RIP: Prince

Posted April 22, 2016 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Rock god royalty and genre-fluid genius, Prince dies at the age of 57

Prince performing in 1985.

Prince performing in 1985.

At the very mention of his name, Prince could incite instant pandemonium. The only other artist of his generation that had that kind of impact and magnetism was Michael Jackson. Reflecting back on a long, illustrious career, Prince was only outrivaled by the King of Pop. But Prince was definitely music royalty. He snatched a handful of Grammys, took home an Oscar, whipped out one of the finest motion picture soundtracks ever, conquered the Super Bowl in 2007 and forced blatant funk and orgasmic sex into the pop market. In one of his last televised performances, he wowed the Saturday Night Live set with an unbelievable eight-minute long, four-song set of three unreleased singles (“Clouds,” “Marz,” “Anotherlove”). Only Prince could pull off a machismo-stroked feat of this magnitude.

Inspired by a funky diet of James Brown, the psychologies of Sly Stone & the Family Stone and having an unorthodox approach to pop, Prince – born Prince Rogers Nelson – proceeded with his ambitions as a solo artist after rising up the ladder of success in his hometown of Minneapolis. Around the time, Prince’s own band 94 East and a sister band Flyte Tyme (which eventually became The Time, Prince’s longtime opening act) represented the area’s new generation of funk bands inspired by Earth, Wind & Fire and Parliament/Funkadelic. Prince created a demo with the help of Chris Moon and caught the ear of a number of record companies; Prince decided to go with Warner Bros. With a relaxed contract giving Prince creative control, he ushered out For You, an album that sold modestly and kicked out the R&B smash “Soft & Wet.” The album showed off Prince’s dynamic multi-instrumentalism, setting off bold critiques of being a modern-day Stevie Wonder. Such praise continued with the arrival of 1979’s Prince, a disc that kicked off a No. 1 R&B hit “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” a Top 20 R&B hit (“Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”), a disco smash (“Sexy Dancer”) and a pre-Chaka Khan “I Feel for You.” This opened the door of opportunity for Prince to serve as Rick James’s opening act on his Fire It Up tour, which eventually led into a personality clash and epic drama. As PopMatters wrote in 2012, Prince learned a lot from James’s more-polished stage act and elements of his evolutionary punk funk flair. “Prince adapted wholeheartedly the New Wave sound on Dirty Mind, and his subsequent albums also included plenty of synthesizer-based tunes, ditching the traditional funk gear and sound,” the article read. “He eschewed a “Punk Funk” tag to his current musical direction, but he did dress the part.”

Unimpressed with the lack of pop chart action, Prince delved into a world of super-sexuality and wild ambition on 1980’s Dirty Mind and 1981’s Controversy. The results were far better, with both records going gold and platinum respectively. His pop breakthrough, the double-LP 1999, immediately followed in 1982. Thanks to its infectious title track, a robust synth-and-drum style and the versatile new-age, integrated and female/male-balanced design of his band The Revolution (inspired by Sly & the Family Stone), the album became a benchmark for 1980’s music. “Little Red Corvette,” “Delirious” and the title track completed the near-perfect first side, while the eight-minute funky rollercoaster “D.M.S.R.” and the naughty “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” continued Prince’s appetite for raw sexual displays.



(Original analog recording used for Purple Rain motion picture soundtrack)


prince-01In 1984, Prince jumped into the world of motion pictures with Purple Rain, a film that was universally panned by critics but yielded one of the best soundtracks ever. Purple Rain remains Prince’s finest album. Selling over 22 million copies worldwide and ranked by many as one of the most influential albums of the Eighties (ranked No. 2 in the Eighties by Rolling Stone and Slant Magazine), almost every single off the album became an instant radio hit. “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy” went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100, while the title track went to number two. “I Would Die 4 U” also made impact, reaching number eight pop. “Take Me With U,” a duet with Apollonia Kotero, reached number 25 pop. Purple Rain also went home with an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score; the soundtrack took home two Grammy awards (Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group, Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or TV Special). That same year, Prince’s Grammy golden streak continued with winning Best R&B Song for composing “I Feel for You,” a song Chaka Khan masterfully remade with David Frank’s synth layouts, Grandmaster Melle Mel on rap and Stevie Wonder on harmonica.

A great deal of controversy loomed the following year when Tipper Gore, wife of Al Gore, published a list of songs that were to be banned by radio for explicit sexual content with the help of the Parents Music Resource Center. Spearheading the invention of the “Parental Advisory” sticker, Gore put “Darling Nikki,” a song about a sexual deviant, on her “Filthy Fifteen” banned list. Creatively, learning a lesson from The Beatles, playing the song’s final seconds backwards, you can hear Prince echoing an apocalyptic code: “Hello, how are you? Fine ‘cause I know that the Lord is coming soon.” Religious heads considered the move to be sacrilegious.

