Who Was Prince?
Prince's early music career saw the release of Prince, Dirty Mind and Controversy, which drew attention for their fusion of religious and sexual themes. He then released the popular albums 1999 and Purple Rain, cementing his superstar status with No. 1 hits like "When Doves Cry" and "Let's Go Crazy." A seven-time Grammy winner, Prince had a prodigious output that included later albums like Diamonds and Pearls, The Gold Experience and Musicology. He died on April 21, 2016, from an accidental drug overdose.
Famed singer, songwriter and musical innovator Prince was born Prince Rogers Nelson on June 7, 1958, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His parents were John Nelson, a musician whose stage name was Prince Rogers, and Mattie Shaw, a jazz singer who performed with the Prince Rogers Band.
Prince became interested in music at a young age and taught himself how to play the piano, guitar and drums. His parents broke up when he was about 10, and he and his sister split their time between their parents’ homes. He eventually ran away and moved in with neighbors, the Anderson family. In high school, Prince formed the band Grand Central (later known as Champagne) with André Anderson (who later changed his name to André Cymone) and Morris Day.
In 1978, Prince was signed to Warner Bros. Records. In a 2009 interview with Tavis Smiley, Prince revealed that when he was a child, he suffered from epileptic seizures and that he was teased in school. He told Smiley, "Early in my career I tried to compensate by being as flashy and as noisy as I could."
The '80s: 'Purple Rain' and Beyond
With his band the Revolution, Prince went on to create the classic album Purple Rain (1984), which also served as the soundtrack to the film of the same name, grossing almost $70 million at the U.S. box office. Co-starring Apollonia Kotero and Day, the movie garnered an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score.
Its melancholy title track reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, while the hits "When Doves Cry" and "Let's Go Crazy" both reached No. 1. While "Crazy" readily joined the pantheon of wild, electrifying rock songs, "Doves Cry" had one-of-a-kind signatures, displaying an otherworldly meld of electronic and funk elements without a traditional chorus. The soundtrack offered two other hits: "I Would Die 4 U" and "Take Me With U." Prince simultaneously became a well-known visual icon with his trademark curls, flowing jackets and ruffled attire with punk embellishments.
"Darling Nikki" was another tune from Purple Rain that incited controversy due to its explicit visuals. After senator Al Gore's wife Tipper Gore bought the album for their daughter and listened to the track, she eventually pushed for albums to sport labels that warned parents of graphic lyrics.
1985 saw the release of Around the World in a Day, which had the Top 10 tracks "Raspberry Beret," a whimsical mid-tempo tune, and "Pop Life." The record continued to feature Prince's penchant for playing a range of instruments and desire to impart messages of self-love, as seen with "Paisley Park," a track inspired by the name of his Minneapolis studios.
In 1986 Prince released his eighth studio album, Parade, which included his pulsating No. 1 pop/R&B single "Kiss." Parade served as the soundtrack for the artist's second film, Under the Cherry Moon, which he directed and starred in.
Career Takes Off: 'Controversy' and '1999'
In 1978, Prince dropped his debut album, For You, which was followed by Prince (1979). He played practically all of the instruments on the albums, and the sophomore release contained his first Top 20 pop hit, the easygoing "I Wanna Be Your Lover." The critically acclaimed Dirty Mind dropped in 1980, consisting of material that was graphic in its exploration of sexuality and fantasy.
Controversy (1981) continued playing with the themes of its predecessor, as seen with the dance-oriented title track, which reached No. 3 on the R&B charts, as well as songs like "Sexuality" and "Do Me Baby." Yet as Prince continued to develop his career, he would also be known for tracks that had a deep spirituality, with a yearning for majesty and wonder.
The singer found international success with the release of his 1982 album, 1999, which included the Top 20 title track, an exquisite synth-funk ode about nuclear doomsday, as well as the Top 10 hits "Little Red Corvette" and "Delirious."
