b. Prince Rogers Nelson, 7 June 1958, Minneapolis,
Minnesota, USA. d
A prodigiously talented singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer, Prince was named after the Prince Roger Trio, of whom his father, John Nelson, was a member. After running away from his mother and stepfather he briefly joined up with John, who bought him his first guitar. He was later adopted by the Andersons, and became a close friend of Andre Anderson (later Andre Cymone). Prince was already conversant with piano and guitar and had written his own material from an early age. Together with Anderson he joined the latter's cousin, Charles Smith, in a junior high school band titled Grand Central. As Prince progressed to high school, Grand Central became Champagne, and he introduced original material into his sets for the first time. His musical development continued with the emergence of 'Uptown', a musical underground scene that included Flyte Time, as well as other important influences including Jellybean Johnson, Terry Lewis and Alexander O'Neal. Prince's first demos were recorded in 1976 with Chris Moon, who gave him guidance in the operation of a music studio, and free reign to experiment at weekends. Moon also introduced him to backer Owen Husney, after which Prince provided interested parties with a superior-quality demo. Husney and his partner Levinson set about a massive 'hyping' campaign, the results of which secured him a long-term, flexible contract with Warner Brothers Records after a great deal of scrambling amongst the majors.
Debuting with Prince For You, Prince sent shock waves through his new sponsors by spending double his entire advance on the production of a single album. It sold moderately (USA number 163), with the single 'Soft And Wet' making a big impact in the R&B charts. The album's blend of deep funk and soul was merely an appetizer in comparison to his later exploits, but enough to reassure his label that their investment had been a solid one. By 1979 Prince had put together a firm band (his debut had been recorded almost exclusively by himself). This featured Cymone (bass), Gayle Chapman and Matt Fink (both keyboards), Bobby Z (drummer) and Dez Dickerson (guitar). Despite lavishing considerably less time and money on it than its predecessor, Prince nevertheless charted (USA number 22) and boasted two successful singles, 'Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?' and 'I Wanna Be Your Lover'. A succession of live dates promoting the new album Dirty Mind saw Lisa Coleman replacing Chapman. The album was the first fully to embody Prince's sexual allure, and the phallic exhortations on his Fender Telecaster and explicit material such as 'Head' appalled and enticed in equal proportions. Artists such as Rick James, whom Prince supported in 1980, were among those who mistrusted Prince's open, androgynous sexuality. Returning to Minneapolis after an aborted UK tour, Cymone departed for a solo career while former members of Flyte Time and others released a self-titled album under the band name the Time. It transpired later that their songs had been written by Prince, who was the motivation behind the entire project. Prince was nothing if not prolific, and both Controversy and 1999 followed within 12 months. Controversy attempted to provide a rationale for the sexual machinations that dominated Dirty Mind, falling unhappily between the two stools of instinct and intellect. It was a paradox not entirely solved by 1999, a double album that had enough strong material to make up two sides of excellence but no more. The promotional tour featured a special revue troupe: Prince And The Revolution headlined above the Time and Vanity 6 (an all-girl Prince creation). The single 'Little Red Corvette' was lifted from the album and was the first to gain significant airplay on MTV. The song was almost entirely constructed for this purpose, using a strong 'white' metaphor as leverage. After internal disputes with the Time, Prince began work on the Purple Rain film, a glamorized autobiographical piece in which he would star. The potent social commentary of 'When Doves Cry' was lifted from the soundtrack and became the first Prince song to grace the top of the US charts. 'Let's Go Crazy' and 'Purple Rain' (numbers 1 and 2, respectively) further established him as a figurehead for the 80s. The latter saw him turn his hand to Jimi Hendrix pyrotechnics and textures in the song. After the end of a huge and successful tour, Prince returned to the studio for a duet with Apollonia, the latest in a seemingly endless succession of female prot�g�es. He also found time to revitalize the career of Scottish pop singer Sheena Easton by composing her US Top 10 effort 'Sugar Walls'. When Around The World In A Day emerged in 1985 it topped the US charts for a three-week run, despite a deliberate lack of promotion. Drowning in quasi-psychedelia and 60s optimism, it was a diverting but strangely uneventful, almost frivolous, jaunt. It preceded the announcement that Prince was retiring from live appearances. Instead, he had founded the studio/label/complex Paisley Park in central Minneapolis, which would become the luxurious base for his future operations. As work began on a second movie, Under The Cherry Moon, 'Kiss' was released to become his third US number 1. Held one place beneath it was the Bangles' 'Manic Monday', written by Prince under one of his numerous pseudonyms, in this case, Christopher.
