Date of Birth: 7 June 1958, Minneapolis, Minnesota, US
Birth Name: Prince Rogers Nelson
Nicknames: Prince, Jamie Starr, Joey Coco, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince
Prince was the prodigious hit-maker who synthesised an intoxicating mix of musical styles.
Typical of its prodigiously gifted composer, a multi-instrumentalist with a ferocious work ethic, the 1984 album Purple Rain, and accompanying semi-autobiographical hit movie of the same name, launched Prince, who has died aged 57, on to the global stage. It put him on track to become one of the greatest superstars of that decade and beyond.
The chart-topping Purple Rain sold more than 20m copies, delivering two US No 1 singles in When Doves Cry and Let’s Go Crazy, and winning Prince the 1985 Oscar for best original song score. The anthemic title song could make it only to No 2, but it became the calling card of a compelling and glamorous performer who continued to dazzle and bewitch audiences.
His career as a hit-maker had begun five years earlier, with the single I Wanna Be Your Lover, and he followed up Purple Rain with further hugely successful releases including Parade, Sign o’ the Times, Lovesexy and Diamonds and Pearls. While his profile and commercial fortunes ebbed and flowed over the following decades, and he even changed his name temporarily to a mysterious symbol as part of an attempt to get out of his contract with Warner Bros, in recent years he had regained his grip on his career, and become acknowledged as one of the most inspirational artists of his era.
His ability to synthesise an intoxicating mix of musical styles, from funk, soul, gospel and rock to jazz, hip-hop and psychedelia, made him unique in rock music history, helped by his mastery of studio and audio technology. In addition, he presented his music and his persona with dazzling visual flair, and was always an enthralling live performer even when his record sales were not at their peak. After playing hours-long headlining concerts, he would often perform late-night shows with his band at local clubs; these became almost more sought after than the “official” performances.
Prince Rogers Nelson was born in Minneapolis. His father, John Nelson, was leader of the Prince Rogers jazz trio, and met his wife-to-be, Mattie Shaw, when playing at community dances on Minneapolis’s North Side. Mattie joined the Prince Rogers trio as vocalist, but dropped out of the group after she married. The couple named their son after John’s stage name, though the boy was nicknamed “Skipper” when he was growing up. His parents’ musical leanings rubbed off on him, and at the age of seven he wrote his first song, Funk Machine, on his father’s piano. In 1960 his sister, Tyka, was born.
His parents separated when Prince was 10, and he would alternate between living with his father and with his mother – who studied for a master’s degree in social work and her new husband, Hayward Baker. It was Baker who took the boy to see James Brown perform, an event that had a profound influence on his approach to writing and performing. Prince eventually found a more permanent home with neighbours, the Anderson family, and their son Andre (later known as André Cymone) became a close friend and a musical partner. While attending Minneapolis’s central high school, Prince and Andre joined a band called Grand Central, which also included Prince’s cousin Charles Smith on drums. They played mostly cover versions, arranged by Prince. The group became Champagne, and acquired a new drummer, Morris Day, who later became lead singer with the Time and had prominent roles in Prince’s movies Purple Rain and Graffiti Bridge (1990).
After making some recordings with Pepé Willie and his band 94 East, released in the 1980s as Minneapolis Genius: 94 East in 1976 Prince made a demo tape of his own material with the engineer Chris Moon, which caught the ear of a Minneapolis businessman, Owen Husney. He signed Prince to a management contract, forming the company American Artists, and funded the recording of high-quality demos which attracted interest from several record labels. Prince accepted the deal with Warner Bros, which gave him a rare degree of artistic control as well as ownership of his publishing rights.
On his first album, For You (1978), the artist wrote and performed everything himself. The single Soft and Wet, an early indicator of Prince’s fondness for suggestive sexual wordplay, sold 350,000 copies and reached No 12 in the US R&B chart. The following January, Prince unveiled his new band at the Capri theatre in Minneapolis, a funk-rock ensemble featuring Cymone on bass alongside keyboard players Gayle Chapman and Matt Fink, guitarist Dez Dickerson and drummer Bobby Z.
