Prince Rogers Nelson, 1958-2016
When you look back at the last century, there are perhaps only really a handful of artists that have made a truly paradigm-changing contribution to popular music; Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and David Bowie could certainly be among them. But this is a list that simply wouldn't be complete without Prince.
Born Prince Rogers Nelson in a suburb of Minneapolis in 1958, Prince was the son of jazz musician John Lewis Nelson, a pianist who went by the stage name of Prince Rogers, naming his son after his musical alter-ego. Prince seldom spoke about his relationship with his father, who left the family household when Prince was just 10 years old, but in a 2008 interview with Tavis Smiley he described teaching himself music for the first time: “My father left his piano at the house when he left and I wasn't allowed to play it when he was there, because I wasn't as good as him. So when he left I was determined to get as good as him, so I taught myself to play music and I just stuck with it, I did it all the time.”
This wasn't an exaggeration. David Z, a longtime friend of Prince and the producer who worked on many of his most successful records, once described meeting a 16-year-old Prince when he was still a member of a band named Grand Central: “Right from the start he was great; the complete package from the first minute I heard him. He did nothing but eat, sleep and make music, and to this day I'm sure he doesn't sleep much. He had more energy than anybody.”
After recording a series of demos, David Z helped bring the recordings to the attention of Warner Brothers, who were so skeptical that this young man had recorded all of these by himself that Prince was invited to their studios in Los Angeles where he proceeded to recreate the demos, playing all 27 instruments as well as performing vocals, in front of the astonished label executives. They agreed to let him produce his own album on the spot.
It was the beginning of a career that would see Prince sell more than 100 million albums and reach a status of stardom and adoration in the 1980s only rivalled by that of Michael Jackson, sparking a competitive relationship between the two that would last a decade or more. Jackson reportedly wrote 'Bad' in response to Prince's reputation for pushing the boundaries, gained as a result of songs like 'Sexy MotherF***er' and 'Darling Nikki'. The latter of these is, quite literally, the reason we have 'Parental Advisory' stickers now, the song having inspired an outraged Tipper Gore to found the organisation responsible for them.
Musically, Prince's style was unique, infusing elements of funk, soul, gospel and rock in a way that nobody had done before, but one of the many remarkable things about Prince wasn't just the quality of his output - which yielded mega-hits like 'Purple Rain', 'When Doves Cry', 'Sign o' the Times' and too many others to mention – but also the sheer, mind-boggling quantity of music he produced. He penned hits for everyone from Chaka Khan to Sinead O'Connor and is rumoured to have stored literally thousands of recorded tracks in a bank vault located in the basement of his Paisley Park studio complex.
Whether or not we'll ever get to hear these, we can't say. More than almost any other artist you could think of, Prince was a master of his own destiny, seemingly in total control of his career and able to retain a level of mystique that only the greatest artists can.
What we can say for certain is that Prince's music has affected the lives of millions around the world, a fact that is reinforced by the outpouring of grief from every corner of the globe in the hours that followed the announcement of his death. Without a shadow of a doubt, Prince was truly one of the greatest artists in the history of popular music and the world is a little less colourful – a little less purple – without him.
Rest in peace, Prince, and thank you for the music.