He quickly overturned his decision not to perform live, and set out on the Parade tour to promote the number 1 album of the same name. Unfortunately, although 'Kiss' and 'Girls And Boys' represented classic Prince innuendo, the rest of the album lacked focus. The shows, however, were spectacular even by Prince standards, but his backing band the Revolution were nevertheless disbanded at the end of the tour.
In 1987 Prince instituted a new line-up for the latest live engagements. While retaining the backbone of the Revolution (Fink, Leeds, Brooks and Safford) he added Sheila E, Marco Weaver, and Seacer. The new album was to be a radical departure from the laconic, cosseted atmosphere that pervaded Parade. 'Sign 'O' The Times', the title track, was a hard-hitting testimony to urban dystopia, drug-related violence and human folly. The vast majority of tracks on the double album revisited the favoured territory of sex and sensuality. The follow-up album would elaborate on the darker shades of Sign 'O' The Times'apocalyptic vision. However, the Black Album was recalled by Prince before it reached the shops. Combining primal funk slices with sadistic overtones, Prince's decision to suspend it ensured that it would become the 80s' most coveted bootleg. The mythology surrounding its non-release has it that the Black Album was the work of Prince's 'dark' side - 'Spooky Electric'. This was given credence by the subsequent Lovesexy, apparently the result of the pre-eminence of 'Camille' - Prince's 'good' side. Playing both albums side by side certainly reveals a sharp dichotomy of approach. His next tour, meanwhile, saw the inclusion of a huge Pink Cadillac as a mobile part of the set. Exhausted musicians testified to the difficulty of backing their leader, rushing from orchestrated stadium performances to private club dates where entire sets would be improvised, all of which Prince, naturally, took in his stride. 1989 closed with a duet with Madonna, who, alongside Michael Jackson, was the only artist able to compete with Prince in terms of mass popularity.
The following year was dominated by the soundtrack album for the year's biggest film,Batman. If the album was not his greatest artistic success, it proved a commercial smash, topping the US charts for six weeks. He had also written and produced an album for singer Mavis Staples. At first glance it seemed an unlikely combination, but Prince's lyrics tempered the sexual with the divine in a manner that was judged acceptable by the grand lady of gospel. In February 1990 Sinead O'Connor recorded a version of Prince's composition 'Nothing Compares 2 U', which topped both the US and UK charts. In September 1990 he released Graffiti Bridge, which accompanied a film release of the same title. The album was composed entirely of Prince compositions of which he sang just over half - other guests included Tevin Campbell, Mavis Staples and the Time. Both album and film were critical and commercial failures, however. Graffiti Bridge was his first commercial let-down for some time, peaking at number 6 in the USA (although it made number 1 in the UK). Prince, as usual, was already busy putting together new projects. These included his latest backing outfit, the New Power Generation, featuring Tony M (rapper), Rosie Gaines (vocals), Michael Bland (drums), Levi Seacer (guitar), Kirk Johnson (guitar), Sonny T (bass) and Tommy Barbarella (keyboards). They were in place in time for the sessions for Diamonds And Pearls, a comparatively deliberate and studied body of work. The album was released in October 1991, and showcased the new backing band. Greeted by most critics as a return to form, the New Power Generation were considered his most able and vibrant collaborators since the mid-80s. Taken from it, 'Cream' became a US number 1. 1992's 'Money Don't Matter 2 Night' featured a video directed by film-maker Spike Lee, while 'Sexy MF' was widely banned on UK radio because of its suggestive lyrics. Both 'Sexy MF' and 'My Name Is Prince' were included on the Love Symbol Album - which introduced the cryptic 'symbol' that he would legally adopt as his name in June 1993. Much of the attention subsequently surrounding the artist concerned his protracted battle against his record company, Warner Brothers. His behaviour became increasingly erratic - speaking only through envoys, he appeared at the 1995 BRIT Awards ceremony with the word 'slave' written across his forehead as a protest. In October he abandoned the symbol moniker and from that point was known as 'The Artist Formerly Known As Prince'. Naturally, this produced enough running gags to fill a book and his credibility was in serious danger.
