnings of a political sensibility on “Controversy” and “Annie Christian.” At the same time, Prince was managing his first protégé band, the Time, writing and recording their self-titled first album, which became a surprise hit. While Controversy sold well, going gold, it didn't produce the breakthrough hit he was looking for.
Prince began work on another protégé group, Vanity 6, fronted by a woman he had christened Vanity, one of a long line of beautiful and variously talented women with whom he would become romantically and professionally involved. Their self-titled debut released in August 1982. He wrote and recorded most of the Time's second album against the wishes of the band member, who were interested in performing their own music; nonetheless, the 1982 release was another hit, going gold. Prince was quickly becoming a driving force in American popular music and was the recognized architect of “the Minneapolis Sound,” which combined elements of funk, R&B, soul, rock, punk, and New Wave. Prince's reputation was enhanced in October 1982 with the release of 1999, another almost entirely solo effort that represented his finest work to date. The album sold more than 3 million copies in its first year and included his first Top Ten single, “Little Red Corvette,” and the hits “1999” and “Delirious.” The video for “1999” went into regular rotation at the new music-video channel MTV, introducing Prince to a large new audience who liked his mix of funk and rock, and the rebellious androgyny and hypersexuality of his image. The success of the 1999 album and tour made Prince one of the most popular black artists of the 1980s. By the end of the tour only Michael Jackson , whose album Thriller was released three months after 1999, surpassed him in terms of both critical success and popularity.
Wendy Melvoin replaced Dez Dickerson on guitar in 1983, completing what was probably Prince's most dynamic and collaborative band, the Revolution. Prince's next venture, the semi-autobiographical film Purple Rain (1984), despite mixed reviews from critics, earned nearly $8 million its first weekend and grossed more than $68 million domestically. The soundtrack received rave reviews and spent twenty-four weeks at number 1 on the Billboard chart. Ostensibly providing a window into Prince's private world, the film was actually a glamorized and mythologized version of his life that ended up revealing not much more than was already known. Also in 1984 Prince released two more hit albums by protégé projects—the Time (their third) and Sheila E. (her first)—and also wrote the song “Sugar Walls,” a raunchy departure for the formerly family-friendly Scottish pop singer Sheena Easton that went to number 3 on the pop charts. In 1985 Prince received an Academy Award for best soundtrack and won three Grammy Awards—two for Purple Rain and one as songwriter for Chaka Khan's “I Feel for You.”
By the mid-1980s Prince had become an international superstar, with Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna his only peers. Becoming a pop icon, though, meant that his music and image were now subject to a new and much higher level of scrutiny, forcing him to become less challenging musically and less subversive culturally. An intensely private individual and artist, Prince did not enjoy the many intrusions into his life and personal relationships that came with stardom; for someone who had always been driven by his work and by a need to control every aspect of his music and career, compromising his image and art to any degree was difficult to accept.
Around the World in a Day (1985) followed Purple Rain in reaching number 1 on the album charts. Awash with pseudo-psychedelia and 1960s flower-generation optimism, the album marked a step forward in his development as a songwriter and composer, but spent only three weeks at number 1. His next project, the film Under the Cherry Moon (1986), failed to match the box office success of Purple Rain and was savaged by critics. The soundtrack, Parade, however, yielded Prince's third number 1 hit, “Kiss.” While considered inconsistent by some critics, the album was generally praised as more evidence of his steady artistic development and seemingly boundless talent. Also in 1986 Prince encountered his first failure with a protégé band, the Family, whose debut album sold poorly (the one success from the album was the song “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which Sinead O'Connor would make into a number 1 hit in 1990). Though he would never stop working with bands or developing new artists, almost none of his protégés' releases would achieve the prominence of his early efforts.
Prince disbanded the Revolution in October 1986 and began recording the material that became the double album Sign O' the Times. His new band retained Matt Fink on keyboards, featured Sheila E. on drums, Levi Seacer Jr. on bass, Miko Weaver on guitar, and Boni Boyer, a vocalist who also played keyboards. Released to universal acclaim, the album has since become recognized as his finest work. It went to number 6 on the Billboard chart and yielded three Top Ten hits. The album combines the elements of every musical style with which Prince had ever experimented and the entire gamut of themes he had explored—from the drug-dystopia and violence of the title track to the androgynous sexuality of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” to the religious yearning of “The Cross” to the pure celebration of “It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night.”
Prince's next record, The Black Album, was cancelled at the last minute, after he decided it was too focused on negative themes, violence, and dark sexuality. Only the love song “When 2 R in Love” was retained for the record that Prince released instead. An attempt to make a profound statement about love, both sexual and religious, Lovesexy was one of the most personal of his career, full of music that retained much of the energy and excellence of Sign O' the Times, but which continued to experiment with new ideas and sounds. However, reviewers and fans were largely disappointed with the album and it was his first in many years that did not go platinum in the United States. After Lovesexy and the 1989 movie soundtrack Batman (a commercial success that earned him another platinum album), Prince's output began to suffer in terms of consistency, artistic development, and boundary-pushing experimentation. While the soundtrack for the film Graffiti Bridge (1990) featured some good songwriting and ensemble work, it was otherwise a weak album, largely a retread of past efforts. The film itself was a critical and popular disaster that effectively ended Prince's film career.
Working with yet another new band, the New Power Generation, in 1991 Prince released Diamonds and Pearls. Though it broke virtually no new ground, the album was hailed by critics as a return to form. It sold nearly 3 million copies (more than any other Prince record save Purple Rain) and included his fifth number 1 hit, “Cream.” Still, though his output was as steady as ever, his popularity was in evident decline. His twelfth album, named for a combination of symbols for male and female, was a Top Ten record, but it was another critical disappointment that sold well below expectations.
