Prince – circa 1981
“Am I black or white? / Am I straight or gay? / Controversy” – ‘Controversy’ (Prince)
The crotch is enclosed in tight-fitting, black bikini briefs. Thigh-high leggings wrap about the lower limbs and those legs balance precariously in high-heeled boots. The only other garment in the ensemble is an overcoat. As the figure moves, flashes of bare, tightly-toned flesh are exposed. Is this a pole-dancer cavorting for the pleasure of some lascivious rock star? No, this barely clad figure is the rock star…a male rock star…the man known as Prince. The year is 1980.
Though it may seem that Prince must be a stage name, that is only half correct. Of course he has a surname, but the artist’s first name really is Prince.
Prince Rogers Nelson (7 June 1958-21 April 2016) is born at Mt Sinai Hospital, Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.A. His father, John L. Nelson, had been a jazz musician. Using the stage name Prince Rogers, John L. Nelson fronted a jazz combo called The Prince Rogers Trio. By the time his son is born, that part of John L. Nelson’s life is largely over. He occasionally plays piano to accompany strippers in downtown Minneapolis. So he gives his son his old stage name, Prince Rogers, to memorialise those days gone by. The newborn’s mother, Mattie Shaw, was a jazz singer. John L. Nelson appears to be African-American, but is said to be a mulatto of mixed Italian-Filipino background. Mattie is white so their child is coffee coloured. They also have a daughter, Tika (born 1960). John L. Nelson has an on-off relationship with a woman named Vivian. She bore him five children, Prince’s half-siblings: Sharon (born 1940), Lorna (born 1943), Norrine (born 1947), John R. (born 1948) and Duane (born 1958).
“I was born epileptic,” Prince says softly. He radiates calm, but picks his words carefully. “I used to have seizures when I was young and my mother and father didn’t know what to do or how to handle it, but they did the best they could with what little they had.” One day, the little boy says, “Mom, I’m not gonna be sick anymore…because an angel told me so.” Whether through divine intervention or not, the statement proves accurate.
With John L. Nelson and Mattie Shaw’s combined musical experience, it is not surprising that there is a piano in the family home. Young Prince gravitates towards the instrument but, “I wasn’t allowed to play it when [my father] was there because I wasn’t as good as him.” The chlld is upset (“My father was so hard on me. I was never good enough.”) but, as an adult, Prince credits his father’s drill sergeant harshness as the spur for his own musical accomplishments.
Prince’s parents split up when he is about 7. “My father left his piano at the house when he left,” Prince says. “When he left I was determined to get as good as him and I taught myself how to play music. I just stuck with it. I did it all the time.” Prince writes his first song when he is 7.
Prince’s mother remarries. Prince’s step-father has little interest in the boy or his incessant piano-playing.
The diminutive Prince is teased a lot at school. He is nicknamed Gazoo by the other kids because of his huge afro hairstyle and small body. (The Great Gazoo is a character from the television cartoon ‘The Flintstones’. Gazoo is a pint-sized alien whose over-large head is encased in an ever-present space helmet.) Prince copes with this ill-treatment by concentrating on his music. As word of mouth spreads the news of his talent, at least some of the kids begin to respect and admire his growing ability.
At home, Prince ‘develops an interest in his mother’s substantial pornography collection, and spends time in her bedroom cupboard trying on her underwear.’ He also borrows her vibrator.
These sorts of antics do not help his relationship with his mother and step-father. When he is 12, Prince runs away from home to live with his father. John L. Nelson buys his son his first guitar and teaches him to play the instrument before the boy exhausts his father’s patience and is kicked out. Prince then goes back and forth between his parents and ‘a succession of family members.’
Things settle down a bit when Prince is adopted by Bernadette Anderson and her family. He becomes friends with their son, Andre. Years later, Prince looks back on him as a musical mentor: “My best friend Andre…I’m eternally indebted to…in this regard.” By the time he is 16, Prince is pretty much ignoring school. He forms a band called Grand Central with Andre Anderson (bass), Andre’s sister Linda Anderson (keyboards) and Andre’s cousin Charles Smith (drums). Prince’s cousin, Morris Day, subsequently replaces Charles Smith. This outfit expands and is renamed Champagne. By 1976 Champagne are popular enough to consider making a record. Prince writes their ‘unusually lewd songs.’ Instead of beginning a recording career, Champagne breaks up.
