Before he artfully crafted the soundtrack for Gotham’s favorite vigilante, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, Prince Rogers Nelson, knew his music was a calling that couldn’t go unanswered. He was born on June 7, 1958, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His father John Nelson led a jazz group called the Prince Rogers Trio and his mother Mattie Shaw was the lead singer. Prince was named after the group that brought his parents together, and affectionately called “Skipper” at home. John and Mattie divorced when Prince was just 10 years old and stopped speaking to one another, making his childhood hectic and unstable.
The product of two musicians, Prince’s talent was obvious. He grew up with the sounds of Santana, Larry Graham, and Fleetwood Mac. At 13 years old, Prince’s first band Grand Central was formed. They’d perform at local venues and battle against groups such as Morris Day who was the lead singer of The Time. Although he played basketball in high school—all 5’2” of him—he committed his energy to developing a successful music career because he felt music was the only thing he was truly good at. He learned to play dozens of instruments, using Stevie Wonder as his early inspiration.
After making the move from the midwest to Los Angeles, He scored a solo deal with Warner Bros. at 17 years old. His debut album “For You” was released three years later in 1978. Aside from the single “Soft and Wet,” which he co-wrote with producer Chris Moon, Prince penned every song, produced every track, and played all 27 instruments on the album. He released an album every year for the next 4 years. And while the projects were brief, their pull was powerful. Prince’s distinctive voice was enchanting, his sexual freedom was fascinating, and his artistry was upending the status quo.
1982’s “1999” inspired Prince’s first Grammy nominations for Best Male Vocal Performance in the Pop and R&B categories. Now that the world knew his name, Prince was ascending to his throne to ensure they never forget it. In July of 1984, Prince made his big screen debut in “Purple Rain.” In the musical romantic drama, the Kid and his band the Revolution are on the brink of success, but he’s got a few demons—figuratively and literally—to overcome.
The film made more than $63 million at the box office. The “Purple Rain” soundtrack—whose tracklist included Prince’s first No. 1 single “When Doves Cry”—dominated the Billboard 200 Chart for 24 weeks and earned Prince two golden gramophones at the next year’s Grammy awards. The soundtrack was also nominated for a Golden Globe and won the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song Score. During the height of the soundtracks success, Prince and The Revolution performed a free concert for 2,500 students who are deaf at Gallaudet University so that they could feel his music.
Prince cited self-consciousness and social anxiety in his refusal to join the 24-artist lineup for USA For Africa’s “We Are The World” recording. Some interpreted his absence as arrogance, but loyal fans insisted that this was just another example of the very private musician being misunderstood.
In 1986, Prince starred in his second film “Under The Cherry Moon.” It wasn’t as critically well received as “Purple Rain,” but it did deliver a sexy chart topper that would win him a Grammy and remain a favorite throughout Prince’s career: “Kiss.”
His 1987 album “Sign O’ The Times,” which introduced classics such as “Adore,” would become a world-renowned favorite and go on to be inducted into the Grammys Hall of Fame 3 decades later.
In the winter of 1988, director Tim Burton reached out to Prince to ask him to write, perform and produce original songs for the soundtrack of his upcoming comic action flick “Batman.” At first the star was hesitant, but watching a rough cut of the film inspired him. The resulting work was released in June of 1989 and topped the Billboard 200 for six weeks.
The next year, Prince used the experiences he’d gained in the film industry thus far to write and direct his own feature film, “Graffiti Bridge.” He returned as the Kid to star in this unofficial “Purple Rain” sequel, but the project flopped. The film barely made $4 million domestically, shy of it’s $6 million budget.
Prince was always an enigma, but his particular brand of artistry thrived in independence and commanded respect. Prince kept the company of many gorgeous women over the years including Apollonia Kotero, his ‘Purple Rain’ love interest, Madonna, Kim Basinger, and Carmen Electra, to name a few. However, the first time he’d say “I do” would be in 1996 to former backup singer Mayte Garcia. The couple was together for four years, but the loss of two children—a son only days after being born and the miscarriage of another child—took its toll and led to an emotional divorce.
1996 was also the year that Prince chose to depart from Warner Bros. He felt he was a “slave” to the label, literally brandishing the word on his forehead during meetings. His first independent production was the 36-track album “Emancipation,” which debuted under the unpronounceable symbol with which he’d temporality replaced the name that made him famous. Although he was still regularly churning out albums, the already private artist became even harder to access over the years, preferring the confines of his Paisley Park mansion and the company of loved ones. His public appearances grew scarce.
He won several Grammys in the mid-2000s for works such as “Musicology” as well as another Oscar in 2007 for Best Original Song - Motion Picture for his work on the animated comedy “Happy Feet.” In 2014, Prince and Warner Bros. reconciled 18 years after their very public split, allowing him to regain ownership of the catalog of timeless hits that defined his career.
On April 15, 2016, Prince was headed home on his private plane when he suddenly fell unconscious, forcing the plane to make an emergency landing and him to be rushed to the hospital. He recovered from that incident, but was found unconscious again days later, this time in an elevator in his Minnesota mansion. Prince was pronounced dead the morning of April 21, 2016, in what was determined to be an accidental pain medication overdose.
With 39 albums, 20 platinum certifications, and more than 100 million records sold worldwide in his lifetime Prince’s influence is an unstoppable force in the entertainment industry.
Prince’s legacy and influence is alive in the work of today’s most talented artists such as Janelle Monae, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, and so many others who’ve infused his radical spirituality and passion into their work.
Prince, The Purple One, The Beautiful One, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince whatever name you might know him by, his authenticity elevated the standards of the music industry and made it immeasurably more pleasurable to get through this thing called life.