Prince could play guitar like Carlos Santana or Jimi Hendrix, sing like James Brown, turn out pop melodies worthy of Motown or lay down the deepest grooves this side of Sly and the Family Stone. But no one could mistake his sound for anyone but Prince. The dazzlingly talented and charismatic singer, songwriter, arranger and instrumentalist who died in April 2016 drew upon the history of modern popular music and created a gender- and genre-defying blend of rock, funk and soul. With hits including “1999,” ”Purple Rain” and “Little Red Corvette,” Prince’s records sold more than 100 million copies and earned him Grammys and an Academy Award for music.
The Minneapolis native, who stood just 5 feet, 2 inches, made a powerful visual impact at the dawn of the MTV era, proving to be the Little Richard for the ’80s, from his wispy moustache and tall pompadour to his colorful and suggestive outfits — the counterpart to the openly erotic lyrics that made him one of the most sexually daring artists of the era.
But his greatest legacy was as a musician, summoning original and compelling sounds at will, whether playing guitar in a flamboyant style that drew on Hendrix, switching his vocals from a nasally scream to an erotic falsetto, or turning out album after album of stunningly innovative material. Among his other notable releases: “Sign O’ the Times,” ”Graffiti Bridge” and “The Black Album.”
“He rewrote the rulebook, forging a synthesis of black funk and white rock that served as a blueprint for cutting-edge music in the Eighties,” reads his dedication in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Prince made dance music that rocked and rock music that had a bristling, funky backbone. From the beginning, Prince and his music were androgynous, sly, sexy and provocative.”
Born Prince Rogers Nelson, Prince broke through in the late 1970s with the hits “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” and soared over the following decade with such albums as “1999” and “Purple Rain.” The title song from “1999,” his funky and flippant anthem about an oncoming nuclear holocaust, includes one of the most quoted refrains of popular culture: “Tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999.”
He won seven Grammys and received an Academy Award in 1985 for his music from the movie “Purple Rain.” In 2004, Prince was inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame, which hailed him as a musical and social trailblazer.
Prince made his acting debut in “Purple Rain,” playing a sexy, androgynous young musician on the cusp of fame. The film amplified Prince’s popularity and was a box-office success with $68 million in ticket sales. Besides winning the Oscar for Original Song Score, the “Purple Rain” soundtrack won Grammys for its writing and performance. The film received mixed reviews, but Roger Ebert called it “one of the best combinations I’ve seen of music and drama.”
Prince was fiercely protective of his independence, battling his record company over control of his material and even his name. Anxious to get out of his contract with Warner Bros., he identified himself by a key-like symbol with an unpronounceable name. (Journalists called him “TAFKAP,” or The Artist Formerly Known as Prince). Prince also once wrote “slave” on his face in protest of not owning his work and famously fought and then departed Warner, before returning a few years ago.
“What’s happening now is the position that I’ve always wanted to be in,” Prince told The Associated Press in 2014. “I was just trying to get here.”
Music was in his blood. Prince’s father played in a jazz band in Minneapolis, under the name “Prince Rogers,” and his mother was the singer. The precocious young Prince taught himself to play the piano at age 7, the guitar at 13 and the drums at 14. But his home life was also troubled. His parents separated when he was 10, and Prince, who ended up with six siblings and half siblings, moved back and forth between the homes of his mother and father.
In 1978, the year he turned 20, Prince debuted with the album “For You.” It was a declaration, if nothing else, that he could do anything: He wrote and sang the material, and served as his own one-man band on guitar, bass, drums, synthesizers, chimes and assorted other instruments. The album received mixed reviews, but his second album — called “Prince” — sold more than a million copies and launched his run of hit albums and singles over the next few years.
But he didn’t just become a star in his own right: He was a veritable music factory, whether with side projects, such as Vanity and Morris Day and The Time, or the songs he wrote for others. Sinead O’Connor had a hit with “Nothing Compares 2 U,” while other covers included Cyndi Lauper’s “When You Were Mine” and the Bangles’ “Manic Monday.”
Prince’s influence even extended to politics, well before Obama’s time. In the mid-1980s, Tipper Gore, wife of then-Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, heard one of her daughters listening to Prince’s “Darling Nikki.” Horrified by the song’s reference to masturbation, she helped launch an organization dedicated to a labeling system for explicit content, the Parents Music Resource Center. A nationwide debate about censorship soon followed, including congressional testimony from Frank Zappa among others, and the refusal by some record sellers to offer releases deemed in need of advisories.
Prince had been touring and recording right up until his death, releasing four albums in the last 18 months, including two on the Tidal streaming service last year. He performed in Atlanta last week as part of his “Piano and a Microphone” tour, a stripped-down show that featured a mix of his hits, like “Purple Rain” or “Little Red Corvette,” and some B-sides from his extensive library.