The film, now revered as a cult classic, also showcased Prince’s showmanship, elevating his stardom and exposing white audiences raised on MTV to his multi-genre craft. Another film featuring Prince would follow (Graffiti Bridge), but it was his music and not his acting level that kept him on folks’ radar. From the Graffiti Bridge project came “Thieves in the Temple,” another netted number one R&B and Top Ten hit.

prince-021985’s Around the World in a Day saw the arrival of his own record label, Paisley Park. Parade gave the world one of the most popular karaoke anthems of all time,” Kiss.” In 1987, Prince continued his reign with the ambitious double-LP Sign o’ the Times. Although Purple Rain shines as Prince’s go-to album, Sign o’ the Times feels more like his magnum opus. Thanks to its melding of ambient pop, future funk, hard rock and blistering soul, the disc expanded Prince’s musical boundaries way past those of his contemporaries. “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” is vinyl gold; “Sign ‘o the Times,” a message song strapped around genius funk, has all floored; “If I Was Your Girlfriend” puts a unique spin on love; “U Got the Look” is dance electric. The closing song, “Adore,” is probably the finest gospel-inspired slow jam ever made. It is the same organic stuff that Usher used for “Bedtime.” Almost every R&B male crooner has used “Adore” to design their repertoire’s finest slow jam; “Adore” still reigns as the prettiest. It is what happens when spirituality and sexuality comes together.




Prince’s mind-blowing reign also continued in other ways, mostly in the reinvention of his own songs on other artists. Unlike his biggest rival Michael Jackson, Prince easily distributed his material on other top-charting artists and on a handsome number of burgeoning acts. Ready for the proof? Here it goes. “Manic Monday,” a song Prince secretly gave to the Bangles using the pseudonym “Christopher,” put the ’60’s pop sound of the Mamas & the Papas back into rotation, giving the pop rock band a number two pop hit. Fleetwood Mac alum Stevie Nicks co-wrote the 1983 synth-pop gem “Stand Back” with Prince (that’s even him on the synths). Cyndi Lauper pulled off a delightful cover of “When You Were Mine” on her critically-acclaimed She’s So Unusual album. Pop country singer Sheena Easton shifted gears, like Oliva Newton-John did with “Physical,” by collaborating with Prince on the sexually-suggestive “Sugar Walls.” Percussionist pro Shelia E. easily rose to fame with “The Glamorous Life” in 1984, putting her into the Top Ten on the pop charts. That song also made Tipper Gore’s list of banned songs. Once again, Prince used a pseudonym to get around the limits placed in his musical contract with Warner Bros. “Sugar Walls,” a Top Ten hit and a smash on R&B (No. 3) and dance charts (No. 1), was a breakthrough moment for Easton, clearing the way for her iconic duet with Prince on “You Got the Look.” In 1986, Me’lissa Morgan took “Do Me, Baby” all the way to number one on the R&B charts, perfecting his original in every way with the help of Paul Laurence’s groundbreaking contemporary R&B formula. Both Stephanie Mills and Alicia Keys discovered “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?,” putting the once B-side single of Prince into heavy rotation on R&B radio. Much later, English singer Sinead O’Connor pivoted to the top of the world with an emotional cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a vault track Prince only released as a live track for a “greatest hits” compilation three years later. The song, along with O’Connor’s critically-acclaimed music video won her the year’s best accolades, including three Grammys (including Record of the Year) and multiple MTV Video Music Awards.

With way too many experimental templates and ideas to explore on his own albums, Prince shifted a good deal of his creativity on others through a production deal with Warner Bros. Through this unique form of philanthropy, he pushed a number of lesser-talented acts up the musical chain. His finest contribution, The Time, showcased a chunk of his mammoth funk jams that would have never been considered serious enough to be a single on Prince’s records, but they worked perfectly on The Time. With a zany Morris Day as the frontman and a very talented crew of musicians including Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Monte Moir and Jellybean Johnson, songs like “Get It Up,” “The Walk,” “Cool,” “777-9311,” “The Bird” and “Jungle Love” became instant favorites on black radio. For the most part, Prince laid in the background of the album credits, camoflauging his work with the moniker Jamie Starr. Vanity 6, a burlesque female act starring Denise Matthews as Vanity, also found brief success with “Nasty Girl,” which vaulted to number 7 on the R&B charts. He duplicated the same vixen forumla on Apollonia 6 with the Top Ten R&B hit, “Sex Shooter.”

