This summer marks the 30th Anniversary of Prince’s career-defining Purple Rain, both the album and the movie, so in commemorating this special occasion I would like to share a portion from a paper I wrote, about the eccentric artist, during my one year of college. It’s titled, “Rock’s Majestic Years.” It is not a coincidence I have chosen today to post this blog, but it is in celebration of Prince’s 56th Birthday. I hope you enjoy this essay whether you’re a fan of the legendary artist or not.
It was the summer of 1984, and my beautiful girlfriend and I were making our usual date night plans consisting of dinner and a movie. After hearing my girlfriend’s preference as to which movie she wanted to see I reluctantly responded with the question, “Isn’t that the one with the short, gay, black guy?” I was correct, at least about his stature and skin color, but as a teenage boy with raging hormones I figured honoring her request would be in my best interest. That evening the star of Purple Rain became my favorite singer, musician and performer, and as the movie credits scrolled down the screen I insisted we stay and watch it again.
Prince Rogers Nelson, named after his father’s jazz trio, entered the world on June 7th, 1958, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to his awaiting parents, John Nelson and Mattie Shaw. When Prince was seven years old his musically-gifted father left the family, but fortunately he left behind his piano which the young boy then used to teach himself how to play it by ear. At the age of fourteen Prince moved in with his friend, Andre Cymone, and the teens taught themselves to play several instruments. The talented teen added guitar, bass, and drums to his repertoire, and the boys performed at school events and small local venues as the band Grand Central . In 1976, Chris Moon, a little known promoter and record producer, invited Prince to his house to experiment with a four-track recording desk that he kept in his basement. Realizing the budding artist’s talent, but not having the resources to sufficiently expand his career, Mr. Moon referred Prince to Owen Husney, a key figure in the Minneapolis advertising industry.
Mr. Husney founded a management company, American Artists, after meeting Prince and listening to his demos, so he could enable his client a clearer path to success. He then negotiated a guaranteed, three album, six figure deal with Warner Brothers in 1977. Owen Husney insisted Warner Brothers allow Prince, although he was only 19 at the time, to produce his debut album on his own because he thought Prince should be presented as a prodigy similar to how Stevie Wonder had been marketed. His first album, For You, was released in April of 1978, and credits Prince as the album’s producer, arranger, composer, and performer (something that has continued throughout his entire career). In addition, the debut album’s credits confirmed he played all 23 instruments heard on the recording, and the album itself was later credited as introducing the “Minneapolis Sound” (a distinctive synthesized horn sound) to the public.
Prince Rogers Nelson has been an electrifying, and many times controversial, entertainer since the beginning of his well-documented career. His very first tour featured a simulated sex act between a white woman and a black man which fueled the taboo fire since mixed relations were extremely frowned upon during that era. Adding more contention to his reputation, after performing on American Bandstand, Prince refused to answer any questions from legendary host, Dick Clark. In 1981, the Rolling Stones invited the “Rude Boy” to be an opening act on their tour along with George Thorogood and The J. Geils Band. This was viewed as a great opportunity for him to attract a wider audience, but on opening night, in front of over 100,000 restless and unimpressed Stones’ fans, Prince left the stage in defeat after only twenty minutes. Two years later Prince found the success he was aiming for with the release of his fifth album, 1999. The double-album contained the hit single “Little Red Corvette” which is thought of as the song that changed the dynamics of his audience from a predominantly black fan base to a much more multiracial one.
Prince finally reigned over the music industry beginning in the summer of 1984: after “When Doves Cry,” the first single from the forthcoming album, Purple Rain, was released. The song eventually became his first U.S. #1, selling over 2 million copies, and remains the best selling single of 1984. Likewise, the album, Purple Rain, erupted worldwide as it spent an incredible six months at #1 in the United States. The movie, Purple Rain, (a somewhat authentic depiction of the life of Prince) opened nationally on July 27, 1984, and eventually grossed almost $70 million. A trio of other tracks emerged triumphantly from the album with “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Purple Rain,” and “I Would Die For You” obtaining the #1, #2, and #8 positions respectively on the U.S. Charts. The success of everything Purple Rain is even more amazing when considering Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Lionel Richie, the other legendary performers of that time, were all competing for chart success as well.
Contrary to his justifiable reputation as a sexually expressive artist, both lyrically and on stage, Prince unveiled a portion of his religious side to the public with his album, Lovesexy, released in May of 1988. “Lovesexy is the feeling you get when you fall in love, not with a girl or a boy, but with the heavens above,” was his quote professed on the inner sleeve notes of the album. Controversial once again, he posed naked on the album’s cover, although not explicitly, and his supporting tour was dubbed as a combination of lust and salvation. During the numerous band personnel changes, throughout Prince’s career, one constant has always remained: he strives to have a racially mixed band made up of both male and female musicians (even if they’re not the best musically) because he appreciates diversity, and he desires to maintain fans of every race.
On June 7th, 1993, his 35th Birthday, Prince announced he had changed his name to an unpronounceable Symbol. It was suggested by some that the name change was a strategy on his part to void an unprecedented, multi-million dollar contract he had recently signed with Warner Brothers; however, Prince claimed it was God’s idea. He then added his own suggestion to the media that they should now refer to him as “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince” or “The Artist,” for short. Say what you will about Prince, Symbol, The Artist, or whoever, but he has purposefully maintained his visibility in the music industry, through creative and clever marketing, for many years.
Prince is not only a musical genius, but he’s also an entrepreneur, innovator, and has written countless songs including the “Uhh-huh” song used as a jingle by Ray Charles in a Diet Pepsi commercial. Prince wrote the rock ballet, Billboards, performed by the Joffrey Ballet, is a designer of clothing and jewelry, and was the first musical artist to issue a cd-rom, “Symbol” Interactive, in 1994. Borrowing a famous quote from the movie, Forrest Gump, I’m inclined to say, Prince “is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” Prince Rogers Nelson has been a deserving recipient of numerous awards including seven Grammy’s, an Oscar, and in 2004, his first year of eligibility, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Thirty years have now passed since that incredible date night, at the movie theater, during the summer of 1984. My hormones are still raging, that girlfriend is now my lovely wife, and Prince is still one of my favorite singers, musicians, and performers of all-time.
Clarke, Duncan. The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.
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