This flirtation with the recording studio excites Prince. Aged 18 Prince makes some demo tapes with engineer Chris Moon’s supervision. “I went to New York,” Prince states, adding, “I got turned down my first time.” His determination (or ego?) does not accept this. “I just wasn’t gonna be put down.” Warner Brothers shows an interest thanks to Prince’s sponsor, Owen Hussney, but the precocious youngster insists he will act as his own record producer. Warners are sceptical enough to send one of their own producers down to Minneapolis to see if Prince is really capable of the task. The report must have been positive because Prince is allowed to produce his debut album.
The musical genre with which Prince is primarily identified is funk. Its main peak is in the early 1970s, so by the time Prince comes along in the mid to late 1970s, its heyday is already past. Funk is characterised by its bottom end: popping bass and heavy drums. A scratchy rhythm guitar and staccato horns or keyboards are overlaid. Funk is dance music, but of a rather insistent kind. Many African-American artists of the late 1970s blend funk with semi-related genres like rhythm and blues, disco, and soul. Although Prince follows suit, his musical influences are wider. Perhaps because of his mixed racial background, he draws from both black and white sources. Jazz, pop, rock and psychedelia all find their way into Prince’s musical melting pot.
Prince is a man of many talents. He writes virtually all his songs. He acts as producer on the recording sessions. He plays all the instruments on the bulk of his recordings.
In concert, Prince’s backing bands include men and women, blacks and whites.
Prince’s image is flamboyant. The purple of royalty is a frequent component of his wardrobe. Since he stands only five feet two inches tall, he usually wears high-heeled footwear on stage ‘so he is not dwarfed by some female singers.’ Prince contradicts this perception, claiming, “People say I’m wearing heels because I’m short. I wear heels because the women like ‘em.”
In the themes of his songs – and in his career in general – Prince follows seemingly contradictory impulses. On one hand he is devoutly religious; on the other, he is ‘a person who presents sexually explicit material.’ There is a continual clash between the sacred and the profane. Although Prince seems to have little difficulty accommodating both polar extremes, they confound some critics and some fans. How can a man who leads his backing bands in prayer before his shows then offer up outrageously sexualised songs and performances?
Prince’s debut album, ‘For You’ (1978) (US no. 163), is released in April. On this ‘blend of deep funk and soul’, the 19 year old boy wonder plays all the instruments. The highlight is the squelchy ‘Soft And Wet’ (US no. 92) where Prince’s falsetto vocal leaves little doubt about the song’s carnal subject matter.
Prince tries living with his sister in New York for twelve months. During this time, in 1978 he meets singer/percussionist Sheila E. (Sheila Escovedo) who will re-enter his life at a later stage.
Returning to Minneapolis, Prince forms a touring band in 1979 with his old friend Andre Anderson – now using the stage name Andre Cymone – on bass. Filling out the group are: Gayle Chapman (keyboards), Matt Fink (keyboards), Dez Dickerson (guitar) and Bobby Z (drums). This is the genesis of the act that will become known as The Revolution, though that tag is not in common use until 1982.
The second album, the self-titled ‘Prince’ (1979) (US no. 22), is another disc on which Prince acts as a one-man band through the use of recording overdubs. Prince has ‘a serious crush’ on Patrice Rushen, a singer/keyboardist whose recordings are making waves on the rhythm and blues scene. Two of the songs on ‘Prince’ began life as demos earmarked for Patrice Rushen, but she turns them down, thwarting Prince’s romantic ambitions at the same time, ‘but he did gain a friend.’ Those songs are the disco funk of ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ (US no. 11, UK no. 41) (“Be the only one to make you come…running”) and the majestic ‘I Feel For You’ (“I wouldn’t lie to you, baby / It’s mainly a physical thing”). [Funk goddess Chaka Khan has a hit in 1984 with a cover version of ‘I Feel For You’ (US no. 3, UK no. 1).] This set is also home to ‘Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?’ which trails screaming streamers of sound.
