Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Prince Rogers Nelson, 7 June 1958, Blackpool MN; d 21 April 2016, Chanhassen MN) Soul singer, composer. His father, jazz pianist John Nelson, and his mother, Mattie, a singer, moved from Louisiana to Minneapolis in the late 1950s, where John formed the Prince Rogers Trio.

Self-taught on piano, guitar and drums, Prince formed the band Grand Central, later called Champagne, with Andre Anderson, bass; Linda Anderson, keyboards; Morris Day on drums; made demos under the patronage of local studio owner and was signed by WB while still in his teens. He played all the instruments on For You '78 including top 20 soul/Hot 100 pop hit 'Soft And Wet': the album was dedicated to God, a strange mix of religious and sexual/secular; it reached the top 200 pop LPs. Prince '79 included the no. 1 soul/11 pop hit 'I Wanna Be Your Lover', made no. 22 pop LP chart, his penchant for X-certificate lyrics confirmed on Dirty Mind '80, with songs about oral sex and incest; together with outrageous stage gear (black lace underwear and provocative female backing trio Vanity 6), the no. 45 LP brought more fame. The aptly named Controversy '81 reached no. 21 (the title track included a chanted Lord's Prayer), but two-disc 1999 '82 (initially issued as single LP in UK) confirmed his success with hard-nosed commercial soul tracks that could be broadcast: 'Little Red Corvette', 'Delirious' and the title track were all big hits, '1999' reaching the top 25 in the UK.

The Purple Rain album and film '84 shot him into rock's first division, though the film (co-starring Patty 'Apollonia' Kotero of Vanity 6) was only rescued by scenes of Prince indulging his Hendrix fixation in concert; the heavily synthesized 'When Doves Cry' was no. 1 single USA, no. 4 UK; 'Let's Go Crazy' also no. 1 USA; title track no. 2 USA/8 UK; the album (billed as 'Prince and the Revolution') kept Bruce Springsteen's Born In The USA out of the no. 1 spot in USA for more than 20 weeks. Around The World In A Day '85 was inevitably an anti-climax; first mooted without a single until sales slumped (relatively): the LP (no. 1 for three weeks), no. 2 hit 'Raspberry Beret' and his new custom label Paisley Park all had psychedelic overtones; 'Pop Life' was also a hit single. Parade '86 saw a return to harder funk roots with the hit 'Kiss' while he was writing music for another film, Under A Cherry Moon. A two-cassette video Double Live was released '86. Two-disc Sign ''O'' The Times '87 and Graffiti Bridge '90 were associated with films, the latter including tracks by Mavis Staples, George Clinton and others; Lovesexy '88 had skinny Prince naked on the cover, some sort of ultimate in narcissism: teased for being weedy in school, he'd been making up for it ever since.

He attended the BPI awards in England '85 with monster bodyguards to say a half-dozen words; the offended UK pop press dubbed him 'a toothpick in a purple doily' and the Hee Bee Gee Bees parodied him with 'Purple Pain' by 'Ponce'; rehearsing in Birmingham for a tour '87 he hadn't told his record company he was in the country. He threatened to retire as many times as David Bowie. He did the music for film Batman '89 (the scrappy soundtrack album was his last no. 1); album Diamonds And Pearls had a hologram on the cover. He also wrote and produced songs for Vanity 6, the Time (including Morris Day), Sheena Easton, the Bangles, Sheila E, Chaka Khan, often under pseudonyms Alexander Nevermind, Jamie Starr and Christopher. At his peak he was the only act comparable to Springsteen in sales terms and probably more influential: his best stuff was immaculately crafted of its kind; he broke the colour bar on MTV and took black music to the rock/pop audience as Sly Stone had done a generation earlier.

Meanwhile Denise Matthews, former leader of Vanity 6, made LPs as Vanity on Motown: Wild Animal '84, Skin On Skin '86 made the top 70. (Matthews also worked in TV and films; she had led a wild life, but sobered up and became a Christian evangelist after losing both her kidneys in the 1990s; she published memoir Blame It On Vanity '99, and died 15 February 2016 aged 57.) The trio Apollonia 6 with Kotero made a successful eponymous album on WB '84; Prince's sister Tyka Nelson had a flop album on Chrysalis '88. Prince sidekicks guitarist Wendy Melvoin and keyboardist Lisa Coleman made albums said to be underrated: Wendy And Lisa '87 and Fruit At The Bottom '89 on Virgin; there was also Eroica, another album (produced by Trevor Horn) still in the vault; Re-Mix-In-A-Carnation '91 remixed their (minor) hits. Wendy and Lisa were the offspring of Los Angeles session players; Susan Rogers and Peggy McCreary were engineers; all helped Prince to do his instinctive thing, and the result was his best work (cf. Purple Rain, for which Rogers, who had never engineered in her life, taught herself as she went along). His emphasis on sex was quite unselfconscious but innovatory, as was his technical daring, but it is clear in retrospect that his magic was conjured with their help; Wendy and Lisa worked on Sign ''O'' The Times and he let them go halfway through, perhaps because he didn't want to be so reliant on them, and cut short the tour for it, perhaps thinking that the film would do the trick, but the film flopped and his career began to lose momentum.