'Sign 'O' the Times,' 'Batman' Soundtrack
After the disbanding of the Revolution, Prince was able to consolidate various shelved projects into what ultimately became the double album Sign 'O' the Times (1987), with the title track reaching No. 3 on the pop charts and No. 1 in R&B. The album was known for its stark commentary on social issues yet also contained fun jams like "U Got the Look," a raucous duet with Scottish singer Sheena Easton that reached No. 2 on the pop charts. (He had previously penned the lasciviously charged pop/R&B hit "Sugar Walls" from her 1984 album A Private Heaven.) Sign was easily among Prince's most critically acclaimed albums, yet its sales lagged in the U.S., finding more of an audience in Europe, where the artist launched a successful tour.
Maintaining a prodigious output, Prince released Lovesexy in 1988, known for its album cover featuring a photo of the artist in the nude as well as the Top 5 uptempo R&B hit "Alphabet St."
By the time he released his 11th studio album, the soundtrack to Batman, in 1989, Prince had become one of America's most commercially successful pop artists, continually making waves on the charts. Batman offered up the No. 1 romp "Batdance" as well as the Top 5 R&B hit "Partyman." The video for "Batdance" famously featured Prince in split-effect makeup and costuming meant to symbolize both the film's shadowy hero and his crazed nemesis, the Joker.
The Early '90s: The New Power Generation
The early 1990s marked the launch of the New Power Generation, Prince's latest band that featured a blend of contemporary R&B, hip-hop, jazz and soul along with the vocals of Rosie Gaines. The group was first called out in the soundtrack to Graffiti Bridge, a 1990 sequel to Purple Rain that didn't fare well at the box office yet still yielded the Top 10 track "Thieves in the Temple."
With the NPG's artistic contribution, Prince found success with his album Diamonds and Pearls (1991), which rose to No. 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart. Diamonds included the romantic title ballad, the industrial strength "Gett Off," the playful paean "Insatiable" and the saucy No. 1 single "Cream."
Prince's work with the NPG continued to unashamedly toy with ideas around sexuality, gender norms and the body. To promote the album, Prince had appeared on the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards to do a live performance of "Gett Off." Echoing parts of the track's music video, the performance featured an array of dancers and musicians in an onstage bacchanal, with the artist famously turning around towards the end of the song to show off his seatless pants.
In the fall of 1992 Prince had signed a record $100 million dollar deal with Warner Bros., which was considered "the largest recording and music publishing contract in history" at the time and allowed him the freedom to pursue TV, film, book and merchandising deals separately. As a comparison, fellow industry giants Michael Jackson and Madonna had $60 million-plus contracts that were all-inclusive.
Provocative performances aside, Prince had well established himself as an in-demand collaborator and behind-the-scenes player whose songs were remade by other artists. In the mid-'80s, Chaka Khan released an ebullient, highly successful cover of his 1979 tune "I Feel For You," while Sinead O'Connor's biggest hit was Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U." The Art of Noise and Tom Jones reached the U.K. Top 5 in 1988 with a remake of "Kiss," and Alicia Keys covered "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore" on her own 2001 debut.
Prince also worked on specific album tracks for performers like Khan, Madonna, Tevin Campbell, Kate Bush, the Time, Martika, Patti Labelle and Janelle Monae. He was behind the girl group Vanity 6, led by singer/actress Vanity, and their No. 1 dance hit "Nasty Girl." And he sent a song to the all-women's band the Bangles that they would record to great effect, reaching No. 2 with the lush ode to a stressful workday, "Manic Monday."
In 1992 Prince and the New Power Generation released Love Symbol Album. Though embraced by some critics, sales did not fare as well as Diamonds. Love only managed to have one Top 10 hit, the transcendent single "7," though "My Name Is Prince" and the carnal "Sexy MF" garnered some attention as well. The following year Prince released the compilation box set The Hits/The B-Sides, which had an array of popular songs as well as the newly released "Pink Cashmere," a tender number sung in falsetto.
Prince's Symbol: 'The Artist Formerly Known As Prince'
The lack of success for Love Symbol Album created tension between Prince and his record label Warner Bros. Over the ensuing years, the singer's career went through a roller coaster of ups and downs. Turned off by feeling controlled by his label, Prince changed his name to the unpronounceable glyph O(+> in 1993, a fusion of female and male astrological symbols which he used until 2000.
