Simply put, the arrival of Prince on the American music scene in the 1980’s was a watershed moment. His album ‘Prince’ released in 1979 made an immediate splash with music fans world-wide. The album went ‘Platinum’ in sales and instantly made him a bonafide superstar. His wildly popular singles ‘Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad’ and ‘I Wanna be Your Lover’ expressed the kind of soulful melancholy was deftly wrapped in a kaleidoscope of jazz, funk and R&B fusion that we would all come to know very well. It was obvious early on that his music spoke to people in profound ways. This was a fact borne of his multi-talented musical abilities. He could play a variety of musical instruments and play them very well. His vocal range was other-worldly. Prince was a ground-breaking innovator with a style and persona that was always tinted with mystery. His sound was constantly evolving into something of greater emotional depth than his previous work. Eclectic is a description frequently used when describing Prince’s body of work. Pioneering would be another. Prince was famous for his electrifying stage presence and flamboyant, often provocative stage apparel.
Prince was an artist who was constantly experimenting with sound and style. Over the course of his career his music touched a wide variety of genre’s. Sometimes funk, sometimes psychedelia, sometimes rhythm and blues, sometimes disco and occasionally a hint of hip-hop. Whatever the case, it was always dripping with soul.
Despite rumors to the contrary both of Prince’s parents are African-American. The family was originally from Louisiana. His father was a musician who played piano and wrote music, his mother was a bonafide jazz singer. He also has a sister named Tika Even. When Prince was just seven years old he wrote his very first song called “Funk Machine”, he did this using nothing more than his father’s piano.
Prince assembled his band back in 1979 and it included original members André Cymone Dez Dickerson, Gayle Chapman, Doctor Fink and Bobby Z. In October of that same year he released the aforementioned self-titled monster hit album ‘Prince’. The album reached No. 4 on the Billboard R&B Charts, No. 11 on the Billboard 100 and No. 22 on the Billboard 200. It also went ‘Platinum’ selling well over a million copies. He followed that up with the 1980 release of ‘Dirty Mind’, which went on to be certified ‘Gold’ in sales.
In 1981, Prince teamed up with singer Morris Day and formed a band called ‘The Time’. They went on to release four albums in the years between 1981 and 1990. However, it was his 1982 release of the double album ‘1999’ that catapulted Prince from the rarified air of superstar into hallowed halls of the ‘Mega-Star’. The hit album went on to sell over three million copies. The title track of the album became a world-wide hit and the single ‘Little Red Corvette’ broke MTV’s invisible color barrier and was put on the playlist rotation. Yes, there was a time when MTV played music videos and yes, they didn’t play black artists without arm twisting.
The runaway success of ‘1999’ notwithstanding, Prince literally broke the sound barrier with the release of the ‘Purple Rain’ soundtrack in 1984. Considered to be a masterwork this legendary album has sold in excess of 15 million copies to date. It lived in the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart for over six months! The film of the same name earned an estimated $90 Million dollars as well as something called an Academy Award for ‘Best Music and Original Song Score’. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe for ‘Best Original Song in a Motion Picture’. Prince was flying as close to the sun without getting burned.
1984 was an amazing year for Prince as he had both the No. 1 album on the charts and No. 1 film at the box-office at the same exact time. A feat that has never been duplicated by any musical artist. Want more? ‘Purple Rain’ is ranked No. 72 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and included on Time magazine’s All-Time 100 Albums. Yes, it was and still is that good. Then in 1985, in typical mysterious Prince fashion, he announced that he would discontinue doing live performances after his next album.
In the late 1980’s Prince disbanded the ‘Revolution’ and did a solo project called ‘Camille’ in which he inexplicably created a new, albeit feminine persona while singing in a fast tempo female voice. Yes, he did that. Annoyed with Warner Brothers Records who forced him to cut his original triple length album, to double length album, he changed the name and released an album called ‘Sign “O” the Times’ in March of 1987.
The ‘Sign “O” the Times’ album wasn’t as well received as his previous work, but then again how does one out do one’s own level of greatness? Still, it peaked at No.6 on the Billboard 200 and the title track single “Sign o’ the Times” did hit No. 3 on the Hot 100. The second single “If I Was Your Girlfriend” was a straight up flop but the third single, “U Got the Look” a duet with Sheena Easton, shot up to No. 2 on the Hot 100. Not bad really.
Prince started a new band called ‘The New Power Generation’ in 1991. They released an album called ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ (A personal favorite of this author) in October of 1991. The album was successful hitting No. 3 on the Billboard 200. It also produced not three but four hit singles, “Gett Off”, which hit No. 21 on the Hot 100. “Cream”, which hit No. 1, “Diamonds and Pearls”, the title track hit No. 3 on the Hot 100 and “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” which hit No. 14 on the R&B charts.
The ‘New Power Generation’ released 12 albums including the impossible to pronounce symbol album which was eventually called the ‘Love Symbol Album’ the album cover had only a symbol on the cover. Nevertheless, the album hit No. 5 on the Billboard 200. Mixed reviews, song and album name controversy notwithstanding the ‘Love Symbol Album’ still went on to sell close to 3 Million copies.
Prince spent years basically at war with his record label Warner Brothers. In 1990-91 they released his ‘Greatest Hits’ after several attempts and several lawsuits. He further drove Warner Bros bananas when in 1993 he decided to change his name to a symbol. Yes, I said symbol. It was explained as being a combination of male and female symbols. The ubiquitous symbol would go on to be referred to as “The Love Symbol” and Prince himself insisted that he be forthwith referred to as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”, “TAFKAP”, and/or “The Artist”. You get all of that?
Throughout the 1990’s Prince started releasing albums seemingly as fast as humanly possible so as to get out from under his contractual obligation with Warner Brothers. His music suffered for sure. In 1998 Prince released a five CD collection called ‘Crystal Ball’, whose release suffered all manner of problems. In 1999 Prince signed with Arista Records and released a record called ‘Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic’. It turned out to be another in a long line of poor performing albums for whatever reason. By the 2000’s it became clear that the former genius of Prince was something of the past never to be captured again, but always to be revered for it’s musical glory and influence.
On Thursday April 21st 2016, Prince was found dead in an elevator at Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen, Minnesota. He was 57 years old. Perhaps today was the day that Prince heard the doves cry for the last time. He will be missed.
Prince / ‘Purple Rain’ (Live)