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Prince (1958–2016)

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Prince performing “Purple Rain” at First Avenue, 1983.

Prince performing “Purple Rain” at First Avenue, August 3, 1983. Photograph by Joel Bremer. CC-BY-SA 4.0.

Prince was a Minnesota-based singer, songwriter, musician, studio engineer, actor, director, dancer, and music legend. Over his nearly forty-year career, he sold more than 100 million albums; he also won seven Grammys and an Oscar. He was the main creator of the “Minneapolis Sound,” a blending of rhythm and blues, funk, rock, pop, punk, and new wave that defined the music of the 1980s.

Prince Rogers Nelson was born in Minneapolis on June 7, 1958. Growing up on the city's Northside, he taught himself the piano, guitar, bass, drums, and other instruments at a young age. His early musical influences included R&B, funk, rock, and soul music. Older local musicians and neighbors, like Sonny Thompson, exposed him to rock—an important component in his development of the Minneapolis Sound.

After Prince landed a major recording contract with Warner Brothers at nineteen, his first albums—For You (1978) and Prince (1979)—made their mark on the R&B charts but did not see the crossover to white audiences that he wanted. His early recordings did show his musical virtuosity and included the soon-to-be-common credit “produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince.”

Prince’s commercial and critical success grew in the early 1980s with the release of albums that solidified the Minneapolis Sound: Dirty Mind (1980), Controversy (1981), and 1999 (1982). His videos with his “multicultural, rainbow-coalition” and mixed-gender band, The Revolution, on the new music channel MTV, helped define the fashion, dance moves, and sounds of the new decade.

With no number-one hits and only one top-ten album (1999) under his belt, Prince pitched the idea of a major motion picture to his label. While initially unsure, Warner Brothers eventually backed the artist’s effort, and Prince spent much of 1983 and early 1984 writing and recording songs for, and filming, the movie Purple Rain. Prince and The Revolution recorded three of the soundtrack’s songs live at the Minneapolis nightclub First Avenue in 1983 and shot over half of the movie at the venue.

The film and soundtrack, released in June 1984, were instant commercial and critical successes. Prince’s impact on music, fashion, and sexuality made him a cultural icon in league with Michael Jackson and Madonna.

During the last half of the 1980s, Prince continued to explore new musical sounds and switched between collaborative and solo works. He disbanded The Revolution in 1986 after the release of Parade. He returned to his roots by completing his next studio album (Sign o’ the Times) alone, but he also collaborated with other side bands and projects. He ushered out the most successful decade of his career with a number-one soundtrack for the Tim Burton movie Batman.

In 1991, Prince formed his next band, The New Power Generation, and began incorporating hip-hop and rap into his work, which he had previously resisted. With his superstar status, he took on the music industry’s contracting procedures, changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol to escape his recording contract with Warner Brothers. He often appeared with the word “slave” drawn on his face to underscore the unfair practices he saw in the recording industry.

In the early 2000s, Prince influenced the business side of the music industry more than the sonic landscape of the times. With slipping record sales but continuing success touring, Prince found innovative ways to distribute his albums and reach number one, such as selling them with concert tickets (Musicology) and giving people the chance to enter a sweepstakes to win a private performance (3121).

Prince was an early supporter of directly streaming music to his audience. He changed his mind, however, when he saw his work pirated on the internet. He eventually came to terms with the new technology and released albums online via a subscription service, which sold his music as well as tickets to his shows. He continued to collaborate extensively, including with his last band, 3rdEyeGirl, and performed massive worldwide tours as well as more intimate performances at his Paisley Park compound in Chanhassen.

Prince died at Paisley Park on April 21, 2016, from an accidental overdose of the opioid fentanyl. He was fifty-seven years old.

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Birth certificate, Nelson, Prince Roger [sic]. Minneapolis, Hennepin County, Minnesota, June 7, 1958. Certificate #122-58-0 09233. Minnesota Birth Index.

Galbraith, Alex. “Watch A Rare Video of Prince Debuting a Longer Version Of ‘Purple Rain’ In 1983.” Uproxx, September 2, 2015.
http://uproxx.com/music/watch-prince-purple-rain-original-1983

Goldberg, Emily. The Minneapolis Sound. Minneapolis: KTCA2 Production, 1988.

Graustark, Barbara. “Prince: Strange Tales from Andre’s Basement…and Other Fantasies Come True.” Musician, September 1983.

Hamilton, Jack. “Why Prince May Have Been the Greatest Guitarist Since Hendrix (and Why That Shouldn’t Seem Like a Surprise).” Slate’s Culture Blog, April 28, 2016.
http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2016/04/28/why_prince_was_the_greatest_guitarist_since_jimi_hendrix.html

Library of Congress. “Recordings by Donna Summer, Prince and Dolly Parton Named to the National Recording Registry.” News release, May 23, 2012.
https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-12-107/new-entries-to-the-national-recording-registry-2/2012-05-23/

Light, Alan. Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain. New York: Atria Books, 2014.

Nelson, Tyka. Phone interview with the author, January 18, 2017.

“Oral History: Prince's Life, as Told by the People Who Knew Him Best.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 26, 2016.
http://www.startribune.com/the-life-of-prince-as-told-by-the-people-who-knew-him/376586581/#1

Parramore, Lynn Stuart. “Prince, Bowie and Haggard: Icons? Legends? What’s the Difference?” Reuters, April 27, 2016.
http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2016/04/27/prince-bowie-and-haggard-icons-legends-whats-the-difference

Prince Vault.
http://www.princevault.com/index.php?title=Main_Page

Riemenschneider, Chris, and Jon Bream. “Obituary: Prince Was a Diminutive Giant Who Revolutionized Pop Music.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 28, 2016.
http://www.startribune.com/jon-bream-prince-was-a-once-in-a-generation-artist-who-never-rested-on-his-laurels/376594221/

Ro, Ronin. Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011.