At the turn of the new decade, Prince dropped The Revolution and designed a new army of musicians labeled the New Power Generation. On Diamonds and Pearls, Prince’s hit machine continued to dominate. The sexy funk of “Cream” and the smoldering title track dominated the pop charts, while “Gett Off” delivered a gritty R&B edge, propelling him for even more naughty escapades to come (“Sexy M.F.,” “P(ussy) Control”).

batman-03Warner Bros. also approached Prince with the opportunity to cull together a soundtrack for their ambitious action/adventure film Batman, a film produced by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger and Academy-award winning Jack Nicholson. That double-platinum disc, another No. 1 album, supplied the world with the funky “Batdance,” the rollicking “Partyman” and a sweltering slow jam “Scandalous.” The latter, a favorite on late-night R&B radio programming, oozed with the same sweat of “Adore.”

While trying to walk away from Warner Brothers due to discouraging industry revelations and contractual disagreements (mostly about unfair profits, since Prince was now at the top of the food chain), Prince embarked on a new journey of musical and ego exploration. He took up an ambiguous glyph that looked like a combination of male and female symbols and desired to be called “The Artist Formally Known as Prince.” He organized his own record label, New Power Generation (NPG) and the Internet-only NPG Music Club, and ushered out a number of albums, singles and box sets. This also managed to sign other acts including funk legend Larry Graham (Graham Central Station) and Chaka Khan. Oversaturation of Prince product began to flood the market, but a few handsome songs and projects came out of the fire. Through a distribution deal with Arista in 1999, “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold”  placed him in good graces once again with R&B radio after a series of moderate singles. With Columbia, 2004’s Musicology became his most successful album in years, shooting to the Top 5, winning two Grammys and going multi-platinum in the States, thanks to a packaging deal with LiveNation for his Musicology Tour.

whencorpscry-collageIn 2007, Prince pulled off what some have called the most magical Super Bowl halftime show in television history. With scattered clouds and rain in the forecast, Prince went on with his show, performing a train of his most memorable hits: “1999,” “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Purple Rain” as the finale.

With the thirtieth anniversary of Purple Rain being celebrated last year and a new relationship with Warner Bros. (including the release of new material), Prince continued to tour, mostly performing intimate shows. Several of his “Piano & A Microphone” shows were cancelled earlier this month after Prince allegedly fell ill to flu-like symptoms, leaving his jet to make an emergency landing in Illinois for a routine check-up. He rebounded with two sold-out shows in Atlanta on Friday last week. For a hour and twenty minutes, Prince performed stripped-down performances of his hits at a baby grand piano. He even apologized to the crowd about the postponement of his shows. According to a AJC review, remnants of his flu could be discovered in his talking. The reviewer said that his singing, on the other hand, was “sublime.”

It is not quite known what the cause of death is. According to some reports, Prince, 57, was found unconscious by authorities in his elevator at his Paisley Park home and recording studio in Chanhassen, Minnesota. A publicist of Prince confirmed his passing to the media.

Virtually every musician known to mankind (from Ricky Martin to Frank Ocean) and devout fan are paying homage to the legacy of Prince. Even mega businesses are getting mon board with their tributes. Google created a Doddle featuring their logo inscribed literally with purple rain. General Mills, a company based in Minnesota where Prince lived, released on Twitter an image of a purple font saying “rest in peace” with a Cheerio hovering over the “i.” PornHub, the online portal for free porn, altered their logo but putting Prince’s indescribable “symbol” logo where the “p” is supposed to be. 3M did the same thing, publishing their infamous logo with a purple color and a single tear between the 3 and M. Huffington Post is calling these ad tributes “tasteless,” but when you consider the profound effect Prince had on music, pop culture and even the media, these tributes make sense.

Birmingham, Ala.-based pop/soul singer-songwriter Gabriel Tajeu echoed that sadness in a Facebook post by publishing the lyrics of an underrated gem in the Purple One’s exhaustive songbook. “Sometimes it snows in April/Sometimes I feel so bad/Sometimes, sometimes I wish that life was never ending/But all good things, they say, never last…And love, it isn’t love until it’s past.”

Prince was rock royalty, and everyone is bowing down to him. Including big business. With profound loss. Today, April 21, 2016, marks the day when doves cried.


In February 2016, Denise Matthews (Vanity), also 57 years of age, succumbed after battling abdominal issues. Over the years, Matthews’ health had been in decline, including a series of health setbacks that also include kidney failure. Prince, an ex-boyfriend of Matthews during his Purple Rain reign, gave a special tribute to the singer during his Feb. 16 show in Melbourne. He dedicated “Little Red Corvette” and “Dirty Mind” to her memory and changed the lyrics of “The Ladder” to include the name Vanity. He also could be heard shouting Denise’s name during an ad-lib session of “The Beautiful Ones.”



Baby I’m Gonna Be a Star: Complete Footage of Pre-Purple Rain Prince Surfaces


About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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