Though he signed a new deal in 1992 with Warner, a six-record contract potentially worth $100 million, the company's refusal to release new records as soon as and as often as Prince produced them set off a war between the two. Prince changed his name to the symbol from his album, forcing the media to resort to various tortured ways of referring to him, most settling on “the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” He performed with the word “slave” written on his face and announced that he would complete the terms of his contract using previously recorded songs stored in his “vault.” Prince's last album for Warner was released in 1996, after which he disbanded the New Power Generation, “retiring” to spend time with his new wife, Mayté Garcia, pregnant with their first child, and to record the work that would announce his love and commitment to his family and his freedom from corporate oppression, Emancipation. The baby was born 16 October 1996 with severe physical defects. After a week of operations, the child was removed from life support and died. Prince refused to acknowledge any problems with the child and went to great lengths to hide its tragic death from the public and media, which led to police investigations that found he was only trying to protect his family's privacy and cleared the couple of any wrongdoing, but which added to the public's view of Prince as an increasingly odd and erratic personality.
Released in November 1996, Emancipation was Prince's most consistent and focused work in years, its many strengths reminding fans and critics of the songwriting skills and musicianship he had displayed throughout the 1980s. Still, the work added virtually nothing new to his sound and exhibited little experimentation. Incredibly, Prince followed the three-disk Emancipation with a four-disk effort titled Crystal Ball (1998). Cobbled together from old material and recently recorded acoustic and classically influenced instrumental music, the set was poorly received by critics and further eroded his fan base. In 2000 he reclaimed the name Prince when his publishing deal with Warner ended. Prince and Mayté divorced that year; he married Manuela Testolini in 2001 (she filed for divorce in 2006). He became a Jehovah's Witness after making a promise to his dying mother.
Though his stature as a pop songwriter and multiplatinum recording artist had declined, as Prince settled into the early years of new century, he produced a “run of records from 2001’s The Rainbow Children to 2004’s The Slaughterhouse [that] reveal Prince indulging in a new stream of experimentation” (Thorne) that once again proved his significance as an artist. He never stopped producing music, though he teased the public and his fan base regularly by promising to retire from recording. Prince released another eight full-length albums during the last eight years of his life without ever again achieving the artistic or popular success he saw during his final great creative phase that ended with the release of Slaughterhouse. Still, his last two records were well received by both the public and critics, who also saw promise in the projects he was working on up until his unexpected death in April 2016.
Prince had announced just over a month earlier, on 18 March, that Random House would be publishing his autobiography, tentatively titled The Beautiful Ones, presumably unfinished at the time of his death. Prince announced his book contract at an invitation-only performance at the club Avenue in New York City, especially fitting since over the last fifteen years of his career Prince’s stature as a performer had only grown. With a heavy touring and performance schedule Prince repeatedly proved himself to be without peer, regularly reinventing his own catalog, as well as songs by other groundbreaking musicians, among the most notable being his cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” at the Coachella music festival and his guitar solo in the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” during the George Harrison memorial at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, both in 2004. In February 2007 he performed a revelatory set in the rain during Super Bowl XLI, since proclaimed by Billboard in 2015 as the greatest-ever half-time show, undertaken while in the middle of an extended residency in Las Vegas (November 2006 to April 2007). That September he performed a legendary set of concerts in England, 21 Nights in London, after which many critics and music historians were calling Prince “the greatest living performer in the pop tradition” (Frere-Jones)—a title he never relinquished.
If, during his final years, even decades, Prince’s albums sales maintained a steady decline, his core audience and his great demand as a performer were more than enough to sustain any artistic or musical projects he wanted to pursue. From his first Warner Brothers contract that gave a young unknown talent unprecedented autonomy in recording and producing his own first record, Prince was an artist dedicated to his independence, one who struggled mightily against the record industry that made him rich and famous, who fought even his friends and allies in his determination to choose his own path, make his own business decisions, and most important, keep the money he earned. Doing so, Prince became one of the most successful musicians ever from the era of recorded music. He received seven Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, and a Golden Globe. He was elected to the Rock Hall of Fame in 2004. His record sales totaled well over 100 million and his net worth at the time of his death was approximately $300 million.
In public Prince was vehemently against all drug use and drinking, but privately he used prescription painkillers to ease the crippling pain he suffered in his knees and hips from decades of performing. He died 21 April 2016 of an accidental overdose of the painkiller fentanyl, an opioid much stronger than heroin, at his recording and arts complex, Paisley Park in Chanhassen, Minnesota. He was 57.
Known throughout his career as a dynamic and almost preternaturally gifted live performer and defined more than almost any other pop and rock musician by his art, Prince's life story is often the story of his writing, recording, producing, and performing a catalog of songs that dwarfs every other artist active in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The series of albums stretching from Dirty Mind (1980) to Lovesexy (1988) rival the consecutive output of legends like James Brown , Miles Davis , Jimi Hendrix , the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones—albums that will ensure Prince's place in music history
- Frere-Jones, Sasha. “Dorian Purple,” The New Yorker (9 Apr. 2007).
- Hill, Dave. Prince: A Pop Life (1989)
- Hahn, Alex. Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince (2003)
- Jones, Liz. Purple Reign: The Artist Formerly Known as Prince (1998)
- Nilson, Per. Prince: The First Decade (1999)
- Starr, Larry, and Christopher Warren. American Popular Music: From Minstrelsy to MTV (2003).
- Thorne, Matt. Prince: The Man and His Music (2016).
- Obituary: New York Times, 21 April 2016.http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/22/arts/music/prince-dead.html?_r=0