“There are many kings: King Henry VIII, King Solomon, King Tut, King James, King Kong… the Three Kings. But there is only one Prince.” Alicia Keys
I was thirteen when I heard ‘When Doves Cry’ for the first time. I remember being utterly hypnotised by the combination of that beat and that voice. On paper, it shouldn’t have been funky (it doesn’t have a bass line – check it out). But it really was.
It takes confidence to meddle with a winning formula, but only someone truly special can make it work.
Ridiculously prolific songwriter, master musician, Jehovah’s Witness, vegetarian, industry-savvy workaholic, guitar-wielding philanthropist and international ambassador for the colour purple.
Welcome to the world of Prince.
Minneapolis is not necessarily the first place one thinks of when thinking of funk, but it was here the young Prince (born Prince Rogers Nelson in 1958) began his legendary career – but also where he lived and worked until his death in April 2016. Indeed, the responsibility for the Minneapolis sound – a kind of synth-fused funk rock – lies squarely with Prince.
Prince’s parents were both musicians, his father a pianist and his mother a singer. His father left the family home when Prince was eight, driving the young man to be more determined than ever to succeed.
From early on he was a prodigious talent. Pepe Willie, the young Prince’s mentor, recalled how in an early rehearsal with his teenage band Grand Central, Prince walked over to the keyboard to show Linda Anderson how he wanted the chords played. Then he, “… walked over from the keyboard and said, ‘André, let me hold your bass.’ André gave him the bass and he started thumping. I mean, he was playing amazing. That’s when I really started paying attention to him.”
Not content with guitar, bass and keys, he also played drums. Producer and former classmate of Prince, Jimmy Jam, remembers Prince at school, “We took a break from the rehearsal. I went to the bathroom, and I heard someone playing the drums and they’re tearing them up. I was thinking it was the music teacher Mr. Hamilton. So I walked out, and it was Prince sitting at the drums.”
But virtuosity isn’t enough. Mix that pure talent with a gift for pop songwriting and a desire to innovate and and you begin to get a feel for the man who sold over 100 million albums, won 7 Grammys and an Academy Award in a career spanning forty years, a man whose legacy includes some of the funkiest, sexiest, smart-assed songs ever to hit the airwaves.
Prince’s debut album For You (1978) demonstrated the kind of work ethic and musicality for which he would become famous: he wrote, sang, played, arranged and produced the entire album himself and while it failed to achieve commercial success, a Prince sound was in the making. And although early video footage of an appearance on the music show American Bandstand in late 1979 paints a picture of a bashful young performer, the next few years saw a huge transformation.
By 1983 none of that stage fright was visible. Shyness had been replaced with the cocksure swagger of a global star. 1980’s Dirty Mind, his third studio album, marked a departure from the previous two records. This was the sound of a confident writer and performer.
Described as the “confessions of a sex junkie” by one commentator, we were given an insight into how sex and sexuality figured in Prince’s life and music. This brazen exposition of fantasies and lewd encounters (the front cover and title leave little to the imagination) is an early demonstration of his ability to change direction musically and lyrically. Prince had grown up – and he wanted to show it.
His commercial breakthrough album – selling six million copies and defining his characteristic intelligent mash up of rock, soul and funk – was 1999 (1982).
Over the course of the next twelve years, Prince went on to produce some of the most accomplished music of the Eighties, helping to define the sound of that decade. Musically diverse, instantly catchy and challenging in equal measure, his output during that period encompassed many styles from the inimitable rockstar memoir Purple Rain (1984) to the party funk of Lovesexy (1988) via the sprawling pop-jazz complexity of Sign ‘O’ The Times (1987).
Prince’s sound in the early 90s had to compete with hip-hop and for many, he was past his best. But (like Bowie before him) he released music he wanted to release. And if he couldn’t, he’d simply change his name to a symbol in an attempt to throw off the constraints of his contract with Warner Bros. Unfortunately, he was still bound by the contract and so released a glut of weak material.
But ever the shrewd businessman, he later regained control of his master recordings from Warner Bros. – something of a rarity in the music industry.
For many Prince fans it’s the live performances that mark him as a performer like no other. Here is an individual who demonstrated time and again his ability to play, record and produce music of amazing quality in the studio – his back catalogue speaks for itself.
But speak to anyone who has seen the diminutive one live and you’ll find a consensus – electrifying, high-octane, stuff-strutting live shows with hot moves, insane costumes and full-on rock’n’roll posturing – a travelling funkrockopolis. Take the 2007 Super Bowl Halftime Show – 12 minutes of Prince gold. Or the impossibly intimate gig in the living room of rising star Lianne La Havas’ east London flat. Or the legendary gigs at First Avenue in Minneapolis and Camden’s Electric Ballroom in London – his versatility and desire to play great music was simply insatiable.
Prince’s love of the stage is obvious during a live cover of The Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps with Tom Petty, Steve Winwood and Jeff Lynne. He steals the song from Tom Petty, solos all over it and hands it back – incredible stuff.
Prince had it all: a looker, a dancer, a musician extraordinaire, a composer, an actor, a rock star and funkmeister; he had credibility, spirituality, benevolence. But here was a complex character. Prince’s fixation with bumping ‘n’ grinding became less visible when he became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001. He still wrote and sang about sex but this was a new, more self-aware, perhaps even reverent, Prince. He knew as a Witness there were boundaries.
There would certainly never be another Dirty Mind.
This complexity surfaced during his love hate relationship with the internet. Fiercely protective (and quite rightly) of his work, in July 2015, he pulled all material from streaming sites (except the artist-owned coalition streamer, Tidal) without any explanation.
Though, revealingly, he did say in an interview with The Guardian four years earlier, “Nobody’s making money now except phone companies, Apple and Google … It’s like the gold rush out there. Or a carjacking. There’s no boundaries.” And he clearly had a problem with digital music. “When you play it back, you can’t feel anything. We’re analogue people, not digital.”
Prince acknowledged and embraced technology (look at his use of drum machines in the early Eighties) but was old school. He believed in albums – songs in context, a track order defined by the artist – not pick ‘’n’ mix playlists. He knew that music shouldn’t just be consumed – it needs to be appreciated too.
Prince’s death has shed light on his generosity and desire to support a diverse range of good causes including Harlem Children’s Zone, New York’s Uptown Dance Academy, Jazz Foundation of America and Urban Farming. Fondly remembered by those charities as a quiet and generous benefactor, he was all about giving something back.
So farewell then to another unique talent. But you won’t have to look far or listen hard for evidence of Prince’s legacy. His sound can be heard running through many artists – will i am, Beyonce, Beck, Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, Outkast, Chilli Peppers, Bruno Mars, Alicia Keys – he figures in the work of all of them at some point, and each graciously acknowledges the debt.
Like all the greats, Prince leaves behind a huge body of work – much of it unreleased. But that isn’t what makes him great – plenty of musicians have done that. It’s the fact that he took music forward – that’s what distinguishes him from so many others. Prince pushed boundaries, disrupted expectations, changed minds and opened eyes.
But like the man himself said – life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last.
Tribute by Kieran Fahy