Story by: Kyle Eustice
From The Source Magazine Issue #270 | 2016
The world shed a collective purple tear April 21, 2016 when the news broke Prince Rogers Nelson had unexpectedly passed away at the age of 57, leaving a gaping hole in the music community no one will ever be able to fill. Better known as Prince or “The Purple One,” he left a legacy behind that is not only immeasurable, but also inimitable.
At his 65,000-square-foot Paisley Park compound in Chanhassen, Minnesota—where he lived, recorded and performed—hoards of people gathered in remembrance of an otherworldly man who touched countless lives with his catalog. The tributes, however, went beyond his home state; they were quite literally out of this world. In addition to monuments like the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building and San Francisco’s City Hall illuminated in purple, NASA tweeted a photo of a purple Crab Nebula, which lies about 6,500 light-years from Earth.
According to NASA officials, such stars burn incredibly bright and die young, making NASA’s photo tribute doubly appropriate. Prince, after all, was lauded as one of the most talented and influential musicians of his generation, and died before his time, although that’s nothing new—he’s always been a pioneer.
Born June 7, 1958 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Prince gravitated towards music at young age. Both his mother and father were musicians—in fact, his namesake comes from his father’s stage name, Prince Rogers.
Prince attended Minneapolis’ Bryant Junior High and eventually Central High School, where he played football, basketball and baseball. He was a member of his high school’s junior varsity basketball team and continued playing basketball recreationally as an adult (immortalized in the infamous Dave Chapelle skit). Music, however, was always the underlying driving force behind his ambition.
In a 1999 interview with Larry King, he said he “decided at age 12 music was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.” With his vision intact, the demure, five foot two aspiring musician began the trek that would inevitably lead him to superstardom.
During a music class at Bryant in 1973, Prince met producer Jimmy Jam, who was captivated by the young Prince and his aptitude for a variety of instruments. With encouragement from his peers, Prince formed Grand Central in high school with André Cymone and cousin Charles Smith, who was later replaced by Morris Day on the drums. All of this set into motion his inaugural record contract, which was offered to Prince by his first manager, Owen Husney, when Prince was just 17.
Husney soon took the teenager to Los Angeles, where he signed his second contract with Warner Bros. and recorded his first single, “Soft and Wet,” using Stevie Wonder as an inspiration. As he told King, “The way he crafted music and his connection to the spirit—I used him as a role model to play all the instruments.”
Word quickly spread about what Prince was able to do. By this time, he had moved to Sausalito, California, where he completed his debut solo album, 1978’s For You. Prince wrote, produced, arranged, composed and played all 27 instruments on the recording, except for “Soft and Wet,” whose lyrics were co-written by producer Chris Moon. With so much talent emanating from the diminutive artist, it was only a matter of time before it overflowed into the rest of the world.
In Prince’s case, it came in the form of “Purple Rain.” After 1979’s self-titled album, 1980’s Dirty Mind, 1981’s Controversy and 1982’s 1999, Prince executed the most important album of his career, 1984’s Purple Rain. Around this time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller had dominated the music charts, but Prince took it a step further and surpassed Jackson by crafting an entire feature film around the album. Aptly titled Purple Rain, the film starred Prince, Morris Day and singer Apollonia Kotero, and was centered on Prince’s character, ”The Kid,” a virtuosic but troubled frontman of his Minneapolis-based band, The Revolution.
Filmed in Minneapolis—mostly at the infamous First Avenue/7th Entry venue—Purple Rain was loosely based on Prince’s life and put Minnesota on the map as a musical mecca. The film’s soundtrack won an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score at the 1985 Oscars and two Grammy Awards that same year, catapulting Prince to a new level of fame.
Although Prince’s personal life was often shrouded in mystery, it was that privacy that made him even more alluring. He was the first to point out, however, he still felt the freedom to be himself. In a 1986 interview with MTV, he was questioned about his newfound “celebrity” status.
“One thing I’d like to say is that I don’t live in a prison,” he said. “I am not afraid of anything. I haven’t built any walls around myself, and I am just like anyone else. I need love and water, and I’m not afraid of a backlash because, like I say, there are people who will support my habits as I have supported theirs. I don’t really consider myself a superstar. I live in a small town, and I always will. I can walk around and be me. That’s all I want to be, that’s all I ever tried to be. I didn’t know what was gonna happen. I’m just trying to do my best and if somebody dug it then (kiss, kiss to the camera).”
