Prince Rogers Nelson: ‘Every song was either a prayer or foreplay’
(CNN) — Prince Rogers Nelson’s music transcended genres and generations. There were songs you could sing every word to, ditties that drove you to dance and ballads so poignant in their descriptions of love and life that anyone could relate.
Simply put, not that anything with the mercurial musician was simple, Prince had more hits than most musicians have songs in their catalogs.
Writing and producing music in five decades, he touched and inspired artists all along the musical spectrum, from Madonna to Beyonce, from Stevie Nicks to Foo Fighters, from Public Enemy to The Roots and from George Clinton to The Time.
Whether his fingers danced across the keys of a baby grand or belted out a mind-melting solo on one of his elaborate axes, he was the consummate showman. And that is to say nothing of his hypnotic vocals and songwriting skills, the means by which his music truly entered the hearts of fans both ardent and casual.
“The most prolific thing to me about Prince was not only was he the most vibrant example of black genius that I have ever seen, but he was able to negotiate God and sex in his subject matter in a way that we had never seen before,” said the music icon’s former stylist, Michaela Angela Davis.
“Every song was either a prayer or foreplay.”
The shocking death of the man who penned hits such as “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Nothing Compares 2 U” and “When Doves Cry” hit fans and fellow artists hard.
The 57-year-old singer was found unresponsive Thursday morning in an elevator at Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen, Minnesota, Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson said. Paramedics tried to revive him, but he was pronounced dead about 10 a.m.
The cause of death has not been determined.
Born June 7, 1958, in Minneapolis, he received his love of music from his father, John Nelson, who played piano in a jazz band. His mother, Mattie Shaw, was a social worker and singer.
As a teen, he was signed with Warner Bros. Records and released his debut album, “For You,” in 1978.
“Dirty Mind” and “Controversy” followed in 1980 and 1981, respectively, and stirred controversy with sexual lyrics that also touched on religious themes.
The singer/songwriter/musician found fame with his 1982 album, “1999,” and his androgynous look and mastery of the guitar drew comparisons to both Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix.
Soon, Hollywood came calling, and in 1984 he starred in the semi-autobiographical film “Purple Rain.”
The story of a struggling Minneapolis musician and the film’s soundtrack made Prince an international superstar. The theme song from the movie won an Academy Award for best original score.
Another tune off that “Purple Rain” album, “Darling Nikki,” which details a one-night stand, prompted the formation of the Parents Music Resource Center. Led by Tipper Gore, the group encouraged record companies to place advisory labels on albums with explicit lyrics.
‘The Artist formerly known as Prince’
Prince’s fusion of pop, rock, funk and soul made for a distinctive sound and launched other artists who played with him, including super producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, The Time and percussionist Sheila E. His protege, Vanity 6, who was born Denise Matthews, died about two months ago in California. She also was 57.
A self-taught guitarist, he created what became known as the Minneapolis sound, which was a funky blend of pop, synth and new wave.
He stood out in other ways.
In 1993, Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, which was also the title of his latest album. He became known as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince,” which he shortened to “The Artist,” and his career underwent a setback after Warner Bros. dropped its distribution deal with Paisley Park Records.
The singer appeared in public with “Slave” written on his face in 1995 and seemed determined to gain control of both his career and his master recordings.
“He was this mixture of down-to-earth and sort of eccentric at the same time,” said Eric Deggans, NPR media critic, who visited Paisley Park with a few other journalists last year.
“He could talk very knowledgeably about the music business. And was very witty. Also a little shy. Had two twin assistants dressed exactly the same who trailed after him. And we met in a conference room that had doves in it, so it was quite an interesting experience.”
Career spanned decades
Prince won seven Grammy Awards and earned 30 nominations. Five of his singles topped the charts and 14 other songs hit the Top 10. He told The New York Times in 1996 that he couldn’t stop writing music and had a backlog of thousands of songs.
“Sometimes ideas are coming so fast that I have to stop doing one song to get another,” he told the paper. “But I don’t forget the first one. If it works, it will always be there. It’s like the truth: it will find you and lift you up. And if it ain’t right, it will dissolve like sand on the beach.”
Prince left his imprint on so many aspects of popular culture — from movies to sports to politics.
As the Minnesota Vikings prepped to take on the New Orleans Saints in the 2010 NFC championship game, Prince wrote a fight song, “Purple and Gold,” to inspire his home team. The Vikings lost.
He was the halftime performer at the Super Bowl in 2007. Rolling Stone ranked it the second-best Super Bowl halftime show in history, behind U2 in 2002.
He continued to make albums over the years, though his conversion to the Jehovah’s Witness faith caused him to forgo some of his racier lyrics.
Played a series of one-man shows
He was married twice, to Manuela Testolini Nelson from 2001 to 2007 and to Mayte Garcia from 1996 to 2000. Both marriages ended in divorce. He had one child, “Boy Gregory,” with Garcia. The child died shortly after birth.
In 2014, he left Warner Bros. and soon after embraced social media as a way of staying in contact with his fans.
Last year, while addressing the unrest in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, Prince released the song “Baltimore.” He performed at a benefit concert in the city and gave a portion of the proceeds to youth groups there.
In February, Prince announced dates for his Piano & Microphone tour, a small-scale production that packed smaller venues and left fans delirious. Prince had canceled one of those recent shows because of ill health.
On Saturday, Prince performed for a small group of fans at Paisley Park. People in attendance said he seemed fine.
“Prince changed the game,” Greg Harris, CEO and president of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “He controlled the stage, he controlled the music and he controlled the media. ‘The Artist’ rewrote the rules, taking the traditions of funk, soul, hard rock and dance to forge his own sound.
“He was a driven leader who made us bend to his will, created a new path and inspired others to step up, just to keep up.”