Prince, a musical genius

He was a hit maker and an innovator who left a (purple-hued) mark on the world of music unlike anyone else. iSing pays tribute to Prince.

When Prince, aka the Purple One, died on April 21 at the age of 57, there was an outpouring of grief from around the world. Thousands of tributes were placed outside his home, Paisley Park, and fittingly an all-night dance party took place in his hometown of Minneapolis.

The hugely talented musician and songwriter left behind a musical legacy which defined a generation. He managed to fuse jazz, funk, soul and rock to create his own distinct sound – which is much imitated and reimagined by artists today.

Prince pushed musical boundaries and confounded expectations. His songs could be deeply emotional (Purple Rain), flirty (Kiss) or filthy (Head, Soft and Wet). His music could get a party started (Lets Go Crazy, 1999) or reduce an audience to tears (Nothing Compares 2U). And he was prolific, releasing 39 studio albums, five soundtrack albums, four live albums, five compilation albums and 17 video albums during his career.

Prince Rogers Nelson was born into a musical family in Minneapolis on June 7, 1958. His father was the leader of the Prince Rogers Jazz Trio and his mother a vocalist. Two years after Prince was born his sister, Tyka, entered the world. But family life in the Nelson household was chaotic and his parents separated when Prince was ten. He lived with his father and then his mother, before opting to live with neighbours instead.

One constant in his life was music – he wrote his first song at the age of seven. An early concert trip to see James Brown also proved seminal. In high school he joined a band, Grand Central, but by 1976 Prince was performing in his own right and attracting attention. So much so that Warner Bros gave him an album deal.

His first solo album – on which Prince produced, arranged and performed every instrument – For You was released in 1978. This was followed by Prince, which included the hit single I Wanna Be Your Lover. Next came Dirty Mind, which featured Prince on the album cover wearing bikini briefs, a leather jacket and a knowing pout. On the back of the album he posed in black thigh-high stockings.

This album highlighted one of Prince’s main preoccupations – sex. His look, a kind of flamboyant androgyny, played with ambiguity. Meanwhile his lyrics often left little to the imagination. Take Head for example, about a chance oral encounter with a bride-to-be.

‘But I just a virgin and I’m on my way to be wed

But you’re such a hunk, so full of spunk, I’ll give you head’

Who else but Prince could pull off (no pun intended) these lyrics with credibility and style?

The pint-sized one (he was 5 foot 2 inches) was also in the habit of surrounding himself with astonishingly beautiful statuesque dancers, singers and actresses. Sheila E, Vanity, Kim Basinger, Wendy and Lisa, Sheena Easton and Carmen Electra all, at some point, served to inspire him. This was another Prince contradiction – he surrounded himself with women who were the embodiment of heterosexual fantasies, whilst never being seen out of his trademark stiletto boots.

A year after Dirty Mind he was at it again with Controversy, and sexually explicit songs such as Jack U Off. But the big breakthrough came in 1984 with the hit album Purple Rain (featuring the singles When Doves Cry and Let’s Go Crazy) which sold 22 million copies – and projected him into the stratosphere.

When Doves Cry – Prince And The Revolution 

He followed this album up with Parade, which featured the chart-topping single Kiss – which has been covered and endlessly reworked ever since.

The albums Sign o’ the Times, Lovesexy and Diamonds and Pearls followed. But while the hits kept coming global stardom was having an impact on him. On stage he was funny and extroverted, happily licking his guitar and strutting his stuff, but off stage he shunned the press and public and at one point even announced his retirement from performing.

He also became increasingly frustrated with the machinations of the music industry. In 1992, after negotiating a US$100 million dollar record contract with Warner Bros, he discovered in the fine print, that he would no longer own the copyright to his master recordings. In his fury he refused to be called Prince, opting to use a mysterious symbol instead of a moniker. His next album was known as the Love Symbol Album and Prince became known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. He appeared in public with the word “slave” written across his cheek.

The row rumbled on but Prince kept recording and released Come, the Black Album (1994) and The Gold Experience (1995) which include hit single The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.

Chaos and Disorder was next but by 1996 the row with his record company appeared settled. Tellingly his next album was called Emancipation – indicating he was free from record company control. Over the next two decades he went on to release a series of albums – 18 in total – on his own label NPG although none reached quite the dizzying heights of his 1980s works.

Prince will perhaps be best remembered for his extraordinary songwriting. Not only did he pen numerous hits for himself he also wrote Manic Monday for The Bangles, Nothing Compares 2U made famous by Sinead O’Connor and Chaka Khan’s I Feel For You.

Nothing Compares 2 U – Sinead O’Connor 

While he had the magic touch with his music, his forays into film were, for many, underwhelming. Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon and the much panned Graffiti Bridge failed to have the mainstream appeal of his music.

On the personal front, he married backing singer and dancer, Mayte Garcia on Valentine’s Day in 1996. The pair had a son Gregory who was born with a rare skull defect and died a week after birth. The couple divorced in 2000.

In 2001 he married Manuela Testolini, whom he met while she was working at his charitable foundation. They divorced five years later. In 2003 Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness.

The details of his death remain surrounded in mystery, and are still being investigated by US authorities. He is survived by his sister Tyka.

 Sign Up

Bronwyn Bidwell is an Australian journalist and editor based in London. She enjoys writing about music, books, history and popular culture.