After Prince fell out with Warner Bros, he made his feelings towards the label explicit by writing SLAVE on his cheek whenever he appeared in public. Photograph: Brian Rasic/Getty Images
By the time his second album, Prince, appeared in October 1979, he had switched to Earth Wind & Fire’s management, Cavallo & Ruffalo. The album reached 22 in the Billboard 200, and would eventually sell a million copies as well as generating his first major hit with I Wanna Be Your Lover. The Dirty Mind album followed a year later, reaching the Top 50 in the US while provoking some criticism for the blatantly sexual nature of songs such as Head and Sister.
Aptly, his next release was the following year’s Controversy, which contained more sexually explicit songs, a chant of the Lord’s Prayer, and even an intervention in US foreign policy, with a plea to President Reagan called Ronnie, Talk To Russia. Prince’s ability to provoke an audience was illustrated when he supported the Rolling Stones in San Francisco, and was pelted with shoes and chicken’s innards.
But the music was flowing out of him in an unstoppable torrent, and the 1982 double album called 1999 gave him his first Top 10 entry as well as hit singles with the title track, Delirious, and, above all, Little Red Corvette. The last-named benefited from heavy rotation on MTV, one of the first tracks by a black artist to receive such intense exposure, so helping to change the station’s programming policies. It was also the first album credited to Prince and the Revolution, his band now including Mark Brown and Lisa Coleman in place of Cymone and Chapman. Prince undertook a six-month tour to promote 1999, where he was joined on the bill by his proteges the Time and a new all-female group, Vanity 6, the latter seemingly an embodiment of Prince’s sexual fantasies.
Filming of the Purple Rain movie began in late 1983, and took seven weeks on a budget of $7m. The Purple Rain campaign got off to a perfect start when the first single, When Doves Cry, topped the US charts (the Revolution now had a new guitarist, Wendy Melvoin, replacing Dickerson). The movie opened in July, the album arrived the following month, and in November Prince embarked on a 100-date US tour. At one point in 1984, Prince had the No 1 album, film and single in the US. Meanwhile he achieved another milestone of sorts when some of his lyrics, including those from Purple Rain’s Darling Nikki and his hit written for Sheena Easton, Sugar Walls, hit opposition from the newly formed Parents’ Music Resource Centre, which campaigned for a warning sticker on records containing sexually explicit lyrics.
Intense press scrutiny didn’t seem to agree with Prince, who shunned interviews and in 1985 announced his retirement from live performing. This didn’t prevent Around the World in a Day from topping the Billboard chart that spring and delivering the hits Raspberry Beret and Pop Life. A year later came Parade, along with the chart-topping single Kiss (and behind it at No 2 was the Bangles’ Manic Monday, another Prince composition). July brought Prince’s new film Under the Cherry Moon, for which Parade provided the soundtrack, though the film was a comparative failure. His performing ban apparently rescinded, Prince embarked on the Hit n Run – Parade Tour, which included three nights at Wembley Arena. This was the end of the line for the Revolution, which Prince disbanded at the end of the tour.
Music continued to pour out of him, and the epic double album Sign o’ the Times was released in March 1987. This produced a fresh batch of hit singles, including the title track, U Got the Look (featuring Easton) and I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man. Prince undertook an international touring campaign with a new band featuring the drummer Sheila E and dancer/choreographer Cat Glover, and a Sign o’ the Times concert film was released in November, though with limited commercial success.
Shelving what later appeared as The Black Album – whose mix of lewd funk workouts, free jazz and hip-hop Prince suddenly decided was “evil” – he instead released Lovesexy (1988), an exercise in spiritually inclined R&B notable mostly for its infectious hit Alphabet St. The album fared well in Europe but poorly in the States, while the lavish Lovesexy world tour lost money. Prince’s financial affairs were in some disarray: “He wouldn’t budget, he wouldn’t run a business, he just did everything on a whim and a prayer,” said one business associate. However, Prince – having co-written and sung on Love Song, from Madonna’s 1989 album Like A Prayer – found himself back in commercial clover that year with his soundtrack for Tim Burton’s Batman movie, a multi-platinum US chart-topper which gave him another US No 1 with Batdance.
His profile boosted by Sinéad O’Connor’s version of his song Nothing Compares 2 U, Prince embarked on another film and music project with Graffiti Bridge. The album went Top 10 but the film sank without trace, prompting another shake-up in Prince’s backing group. In 1991 he introduced the New Power Generation, who backed him on the Diamonds and Pearls album. This reached No 3 and delivered four hit singles, including his fifth US No 1, Cream.
