Prince's purple reign

The sex symbol and musical prodigy did things his way in a career spanning four decades

A makeshift memorial at Harlem's Apollo Theater, where fans have gathered to pay tribute to the singer.
A makeshift memorial at Harlem's Apollo Theater, where fans have gathered to pay tribute to the singer. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • "Wait a few days before you waste any prayers." That was pop superstar Prince's reassurance to fans gathered for a dance party last Saturday night at his Paisley Park complex in Chanhassen, Minnesota, after reports that he had suffered a health scare during a flight last Friday.

The famously private performer warned the hometown crowd to not always trust the media. A representative of his had insisted for weeks that it was only the flu.

Celebrity news website TMZ, citing unnamed sources, said he was treated for a drug overdose. "Multiple sources in Moline tell us Prince was rushed to a hospital and doctors gave him a 'save shot'... typically administered to counteract the effects of an opiate," the site said.

On Thursday, the songwriter, singer, producer, one-man studio band and consummate showman was dead at 57, found not breathing after an emergency call at 9.43am in an elevator at Paisley Park, which houses his estate and studio.

While no cause of death was given, the chief deputy for the Carver County Sheriff's Office said the local medical examiner would conduct an autopsy. Results are typically not available for a few days, he said.

Prince was a man bursting with music - a wildly prolific songwriter, a virtuoso on the guitar, keyboard and drums and a master architect of funk, rock, R&B and pop, even as his music defied genres.

In a career that lasted from the late 1970s until an arena tour this year, he was acclaimed as a sex symbol, a musical prodigy and an artist who shaped his career his way - often battling with accepted music-business practices.

"When I started out in the music industry, I was most concerned with freedom. Freedom to produce, freedom to play all the instruments on my records, freedom to say anything I wanted to," he said when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.

The seven-time Grammy winner's Top 10 hits included Little Red Corvette, When Doves Cry, Let's Go Crazy, Kiss and The Most Beautiful Girl In The World; albums such as Dirty Mind, 1999 and Sign O' The Times were full-length statements.

His songs also became hits for others, among them, Nothing Compares 2 U for Sinead O'Connor.

With the 1984 film and album Purple Rain, he told a fictionalised version of his own story. He played The Kid - bi-racial, gifted, spectacularly ambitious, escaping an abusive family to pursue rock stardom.

Directed by Albert Magnoli on a budget of US$7 million, it was the singer's film debut and his transformation from stardom to superstardom. At one point in 1984, he had the No. 1 album, single and film simultaneously. The music won him an Oscar and the album sold more than 13 million copies in the United States alone.

He recorded the majority of his music on his own, playing every instrument and singing every vocal line. Many of his albums were credited, "Produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince".

On stage, he worked as a bandleader in the polished, athletic, ecstatic tradition of James Brown, at once spontaneous and precise. He would often follow a full-tilt arena concert with a late-night club show.

On his biggest hits, he sang passionately, affectionately and playfully about sex and seduction. With deep bedroom eyes and a sly, knowing smile, he was one of pop's ultimate flirts: a sex symbol devoted to romance and pleasure, not power or machismo.

Elsewhere in his catalogue were songs that addressed social issues and delved into mysticism and science-fiction. He made himself a unifier of dualities - racial, sexual, musical and cultural - teasing at them in songs such as Controversy and transcending them in his career.

Prince Rogers Nelson was born in Minneapolis on June 7, 1958, the son of John L. Nelson, a musician whose stage name was Prince Rogers, and Mattie Della Shaw, a jazz singer who had performed with the Prince Rogers Band.

They separated in 1965 and she remarried in 1967. Prince spent time living with each parent and immersed himself in music, teaching himself to play his instruments.

"I think you'll always be able to do what your ear tells you," he told his high-school newspaper, according to the biography, I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became An Icon (2013), by critic Toure.

He was still a teenager when he was signed to Warner Bros Records, in a deal that included full creative control.

His first album, For You (1978), gained only modest attention. But his second, Prince (1979), sold more than one million copies and, for the next two decades, his albums never failed to reach the Top 100.

With his third album, the pointedly titled Dirty Mind (1980), Prince moved from typical R&B romance to raunchier, more graphic scenarios. Controversy (1981) had him taunting: "Am I black or white?/Am I straight or gay?"

His next album, 1999 (1982), was a double LP. The video for one of its hit singles, Little Red Corvette, became one of the first songs by an African-American musician played in heavy rotation on MTV.

He was also writing songs with and producing the girl group Vanity 6 and funk band Morris Day and The Time, which would have a prominent role in Purple Rain, the album with No. 1 hits in Let's Go Crazy and When Doves Cry.

It also drew opposition. Darling Nikki, a song on the album that refers to masturbation, shocked Ms Tipper Gore - then the wife of Mr Al Gore, a United States senator at the time - when she heard her daughter listening to it, helping lead to the formation of the Parents Music Resource Center. The group eventually pressured record companies into labelling albums to warn of "explicit content".

Prince himself would later, in a more religious phase, decide not to use profanities on stage, but his songs - such as the 2013 single, Breakfast Can Wait - never renounced carnal delights.

He built Paisley Park in the 1980s for a reported US$10 million and, in 1989, his Batman soundtrack album sold two million copies.

Friction grew in the 1990s between Prince and his label over the size of his output and how much music he was determined to release. Sign O' The Times, a monumental 1987 album that addressed politics and religion as well as romance, was a two-LP set, cut back from a triple.

By the mid-1990s, he was in open battle with the label, releasing albums rapidly to finish his contract.

Quality and sales suffered. He appeared with the word "Slave" written on his face and, in 1993, changed his stage name to an unpronounceable glyph, returning to Prince only in 1996 after the Warner contract ended.

He marked the change with a triple album released on his own NPG label, Emancipation. His relentless campaign for control over his music empire left a playbook for stars such as Taylor Swift, who now have the power to dictate how and where their songs get played.

Concerts easily sustained his later career. He defied a downpour to play a triumphal Purple Rain at the Super Bowl half-time show in 2007 and headlined the Coachella festival in 2008 for a reported US$5 million.

A week ago, he was healthy enough to give what would be his final public performance. He played two sets in one night at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, making up for shows cancelled earlier this month.

Mr Nicholas Wolaver, a fan who attended the early performance, said: "You would not believe that he was singing ill. He sounded true to his talent and it was an amazing performance."

Although he was performing with only a piano, Prince "got up and danced", Mr Wolaver said, adding that even after three encores, "he left people wanting a little more".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2016, with the headline 'Prince's purple reign'. Print Edition | Subscribe