In 1995 he released The Gold Experience, a return to the raunchy funk of his 80s prime in tracks such as 'Pussy Control' and 'I Hate You'. It also included the smoothly accessible 'The Most Beautiful Girl In The World', his bestselling single for many years. Following the release of Chaos And Disorder in July 1996, he sacked the New Power Generation and announced that he would not be touring, preferring to spend more time with his wife and new baby (who tragically died months after birth). He celebrated his release from the Warner Brothers contract with the sprawling Emancipation.
Although 'The Artist Formerly Known As Prince' has yet to provide the definitive album of which he is so obviously capable, the continued flow of erratic, flawed gems suggests that the struggle will continue to captivate his audience through the 90s. It it universally hoped that he reverts to his real name.
Encyclopedia of Popular Music Copyright Muze UK Ltd. 1989 - 1998
Prince played with identity but never suggested he was not of this earth. Surely, he was a proud freak, brazenly flaunting conventions and embracing every color and creed, but he wasn't flown in from another planet. Underneath the bikini briefs, fur boas and Sgt. Pepper coats, he was a shy African-American kid from Minneapolis, an introvert who found salvation in music. This Prince, the Midwestern outsider, hid in plain sight, overshadowed by a dazzling '80s where he wasn't simply a star, he was a messiah for all the weirdos who felt like they were the only one of their kind in their hometown. It wasn't simply that Prince himself was a misfit but that he surrounded himself with a bunch of outsiders, too: the Revolution had black, white and Puerto Rican musicians, every one of them wearing personalized uniforms they seemed to cobble together at the local Salvation Army.
Prince was the ringleader, standing somewhat apart smirking at the circus he orchestrated. Somehow, each member of the Revolution reflected a part of him: funk doctors, new wave rockers and, crucially, Wendy & Lisa, lesbian partners who provided Prince with his greatest creative sparring partners. Prince loved women in every imaginable way, so much that he could write about and write for them with exquisite sensitivity. Plus, he could sing like a girl, playing with gender with the same ease he played with genre: he was everything at once.
At least he was for a moment—a moment that lasted the entirety of the '80s. His run from 1980's Dirty Mind to 1990's Graffiti Bridge—or perhaps Diamonds & Pearls, the 1991 album where he debuted the New Power Generation, a combo he first started to murmur about on 1988's Lovesexy—is breathtaking in its restless vigor, a period where even the flawed albums teem with brilliance. Even Batman—a song cycle he knocked out for Tim Burton in 1989 when he was only asked to do one tune for the soundtrack—operates on its own warped intuition as it alternates between apocalyptic funk and candied pop, culminating in the freakout of "Batdance," a single that stitches together motifs from what came before. No major moments—there's not even an "Alphabet St."—but it's a nimble, clever record when it isn't stuck in sap and it signals his prodigious productivity: he even tossed out out an accompanying B-side to boot (that'd be "200 Balloons," a song that actually could fit within the film's story, something Prince never bothered to do for the rest of the Batman album).
TThat's the thing about Prince at his prime: the music simply never stopped. An album came every year—two of them, 1999 and Sign O The Times, doubles, both among the greatest albums ever recorded—and he'd throw out some of his best songs as B-sides: "Erotic City," "17 Days," "Another Lonely Christmas." Additionally, he doled out songs to protegees and crushes, amassing hits that sometimes accrued under a pen name (a "Christopher" was responsible for the Bangles' "Manic Monday"). Then, there was all the music that he didn't release: a triple album called the Dream Factory, a record as his alter-ego Camille ("Housequake"), jam sessions with Miles Davis, demos and other things that sounded like the stuff of dreams. That such theoretical gems were squirreled away in the recesses of Paisley Park was part of the myth: Prince's genius was blindingly evident but its depth seems fathomless, a suspicion reinforced by all those hours of tapes we never heard, all possibly containing something transcendent.
