The music media tends to play fast and loose with the term “legendary” when speaking of artists, but this year has seen the death of several true musical legends; George Martin, David Bowie, and Merle Haggard all left us this year, and each left behind artistic legacies that not only changed the way we think about music, but the way we think about the world. It’s not fair, but early this morning, we lost another: Prince was found dead today at his estate at the age of 57. While he was hospitalized for the flu earlier this week, an official cause of death has yet to be disclosed.
Like Bowie before him, he seemed almost otherworldly as he crashed into the ‘80s rock scene with his sexualized sound.
Small in stature, a musical bonfire burned within Prince — one that his modest size could barely contain. Prince was an unparalleled musical icon. Equal parts musicologist, philosopher, prolific writer, brilliantly talented instrumentalist, and enigmatic rock god of the highest order, there has simply never been a phenomenon like him before. And there never will be again.
Prince emerged into the greater consciousness with such panache and originality, it’s nearly impossible for those on the outside to imagine the man behind the legend. Like Bowie before him, he seemed almost otherworldly as he crashed into the ‘80s rock scene with his sexualized sound, laden with white-hot synthesizers, gut-wrenching guitar, and lyrics that toyed with themes of sex, devotion, and style with a child-like dash of tongue-in-cheek. His performances were the stuff of musical wizardry, including a certain Super Bowl performance in 2007 widely regarded as the greatest ever to grace the grand stage.
Born to humble origins in Minneapolis, MN, Prince Rogers Nelson grew up in a musical household. His father, John Nelson, was a jazzer and band leader, with his mother on vocals. As reported by Rolling Stone, Prince began his musical career at a young age, a prodigy who taught himself keys at the age of seven, guitar at 13, and drums at 14 — the same year he started the band Grand Central, which later became Champagne.
After a demo tape made it to Warner Bros. four years later, the musician put out his first album, For You, in 1978. He found small success with two more albums, including the bizarre concept album Dirty Mind, which had a racy song about fellatio, and another about incest. On each of his first five albums, Prince played every instrument and produced nearly all of his own work from the early ‘80s on. All the while, he was evolving his sexualized stage presence, and his diverse band, the Revolution, which included his friend Andre Cymone on bass, Matt Fink and Lisa Coleman on keys, and Wendy Melvoin on guitar. The Revolution’s sound melded a strange alchemy of pop and hard rock influences, mixed with jazz, dance-pop, and experimental sounds.
Prince’s breakthrough double album 1999 hit the charts in 1982, with top 10 singles Delirious and Little Red Corvette carrying the album to platinum status. According to Rolling Stone, the latter track also became one of the first videos to host a black artist on MTV.
He was unforgettable onstage. He was unmistakably brilliant. He was, and still remains, a legend.
While the Revolution hit the road performing in front of larger and larger audiences, Prince also brought other Minneapolis acts along with him, including The Time and Vanity 6 (with frontwoman Vanity), both of which he was rumored to have produced under the name Jamie Starr, though he denied it.
In 1984, the world was smacked in the face by the absolutely mind-melting musical and stylistic colors of Purple Rain. A film starring Prince and his cohorts, The Time, as well as the newly formed Apollonia 6 (with Patricia “Apollonia” Kotero replacing the group’s original lead) the semi-autobiographical film about the Minneapolis music scene put the town on the musical map, and put Prince on the TV screens and radios of seemingly every young music fan in America. Purple Rain was Prince’s Magnum Opus, staying atop the Billboard 100 for 24 weeks, and charting with multiple singles including two number ones, When Doves Cry and Let’s Go Crazy, a number two hit with Purple Rain, and two others in the top 25.
It’s hard to overestimate the impact of the film/album, which not only changed the Minnesota rock scene forever, but influenced artists across the world. And Prince didn’t stop there. Becoming immensely prolific, he released over 20 studio albums throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. In total, before his untimely death at just 57 years old, Prince had released nearly 40 studio albums.
As much as Prince’s beautifully-alien music changed the lives of its listeners, it’s arguable that it had an even grander effect through its influence on his musical contemporaries. Not only did Prince’s wild mix of musical styles directly affect the music scene at large — especially the bizarre chaos of the ‘80s pop scene — but his band became a springboard for a host of musicians over the years, with multiple stars from R&B, jazz, and pop launching careers from within his bands.
Of course, Prince was also known for his enigmatic demeanor and odd behavior, amassing pages and pages of stories, from the bizarre change of his name to “the artist formerly known as Prince” (in which he was famously represented only by a symbol), to his knocking on doors in Minneapolis as a devout Jehovah’s Witness. His legend alone evoked its own comedic myth when Dave Chappelle’s brilliant sketch show hosted Charlie Murphy, who told a brilliant story about Prince schooling him at basketball — and then serving him pancakes.
Through it all, Prince remained a beloved and idolized source of musical genius, selling out shows and bringing the house down with his screaming guitar solos, sexualized vocals, and incredible stage presence that mixed sexual ambiguity with sheer masculinity as only Prince could. He was unparalleled in talent. He was unforgettable onstage. He was unmistakably brilliant. He was, and still remains, a legend.
As we have all come to learn – perhaps no more poignantly than in the dark year in music that has been 2016 — the great flames of our musical history cannot burn forever. But this flame went out far too soon. Rest in peace, Prince. We’ll miss you forever.
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