Prince’s third album, ‘Dirty Mind’ (1980) (US no. 43), is his ‘first masterpiece.’ ‘When You Were Mine’ demonstrates a greater knowledge of rock’s formal structures than is commonly displayed by black recording artists, though Prince subverts it with a skeletal rhythm guitar track and his trademark lyrical themes (“I used to let you try on all of my clothes”). [As testimony to its wider appeal, ‘When You Were Mine’ is covered by eccentric pop vocalist Cyndi Lauper on her album ‘She’s So Unusual’ (1984).] ‘Uptown’ (US no. 101) envisions Prince’s native Minneapolis becoming a base for his own distinctive music empire: “White, black, Puerto Rican / Everybody just a-freakin’”. The title track, ‘Dirty Mind’, pits Prince’s falsetto against soaring synthesisers as he explains his own wanton thought processes. They are in full flower on the ode to oral sex, ‘Head’. This track is sufficient to prompt Gayle Chapman to hand in her resignation as keyboard player in Prince’s backing group. Things work out to Prince’s advantage because her replacement, Lisa Coleman, is even more talented. Still, even the bolder Lisa half mumbles her way through her share of the vocal on this tale of a virgin on her way to be wed. For good measure, another track on ‘Dirty Mind’, ‘Sister’, is a ‘paean to incest.’ “I wasn’t being deliberately provocative,” Prince contends. “I was being deliberately me.” This is the era in which Prince performs on stage in black bikini briefs. Later in life, looking back on his teenage torments, Prince suggest that, “Early in my career [i.e. around the time of ‘Dirty Mind’], I tried to compensate for that [insecurity brought on by being ostracised] by being as flashy as I could and as noisy as I could.”
‘Dirty Mind’ prompts Prince’s first national concert tour as a headliner and leads to the creation of his state-of-the-art home recording studio.
Also in 1980 Prince begins a relationship with Susan ‘Susie’ Moonsie. This continues on and off up to 1985.
Prince’s vision of his own Minneapolis music empire advances with ‘Get It Up’, the debut single by The Time, released in August 1981. This outfit is fronted by the clownish Morris Day, Prince’s former comrade in Champagne. Rumour has it that Prince performs uncredited songwriting and production for The Time.
Prince also begins toying with the idea of a girl group in 1981. This would be a trio provocatively called The Hookers who will ‘perform in lingerie and sing sensual songs with lyrics about sex and fantasy.’ In its embryonic form, The Hookers is proposed to comprise Prince’s girlfriend Susie Moonsie, Brenda Bennett and Jamie Shoop.
In November Prince releases his fourth album, ‘Controversy’ (1981) (US no. 21, AUS no. 55). In the muscular funk of the title track, ‘Controversy’ (US no. 70, AUS no. 15), Prince directly addresses the media speculation about him: “I just can’t believe all the things that people say / Controversy.” While the album also includes tracks like ‘Jack U Off’ and the grandiose four-poster bed eroticism of ‘Do Me, Baby’, ‘Controversy’ actually finds Prince attempting broader social commentary. This can be heard in ‘Annie Christian’ and the plea to then U.S. President Reagan, ‘Ronnie Talk To Russia’. Yet, as Prince observes, “I consider myself more of a spiritual person than political.”
Andre Cymone leaves Prince’s backing band in 1981 for a solo career. Stepping in as the new bass player is Mark Brown – or Brown Mark as Prince renames him.
In January 1982 Prince meets Denise Matthews. With her, he ‘begins a romantic relationship that lasts a few months.’ Perhaps more importantly, Prince inserts Denise Matthews into his girl group side-project. Dubbing Matthews ‘Vanity’, the trio of vocalists become Vanity 6, rather than The Hookers. Jamie Shoop is subbed out in favour of Vanity. Vanity 6 are perhaps best known for their 1982 song ‘Nasty Girl’ which is, of course, a Prince composition. It does well on the dance music and rhythm and blues charts, but is not a mainstream hit.
‘1999’ (1982) (US no. 9, UK no. 30, AUS no. 35) is released in October. ‘1999’ is an ambitious double album. “I didn’t want to do a double album,” Prince vows, “but I just kept on writing. Of course, I’m not one for editing.” This is the first recording credited to Prince And The Revolution (the name now officially bestowed on his backing group). In practice, Prince still supplies the bulk of the instrumentation on the record, but some members of The Revolution make contributions. For instance, though she can be heard on earlier songs like ‘Head’ and ‘Controversy’, Lisa Coleman and The Revolution’s guitarist, Dez Dickerson, trade vocal lines with their leader on the title track of ‘1999’ (US no. 12, UK no. 2, AUS no. 2). This song is Prince’s best single. Judgment Day looms – “The sky was all purple / There were people running everywhere” – but in the face of Armageddon, all that can be done is to make the most of the situation: “They say / Two thousand zero zero / Party over, oops, out of time / So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999.” This confident, apocalyptic Mardi Gras is Prince’s definitive work because it blends both of his major themes: religion (with the advent of the end of days) and sex (the uninhibited bacchanalia with which the news is received). Musically, it’s also one of his tightest, funkiest grooves. However, in an interview, Prince sounds a note of caution about his body of work: “It’s not just about a party…It’s good music…You have to challenge them [the audience].” For those who want Prince to challenge the more conventional song structures, the swooning pop funk of ‘Little Red Corvette’ (US no. 6, UK no. 2, AUS no. 8) is irresistible. Prince began to compose the song while catching forty winks in the Lisa Coleman’s pink Edsel: “I’m gonna try to tame your little red love machine,” he sings in masterful ambiguity. Elsewhere, ‘1999’ is home to some of Prince’s most compulsive creations, pieces like ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Married’ (US no. 52), ‘Delirious’ (US no. 8) (“Take me for a little ride, up and down, in and out, around your lake”) and ‘D.M.S.R.’ (“Dance…music…sex…romance”). ‘International Lover’ is a sumptuous seduction using the analogy of a plane coming in for a landing. This ‘brilliant’ album ‘lays out the blueprint for Prince’s next decade.’
