Prince Biography

Prince Rogers Nelson, 7 June 1958, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. A prodigiously talented singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer, Prince was named after the Prince Roger Trio, of whom his father, pianist John Nelson, was a member. After running away from his mother and stepfather, he briefly joined up with John, who bought him his first guitar. He was later adopted by the Andersons, and became a close friend of Andre Anderson (later Andre Cymone). Prince was already conversant with piano and guitar and had written his own material from an early age. Together with Anderson he joined the latter’s cousin, Charles Smith, in a junior high school band titled Grand Central. As Prince progressed to high school, Grand Central became Champagne, and he introduced original material into his sets for the first time. His musical development continued with the emergence of ‘Uptown’, a musical underground scene that included Flyte Time, as well as other important influences including Jellybean Johnson, Terry Lewis and Alexander O’Neal.

Prince’s first demos were recorded in 1976 with Chris Moon, who gave him guidance in the operation of a music studio, and free reign to experiment at weekends. Moon also introduced him to backer Owen Husney, after which Prince provided interested parties with a superior-quality demo. Husney and his partner Levinson set about a massive ‘hyping’ campaign, the results of which secured him a long-term, flexible contract with Warner Brothers Records after a great deal of scrambling among the majors. Debuting with For You, Prince sent shock waves through his new sponsors by spending double his entire advance on the production of a single album. It sold moderately (USA number 163), with the single ‘Soft And Wet’ making a big impact in the R&B charts. The album’s blend of deep funk and soul was merely an appetizer in comparison to his later exploits, but enough to reassure his label that their investment had been a solid one.

By 1979 Prince had put together a firm band (his debut had been recorded almost exclusively by himself). This featured Cymone (bass), Gayle Chapman and Matt Fink (both keyboards), Bobby Z (drummer) and Dez Dickerson (guitar). Despite lavishing considerably less time and money on it than its predecessor, Prince nevertheless charted (US number 22) and boasted two successful singles, ‘Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?’ and ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ (the latter breaking into the US Top 20). A succession of live dates promoting the new album Dirty Mind saw Lisa Coleman replacing Chapman. The album was the first fully to embody Prince’s sexual allure, and the phallic exhortations on his Fender Telecaster and explicit material such as ‘Head’ appalled and enticed in equal proportions. Artists such as Rick James, whom Prince supported in 1980, were among those who mistrusted Prince’s open, androgynous sexuality. Returning to Minneapolis after an aborted UK tour, Cymone departed for a solo career while former members of Flyte Time and others released a self-titled album under the band name the Time. It transpired later that their songs had been written by Prince, who was the motivation behind the entire project.

Prince was nothing if not prolific, and both Controversy and 1999 followed within 12 months. Controversy attempted to provide a rationale for the sexual machinations that dominated Dirty Mind, falling unhappily between the two stools of instinct and intellect. It was a paradox not entirely solved by 1999, a double album that had enough strong material to make up two sides of excellence but no more. The promotional tour featured a special revue troupe: Prince And The Revolution headlined above the Time and Vanity 6 (an all-girl Prince creation). The single ‘Little Red Corvette’ was lifted from the album and was the first to gain significant airplay on MTV. The song was almost entirely constructed for this purpose, using a strong ‘white’ metaphor as leverage, and rewarded the artist with his first US Top 10 hit.

After internal disputes with the Time, Prince began work on the Purple Rain movie, a glamorized autobiographical piece in which he would star. The potent social commentary of ‘When Doves Cry’ was lifted from the soundtrack and became the first Prince song to grace the top of the US charts. ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ and ‘Purple Rain’ (US numbers 1 and 2, respectively) further established him as a figurehead for the 80s. The latter saw him turn his hand to Jimi Hendrix pyrotechnics and textures in the song. After the end of a huge and successful tour, Prince returned to the studio for a duet with Apollonia, the latest in a seemingly endless succession of female protés. He also found time to revitalize the career of Scottish pop singer Sheena Easton by composing her US Top 10 effort ‘Sugar Walls’ (Easton would later appear on Prince’s hit single, ‘U Got The Look’).

When Around The World In A Day emerged in 1985, it topped the US charts for a three-week run, despite a deliberate lack of promotion. Drowning in quasi-psychedelia and 60s optimism, it was a diverting but strangely uneventful, almost frivolous, jaunt, with the sublime number 2 hit ‘Raspberry Beret’ the standout track. It preceded the announcement that Prince was retiring from live appearances. Instead, he founded the studio/label/complex Paisley Park in central Minneapolis. Opened on 11 September 1987, the studio would become the luxurious base for his future operations. As work began on a second movie, Under The Cherry Moon, ‘Kiss’ was released to become his third US number 1. Held one place beneath it was the Bangles’ ‘Manic Monday’, written by Prince under one of his numerous pseudonyms, in this case, Christopher Tracey.

Prince quickly overturned his decision not to perform live, and set out on the Parade tour to promote the number 1 album of the same name. Unfortunately, although ‘Kiss’ and ‘Girls And Boys’ represented classic Prince innuendo, the rest of the album lacked focus. The shows, however, were spectacular even by Prince standards, but his backing band the Revolution were nevertheless disbanded at the end of the tour. In 1987, Prince instituted a new line-up for the latest live engagements. While retaining the backbone of the Revolution (Fink, Leeds, Brooks and Safford) he added Sheila E. , Marco Weaver, and Seacer. The new album was to be a radical departure from the laconic, cosseted atmosphere that pervaded Parade. ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times’, the title track, was a hard-hitting testimony to urban dystopia, drug-related violence and human folly. The vast majority of tracks on the double album revisited the favoured territory of sex and sensuality. The follow-up album would elaborate on the darker shades of Sign ‘O’ The Times’ apocalyptic vision. However, The Black Album was recalled by Prince before it reached the shops. Combining primal funk slices with sadistic overtones, Prince’s decision to suspend it ensured that it would become the 80s most coveted bootleg. The mythology surrounding its non-release has it that The Black Album was the work of Prince’s ‘dark’ side - ‘Spooky Electric’. This was given credence by the subsequent Lovesexy, apparently the result of the pre-eminence of ‘Camille’ - Prince’s ‘good’ side. Playing both albums side by side certainly revealed a sharp dichotomy of approach.

Prince’s next tour, meanwhile, saw the inclusion of a huge Pink Cadillac as a mobile part of the set. Exhausted musicians testified to the difficulty of backing their leader, rushing from orchestrated stadium performances to private club dates where entire sets would be improvised, all of which Prince, naturally, took in his stride. 1989 closed with a duet with Madonna, who, alongside Michael Jackson, was the only artist able to compete with Prince in terms of mass popularity. The following year was dominated by the soundtrack album for the year’s biggest movie, Batman. If the album was not his greatest artistic success, it proved a commercial smash, topping the US charts for six weeks and spawning the US number 1 hit ‘Batdance’. Prince had also written and produced an album for singer Mavis Staples. At first glance it seemed an unlikely combination, but Prince’s lyrics tempered the sexual with the divine in a manner that was judged acceptable by the grand lady of gospel. In February 1990 Sinéad O’Connor recorded a version of Prince’s composition ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, which topped both the US and UK charts. In September, he released Graffiti Bridge, which accompanied a movie release of the same title. The album was composed entirely of Prince compositions of which he sang just over half - other guests included Tevin Campbell, Mavis Staples and the Time. Both album and movie were critical and commercial failures, however. Graffiti Bridge was his first commercial let down for some time, peaking at number 6 in the USA (although it made number 1 in the UK).

Prince, as usual, was already busy putting together new projects. These included his latest backing outfit, the New Power Generation, featuring Tony M (rapper), Rosie Gaines (vocals), Michael Bland (drums), Levi Seacer (guitar), Kirk Johnson (guitar), Sonny T (bass) and Tommy Barbarella (keyboards). They were in place in time for the sessions for Diamonds And Pearls, a comparatively deliberate and studied body of work. The album was released in October 1991, and showcased the new backing band. Greeted by most critics as a return to form, the New Power Generation were considered his most able and vibrant collaborators since the mid-80s. Taken from it, ‘Cream’ became the artist’s fifth US number 1 single. 1992’s ‘Money Don’t Matter 2 Night’ featured a video directed by filmmaker Spike Lee, while ‘Sexy MF’ was widely banned on UK radio because of its suggestive lyrics. Both ‘Sexy MF’ and ‘My Name Is Prince’ were included on the Love Symbol Album - which introduced the cryptic ‘symbol’ (an unpronounceable glyph) that he would legally adopt as his name in June 1993.

Much of the attention subsequently surrounding the artist concerned his protracted battle against his record company, Warner Brothers. His behaviour became increasingly erratic - speaking only through envoys, he appeared at the 1995 BRIT Awards ceremony with the word ‘slave’ written across his cheek as a protest. In October he abandoned the symbol moniker and from that point was known as ‘The Artist Formerly Known As Prince’ (or TAFKAP). Naturally, this produced enough running gags to fill a book and his credibility was in serious danger. In 1995, the artist released The Gold Experience, a return to the raunchy funk of his 80s prime in tracks such as ‘Pussy Control’ and ‘I Hate You’. It also included the smoothly accessible ‘The Most Beautiful Girl In The World’, his bestselling single for many years and the artist’s first UK chart-topper (the track had been independently released on Prince’s NPG label the previous autumn).

Following the release of Chaos And Disorder in July 1996, Prince sacked the New Power Generation and announced that he would not be touring, preferring to spend more time with his wife Mayté Garcia and new baby (who tragically died months after birth). He celebrated his release from the Warner Brothers contract with the sprawling Emancipation. Another 4-CD set, Crystal Ball, was initially sold over the Internet before being released to distributors. The first three CDs compiled previously unreleased tracks, while the all-acoustic fourth CD, The Truth, featured 12 strong new songs recorded the previous year.

In May 2000, Prince announced he had reverted to using his original moniker following the expiry the previous December of his publishing contract with Warners. Sighs of relief echoed around the world. On 31 December 2001, having divorced Mayté Garcia the previous year, Prince married Paisley Park employee Manuela Testolini. Following the death of his parents he became a Jehovah’s Witness, honouring his mother’s dying wish. Many of his more risqué songs were subsequently axed from live shows.

In March 2004, Prince was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and performed a storming live set at the same year’s Grammy Awards. His major label comeback, Musicology, was released to warm reviews shortly afterwards. Sales were boosted when fans attending the Musicology tour were given a free copy of the album as part of their ticket price. His next studio album, 3121, was even more successful, topping the US charts on release in March 2006. The UK marketing strategy for the follow-up Planet Earth provoked ire among retailers, when the artist and his label packaged copies of the album as a free covermount with the newspaper The Mail On Sunday.

Although Prince has yet to provide the definitive album of which he is so obviously capable, the continued flow of erratic, flawed gems suggests that the struggle will continue to captivate his audience.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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