During that time, he was more frequently referred to as "the artist formerly known as Prince," and his new symbol was not embraced by most fans. He also started making appearances with the word "SLAVE" drawn on the side of his face, meant to convey the great disdain he had for his label. Prince did release the 1995 album The Gold Experience during this time of duress, and scored another Top 5 song with "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World."
Once he was released from all contractual obligations to Warner Bros., Prince released the triple album fittingly entitled Emancipation (1996), which went on to become certified platinum and featured the soul remake "Betcha by Golly, Wow." Several other albums affiliated with his NPG label soon followed, including Crystal Ball (1998) and Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999).
'Musicology,' Super Bowl and More Accolades
After several years of relative obscurity, Prince returned to the limelight in 2004 to perform at the Grammy Awards with Beyoncé Knowles, the same year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That spring, he released Musicology with a tour that became the top concert draw in the United States. The album won two Grammys and added another dreamy ballad, "Call My Name," to the Prince canon.
His next album, 3121, was released in 2006. That year, he wrote and performed "Song of the Heart" for the animated film Happy Feet, and won a Golden Globe (Best Original Song) for the composition. In 2007 he performed during the Super Bowl XLI halftime show on a massive stage shaped as his famous symbol amid pouring rain. The event was watched by 140 million fans.
2010 was the year of accolades for Prince. He not only was lauded by Billboard.com as the greatest Super Bowl performer ever, but he was also featured in TIME magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World" and earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the BET Awards. He ended the year with an induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Prince also continued to deliver the fruits of his studio efforts with Planet Earth (2007), LotusFlow3r (2009) and, in a joint deal with the Daily Mirror, 20Ten (2010).
Opposition to Changing Industry Model
With the advent of the internet as the primary force for distributing music, Prince was against the trend of having songs shared at will on the web. He railed against the idea of providing his songs to online music platforms without proper upfront compensation and profit-sharing, with his tracks eventually only found on the Jay-Z backed streaming service Tidal. One of the few pop artists to have full ownership of his masters, he was diligent via Web Sheriff in erasing examples of his music, including videos and live performances, from the internet. He was thus behind the Lenz v. Universal Musical Group case, which unsuccessfully pushed for the YouTube removal of a baby dancing to "Let's Go Crazy."
Prince continued to take political stands with his performances as well. On May 2, 2015, Prince staged a Dance Rally 4 Peace at Paisley Park to pay tribute to Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American who died in police custody after his arrest in Baltimore, and to show support for the activists protesting his death. With his backup band 3RDEYEGIRL, Prince performed a 41-minute concert including his protest song “Baltimore,” which was inspired by Gray’s death.
On April 21, 2016, Prince was found dead at his Paisley Park compound in Minnesota. The week prior, his plane made an emergency landing and the singer was hospitalized for what was purportedly a severe case of the flu, though reports later stated that the musician was actually given a life-saving "safe shot" for a Percocet overdose. The Carver County sheriff's department and Midwest Medical Examiner's office launched an investigation into the cause of death. After the autopsy was performed, his remains were cremated and his close family and friends gathered for a small, private funeral on April 23.
Almost two weeks after the musician's death, a lawyer revealed that Dr. Howard Kornfeld, a California-based physician who specializes in treatment for those dependent upon and addicted to pain medication, had been called upon by Prince's team to aid the musician. (The performer had undergone hip surgery some years earlier, and was believed to have endured recurring discomfort while giving concerts.) Kornfeld's son had reportedly flown to Prince's compound to initiate the recovery process and was among those who found him dead. While Prince's state of health at the time of his death is unknown, attorney William Mauzy said the artist "was dealing with a grave medical emergency" when Kornfeld was called, as reported by The Minneapolis Star Tribune.
On June 2, 2016, the Midwest Medical Examiner’s office released results of its investigation, which determined that Prince died from an accidental overdose of “self-administered” fentanyl, a synthetic opiate.
