Prince was one of the most naturally gifted artists of all time, and also one of the most mysterious. In the Eighties, at a time when other megastars such as Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna, were delivering an album every three years or so, Prince remained prolific to an almost inhuman degree. A byproduct of his inexhaustible output was Prince's tendency toward wayward, self-indulgent career moves (like changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol in the Nineties) that sometimes alienated even his most ardent supporters.
Yet his taut, keyboard-dominated Minneapolis Sound — a hybrid of rock, pop, and funk, with blatantly sexual lyrics — not only influenced his fellow Minneapolis artists the Time and Janet Jackson's producers (and ex-Time members) Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but also impacted much of 1980s dance-pop music. No other pop star could match the range of his talents, which included not just singing and dancing but also composing, producing, and playing many, many instruments. In fact, Prince played nearly all the instruments on his first five albums, and has produced himself since signing with Warner Bros. at age 21.
Under the name "Prince Rogers," Prince's father John Nelson was the leader of a Minneapolis-area jazz band, in which his mother was the vocalist. Prince started playing piano at age seven, guitar at 13, and drums at 14, all self-taught. At 14 he was in a band called Grand Central, which later became Champagne. Four years later, a demo tape he made with engineer Chris Moon reached local businessman Owen Husney. In 1978 Husney negotiated Prince's first contract with Warner Bros.
Prince released his first album, For You, in April, 1978, to minimal fanfare. "Soft and Wet" (Number 92, pop, Number 12 R&B, 1978) introduced his erotic approach, while "I Wanna Be Your Lover" (Number 11 pop, Number One R&B) and "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?" (Number 13 R&B) from subsequent album Prince (Number 22, 1979) suggested his musical range and significantly upped his profile.
Dirty Mind (Number 45, 1980)—a loose concept album including songs such as "Head," about oral sex, and "Sister," about incest—established Prince's libidinous image once and for all. One of its few songs that wasn't too obscene for airplay, "Uptown," went to Number Five R&B, while "When You Were Mine" became Prince's most widely covered song and a minor comeback hit for Mitch Ryder in 1983 (it was later covered by Cyndi Lauper, among others, as well.)
Controversy (Number 21, 1981) had two hits, the title cut (Number 70 pop, Number Three R&B, 1981) and "Let's Work" (Number Nine, 1982). Prince, Dirty Mind, and Controversy all eventually went platinum. For his second album, Prince had formed a racially and sexually mixed touring band that included childhood friend Andre (Anderson) Cymone on bass, Dez Dickerson on guitar, keyboardists Gayle Chapman and Matt Fink, and drummer Bobby "Z" Rivkin. By the Dirty Mind tour, Chapman had been replaced by Lisa Coleman. When Dez Dickerson left Prince's band to launch an abortive solo career, he was replaced by Wendy Melvoin. In concert Prince frequently wore black bikini underpants underneath a trench coat.
Prince broke through to a new level of pop stardon with his double album, 1999 (Number Nine, 1982), which went platinum, bolstered by the Top 10 singles "Little Red Corvette" (Number Six, 1983) and "Delirious" (Number Eight, 1983), and the title track (Number 12, 1982). "Little Red Corvette" was also among the first videos by a black performer to be played regularly on MTV.
Prince "discovered" another Minneapolis band, the Time, whose members were cherry-picked from extant local bands Prince had gone back with to high school. The Time's first two albums went gold (the third went platinum); in turn, they supplied in-concert backup for Vanity 6, a female trio that had a club hit with "Nasty Girl" (Vanity would leave Prince's fold in 1983 to launch an unsuccessful solo career). Prince denied that he was the "Jamie Starr" who produced albums by the Time and Vanity 6. He did take both bands on tour with him, however.