Prince delivered transcendence until the very end, playing surprise concerts just days before his sudden death on April 21, 2016. Just this past January, he launched his first-ever tour of solo piano performances and these concerts underscored how, some 35 years after he crashed into national consciousness, he still possessed the ability to cast spells. His last decade was dotted with public displays of virtuosity—his halftime show at the 2007 Super Bowl, his scene-stealing "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" solo at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2004—and anybody who attended one of his shows inevitably came back enraptured. The same thing can't be said about his recordings. Once he won his freedom from Warner Bros in 1996, Prince was free to release whatever he wanted and it could be said he abused his privilege. Curiosity sent the triple-disc Emancipation to 11 upon its November 1996 release but the quadruple-disc Crystal Ball—its title coming from the original name for the triple-LP incarnation of Sign O the Times——flamed out, leaving Prince to align with Clive Davis for 1999's Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic, the first of several conscious attempts to reconnect with the wide commercial audience he left behind once he began battling his record company in 1992.
Some of these deliberately nostalgic records are quite good: conventional wisdom favors 2004's Musicology but 2006's 3121 is lithe and clever, and it also contains the electro blast of "Black Sweat," perhaps the last evidence that Prince paid attention to modern music. In the past decade, his albums were increasingly conservative—it's hard not to notice the heavy hand of Larry Graham, the visionary bassist who became a fixture in Prince's universe in the late '90s and eventually converted the singer to be a Jehovah's Witness—sometimes sliding into psychedelic guitar freakouts but usually grounded in the kind of smooth soul he consciously abandoned on 1980's Dirty Mind. As Michaelangelo Matos chronicled in Pitchfork last year, if Prince was going to leave the Twin Cities, he'd have to accentuate all of his alien elements: his androgyny, his love of Joni Mitchell, his six string theatrics, his canny pop skills. Everything that turned him into a star, in other words.
Prince locked upon this aesthetic on Dirty Mind and over the next decade, he devoured everything he heard. He slathered on synthesizers, swiped from the Paisley Underground, took rock into the arenas, he pioneered drum loops that would anchor the hip-hop he never quite fully embraced. He was a pop supernova, expanding at an uncharted pace and then collapsing, receding back to the guy he was at the start: a shy African-American kid from Minneapolis. Prince may have been an enigma but he lived in public in Minneapolis, spotted regularly at clubs and stores and he threw concerts at his Paisley Park complex. He even went around door-to-door, trying to convert neighbors to being a Jehovah's Witness. Prince may have retreated to his hometown and he may have whittled his music back down to its essence but he remained committed to developing emerging artists and also took pains to showcase female musicians, frequently choosing women as his supporting act. He also remained fearless, writing "Baltimore" in 2015 as a tribute to the slain Freddie Gray. This support of Black Lives Matter isn't the first time he was a vocal supporter of African-American causes, nor was it the only time he wrote a political protest song: at the height of the '80s nuclear paranoia, he addressed Ronald Reagan by name, something none of his peers did.
Maybe this continual engagement with the present is why his death feels so unexpected: even when he started trading upon his past, Prince remained engaged with our present, embracing the internet before rejecting it, playfully trading memes, and writing about how we live our lives in the 21st Century. By remaining engaged in his own peculiar way, he suggested that there would always be a possibility of a major work around the corner and, if any musician could deliver a great album of new material when he was 70, it'd be Prince. Sadly, we'll never get that. Nevertheless, the music he gave us is so rich and so joyous, it'll sustain us for this lifetime and many other lifetimes to come.
All Music Guide -- Forever In My Life: Remembering Prince's Boundless Creativity, Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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