In 1992 Prince announced a new $100m deal with Warner Bros, but the shine faded when he found that the contract deprived him of ownership of his master recordings. The Love Symbol Album (which reached No 5 in the US and No 1 in Britain) was a harbinger of things to come, since in 1993 Prince changed his name to what he called “that symbol on the album” (the so-called “love symbol”, combining male and female images). Prince wanted to set a faster pace of album releases, but Warners wanted a more controlled flow to permit maximum exploitation of singles and touring. Prince, now referred to as the Artist Formerly Known As Prince, made his feelings towards the label explicit by writing SLAVE on his cheek whenever he appeared in public. Meanwhile the label marked time by releasing the triple-CD set The Hits/The B-Sides (1993).
Prince reached a settlement with Warners in April 1996, by which time he had also released Come (a collection of material from his vaults), the notorious Black Album (1994), and The Gold Experience (1995), the latter providing a solid hit with The Most Beautiful Girl in the World. On Valentine’s Day that year he married a 22-year-old backing singer and dancer, Mayte Garcia, but in October their son Gregory died one week after his birth because of a rare skull defect, Pfeiffer syndrome. It drove the couple apart; they divorced in 2000.
After releasing the contractual obligation album Chaos and Disorder (1996), Prince celebrated his escape from Warners with the triple-album Emancipation on his own NPG label; it sold 2m copies in the US. Prince now embraced the internet era by selling Crystal Ball, a five-CD set of previously unreleased tracks, on his website, though the delivery process was chaotic. This won him a Webby lifetime achievement award in 2006, as the first major artist to release a whole album exclusively online. Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999) was designed to be commercial and accessible, but was a relative flop.
In May 2000, after the expiry of his publishing contract with Warner Chappell Music, Prince officially retired the love symbol and became Prince again. He now focused on internet distribution via his NPGMusicClub.com site, which brought The Rainbow Children, the instrumental album N.E.W.S. and the jazzy Xpectation. One Nite Alone ... Live! (2002) was his first live album.
In 2001 he had married Manuela Testolini, whom he met while she was working at his charitable foundation. They divorced five years later. In 2001 Prince joined Jehovah’s Witnesses, introduced by Larry Graham, who had played bass with Sly and the Family Stone and fronted his own band, Graham Central Station.
In February 2004, Prince made a spectacular appearance at the Grammy Awards with Beyoncé, performing a medley which included Purple Rain, Let’s Go Crazy and Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love. In March Prince was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, playing a batch of his own songs before joining in While My Guitar Gently Weeps as a tribute toGeorge Harrison, who had died in 2001.
Musicology (2004) presented a relaxed, optimistic Prince making listener-friendly music with a new business model. He arranged distribution through Columbia Records, taking no advance payment but retaining complete ownership of the album. Anybody who bought a ticket for the Musicology tour received a copy of the album, which was also available though the online Music Club. “One advantage of writing SLAVE on my face back then is that when I meet with a label now, they already know they’re not going to be owning anything,” Prince said. “Maybe at one time they could get Little Richard for a new car and a bucket of chicken. We don’t roll like that no more.”
He scored his first US No 1 album since Batman with 3121 (2006), and in November that year was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame.
He opened the 3121 nightclub under a deal with the Rio All Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and performed there regularly.
In February 2007, at the Super Bowl half-time show in Miami, one of the highest-profile showcases a US artist can achieve, he played some Purple Rain songs alongside cover versions of pieces by Queen, Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Foo Fighters.
His Earth Tour brought him to London that summer, to play 21 nights at the O2 Arena. The Planet Earth album was given away free with the Mail on Sunday, to the dismay of music retailers (he was dubbed the Artist Formerly Available In Record Stores). In October 2008, he released the live album Indigo Nights, comprising music performed after hours at the IndigO2 nightclub, plus a matching book called 21 Nights.
The album 20Ten was released in 2010 as a free covermounted disc with various European publications but not available online; he toured the album in Europe in two separate legs with different bands. His appearance at the Hop Farm Festival in Kent in July 2011 was his debut at a UK festival.
In 2013, Prince formed a new backing band called 3rdeyegirl, which came to London on the small-scale Hit and Run Tour in February 2014. Even more surprising than his performance at the home of singer Lianne La Havas was news that Prince had signed a new deal with Warner Bros after an 18-year gap. The label announced the release of a 30th anniversary deluxe edition of Purple Rain, and returned ownership of his Warner recordings to the artist.