Prince vaulted to superstardom in 1984 with Purple Rain, a seemingly autobiographical movie set in the Minneapolis club scene and co-starring the Time and Apollonia 6 (Patricia "Apollonia" Kotero having replaced Vanity). It was an enormous hit, as was the soundtrack album, which spent 24 weeks atop the chart and sold over 13 million copies, yielding hit singles with "When Doves Cry" (Number One, 1984), "Let's Go Crazy" (Number One, 1984), "Purple Rain" (Number Two, 1984), "I Would Die 4 U" (Number Eight, 1984), and "Take Me With U" (Number 25, 1985). The album marked the first time in his career that Prince had recorded with, and credited, his backing band, which he named the Revolution.
The opening act on Prince's 1984 tour was another of his female protégés, Latin percussionist Sheila E., the daughter of Santana percussionist Pete Escovedo, who hailed from Oakland, California, and whose album The Glamorous Life Prince had produced that year (as Jamie Starr).
At the 1985 Grammy Awards, Prince and the Revolution won Best Group Rock Vocal for "Purple Rain" and R&B Song of the Year for "I Feel For You" (actually from Prince, and a hit cover for Chaka Khan in 1984). After the gala, Prince — who, for all his sexual exhibitionism onstage, was painfully shy offstage — declined to take part in the all-star recording session for "We Are the World" (he later donated the track "4 the Tears in Your Eyes" to the USA for Africa album).
That, and his fey demeanor at the 1985 Academy Awards show, where he won a Best Original Score Oscar for Purple Rain, were the first signals of Prince's personal eccentricities to his newfound mass audience. In 1985 Prince also wrote Sheena Easton's suggestive hit single "Sugar Walls," under the pseudonym "Alexander Nevermind." And Tipper Gore credited allusions to masturbation in the Purple Rain track "Darling Nikki" with inspiring her to form the Parents Music Resource Center and to launch the Senate hearings on offensive rock lyrics, which led to the record industry's "voluntary" album-stickering policy.
Prince followed up Purple Rain with the psychedelic Around the World in a Day, which topped the chart for three straight weeks but was considered a critical and commercial disappointment. Prince reportedly had to be persuaded to release singles from it, but the album did yield hits in the Beatlesque "Raspberry Beret" (Number Two, 1985) and the funky "Pop Life" (Number Seven, 1985). Upon the album's release Prince's management announced his retirement from live performance (which lasted less than two years), and the opening of his own studio and record label, both named Paisley Park—after a track on the new album (which also included a spiritual epic, "The Ladder," which Prince wrote with his previously estranged father).
Prince's next movie, Under the Cherry Moon, a romantic trifle shot on the French Riviera, with Prince replacing music video auteur Mary Lambert (Madonna's "Like a Virgin," among others) as director midway through production, bombed with critics and moviegoers. Its soundtrack album Parade (Number Three, 1986) yielded one chart-topper in the strippe-down funk number "Kiss" and two minor hits, "Mountains" (Number 23, 1986) and "Anotherloverholenyohead" (Number 63, 1986).
In 1987 Prince fired the Revolution (Wendy and Lisa would go on to record as a duo, scoring a minor hit single with "Waterfall," before settling into soundtrack work) and, retaining only Matt Fink, replaced them with a new, unnamed band featuring Sheila E. on drums. Prince alone would be credited on Sign 'O' the Times (Number Six, 1987), widely hailed by critics as a return to form — and, as time passed, as Prince's pinnacle. It yielded hit singles in the stark title track (Number Three, 1987), the rocking Sheena Easton duet "U Got the Look" (Number Two, 1987), and the poppy "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" (Number Ten, 1987). Prince toured Europe with his new band and a theatrically choreographed show, but rather than touring the U.S. released a film of a concert shot in Rotterdam, Holland (and extensively re-shot and overdubbed at Paisley Park's soundstage).
In late 1987 rumors circulated of a new Prince project, The Black Album, said to consist of musically and lyrically raw funk tracks. A number of copies were pressed for a secret release date (the album was unmarked apart from a serial number), but Prince changed his mind at the last minute. Before its eventual official release in late 1994, The Black Album became one of the most bootlegged LPs in pop history.
