Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Late Great Prince

Prince Rogers Nelson, better known simply as Prince, died today at the age of 57. Earlier in the month he had postponed performances due to influenza. On April 15, while flying back to Minneapolis from a show in Atlanta, Georgia, his private plane made an emergency landing at Quad City International Airport in Moline, Illinois in order for him to receive medical treatment. The cause of his death will not be known until results from an autopsy are announced. 

Prince was born on June 7 1958 in Minneapolis. His father was John L. Nelson, a jazz pianist in the Minneapolis area. He used the stage name "Prince Rogers" and performed as part of the Prince Rogers Trio. His mother was Mattie (née Shaw), a local jazz singer who performed with Mr. Nelson. They divorced in 1966 when Prince was eight years old. Coming from a family of musicians, Prince took to music while very young. He was only seven years old when he wrote his first song, "Funk Machine", on his father's piano. He had already decided to pursue a career in music by the time he was a teenager.

Constantly shifting between the homes of his father and his mother, Prince eventually moved into the home of his neighbours the Anderson family. He became friends with their son, Andre Anderson (who eventually took the name Andre Cymone). Prince and Andre Anderson would eventually join the band Grand Central, for whom Prince's cousin Charles Smith was the drummer. Charles Smith would later be replaced by Morris Day, who would later become famous as part of The Time. Grand Central would eventually rename themselves "Champagne" to avoid confusion with the group Grand Central Station.

It was in 1975 that Pepe Willie, the husband of one of Prince's cousins, formed the band 94 East. Both Prince and Andre Cymone would serve as session musicians for the band. It was in 1976 that Champagne started recording at Moonsound Studio, a small studio owned by Chris Moon. Chris Moon noticed Prince's talent and offered him a deal: if Prince collaborated with him on songs then Prince could have as much free recording time as he desired. In 1976 Prince created a demo tape of  four songs he had created at Moonsound.

It was later in 1976 that Chris Moon introduced Prince to Owen Husney, an owner of a small advertising agency in Minneapolis who also managed musicians. Owen Husney signed Prince to a management contract. In December 1976 Mr. Husney booked Prince in Sound 80 studios in Minneapolis to record a new demo tape. Owen Husney then created a press kit to send with the demo tape to the various recording companies. Ultimately A&M, ABC/Dunhill, CBS, RSO, Warner Bros., and yet other companies expressed interest in Prince.

It was on June 25 1977 that Prince signed a recording contract with Warner Bros. The contact stipulated that Prince was to record three albums over which he would have complete creative control. Prince's debut album, For You, was released  April 7 1978. Not only did Prince produce the record, but he also arranged and composed every song on the album except for "Soft and Wet", which was co-written with Chris Moon. He also played every single instrument on the album. His first single, "Soft and Wet", peaked at no. 92 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 12 on the Hot Soul Singles chart.

It was on October 19 1979 that Prince's second album, Prince, was released. The album would produce Prince's first hit single. "I Wanna Be Your Lover" hit number one on the Billboard R&B chart and peaked at number 11 on the Hot 100. "I Wanna Be Your Lover" was followed by the single "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?". It peaked at no. 13 on the Billboard R&B singles chart. The album itself peaked at no. 22 on the Billboard albums chart.

Prince's third album, Dirty Mind, would not do as well on the Billboard album chart as Prince. Released on October 8 1980, it only peaked at no. 45. That having been said, it arguably set the stage for the rest of Prince's career. The album was stylistically diverse, with songs that could be considered funk ("Dirty Mind"), ballads ("Gotta Broken Heart Again"), dance ("Uptown"), and new wave (When You Were Mine"). Dirty Mind also ventured further into sexuality than most funk or R&B artists ever had before. Indeed, the song "Head" and especially the song "Sister" dealt with subjects that were very nearly taboo when the album was released on October 8 1980. While Dirty Mind was well known for it salaciousness, songs on the album did explore other subjects. "Uptown" dealt with prejudice and societal expectations. "Partyup"had anti-war overtones.

Prince followed Dirty Mind with the album Controversy, released on October 14 1981. Along with Dirty Mind, Controversy would define much of the course of Prince's career. While Dirty Mind was known for its sheer lasciviousness, Controversy took a more intellectual approach. The title track addressed everything from questions surrounding Prince's sexuality to questions surrounding his religious beliefs. "Ronnie, Talk to Russia" was a plea to the newly elected Ronald Reagan to make peace with the U.S.S.R. The song "Annie Christian" addressed violence, guns, and religion all in one song. Of course, Controversy also contained sex songs, such as "Jack U Off". Like Dirty Mind before it, Controversy continued Prince's stylistic diversification. "Controversy" was pure funk. "Do Me, Baby" was a lengthy ballad. "Private Joy" was bubblegum. "Jack U Off" drew upon rockabilly for inspiration. Controversy sold very well. It peaked at no. 21 on the Billboard  albums chart.

