As I write this it is June 7, 2016 and today would have been Prince’s 58th birthday. When Prince died on April 21st I approached my editor, Ann-Marie Murrell, about writing an appreciation of Prince and his musical legacy. To avoid conjecture, we decided to wait until we had an actual cause of death as obviously that issue needed to be addressed.
Sadly, the preliminary toxicology report, released by the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office on June 2nd, confirms that Prince died of a self administered accidental Fentanyl overdose. Fentanyl is a powerful opiate that is used for severe pain such as that experienced by terminal cancer patients. It has a strong potential for abuse and has been used as a “boosting agent” when applied to street heroin. The mixture of fentanyl and heroin has lead to the deaths of artists such as actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman and, allegedly, singer Jim Morrison. But we will address the issues of drugs a little later on in this piece.
Let us first celebrate the life and legacy of Prince Rogers Nelson……
Prince Rogers Nelson was born on June 7, 1958 at Mount Sinai hospital in Minneapolis. His dad, John Nelson, was a Jazz pianist who lead a group called the Prince Rogers Trio. He had a day job at Honeywell which produced items ranging from thermostats to airplane parts. His mother, Mattie Shaw, was a singer whose style recalled Billie Holiday. She originally sang with John’s trio, but let that go after they were married. Between the two of them they had five children from previous relationships.
Prince has stated that his mother reflected “the wild side of his personality” while his father was more serene. The exception to this rule was when John became excited about his music. An excitement and dedication that he passed on to his son, Prince. As early as the age of three, Prince demonstrated a natural aptitude for music. His mother has told stories of searching for him in a department store and always finding him in the music department.
Both of Prince’s parents were devout Seven Day Adventists. What Prince got from the church was the excitement of a choir. But he took a great deal from his Adventist Bible study. The Seven Day Adventists church focuses greatly on the Book of Revelations. His album “Sign O’ the Times,” bore the fruit of that influence with the addressing of the apocalypse. It’s title references the Adventist publication “Signs of the Times.”
Like some of his fellow musicians, such as John Lennon, Eric Clapton, and James Brown, among others, Prince was the victim of a broken household when his parents separated when he was eight. His father’s lack of success as a musician was a constant point of friction and that helped lead to the dissolution of the marriage. There is a fragility experienced by the children of divorce or the premature death of a parent that can lead to great art framed by an even greater pain.
In 2009, on the Tavis Smiley show, Prince reported that he struggled with epilepsy and was “born epileptic.” Combine his parents divorce with the epilepsy Prince was born with and you have the recipe for a shy, withdrawn, child. Prince also said on the 2009 Smiley show that he developed his flashy persona to compensate for his illness. Prince initially lived with his mother and her man at the time. Over the the decades Prince had told friends that during one summer his mother’s lover kept him locked in his bedroom. He allowed him out to eat and shower. Prince being Prince used that time to start mastering the guitar, bass, and piano, eventually also mastering drums. He moved in with his father when he was a little bit older. Because of his dalliance with a girl, Prince was kicked out of his father’s house at the age of 13. He then moved in with his Aunt Olivia. The pain, anger, and longing of his adolescence colored the themes of a lot of Prince’s later work.
Despite his five foot two frame, he was passionate about basketball and he continued to develop as a musician. He formed his first band, Phoenix, then Soul Explosion at the age of 14. By the time he was 16 he was writing fully realized songs. The group became Grand Central, with future “Purple Rain” co-star Morris Day on drums. Then the band became Champagne. A local Minneapolis produced demo session brought Prince to the attention of local studio owner, Chris Moon. Through the support of Chris Moon and local promoter Owen Husney, a demo and press kit helped Prince secure a 1977, three album deal with Warner Brothers records.
Warner Brothers wanted Earth, Wind, and Fire leader to produce Prince’s 1978 debut album, “For You.” Prince flatly stated, “Nobody is producing my album.” Prince proved that he had not only mastered his instruments of choice, but had with his time with Chris Moon mastered the workings of a recording studio. Warners agreed to allow Prince to produce his own music. That is move that was highly unusual at that time and is still so today.
Prince consistently produced great work thru out his career. His music was a myriad of influences. His incendiary guitar work drew from Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, and the Funk rhythms of James Brown guitarist Jimmy Nolen. His piano playing was sterling and was directly influenced by the Jazz piano playing of his father. His ability as an
in-the-pocket bass player and drummer actually allowed him to produce work, at times, without the aid of a band. The themes of his music touched on the sacred and the carnal. His singing was wide ranging from aggressive shouts to angelic falsettos.