Prince's next official release was the mild Lovesexy (Number 11, 1988), which yielded only one hit, "Alphabet St." (Number Eight, 1988), but did prompt Prince's first U.S. tour in four years, performing on a rotating stage that the singer entered in a pink Cadillac.
In 1989 Prince had his first chart-topping album in four years with his soundtrack for director Tim Burton's big-budget film Batman. "Batdance" was Prince's first Number One since "Kiss." A year later, Prince — who'd already written and produced an album for Paisley Park signee Mavis Staples and undertaken productions for the Time's Morris Day and Jerome Benton and Batman star Kim Basinger — released Graffiti Bridge, a film that seemed to be a delayed sequel to Purple Rain, again pitting Prince against the Time on the Minneapolis club scene. Prince's love interest was played by Ingrid Chavez, who would gain greater fame for helping Lenny Kravitz write Madonna's hit "Justify My Love" (though she'd have to sue Kravitz to get a composing credit). The movie was another critical and commercial disaster; the soundtrack album (Number Six, 1990) yielded the hit "Thieves in the Temple" (Number six, 1990) and Tevin Campbell's Prince-penned "Round and Round" (Number 12, 1991).
In January 1991, at his recently opened Glam Slam nightclub in Minneapolis, Prince unveiled his new band, the New Power Generation, who would not tour the U.S. until 1993. The band included a rapping dancer (Anthony "Tony M" Mosely), in Prince's first nod to hip-hop, which had claimed a significant share of his black-pop audience and with which he never seemed comfortable musically. Eight months later he released his fifth album in five years, Diamonds and Pearls (Number Three, 1991), which spawned hits in the lascivious "Gett Off" (Number 21, 1991), "Cream" (Number One, 1991), and the title track (Number three, 1992). Warner Bros. made Prince a vice president when he re-signed with the label in 1992.
His next album (Number Five, 1992) was titled after an unpronounceable merger of the male and female gender symbols; its hit singles included "7" (Number Eight, 1992), "My Name Is Prince" (Number 36, 1992), and the profane "Sexy M.F." (Number 66, 1992).
In September 1993 Prince pulled the most eccentric move of his career: he changed his name to the unpronounceable symbol he had titled his last album. "Symbol Man," "Glyph," or "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince" — shortened to "the Artist," as he was now known — suffered widespread ridicule followed by a business setback in February 1994 when Warner Bros. dropped its distribution deal with Paisley Park Records, effectively putting the label out of business. Two weeks later the Artist released a new single, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" (Number Three pop, Number Two R&B), not on Warners but on independent Bellmark Records, which had had a huge hit the previous summer with Tag Team's "Whoomp! There It Is"; Warners said it allowed this "experiment" at the Artist's request but would release his future product.
Come (Number 15 pop, Number Two R&B), released later that year, was credited to "Prince (1958-1993)," and drawn from the Artist's backlog of studio recordings. It spawned two singles, "Letitgo" (Number 31 pop, Number Ten R&B) and "Space" (Number 71 R&B). The legit Black Album (Number 47 pop, Number 18 R&B) was finally released two weeks before Christmas. As his relationship with the label continued to wane, the Artist began appearing with the word "Slave" scrawled on his cheek.
Warners released four more albums: The Gold Experience (Number Six pop, Number two R&B, 1995)—which scored a hit in "I Hate U" (Number 12 pop, Number Three R&B) but was more notorious for the racy track "P Control"—the soundtrack to Spike Lee's movie Girl 6 (Number 75 pop, Number 15 R&B, 1996), Chaos & Disorder (Number 26 pop), and the archival The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale (1999).