It was also in 1981 that Prince formed the funk band The Time as a side project. The Time was largely built upon a Minneapolis band called Flyte Time, to which Prince added lead singer Morris Day, guitarist Jesse Johnson, and musician and comedian Jerome Benton. Prince wrote many of The Time's early songs and even played every single instrument on The Time's first album. He also produced their first three albums.

Prince's fifth album would also turn out to be his breakthrough with regards to mainstream music. 1999 was a double album released on October 27 1982. It proved to be Prince's highest charting album yet, going all the way to no. 9 on the Billboard albums chart (which also made it his first top ten album). It produced three hit singles. The title track peaked at no. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, while "Little Red Corvette" peaked at no. 6 and "Delirious" at no. 8. The album also saw Prince expand his subject matter beyond sex. "1999" itself touched upon the subject of Armageddon, while "Free" dealt with patriotism and  "Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)" touched up on computers. Stylistically the album ranged from funk to New Wave.

By the mid-Eighties Prince had already seen a good deal of success as a recording artist. It was in 1984 that he would see success in film as well. Purple Rain was made on a budget of  $7.2 million and shot mostly in Minneapolis. The movie did fairly well at the box office, making $68 million. Its soundtrack album proved to be Prince's most successful record up to that point. Released on June 25 1984, about a month ahead of the film, it went all the way to the no. 1 spot on the Billboard albums chart. It also produced several hit singles, including the no. 1 singles "When Doves Cry" and "Let's Go Crazy", a well as the title track (which peaked at no. 2), "I Would Die 4 U" (which peaked at no. 8), and "Take Me with U" (which went to no. 25). Arguably, Purple Rain marked the height of Prince's success. Unfortunately, while Prince would see continued success as a music artist, Purple Rain would be his only success in film despite further attempts.

Prince followed the success of Purple Rain with the album Around the World in a Day. The album was released with minimal publicity and its first single ("Raspberry Beret") was not released until a month after the album's release. Despite this Around the World in a Day went to no. 1 on the Billboard albums chart. It also produced the hit singles "Raspberry Beret" (which peaked at no. 2) and"Pop Life" (which peaked at no. 8). Around the World in a Day marked further development in Prince's style. The album was widely considered "psychedelic" and often compared to The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. While Prince dismissed comparisons to The Beatles, he did acknowledged that he thought the album could be considered psychedelic.
Around the World in a Day was followed by the album Parade, an album which also served as the soundtrack album to his film Under the Cherry Moon (more on it later). It was released on March 31 1986. While both Purple Rain and Around the World in a Day went to no. 1 on the Billboard albums chart, Parade peaked at no. 3. Parade did produce several hit singles, including number one "Kiss" as well as "Mountains" (which went to no. 23).

It was with Sign o' the Times that Prince's career went into a very slight decline. Sign o' the Times peaked at no. 6, although it did produce three hit singles. Lovesexy peaked at no. 11 and produced only one hit single. Batman, the soundtrack to the 1989 film of the same name, performed much better. It hit no. 1 on the Billboard album chart and produced the hits "Batdance" and "Partyman". Prince would end the Eighties with Graffiti Bridge, the soundtrack to the film of the same name. While the film would not do well (more on that later), the album peaked at no. 6 and produced the hit "Thieves in the Temple".

Prince began the Nineties with the album Diamonds and Pearls, which peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album provided Prince with another no. 1 single, "Cream". The success of Diamonds and Pearls was followed by an album that bore only an unpronounceable symbol as a name, but generally called The Love Symbol Album. The Love Symbol Album also proved successful, peaking at no. 5 on the Billboard album chart.  The Love Symbol Album was followed by Come, which peaked at no. 15 on the album chart.

By the early Nineties Prince found himself at odds with Warner Bros. In an act of rebellion against the label Prince insisted that he be referred to only by an unpronounceable symbol (more or less the same as the one that appeared on The Love Symbol Album). Prince became known as "the Artist Formerly Known as Prince". Prince also began releasing albums much more frequently in order to sooner fulfil his contractual obligations to Warner Bros.