The 1983 Triple Treat tour finds Prince And The Revolution travelling with the Prince-sponsored The Time and Vanity 6 as support acts. Dez Dickerson bows out of The Revolution at the end of the tour to be replaced on guitar by Wendy Melvoin, a childhood friend of keyboardist Lisa Coleman. It is also during this tour that Prince hatches the idea for his next project: a film in which he will star.
After the tour The Time dissolves. Morris Day tries a solo career and some of the remaining members become involved in a new outfit, The Family. Prince supervises their debut album, ‘The Family’ (1983). This is notable chiefly for one of the songs on the disc, though it is not released as a single. That song is the Prince composition ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ (Prince was a pioneer of ‘text speak’ abbreviations even before people were using mobile phones to send text messages). [Irish singer Sinead O’Conner has a big hit in January 1990 with her version of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 1), saving it from unjust obscurity.]
Sheila E., the singer/percussionist Prince met back in 1978, becomes part of Prince’s burgeoning empire. He gifts her with the composition ‘The Glamorous Life’ (US no. 7, UK no. 76). Released on 4 June 1984, this becomes another hit as Prince’s success grows.
Prince’s sixth album is his best. ‘Purple Rain’ (1984) (US no. 1, UK no. 7, AUS no. 1), released on 25 June, is the soundtrack to the semi-autobiographical film ‘Purple Rain’ (1984). Prince’s role in the film is ‘The Kid’, but a lot of the story seems ripped from his own diary. ‘When Doves Cry’ (US no. 1, UK no. 4, AUS no. 1) is bare bones funk with booming drums and a tinkling electronic keyboard. Oddly, it has no bass. “I tried it,” Prince swears. “It just didn’t work. I just didn’t like it.” In the song, Prince’s own life is echoed in the lines, “Maybe I’m just like my father too bold / Maybe you’re just like my mother / She’s never satisfied / Why do we scream at each other? / This is what it sounds like when doves cry.” There is romantic wreckage in Prince’s real life too. He has a falling out with Vanity who leaves the organisation (and, bizarrely, later becomes a lady preacher). Taking her place is Apollonia Kotero, with the vocal trio hastily renamed Apollonia 6. Apollonia co-stars with Prince in the movie, ‘Purple Rain’. The album track ‘Take Me With U’ (US no. 25, UK no. 7) is a duet she shares with Prince. ‘Darling Nikki’ has the dubious distinction of inspiring the creation of the P.M.R.C. (Parents Music Resource Center), a lobby group to outlaw suggestive music – or, at least, ensure it carries advisory warning stickers. And the lines from ‘Darling Nikki’ that create the furore are: “I knew a girl named Nikki / I guess U could say she was a sex fiend / I met her in a hotel lobby / Masturbating with a magazine.” Prince’s father, John L. Nelson, gets a co-writing credit for ‘Computer Blue’. ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ (US no. 1, UK no. 7, AUS no. 10) begins as a neo-gospel number, but then bends into guitar-driven rock. “So when you call up that shrink in Beverly Hills,” Prince warns in the lyrics, “Instead of askin’ how much of your time is left / Ask him how much of your mind.” The album closes with two tracks recorded live by the gaudily-bedecked Prince with The Revolution. The pop martyrdom of ‘I Would Die 4 U’ (US no. 8, UK no. 58, AUS no. 96) (“I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I’m something that you will never understand / I’m your messiah”) and the elegiac title track, ‘Purple Rain’ (US no. 2, UK no. 8, AUS no. 41) (“I never meant to cause you any sorrow / I never meant to cause you any pain”). Prince’s guitar solo at the end of the latter track sounds comparable to the black 1960’s guitar legend Jimi Hendrix. ‘Purple Rain’ ‘makes Prince a superstar’ and encapsulates the mid-1980s. It represents the high point of Prince’s career, the apex of his ‘purple reign’ if you will.