Meanwhile, the Artist issued the triple-CD set Emancipation (Number Two R&B, 1996) on his own New Power Generation (NPG) label, which was distributed through Capitol/EMI. The album went double platinum, and a remake of the Stylistics' 1972 hit "Betcha By Golly Wow" reached Number Ten on the R&B chart. The Artist also wed Mayte Garcia, a 22-year-old dancer and vocalist in his band. Their son died of a rare disorder called Pfeiffer's Syndrome shortly after birth in November 1996. Culling tracks from his archives, the Artist put out the four-CD compilation Crystal Ball (Number 62 pop, Number 59 R&B) in 1998, which he packaged in a clear plastic ball and marketed through his Web site by offering a fifth bonus disc, the acoustically-based The Truth. It sold 250,000 copies. Five months later came the more conventionally conceived single album New Power Soul (Number 22 pop, Number 9 R&B).
As the millennium loomed, so did the Warners rerelease of "1999" (Number 45 R&B, 1999) and the artist's own 1999 (The New Master) EP. That fall, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (Number 18 pop, Number Eight R&B) was released through a licensing arrangement with Arista. (Stating his displeasure with Arista's marketing of the album, the Artist would later declare his intention to release a new version through his Web site called Rave In2 the Joy Fantastic.) The album, which was produced by "Prince," featured guest appearances by folk-rock singer Ani DiFranco and rapper Chuck D, both performers whom the Artist admired for distributing their music independently. With the expiration of his Warner/Chappell publishing contract on December 31, 1999, the Artist announced the following May that he was reclaiming his given name.
The first album the again-named Prince released was 2001's The Rainbow Children, a jazz-inflected recording with lyrics heavily influenced by Prince's conversion to the Jehovah's Witness faith. It was heavily panned, as was 2003's N.E.W.S., an instrumental disc. Between them, he issued One Nite Alone . . . Live!, a three-disc set..
In February 2004, Prince appeared with Beyonce at the Grammy Awards, playing his own "Purple Rain," "Let's Go Crazy," and "Baby I'm a Star," along with Beyonce's "Crazy in Love." A month later, he was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on his first try. During the closing ceremony he played the song-ending solo on George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," wowing the assembling with his feroscious virtuosity. Together, these performances made Prince the talk of pop music again. (Something similar would occur when he played the 2007 Super Bowl halftime show.)
He capped this newfound interest with the pleasantly old-school Musicology (Number Three, 2004) and a sold-out concert tour. 3121 (Number One, 2006) was a more polished, bigger-sounding variation on the prior album, and along with Planet Earth (Number Three, 2007), and the 3-CD set LOtUSFLOW3R (Number Two, 2009), it suggested that Prince would be capable of creating a string of comfortable, eclectic, well-turned albums for the rest of his career.
The prolific musician continued unusual record releases with the 2010 album 20Ten, which came out in Europe as a free release with the German edition of Rolling Stone and other publications. In recent years, he put out albums as companion pieces. The rock and funk–focused Plectrumelectrum, which found him fronting the otherwise all-girl trio 3rdEyeGirl, came out in 2014 along with the R&B solo LP Art Official Age, both of which charted in the Top 10. In 2015, he issued HitnRun Phase One and HitnRun Phase Two, the latter of which came out only via Jay Z's streaming service Tidal (the rare streaming service Prince approved of).
Prince died from a fentanyl overdose at his Paisley Park recording studio and home in Chanhassen, Minnesota on April 21st, 2016, at the age of 57. After his sudden death, there was a global outpouring of grief and disbelief, with many fans and collaborators sharing memories. With the fate of his estate and unpublished music in doubt, many were left wondering how Prince's legacy would continue. But his sister Tyka Nelson said in a statement issued by Bremer Trust, the current managers of the late legendary artist's estate, that Paisley Park would be opened for public tours since it was "something that Prince always wanted to do and was actively working on. ... Only a few hundred people have had the rare opportunity to tour the estate during his lifetime. Now fans from around the world will be able to experience Prince's world for the first time as we open the doors to this incredible place."
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Evan Serpick and Kory Grow contributed to this article.
Companion piece to album shot at Paisley Park Studios and on tour in the Netherlands and Belgium
O2 Arena, host of singer's 21 straight sold-out shows in 2007, to house 21-day My Name Is Prince exhibit