Smith, Charles "Chazz," and Victoria Smith. Phone interviews with the editor, October 12 and 16, 2017.

Swensson, Andrea. "The Hometown Kid." Minnesota Monthly, December 2016.

Thorne, Matt. Prince: The Man and His Music. Chicago: Bolden, 2016.

Touré. I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon. New York: Atria Books, 2013.

Related Images

Prince performing “Purple Rain” at First Avenue, 1983.
Prince performing “Purple Rain” at First Avenue, 1983.
Prince as a baby, with family
Prince as a baby, with family
Mattie (Shaw) Nelson and Prince
Mattie (Shaw) Nelson and Prince
Prince at his sixth birthday party
Prince at his sixth birthday party
Prince’s junior high school yearbook photograph
Prince’s junior high school yearbook photograph
Ticket to first Prince concert
Ticket to first Prince concert
Lyrics to “I Hope We Work It Out”
Lyrics to “I Hope We Work It Out”
Prince performing in 1983
Prince performing in 1983
Tambourine from the movie Purple Rain
Tambourine from the movie Purple Rain
Costume worn by Prince in the movie Purple Rain
Costume worn by Prince in the movie Purple Rain
Boots worn by Prince in the movie Purple Rain
Boots worn by Prince in the movie Purple Rain
“U Got the Look” record sleeve
“U Got the Look” record sleeve
Tamboracca (percussion instrument) and box
Tamboracca (percussion instrument) and box
Glyph sticker
Glyph sticker
Prince, ca. 1995–2000.
Prince, ca. 1995–2000.
Prince performing at the Coachella music festival
Prince performing at the Coachella music festival
Prince in 2009
Prince in 2009
Prince's star painted gold at First Avenue
Prince's star painted gold at First Avenue
Fan tributes to Prince outside Paisley Park
Fan tributes to Prince outside Paisley Park

Turning Point

In 1984, Prince releases the feature-length movie Purple Rain and its studio soundtrack, which stays at number one for almost six months, giving Prince his first number-one hits (“When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy”). The movie grosses $70 million by that fall. Purple Rain catapults Prince into superstardom, secures his place as one of the most successful and influential artists of the 1980s, and positions Minneapolis as a major music center.

Chronology

1958

Prince Rogers Nelson is born on June 7, 1958, in Minneapolis, to John and Mattie (Shaw) Nelson. Although he worked various day jobs, John was a noted jazz piano player in the Twin Cities, leading the Prince Rogers Trio. Mattie was the group’s lead singer.

1965

Prince writes his first song, “Funk Machine,” and masters the piano at age seven. John gave Prince a guitar in the early 1970s, which the prodigy quickly mastered.

ca. 1972

Prince forms the band Grand Central with his cousin Charles “Chazz” Smith; they ask André (Anderson) Cymone to join. The band, under various names and with additional members, plays in Minneapolis until Prince graduates from Central High School in 1976.

1975

Prince plays guitar in his first studio session with mentor Pepe Willie’s band 94 East at Cookhouse Studio. He also works with Chris Moon at Moonsound Studio, learning the arts of songwriting and studio engineering.

1978

Prince records demo tapes at Sound 80 Studio in Minneapolis, which leads to a record deal with Warner Bros. He releases For You in 1979 and Prince the next year. He plays all instruments, performs all vocals, and produces both albums.

1980

Prince releases the critically acclaimed Dirty Mind, arguably one of the first albums to capture the “Minneapolis Sound.” A year later, Controversy reaches number twenty-one in the Billboard chart, his highest placement to date.

1982

Prince releases 1999, his first top-ten album, and gets heavy rotation on MTV with his songs “Little Red Corvette” and “1999.” His success—like Michael Jackson’s—breaks barriers on the white-artist-dominated channel.

1983

Purple Rain is filmed mainly at locations in Minneapolis, including the club First Avenue. Three of the movie’s songs are recorded live at First Avenue, including “I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m A Star,” and the title track.

1984

Prince releases Purple Rain to massive, worldwide success. The album’s title track wins the Oscar for Best Original Song Score the following year.

1985

Prince releases Around the World in A Day, a psychedelic counterpoint to Purple Rain. A year later he releases Parade—the soundtrack to his film Under the Cherry Moon and his last album with The Revolution.

1987

Prince completes Paisley Park, his artistic compound, studio, and performance space in the western Minneapolis suburb of Chanhassen. Early recordings include Sign o’ the Times and the Batman movie soundtrack.

1991

Prince premieres his new band, The New Power Generation, at his Minneapolis club, Glam Slam. The band incorporates hip-hop and rap, which Prince had resisted. He also releases Diamonds and Pearls, which provides his last number one hit, "Cream."

1993

Prince changes his name to the unpronounceable Love Symbol, which combines symbols for man (Mars) and woman (Venus), in part to make a statement to his label, which he felt was limiting his artistic freedom. (He returned to the name Prince in 2000.)

2004

Prince is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He delivers what many consider to be one of the greatest guitar solos of all time at the ceremony during a tribute to George Harrison with the song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

2016

Prince dies on April 21 of a accidental fentanyl overdose at Paisley Park, spurring worldwide tributes and memorials, including an impromptu dance party attended by thousands outside First Avenue—the club he made famous, and that made him a superstar.