Tributes to a profoundly unique artist poured in from fans across the globe, as evidenced by impromptu memorials and celebrations of his work. With love especially hailing from the city where Prince was born and continued to live, thousands of mourners sang "Purple Rain" in downtown Minneapolis on the night of his death.
His Minnesota home/studio, Paisley Park, officially opened its doors as a museum in October 2016. The following month, his first posthumous song, "Moonbeam Levels," was released. Additionally, production began on a documentary about the singer’s early years, entitled Prince: R U Listening?
On April 19, 2018, Carver County concluded its two-year investigation with the announcement that no criminal charges would be filed in Prince's death. Attorney Mark Metz said that it was unknown who supplied the musician with the fentanyl-laced pills that killed him, and that there was no evidence that any associates knew he was ingesting such a dangerous substance.
"There is no doubt that the actions of individuals around Prince will be criticized and judged in the days and weeks to come," Metz said. "But suspicions and innuendo are not sufficient in bringing criminal charges."
Prince was extremely private about his personal life and preferred to spend time at his Paisley Park compound, away from the celebrity spotlight.
In the 1980s, Prince had a long on-and-off relationship with singer-songwriter Susannah Melvoin, the twin sister of Wendy Melvoin, a guitarist in Prince’s band the Revolution. He was also romantically involved with drummer extraordinaire Sheila E. The two worked together on her albums The Glamorous Life, featuring the Top 10 pop/R&B title track, and Romance 1600, showcasing the single "A Love Bizarre."
On Valentine’s Day 1996, Prince married backup singer and dancer Mayte Garcia. The couple had a son, who was born on October 16, 1996, and died a week later from Pfeiffer Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. Prince and Garcia divorced in 1999.
In 2001, Prince married his second wife, Manuela Testolini, who had been employed by one of his charitable organizations. Their marriage ended in 2006. After their divorce, he had a relationship with one of his musical protégées, singer Bria Valente.
Religious Faith: Jehovah's Witness
During the same year as his wedding to Testolini, Prince also became a Jehovah’s Witness, embracing the faith after years of study (he was raised as a Seventh-Day Adventist). His mentor as a Witness was bassist Larry Graham, who had played with Sly & the Family Stone and thus was also a major musical influence.
Prince was believed to have taken part in what's referred to as field service for his faith, having once visited a Jewish couple in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and leaving behind a copy of the Witness publication The Watchtower. His language and performance sensibilities changed somewhat, with some fans questioning how some of the conservative aspects of his religion jibed with the explicit nature of past songs. Contradicting the rock/soul persona, others have pointed out that Prince has historically had songs that were clearly Christian in nature, as seen with "The Ladder," "The Holy River," "The Cross" and "God," the gospel B-side to the single "Purple Rain."
'The Beautiful Ones' Memoir and Tribute
In March 2016, it was announced that the pop superstar was working on a memoir, tentatively titled The Beautiful Ones. According to Billboard magazine, Prince spoke to an audience at a music industry event about the memoir: “This is my first (book). My brother Dan” — co-writer Dan Piepenbring — “is helping me with it. He’s a good critic and that’s what I need. He’s not a ‘yes’ man at all and he’s really helping me get through this. We’re starting from the beginning from my first memory and hopefully we can go all the way up to the Super Bowl.”
Although the artist passed away shortly afterward, his collaborators continued to work on the project. In October 2019, Penguin Random House published the 279-page The Beautiful Ones, combining Prince's unfinished manuscript with photos, scrapbooks and lyrics.
The following spring, CBS aired Let's Go Crazy: The Grammy Salute to Prince on the fourth anniversary of his death. Hosted by comedian and actress Maya Rudolph, the special featured an all-star lineup of musicians performing the artist's classic hits. Highlights included John Legend delivering a soulful version of "Nothing Compares 2 U," Chris Martin and Susanna Hoffs teaming up for a delicate rendition of "Manic Monday" and Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters pumping out their hard-rock cover of "Darling Nikki."
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