Despite his larger-than-life persona, he kept churning out albums like a musical machine. Around the World in a Day was released in 1985, Parade in 1986, Sign o’ the Times in 1987 and Lovesexy in 1988. It was 1989’s Batman soundtrack that was surprisingly able to take him up another notch, selling over 11 million copies worldwide and securing the No. 1 slot on the Billboard albums chart for six consecutive weeks.
The waters got rough a few years later, when in 1993, a legal battle erupted between Prince and Warner Bros. over the artistic and creative control over his music. Not only did he change his name to an unpronounceable symbol, dubbed the “Love Symbol,” but he also showed up to business meetings and public appearances with the word “slave” written across his cheek. In the media, he was simply referred to as “The Artist” or “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” until 2000. Needless to say, it made meetings with the record executives awkward, but Prince undoubtedly saw the humor and necessity in it. Longtime lawyer (and The Source owner/publisher) L. Londell McMillan was able to successfully emancipate Prince from his binding contract, resulting in the 1996 album, Emancipation.
By 2007, he had unleashed 21 more albums at an astonishing rate, including 1999’s Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic and 2004’s Musicology. He’d also won his seventh Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for “Future Baby Mama” off 2007’s Planet Earth, which would be his last. At that juncture, however, all of the accolades and adoration were presumably not his top priority.
Beginning in 2001, Prince began a spiritual journey that resulted in his conversion to a Jehovah’s Witness, although he referred to it as a “realization.” In accordance with his religion, he kept the breadth of his philanthropic outreach a secret, something the public became privy to only after his death. In actuality, he had anonymously donated to several charities such as Green For All, Elevate Hope Foundation, Black Lives Matter, Elton John AIDS Foundation and the Jazz Foundation of America. His concern was for those suffering from economic hardships, environmental initiatives and families who had experienced a tragic loss. According to Reverend Al Sharpton, who took to Twitter after his passing, “He was a true humanitarian. He would call me to get money quietly to families of victims, including Trayvon [Martin’s.]”
His faith also seemingly prepared him for death—albeit too soon. In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, he was forthcoming about his stance on the after life and claimed not to feel the passage of time. He also added mortality never entered his thoughts: “I don’t think about ‘gone.’” On the contrary, he was constantly enveloped in the moment and looking forward to a long and fruitful future.
Sadly, that was not meant to be, though there is an undeniable silver lining to his tragic passing. Underneath Prince’s Paisley Park estate, a bank vault full of unreleased music was discovered and opened by Bremer Trust, which was appointed administrator of the estate following the musician’s death. Because Prince was the only one who knew the key code, Bremer Trust was forced to drill open the vault. Inside they discovered enough unreleased music to release a new album every year for the next century.
According to Prince’s former sound engineer Susan Rodgers, the vault pre-dates the release of Purple Rain. “When I left in ‘87, it was nearly full,” she told The Guardian. “Row after row of everything we’d done. I can’t imagine what they’ve done since then.”
It remains to be seen whether or not the music will ever see the light of day, but even if we never hear another new Prince song in our lifetime, the expansive catalog he’s left behind bubbles with a genius unparalleled by any other artist, dead or alive. His singing abilities ranged from falsetto to baritone, while his guitar prowess made Eric Clapton weak in the knees. When asked what it was like to be the greatest guitar player in the world, Clapton famously replied, “I don’t know. Ask Prince.”
With songs like “Kiss,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “When Doves Cry,” “Controversy,” “Pop Life,” “1999,” and of course, “Purple Rain,” the prolific songwriter showcased a voracious talent so extraordinary, he was considered a guitar prodigy and master of drums, percussion, bass, keyboards and synthesizer, influencing countless artists to follow in his footsteps. From Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars to Lenny Kravitz and D’Angelo, their careers wouldn’t exist had Prince not laid the foundation.
On stage, he never held back, playing sometimes up to four hours a night. He wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries as a performer either, often changing outfits (usually velvet) three or four times during a single show to deliver the desired aesthetic. Renowned for his flamboyant fashion sense and electrifying showmanship, he seemed to channel other greats like James Brown and Little Richard. He was praised for his androgynous, amorphous sexuality, resulting in an unlikely sex symbol status. Overall, Prince transcended labels, defied categorization and carved out his own musical niche, placing him in the upper echelon of legendary musicians. While the world lost a rare musical talent, what he gave us in return will never fade.