It was the 1984 album and film of the same name, “Purple Rain,” that bought Prince to international acclaim. The success of both the film and album created expectations from Warners on the direction his work would take. Warners wanted more commercial product and Prince wanted to expand upon and create even greater work. In 1985 Prince established his Paisley Park studio/multi-media complex and established his own Paisley Park record label.
Prince continued to feud with Warner Brothers records in the 1990’s over disputes concerning his artistic direction and the owning of his own masters. The acrimony between Prince and Warners grew to his using an unpronounceable symbol as his stage name in an effort to get out his Warners contract. When that failed he started performing with the word “slave” written on his face.
In 1996, Prince ended his contract with Warner Brothers. Between the records released by Warner Brothers and the NPG label Prince released 39 studio albums, five soundtrack albums, four live albums, and five compilation albums in his lifetime. He also acted in other films such as “Under a Cherry Moon,” as well as other concept and concert films.
He was married twice. He married his back-up singer Mayte Garcia on Valentine’s Day 1996. On October 16, 1996, his son Ahmir Gregory was born. Tragically, his son was born with Pfeiffer Syndrome and only lived a week. Another heartbreak for a man truly seeking a family he never fully had. Mayte and Prince divorced in 1999. In 2001 Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness because of the influence of fellow musician, Larry Graham. That same year Prince married Manuela Testolini in a private ceremony. They divorced in 2006.
But it is the music that truly matters and why Prince’s music will continue to live on. As a guitarist of 49 years, I truly appreciated his guitar playing because of the wide palette of tones and rhythms. He was innovative and extended the influence blueprints of past guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana. He was a devout musician. His brilliance as a guitarist also extended to his stellar keyboard playing, not to mention his abilities as a bassist and drummer.
Prince gets lumped into the pantheon of music superstars of the 1980’s such as Michael Jackson and Madonna. Oh yeah? Can you imagine Michael or Madonna playing the guitar solo to “Purple Rain?” I prefer to compare Prince to another perfectionist, Miles Davis. Miles Davis used his band as an extension of his soul and ability. So did Prince. The ultimate compliment by Prince to his band in a rehearsal situation was at the finish, “Well I guess we can go eat now.”
Prince was a great supporter and, at times, mentor to other musicians. Especially he was fond of prodigies and would give parents advice on how to live with a prodigy. He was generous with musicians who were a bit down on their luck.
Take for example, singer-guitarist Bonnie Raitt. In 1986, not long after she had been dropped from their mutual label Warner Brothers, Prince, a longtime fan of Raitt, offered Bonnie a contract with his own Paisley Park label. They recorded several tracks together that remain unreleased. This was the start of a process that lead to Bonnie becoming sober and getting a new contract with Capitol records.
In 1994, he made available the use of his Paisley Park studio for Bluesmen, Bill Hickey, Hubert Sumlin, Jimmy Rogers, and company, which lead to the incredible album “Bill’s Blues.” There are many instances of Prince’s generosity. Whether that was with his time, talent, or money. All this was done quietly and without any fanfare.
He also did work with classic Soul singer Mavis Staples and produced a lot of artists for the Paisley Park label. Again, like Miles Davis, many musicians passed thru the ranks of Prince’s bands and who are better musicians because of that experience. Additionally, there is apparently a great deal of unreleased music by Prince in the Paisley Park vaults. I hope somebody responsible and capable will treat it with the respect it deserves.
Now back to the drugs…….
Sadly, folks like Hendrix and Joplin lived on an extreme edge with drugs. They metaphorically fell on that edge and bled out. Other individuals like Eric Clapton lived on that edge and survived and are now a great example of sober living. Great music is created in spite of drugs, not because of them.
With Prince the process was a little more complicated. It was hip surgery that lead to a dependence on pain killers such as Fentanyl and Percocet. I don’t believe he was a “recreational” drug user as much as someone seeking relief from constant pain so he could do what he loved to do: work and create.
I hope he now has the peace that alluded him in life. But the legacy of his life is greater that any darkness surrounding his end. Selah.
My Three Favorite Prince Video performances
Soundcheck playing “Summertime” on piano in Japan:
From 2004 when Prince was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:
Prince performing at the 2007 Superbowl halftime: