American musician Prince (1958–2016) broke out as one of pop music's most creative and charismatic artistic forces with the release of platinum-selling albums including Controversy and 1999 in the early 1980s. Known for his raw, highly suggestive musical and lyrical approaches, Prince's star soared with the massive critical success of the film Purple Rain and its accompanying Grammy Award-winning sound-track. Releasing more than three dozen albums during his long career, he remained an influential recording artist until his death in 2016.
Born Prince Rogers Nelson on June 7, 1958, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Prince was the son of jazz musician John L. Nelson and singer Mattie Della Shaw. The elder Nelson performed under the stage name Prince Rogers, a nod to an early-20th-century black evangelical figure and radio-show host. His experimental jazz music never earned him much notice outside of Minneapolis, but it laid a musical foundation that helped inspire his son to become a musician in his own right. After his parents split during his childhood, Prince divided his time between households, all the while teaching himself to play piano, guitar, and drums. By the time he was a teenager, he was writing and performing music with several high-school friends.
The young man's music caught the ear of Owen Husney, a local businessman who became his first manager. Husney recognized that Prince—who already sought to expand the traditional parameters of popular music genres—offered something unique. “Even at that young age, he was very focused, very directed and highly intelligent,“recalled Husney in a National Public Radio interview with Audie Cornish. “And he just wasn't mimicking his influences—he was combining their sounds. He was making a whole new sound.” In 1978, Husney helped Prince negotiate his first recording contract with Warner Brothers, securing the artist full creative control over his work, a rare boon for an unknown performer.
Prince's debut album, For You, was released in the spring of 1978. Although the album failed to make a splash, it showcased the artist's erotically charged approach. Followup efforts Prince (1979), Dirty Mind (1980), and Controversy (1981) grew the artist's profile both through popular tracks such as “Let's Work” and songs considered far too sexual for radio play. In a review of Dirty Mind for AllMusic online, Stephen Thomas Erlewine would write that “Where other pop musicians suggested sex in lewd double-entendres, Prince left nothing to hide” in lyrics delving into topics as controversial as incest. At the same time, these early albums highlighted Prince's musical prowess, combining elements of pop, rock, rhythm and blues, funk, and soul into a unique sound.
The follow-up to 1999 proved to be the pinnacle of Prince's career: the film and soundtrack Purple Rain. Inspired by the artist's life, Purple Rain starred Prince as “the Kid,” a young musician living in Minneapolis and harboring dreams of stardom. Featuring members of the Time and Prince's own backing band, the Revolution, the film was a blockbuster. The soundtrack album, with radio hits such as “When Doves Cry,”“Purple Rain,” and “Let's Go Crazy,” topped the charts and quickly went multiplatinum. Prince went on to win an Oscar for the film's score as well as two Grammy awards, and the Purple Rain LP was still a critical darling decades later. Short, slight, and typically flamboyantly dressed in his signature purple and high-heeled boots, Prince did not resemble anyone's traditional idea of a rock star. However, his charismatic performances and virtuoso skills had made him a sensation.
Hard on the heels of the successful Purple Rain came the more modest Around the World in a Day (1985). The album featured “Paisley Park,” a single named for the massive compound Prince constructed in suburban Minneapolis in the mid-1980s. With living quarters and a full recording studio, Paisley Park remained Prince's home and his creative center until his death. Meanwhile, his 1986 album Parade served as the soundtrack for his second film, Under the Cherry Moon. A light romance that saw Prince direct and co-star with a young Kristin Scott Thomas, the film was a critical disaster and a commercial disappointment. Soon after Parade, Prince disbanded the Revolution. His next three albums—1987's Sign o' the Times, 1988's Lovesexy, and the 1989 film soundtrack Batman—marked his new career as a solo artist.
Returning to the silver screen, Prince next released another film and soundtrack pairing titled Graffiti Bridge. Intended as something of a sequel to Purple Rain, the film again featured members of the Time and was set amid the Minneapolis music scene. Like Under the Cherry Moon, however, Graffiti Bridge was a flop and remained Prince's final feature film.
Prince formed a new backing band, the New Power Generation, in time for the 1991 release Diamonds and Pearls. The album, which featured the chart-topping single “Cream,” became a critical and commercial success. It would also be the last significant recording for some time on which the artist would be credited as Prince.
Reacting to a contract dispute with label Warner Brothers in 1993, Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol made by merging the symbols typically used to represent the male and female genders. The symbol also appeared as the title of his 1992 album, Love, leading it to be dubbed “the Love symbol.” During a 1999 interview with Larry King and later quoted by Washington Post contributor Stephanie Merry, the musician recalled of this time that “I wanted to move to a new plateau in my life and one of the ways in which I did that was to change my name, to sort of divorce me from the past.” He formally declared “Prince” dead on the cover of his 1993 album Come, and he was quickly dubbed “the Artist Formerly Known as Prince” by the news media and much of the general public.
Media reports of the time sourced Prince's decision to declare himself reinvented as an unpronounceable symbol to a very public feud that was ongoing between the artist and his record label. Warner Records stopped distributing Prince's Paisley Park Records soon after the name change, and during stage performances, Prince would appear with the word “slave” prominently written on his cheek. He would continue to use the symbol on all releases until his contract with Warner Brothers ended in 2000.
While eschewing his stage name, Prince released several albums through Warner Brothers despite their fraught relationship, including the long-delayed Black Album (1993) and the top-ten Gold Experience (1995). However, he also recorded music issued through his own New Power Generation (NPG), a label formed in the wake of the demise of Paisley Park and distributed by Warner rival Capitol/EMI. The most successful of these, a 1996 double album titled Emancipation, nearly cracked the Billboard top ten and eventually achieved double-platinum-selling status.
During this era, the artist underwent personal highs and lows. He was married for the first time in 1996 to Mayte Garcia, a dancer some 15 years his junior. The couple experienced a devastating loss when their son was born with a rare genetic disorder known as Pfeiffer syndrome that prevented his skull from properly forming in utero. The infant died soon after birth, and after a second pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage, the emotional strain proved too much, and the couple divorced in 2000. Prince remarried the following year, to philanthropist Manuela Testolini, and that marriage ended without issue in 2006.
By the arrival of the 2000s, Prince had become something of a living legend. Although his often eclectic musical output did not routinely achieve the kind of wild success as had his 1980s hits, he remained a prolific recording artist as well as an immensely popular performer and radio presence. Prince developed an increasingly spiritual bent after becoming a Jehovah's Witness in 2001; always unconventional, he went door-to-door in his native Minneapolis to hand out pamphlets and talk to people about the faith.
During his prime career years, Prince regularly packed arenas, and he also became one of the highest-grossing touring artists in the world. In 2007, he headlined the Super Bowl halftime show, performing a nearly 20-minute set that Dave Hoekstra described in the Chicago Sun-Times as “a mixture of adventure, innovation and even a dash of innocence.” The performance reached some 140 million television viewers and raised the halftime show's reputation for showcasing mega-popular music acts.
Despite an apparently healthy lifestyle—Prince was a teetotal vegan who publicly eschewed consuming animal products, alcohol, and other drugs—a lifetime of high-energy performances left him with painful medical problems as he entered middle age. Both of his hips had deteriorated and likely required full replacement, a procedure that Prince—whose religious faith forbade the use of blood transfusions—reportedly resisted. By 2016, he sometimes relied on a cane while walking. At this point, he was also heavily dependent on opioid medications, which helped to dull the chronic pain from his various ailments.
Prince's dependency on opioid painkillers ultimately led to his seemingly sudden and shocking death at Paisley Park on April 21, 2016. He was 57 years old. Reports in the weeks following his death revealed that he died from an overdose of the opioid drug fentanyl. His reliance on this and other pain drugs contributed to several medical emergencies prior to the fatal overdose, and several of his close associates had tried to help Prince reduce his drug usage.
Music lovers worldwide mourned Prince's death as a tragedy. “Few artists have influenced the sound and trajectory of popular music more distinctly, or touched quite so many people with their talent,” commented U.S. President Barack Obama in a statement quoted in a New York Times obituary by Jon Pareles. In the months after the musician's death, his estate sought to preserve his legacy by transforming Paisley Park into a museum and public-event space as well as by negotiating the release of Prince's catalogue of music over popular streaming services. Television and film producers also began plans to create documentaries about the star's life and work.
Chicago Sun-Times, February 7, 2007, Dave Hoekstra, concert review.
New York Times, April 21, 2016, John Pareles, “Prince.”
Washington Post, April 22, 2016, Stephanie Merry, “Prince.”
AllMusic, https://www.allmusic.com/album/dirty-mind-mw0000191363 (December 30, 2017), Stephen Thomas Erlewine, “Dirty Mind.”
National Public Radio, https://www.npr.org/2016/04/21/475161524/his-music-does-the-talking-manager-owen-husney-on-princeslegacy (December 30, 2017), “‘His Music Does The Talking’: Manager Owen Husney on Prince's Legacy.”
Rolling Stone, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/artists/prince/biography (December 30, 2017), “Prince.”□