In 1984, the first album credited to Apollonia 6 contains another notable Prince composition fated to re-emerge at a later date in a different form. That song is ‘Manic Monday’. More on that later…
In 1984 Prince begins a relationship with Susannah Melvoin, the twin sister of Wendy Melvoin, the guitarist in The Revolution. The couple become engaged in 1985 but break up in 1986. This may be partly attributable to Prince not being the most faithful of beaus.
Apollonia Kotero leaves the Prince camp in 1985 and Apollonia 6 crumbles. The first cracks begin to show in Prince’s empire.
In 1985 Prince takes an interest in Sheena Easton. Up to this point, she has been a rather conservative Scottish pop singer, but Prince remakes her into one of his standard female fantasy figures. He has a brief liaison with her in 1985 and, using the pseudonym Alexander Nevermind, writes her hit single ‘Sugar Walls’ (US no. 9) in 1985.
Sheila E. also has ‘a brief romantic relationship’ with Prince around this time while he is ‘still seeing Susannah Melvoin.’
Devin De Vasquez provides Prince with another romantic distraction in 1985.
Prince chooses to follow ‘Purple Rain’ with ‘Around The World In A Day’ (1985) (US no. 1, UK no. 5, AUS no. 12) in April. Prince forsakes his usual funk for the most part on this disc, favouring a more rococo psychedelia. It’s an interesting approach, if a little bewildering. This album also inaugurates his own Paisley Park record label (through Warner Brothers). His home recording studio is also designated Paisley Park. The song, ‘Paisley Park’ (UK no. 18, AUS no. 38) on this album, is a woozy dose of eccentricity, painting a portrait of a kind of musical Disneyland and promising “Paisley Park is in your heart.” The Revolution is very much in evidence on this album and Sheila E. makes a guest appearance with them on ‘Pop Life’ (US no. 7, UK no. 60, AUS no. 67). In the album’s highlight, Prince’s wandering eye is caught by a girl in a ‘Raspberry Beret’ (US no. 2, UK no. 25, AUS no. 13), “The kind you find in a second hand store / And if it was warm / She wouldn’t wear much more.” It’s a swaggering piece of consummate pop. ‘Around The World In A Day’ is ‘musically one of Prince’s most grandly ambitious.’
A brief liaison with Susanna Hoffs of the all-girl band The Bangles in 1986 results in that group having a hit with ‘Manic Monday’ (US no. 2, UK no. 2, AUS no. 3) in January 1986. This is the song that Apollonia 6 recorded in 1984. In The Bangles’ version the songwriter is coyly credited as ‘Christopher’.
Christopher Tracy is the name of the character Prince plays in ‘Under the Cherry Moon’ (1986). This is the movie devised to follow ‘Purple Rain’, but it is less well received. ‘Parade’ (1986) (US no. 3, UK no. 4, AUS no. 8) in March is the album that features the songs from the film. The best track is ‘Kiss’ (US no. 1, UK no. 6, AUS no. 2) in which Prince puckers up for some hard-boiled funk. It’s a relief to hear the man who promoted the lingerie-clad ladies of Vanity 6 / Apollonia 6 deliver the lines, “Women, not girls, rule my world / Act your age, momma, not your shoe size.”
Prince’s other protégés, The Family (remade from the remnants of The Time), have ground to a halt. Some of them appear on ‘Parade’ but, after that album, merge with The Revolution as The Counterrevolution. Prince seems to struggle to regain focus as mooted projects like ‘The Dream Factory’ and ‘Crystal Ball’ slip through his fingers, though parts of them may have been salvaged later. He considers releasing his next album under the name Camille, but that doesn’t happen.
What emerges in March is the double album ‘Sign O’ The Times’ (1987) (US no. 6, UK no. 4, AUS no. 20). It comes with a concert movie to promote it, also called ‘Sign o’ the Times’ (1987), but Prince fires The Revolution at this point, returning to his one-man band style. This ‘sprawling masterpiece’ experiments with a number of different styles. “I hate the word experiment. It sounds like something you didn’t finish,” insists Prince. The title track, ‘Sign O’ The Times’ (US no. 3, UK no. 10, AUS no. 29), is a robo-funk readout of what passes across newspaper headlines. It nods towards the A.I.D.S. epidemic and refers to the ‘Challenger’ space shuttle disaster (28 January 1986) with the line, “Silly, no? / When a rocket ship explodes / And everybody still wants to fly.” The deliciously bizarre ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ (US no. 67, UK no. 20) sinuously murmurs, while Prince’s distorted vocal asks, “Would you remember / To tell me all the things you forgot to tell me when I was your man?” A similarly skewed perspective is used on ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ (US no. 10, UK no. 29) but, musically, this is a throwback to the pop formalism that Prince seems to be able to assume at will. He duets with his protégé Sheena Easton on ‘U Got The Look’ (US no. 2, UK no. 11, AUS no. 90) while ‘Adore’ is cooing lover’s rock. The album’s breadth encompasses the ‘brontosaurus funk’ of ‘Housequake’, the ‘gospel passion’ of ‘The Cross’, and the reheated soul of ‘Slow Love’.
Prince intends to release another disc before the end of the year. ‘The Black Album’ is to be credited to Camille, his ‘bad side’, and purportedly has ‘sadistic overtones’, but Prince ‘withdraws it just before its release deciding it is too dark and immoral.’
Instead, Prince’s ‘good side’ issues ‘Lovesexy’ (1988) (US no. 11, UK no. 1, AUS no. 6) in May. The album’s highlight is ‘Alphabet St’ (US no. 8, UK no. 9, AUS no. 26), a kind of funked up ‘Sesame St’ that insists “Lovesexy was the glam of them all” while Prince’s latest romantic companion – and backing vocalist – Cat Glover provides an erotic recitation of the letters of the alphabet.
Princes furnishes the soundtrack to the movie ‘Batman’ (1989) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 4) as well as romancing its leading lady, actress Kim Basinger, in 1989. This project spawns both ‘Batdance’ (US no. 1, UK no. 2, AUS no. 2) and ‘Partyman’ (US no. 18, UK no. 14, AUS no. 38).
Shelia E. departs from Prince’s protectorate in 1989.
‘Graffiti Bridge’ (1990) (US no. 6, UK no. 1, AUS no. 10) is Prince’s third double album within a decade (following ‘1999’ (1982) and ‘Sign O’ The Times’ (1987)). It accompanies Prince’s third film, ‘Graffiti Bridge’. While some critics claim the album ‘ranks with his very best work’, the movie is considered ‘the least satisfying of Prince’s films’ so far. In the movie he revisits the character of The Kid from ‘Purple Rain’. The reunited Time appears both in the movie and as guests on the album. The best piece on the album is ‘Thieves In The Temple’ (US no. 6, UK no. 7, AUS no. 16) which seems to extrapolate from the adage that the body is the temple for the soul. Amid howls of anguish, Prince bids in ritualistic repetition, “Love come quick / Love come in a hurry / There are thieves in the temple tonight.”
Prince follows a brief liaison with Tatiana Thumbtzen in 1990 with a more substantial relationship with actress and model Carmen Electra in 1990-1991. However, this too comes to an end, and Prince moves on to Heidi Mark in 1991.
One of the tracks from ‘Graffiti Bridge’ was ‘New Power Generation’ and Prince uses this as the name for the new backing group he assembles in 1991 (though he has been working with some of them for a few years already). The New Power Generation are: Tony M (raps and backing vocals), Rosie Gaines (backing vocals), Levi Seacer, Jr. (guitar), Kirk Johnson (guitar), Tommy Barbarella (keyboards), Sonny T. (bass) and Michael Bland (drums). The plus-sized Rosie Gaines refreshingly breaks the mould of Prince’s usual female associates – though her relationship with the boss is strictly professional.
The New Power Generation debuts on ‘Diamonds And Pearls’ (1991) (US no. 3, UK no. 2, AUS no. 1). This is ‘a comparatively deliberate and studied body of work.’ The languorous introduction to the ribald ‘Cream’ (US no. 1, UK no. 15, AUS no. 2) gives way to slavering funk rock as Prince taunts, “You’ve got the horn / So why don’t you blow it?” Maintaining the steamy atmosphere is the rattling percussive slavery of ‘Gett Off’ (US no. 21, UK no. 4, AUS no. 8) that promises “Twenty-three positions in a one-night stand.” By contrast, the title track of ‘Diamonds And Pearls’ (US no. 3, UK no. 25, AUS no. 13) is almost stately. Rather than the title’s baubles, it promises more transcendent, spiritual treasures.
‘Love Symbol’ (1992) (US no. 5, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1) continues Prince’s stylistic contrasts. ‘Sexy M.F.’ (US no. 66, UK no. 4, AUS no. 5) is jazzy and horny but its continual repetition of “sexy motherf***er” results in it being ‘banned by U.K. radio because of its suggestive lyrics.’ At the spiritual end of the spectrum, ‘7’ (US no. 7, UK no. 27, AUS no. 25) seems to be a chanting ritual aimed at banishing the seven deadly sins to which humanity falls prey. ‘Love Symbol’ is Prince’s last album released under the Paisley Park imprint. After this, his recordings are again issued directly on Warner Brothers.
In 1992 Prince has a brief liaison with actress Troy Beyer. In 1993 he begins a long-term relationship with Mayte Garcia.
On 7 June 1993 Prince changes his name to the love symbol used as the title of his most recent album. The mark combines the symbols for male and female. Sometimes rendered as O(+> on conventional typewriter keyboards, the symbol reputedly dates back to ancient Europe. Since it is unpronounceable, Prince wants to be known as ‘The Artist’, but the media turns this into ‘the artist formerly known as Prince.’
Mr Love Symbol’s ‘behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.’ ‘Come’ (1994) (US no. 15, UK no. 1, AUS no. 2) is released in August. The almost legendary ‘The Black Album’ (1994) (US no. 45, UK no. 36, AUS no. 15) finally gets an official release in November. In 1995 ‘the artist formerly known as Prince’ begins a legal battle with Warner Brothers ‘proclaiming himself a slave and [initially] refusing to deliver’ his next album. ‘The Gold Experience’ (1995) (US no. 6, UK no. 4, AUS no. 13) is issued in September. This ‘return to raunchy funk’ includes ‘The Most Beautiful Girl In The World’ (US no. 3, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1).
On 14 February 1996 ‘the artist formerly known as Prince’ weds his girlfriend, Mayte Garcia. O(+> releases the movie soundtrack ‘Girl 6’ (1996) (US no. 75) in March and ‘Chaos And Disorder’ (1996) (US no. 26, UK no. 14, AUS no. 54) in July. He then sacks The New Power Generation and leaves Warner Brothers records. A son, Gregory, is born on 16 October 1996. However the child suffers from Pfeiffer’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder preventing skull growth, and dies later the same month on 22 October 1996 after being taken off life-support.
‘The artist formerly known as Prince’ starts his own label, NPG (as in New Power Generation), and arranges for EMI Records to handle the distribution. He celebrates his freedom from Warners with the triple album ‘Emancipation’ (1996) (US no. 11, UK no. 18, AUS no. 8) in November. However, ‘even his devoted cult following needs considerable time to digest such an enormous compilation of songs.’ ‘Crystal Ball’ (1998) (US no. 62, UK no. 91) in March is a ‘collection of outtakes and unreleased material’ – though it may be recalled that the ‘Crystal Ball’ title at least was mooted as far back as 1986-1987. ‘New Power Soul’ (1998) in June is credited to the New Power Generation but is really a ‘de facto Prince album’.
On 14 February 1989 Mayte Garcia ceases to be Mrs Love Symbol when her spouse has their marriage annulled. Warners Brothers clears out their leftovers from ‘the artist formerly known as Prince’ with ‘The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale’ (1999) (US no. 85, UK no. 47) in August. Meantime, O(+>’s NPG label begins shifting distributors, striking a deal with Arista for ‘Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic’ (1999) (US no. 18, UK no. 145, AUS no. 82) in November, but using Columbia and Universal, amongst others, later.
In May 2000 Prince reclaims his own name. After a brief relationship with Amanda Lewis in 2001, he moves on to Manuela Testolini later the same year. Also in 2001, Prince becomes a Jehovah’s Witness. His new religion poses a conflict with some of Prince’s earlier, more sexually explicit songs. Since his mid-1980s heyday, he has been gradually toning down his flamboyant wardrobe, but now begins dressing in rather dapper suits. ‘The Rainbow Children’ (2001) (US no. 109) in November is the first release associated with Prince’s new religious affiliation. On 31 December 2001, Manuela Testolini becomes Prince’s second wife.
‘N.E.W.S’ (2003) is a ‘four song set of instrumental jams’ that goes wide of the charts. Prince follows this with ‘Musicology’ (2004) (US no. 3, UK no. 3, AUS no. 19) and ‘3121’ (2006) (US no. 1, UK no. 9, AUS no. 18) in March. Increasingly, he uses the internet rather than traditional means of music distribution to reach his fans.
Prince’s marriage to Manuela Testolini ends in divorce on 24 May 2006. A ‘short-term relationship’ with singer Bria Valente follows in 2007.
‘Planet Earth’ (2007) (US no. 3, AUS no. 38) in July reunites Prince for this album alone with his most famous musical associates, Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin, who have been working as a duo since splitting with The Purple One.
‘LotusFlow3r’ (2009) (US no. 2) is a three disc set with one disc each acting as: (i) a ‘showcase for his guitar work’ (Lotusflow3r); (ii) ‘a throwback to 1980s funk’ (MPL Sound); and (iii) ‘smooth rhythm and blues with vocals by Bria Valente’ (Elixir).
After ‘20Ten’ (2010) – which doesn’t chart – Prince seems to become disillusioned with the internet, suing various websites and shutting down his own website. He has a short liaison with Misty Copeland in 2010.
Prince releases two albums simultaneously on 30 September 2014. They are ‘Art Official Age’ (2014) (US no. 5, UK no. 8, AUS no. 15) and ‘Plectrum Electrum’ (2014) (US no. 8, UK no. 11, AUS no. 33). The latter disc is recorded in conjunction with the all-female band 3rdeyegirl.
Prince is found dead in an elevator at his Paisley Park complex on 21 April 2016. He was 57 years old. His death is attributed to an accidental overdose of Fentanyl, an opioid pain medication.
‘4Ever’ (2016) (US no. 35, UK no. 21, AUS no. 36), released in November, is a two disc compilation of forty songs from Prince’s days on the Warner Bros label. It is the first Prince compilation to include the 1989 hit ‘Batdance’. It also includes a previously unreleased song from 1982, ‘Moonbeam Levels’.
Prince’s attire over the years changed from bikini briefs to dandy flourishes to well-tailored suits. But this was only a surface reflection of his musical adventures. “I’ve gone through a lot of changes,” said Prince with uncharacteristic understatement. Sometimes it was a battle just for the people to keep up with him. His work rate was demanding and with so many albums – and some of them double or triple albums – the sheer volume of his output made comprehension difficult. Add to this his association with The Time, Vanity 6, Apollonia 6, The Family, Sheila E., Sheena Easton and cover versions of his songs by The Bangles, Sinead O’Connor, Cyndi Lauper and Chaka Khan amongst others and the mind boggles. However, Prince’s admission that “I’m not one for editing” seemed to be supported by this musical avalanche. His best work was probably in the period 1980 to 1985 but devoted fans could find gems all through his career. Musically, Prince didn’t require high heels to stand tall. ‘Entrepreneur, compulsive showman, talent scout, label boss, film star and, above all, a prolific studio habitué’, Prince seemed to have done it all. He was ‘one of the most singular talents of the rock ‘n’ roll era, capable of seamlessly tying together pop, funk, folk and rock.’
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 118, 135, 144, 204
- ‘Rock Stars’ by Timothy White (Columbus Books, 1984) p. 282, 284
- Internet movie database imdb.com as at 24 November 2013
- Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 30 September 2013
- wikipedia.org as at 30 September 2013, 1 January 2015, 22 April 2016, 3 January 2017
- ‘Tavis Smiley’ (U.S. television program, PBS Network) – Prince interview conducted by Tavis Smiley (22 April 2009)
- watchmojo.com – Prince biography: Life and Career of the Artist (2010?)
- ‘The Virgin Encyclopedia Of Eighties Music’ – Edited by Colin Larkin (Virgin Books, 1997) p. 368, 369
- rollingstone.com – Prince biography as at 27 November 2013
- ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 220, 317
- ask.com as at 25 November 2013
- ‘The Hits 2’ – Sleeve notes by Alan Leeds (Warner Bros. Records Inc., 1993) p. 2
- ‘The Hits 1’ – Sleeve notes by Alan Leeds (Warner Bros. Records Inc., 1993) p. 2, 3, 4
- allmusic.com, ‘Prince’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 18 November 2013
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Prince’ by Paul Evans (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 628, 629, 630
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 48, 54, 58
- whosdatedwho.com as at 30 September 2013
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 329
- ‘Tavis Smiley’ (U.S. television program, PBS Network) – Prince interview conducted by Tavis Smiley (12 January 2004)
- lyricsfreak.com as at 15 November 2013
Song lyrics copyright Controversy Music administered by WB Music Corp., ASCAP / ECNIRP Music Inc. administered by Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp. BMI (1979-1980); Controversy Music administered by WB Music Corp., ASCAP (1981-1991)
Last revised 11 January 2017