Unfortunately the albums Prince released while he was using the Love Symbol would perform increasingly more and more poorly on the charts. The Black Album, the first album on which he used the symbol, only peaked at no. 47. Chaos and Disorder and Emancipation (which featured Prince's covers of songs originated by other artists) would perform somewhat better, with the latter actually making it to no. 11 on the Billboard album chart.  Prince's last release on Warner Bros. would be The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale.

In 1999 Prince signed with Arista Record. It was on that label that his album Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic was released on November 9 1999. It was in 2000, not long after  his publishing contract with Warner/Chappell ended, that Prince returned to using his name "Prince". Starting in 2000 much of Prince's music was released through his website NPG Music Club. NPG Music Club continued until 2006.

Throughout the Naughts and the Teens Prince released several successful albums, including Musicology (which went to no. 3),  3121 (which went to number one), Planet Earth (which went to no. 3), and Lotusflow3r / MPLSound (which went to no. 2). Both   Plectrumelectrum and Art Official Age reached the top ten of the Billboard albums chart. Hit n Run Phase Two, the final album released while Prince was alive, came out in December of last year.

Over the years Prince produced other artists and even served a a mentor to some. Over the years Prince produced records by André Cymone, Sheila E, Madhouse, Jill Jones, Chaka Khan, Sheena Easton, Patti LaBelle, and yet others. Prince's songs were recorded by artists as diverse as Alicia Keys ("“How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore"), The Bangles ("Manic Monday"), Cyndi Lauper ("When You Were Mine"),  Sinead O’Connor (“Nothing Compares 2 U“), and Stevie Nicks ("Stand Back").

In addition to his musical career Prince also had a bit of a film career, although he saw little success in movies beyond Purple Rain. Under the Cherry Moon, released in 1986, did poorly at the box office and received bad notices from critics. The film marked Prince's directorial debut. In 1990 Graffiti Bridge, a semi-sequel to Purple Rain was released. Graffiti Bridge also did poorly at the box office and faired badly with critics. It was also directed by Prince.

Over the years Prince would perform on several different shows, from The Tonight Show to Saturday Night Live. He guest starred on Muppets Tonight in 1997 and New Girl in 2014.

I was only a teenager when I first discovered Prince. It was with his album Dirty Mind, a bit before he would break into the mainstream. At the time much of the appeal of Prince for me was the fact that he would sing about things only a few other artists ever had before (namely, graphic sex). Of course, by the time Controversy was released Prince had expanded well beyond singing about sex and love. As the years passed the subject matter of Prince's songs would expand and his music would grow more sophisticated. And as I grew older I was able to appreciate the evolution of Prince's music. As I grew older I was even able to realise that there was much more to his early work than sheer salaciousness.

Quite simply, Prince could well have been the most sophisticated artist to emerge from the Eighties. With regards to genres he seemed difficult to pin down. Certainly much of his early work, as well as much of his music throughout his career, could be considered funk. That having been said, it was very early in his career that he began recording songs that could be considered New Wave, rock, pop, and R&B. Ultimately Prince would venture into genres as diverse as power pop and jazz. Indeed, at times Prince would blend disparate styles into one song.  Not surprisingly, the influences on Prince were diverse: Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Miles Davis, James Brown, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Sly Stone, George Clinton, David Bowie, Curtis Mayfield, and many others.

Of course, it was not enough that Prince seemingly transcended genres. He was both a great songwriter and a great musician capable of playing multiple instruments. On his debut album alone he played 27 different instruments. He also a very good vocalist with an impressive range. Over the years Prince was quick to adapt to new technology, adopting drum machines and synthesisers very early in his career.

Ultimately Prince would have a lasting impact on multiple genres of music. Artists as diverse as Alicia Keys, Beck, Maroon 5, Lady Gaga, Janelle Monae, and even Muse owe a debt to him.  He is one of the very few artists to emerge after the Sixties to have an influence on rock, R&B,rap, and yet other genres.  It should come as no surprise, then, that Prince leaves behind a whole catalogue of songs that are still frequently played on the radio. "1999", "Little Red Corvette", 'Purple Rain", "Raspberry Beret", and yet other songs are still heard frequently. What is more, Prince's songs are still frequently covered by various artists. Ultimately, it seems possible that Prince might be the most influential music artist to emerge from the Eighties. While other artists from the decade might eventually be forgotten, I doubt he ever will.

1 comment:

KC said...

Interesting post. I knew very little about his early career and how much he did before Purple Rain. I agree that his influence is going to last. He is still so admired today. I think he's gotten the respect he deserves.