Warner Brothers foolishly signed him to a contract in August 1992 that funded six albums at $10m each. He announced in April 1993 that he would no longer record, fulfilling the contract with tracks already made, and on his birthday in June changed his name to a squiggle that looked like an intrauterine device, henceforth known in the music press as 'the artist formerly known as Prince'. The album (untitled) '92 had the squiggle on the cover, but Come '94 had been recorded before the name change. The Hits/The B Sides '93 was a three-disc set of 56 tracks, two discs also released separately; The Black Album '87 had been bootlegged and finally released commercially '94; The Gold Experience '95 was his last top ten album, the first since (untitled); its trailer single was 'I Hate U' about sexual jealousy, from a man who had made a career out of simulating non-stop bonking on stage. Warners may have been figuring on getting their money back through the publishing end, but he didn't like not owning his material outright, and wrote the word 'slave' on his cheek. In fact he had always spent money like water (keeping his studio open 24 hours a day) and taken a lot of bad advice, and then sales were down as they were for all the so-called superstars, the record companies as usual a few years behind.

The son of a top Warner executive had told him that he didn't have another hit record in him; the next day he wrote 'The Most Beautiful Girl In The World', financed it himself and had a no. 3 hit single '94, but the mini-album The Beautiful Experience including seven mixes of it barely cracked the top 100 in the album chart. Girl 6 '96 was a compilation of new and old tracks by various groups including Vanity 6; Chaos And Disorder '96 bore the warning 'Originally intended 4 private use only, this compilation serves as the last original material recorded by [squiggle] 4 Warner Brothers.' Nicholas Barber in the Independent on Sunday described it as exhilarating, 'Maybe because he's not taking everything so seriously for once', but it sold only 100,000 in the USA (Purple Rain had sold 13 million). In '96 he was rationalizing and letting staff go. His first album on EMI was a three-CD set called Emancipation '96, described by one critic as nothing he hadn't done before and done better, by another as a return to inventive vitality. On Valentine's Day '96 he married backup singer Mayte Garcia (eulogized in 'The Most Beautiful Girl In The World'); their son was born in October with craniosynostosis ('cloverleaf skull syndrome') and lived less than two weeks.

There followed a confusing run of albums on different labels. Sign ''O'' The Times had originally been intended to be a 3-LP set called Crystal Ball, but that had been edited to two discs, and a three-CD set issued in 1998 was called Crystal Ball, at the same time as a new album called The Truth (with minimal production, so it had a demo quality), and internet pre-orders included an instrumental album called Kamasutra. Several albums were said to be jazz-influenced, such as The Rainbow Children 2001, the instrumental N.E.W.S. and Xpectation 2003. Several albums were available to be downloaded from the Internet, the first of their kind. In 2004 he did a successful run of 96 concerts, one of the most valuable live acts on the road, and in 2006, his relationship with Warner over with, he gave up the squiggle and reverted to Prince, and also abruptly closed down the netsite (NPG Music Club had offered access to music and seats at concerts for a subscription fee of up to $100). He had got his empire under control and was making a lot of money; with all his activities and album releases, many getting mixed reviews, his fans never gave up on him and he was always newsworthy. 

He was inducted into the rock'n'roll hall of fame in 2004 and played a solo on 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' that was widely admired. (When someone asked Eric Clapton how it felt to be the greatest guitarist in the world, he reportedly said. 'I don't know. You'll have to ask Prince.') He sold out a record-breaking 21-night run at the O2 Arena in London in 2007, and with photographer Randee St. Nicholas an album called Indigo Nights and a coffee-table book called 21 Nights was produced. There have been a lot of books about him, but this was the first by him, after everybody had tried to talk him out of the 21-night event. As a pioneer of artists' rights and in releasing music over the Internet, he had a long record of proving sceptics wrong. In 2009 he released a 3-CD set comprising LOtUSFLOW3R (psychedelia), MPLSoUND (on the electronic side), and Elixer (purring by his latest protégée, Bria Valente). The set cost $11.98 exclusively at Target, and was promoted by three nights in a row on the Jay Leno show. A very fancy new website,, had a subscription fee of $77; it is said that pop-rock fans subscribe to such sites for access to good seats, at a time when ticket agencies and scalpers are skimming more money than ever.  

He had not been feeling well and was said to be 'fighting the flu'; in fact he had been addicted rto painkillers. He died suddenly at his home, Paisley Park. Miles Davis had recorded some of Prince's songs at his last recording session, said to be among Davis's best work of his last period, but Prince had refused permission for the tracks to be released. He had been divorced twice and had no children; there is said to be a vault of unreleased music and fans were wondering who was going to be in charge of it.