Prince Rogers Nelson (“Prince,” “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince”) (1958-2016)

Prince, Forest National, Brussels, Belgium, 1986
Courtesy Yves Lorson (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Prince Rogers Nelson, songwriter, singer, producer, and all-round musical icon, was born on June 7, 1958 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Music was a part of Prince’s family; his father, John Nelson, was a jazz pianist whose stage name was Prince Rogers, and his mother, Mattie Nelson, was a vocalist. Prince’s home life, however, was turbulent, and he left home at the age of 12 and was adopted into another family.

From a young age Prince began to teach himself many musical instruments, including the drums, bass, and guitar. While in high school he joined the band Grand Central along with Andre Anderson and Charles Smith (who was later replaced by Morris Day). Prince left school at age 16, by which point he had already begun helping to create what would become known as the “Minneapolis Sound,” characterized by industrial-sounding drum machines and synthesizer riffs.

By 1976 Prince was working as a session guitarist for Minneapolis Sound 80 Studios and by 1977, at age 19, he had signed a contract with Warner Records. During this, the early part of his career, Prince and his “Minneapolis Sound” made the biggest impact on the R&B charts with his debut album For You, with the single “Soft and Wet” being particularly popular.

Prince had his first solo show in January 1979. These shows soon became lavish and erotic performances. As his talent as a performer progressed, so too did Prince’s music expand, easily crossing  genres and pushing boundaries as it grew to include musical styles as widely ranging as jazz to funk, R&B to soul, and pop to New Wave.  He was also noted as a rare artist who led an interracial, mixed gender band.

In 1982, Prince released what would become his signature album 1999, which immediately secured him a position as a mainstream chart topper and MTV regular. In June 1984 Prince starred in the semi-autobiographical film Purple Rain.  The movie’s soundtrack, which Prince wrote and produced, received the Oscar in that category.  The album and film were commercially successful as well.  The album sold thirteen million copies and the film grossed more than $80 million in the United States.

Prince continued to push boundaries of musical convention even as he gained a mainstream audience.   His reputation increasingly reflected his controversial lyrics, musically diverse styles. And erotic performances; indeed the single “Sexy MF” was banned on United Kingdom radio for its suggestive lyrics.  He also adopted variations on his stage name including “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince,” which was his stage name between 1993 and 2000.

Prince also wrote and produced music for other musicians such as The Bangles, Madonna, Chaka Khan, and Mavis Staples, although often under one of his many pseudonyms. He also opened his own studio and record label, Paisley Park, near Minneapolis which also became his main residence.

Introduced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, the first year he was eligible, Prince was known to be hard-working to the point of obsession with his music.  He wrote over a thousand songs, often playing all the instruments for each song himself. Prince was hailed as one of the most successful and controversial artists and performers in modern popular music.

Prince Rogers Nelson died at his home near Minneapolis on April 21, 2016.  He was 57.