An extraordinarily talented songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist, showman and record producer, Prince was a musical phenomenon in the tradition of Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix and Michael Jackson – perhaps even a combination of all three. He was also a prodigious workaholic, releasing no fewer than 39 studio albums during a recording career that lasted from 1978 to 2015, in addition to numerous collaborations with other artists, extensive work as a producer and even appearing as an actor in three feature films for which he naturally provided the soundtrack.
Equally importantly, he was very much his own man, with a proud and forthright personality and an occasionally perverse, almost picaresque, turn of mind, refusing to be intimidated by anyone, told how to present his music or, indeed, live his life. He was bold, sexy, stylish and unafraid to court controversy, his diminutive size contributing to a package that, like David Bowie, often seemed to have arrived from another planet.
He was born Prince Rogers Nelson in 1958, in Minneapolis, where he would base himself throughout his life and construct his own Paisley Park home, studio and rehearsal space. His parents soon broke up and he ran away to live with his musician father who bought him his first guitar. By his teens he was proficient on it and the piano, playing in a high school band and writing his own songs. Demos recorded in 1976 led to a contract with Warners Brothers, an uncomfortable relationship that often seemed perilously close to collapsing and which, perhaps inevitably, eventually would.
Nevertheless it is the series of albums that Prince recorded for Warners during the eighties that secured his reputation, among them such landmark records as 1999 (1982), Purple Rain (1984) and Sign ‘O’ The Times (1987), the latter a superb double album that mixed all his many influences, funk, R&B, soul and pure pop, and is widely regarded as his masterpiece. Simultaneously Prince developed his stagecraft, a guitar style that was as fluid as it was flash, as accomplished as it was effortless. Colourful custom built guitars in the shape a mysterious hieroglyph added to the spectacle, as did bands he led that invariably included girls who were dressed to kill but whose skills as musicians were never in doubt. Erotica and romantic intrigue were key themes in his work, often overlapping in lyrics that left very little to the imagination, yet at the same time he avoided any accusations of sleaze simply through being as gifted as he was.
Although his output never slowed down, Prince’s behaviour became increasingly erratic in the late nineties. During his protracted battle with Warners he took to scrawling the word ‘slave’ on his cheek, then adopted the hieroglyph as his name and, finally, announced that henceforth he wished to be known as ‘The Artist Formerly Known As Prince’. This kept him in the news, as did wildly successful tours, triumphant ‘secret’ club gigs and a personal life that included rumoured dalliances with, among many others, Kim Bassinger, Madonna, Sheena Easton, Sinead O’Connor, Sheila E, Carmen Elektra and Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles.
Eternally restless, never for one moment resting on his laurels and creative to the very end, Prince, evidently in poor health, died suddenly and unexpectedly from an accidental overdose of pharmaceutical drugs on April 21, 2016.
By © Chris Charlesworth
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