Prince’s purple reign over too soon
His name was Prince, and he was funky.
His Purple majesty — the soulful, infinitely funky rocker who broke down racial and sexual boundaries in pop music on his way to selling more than 100 million albums — has left us, suddenly and without warning.
Prince Rogers Nelson, known to the world as Prince (and, for a period in the ’90s, known simply as a symbol), died at his home outside of Minneapolis on Thursday. He was 57 purple years of age.
Prince had fallen ill earlier this month and he postponed a concert in Atlanta after being hit with the flu; he made up the performance April 14. At a party at his Paisley Park estate in Chanhassen, Minneapolis, over the weekend, he reportedly told well-wishers, “wait a few days before you waste any prayers.” Thursday morning, he was found unresponsive in an elevator at Paisley Park and was pronounced dead at just after 10 a.m.
Bob Seger said Prince was “a modern day James Brown.”
“His talent was off the charts,” Seger told The Detroit News on Thursday. “The grooves, the melodies, everything was good. He was a spectacular, immense, off-the-charts talent on instruments. He really will be missed.”
In a year that has already taken David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Merle Haggard and Alan Rickman, the Prince death hits the hardest. No one was prepared for this massive loss. It was only a few weeks ago that the Internet went bananas over a Vine of Prince strolling to his courtside seat at a Golden State Warriors game.
There he was, dressed in royal blue from head to toe, black gloves on his hands, sunglasses over his eyes, hair done up in an Afro, walking with a shiny metallic cane. Walking doesn’t even do what he was doing justice, he was floating. That’s how he moved.
He was Prince, and he was on a different plane.
For close to 40 years, Prince was the funkiest musician on the planet, known for his earth-rattling live shows, his titanic guitar work and his peculiar personality, infamously sent up in an essential “Chappelle’s Show” sketch. He stood just 5 feet, 2 inches, but he packed more funk into that body than could ever be conjured by a thousand mere mortals.
The singer, songwriter and multi-talented instrumentalist broke through in 1979 with his self-titled second album and never looked back. He became one of the biggest pop stars of the 1980s and an icon of the MTV age, along with Michael Jackson and Madonna.
He won an Oscar for writing the original score to his 1984 autobiographical film “Purple Rain,” scored seven Grammy Awards and racked up five No. 1 singles, including “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Kiss.” He even hit No. 1 with “Batdance,” a dance-pop oddity cobbled together from pieces inspired by Tim Burton’s “Batman,” for which he did the soundtrack. Few could have pulled off something that strange, but Prince did.
He toyed with androgyny and gender roles in his music and with his image, and was known for wearing high-heeled boots on stage. His look was always loud and flamboyant, from the ruffled sleeves of the “Purple Rain” era to the pants he wore with the rear end cut out at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards to that get-up he sported a few weeks ago at the Warriors game. He was never a T-shirt and jeans kind of guy.
Prince also could be difficult and never did things the easy way. Reporters who dealt with him all have their tales. Some described interviewing him without the ability to record the interview or take notes. That was Prince. It was his way or no way.
His battles with his record label are the stuff of music industry legend, and he became so embittered in his war with Warner Brothers that he took to scrawling the word “slave” on his face as a way to protest his contract. He ultimately became so disenfranchised with pop stardom that he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in the early ’90s, when he became popularly known as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” (and later, just “The Artist”).
He released albums, such as 1996’s three-disc set “Emancipation” and 1998’s five-disc “Crystal Ball” set, that were like insurmountable challenges to his fans. If you wanted the jams, you had to earn them, and you had to play his game.
But when Prince wanted to turn it on, he could. After years of concerts that frustrated fans just looking to hear the hits, Prince went out on a massive world tour in 2004 and did just that — he played the hits. That tour included four area dates, three at The Palace of Auburn Hills and one at Joe Louis Arena.
For Prince, Detroit was always a special place, and he kicked off his Purple Rain tour at Joe Louis Arena with a run of seven shows in November 1984.
Prince would visit the Motor City one final time, a year ago at the Fox Theatre on his Hit & Run tour (dubbed HITnRUN, in Prince-speak). That night he played a marathon two-and-a-half hour concert to 5,000 fans, backed by a band that swelled up to 12 members and rattling through signature hits, including “1999,” “Purple Rain,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Kiss,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Raspberry Beret” — you name it.
“We’re gonna play 17 hits in a row, until I see tears!” he bellowed from the stage, later rhetorically asking, “how many hits I got?” The answer was a lot, and they kept on coming.
Detroit was one of just five cities he played on that tour, and it was his 35th Metro Detroit concert in 35 years. Prince had a storied relationship with famous Detroit radio personality The Electrifying Mojo, whose airplay helped launch Prince in Detroit and, in turn, the world.
“We are probably as much responsible as any one city or community for lifting Prince to the status of superstar,” said Joe Spencer, program director at the former WGPR-FM from 1981 to 1994. It started with Prince’s 1979 single “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” which “didn’t sound like anything else on the radio,” Spencer said, and it grew from there.
“Our station was known at the time for introducing new music to the community,” said Spencer, “and it was that power Mojo had that really uplifted Prince and brought his power to the community.”
Detroit electronic musician Carl Craig remembers his brother playing Prince’s album “Dirty Mind” in the basement and hearing it through the heat vent in his room. Craig always looked up to Prince and considered him a musical mentor.
“His lyrics were always about stuff that young boys relate to: wanting to have sex with girls,” Craig said Thursday. “That had a huge impact on me growing up as a man and as a musician.”
Craig credits Prince’s ever-changing musical arms — releasing music with the Revolution, the New Power Generation and his recent 3rdeyegirl — with inspiring him to release projects under different aliases. He saw Prince several times in concert, including a 2000 show at the former State Theatre that ended with Prince dedicating “Purple Rain” to the independent spirit of Detroit and Detroit artists. Craig remembers being at the show with fellow artists Richie Hawtin and Kenny Dixon and crying during the finale.
“What (David) Bowie did for fashion, Prince did for music,” Craig said. “Prince has proven that he had a very unique but truly American sound. He leaves a legacy of artists wanting to control their own destiny. He’s somebody who took his music — and his destiny — and took control of it again.”
Seger remembers seeing Prince at Cobo Hall in December 1981 on the “Controversy” tour at the behest of a couple of the guys on his crew.
“I had never heard of him, but we went and we were blown away,” Seger said. “He was just an immense talent; it was like, ‘WOW.’ Just funky grooves, really great stuff. Wonderful soul music with rock tinges and psychedelic tinges, and what a performance.”
Prince was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, the same year as Seger.
“I remember I was sitting with Springsteen and Jackson (Browne), and when Prince showed up, we all said, ‘well-deserved,’ and he was very gracious,” Seger said. “He was pretty inward, he didn’t say much. He was very introverted. When I would see him, he would mostly listen. He didn’t offer much.”
Yet he offered so much to the world. With summer just around the corner, a season of Prince is upon us, and the same way that Michael Jackson’s death led to a new appreciation of his body of work, Prince music is about to be blasted from car stereos, sidewalk cafes and radio towers for the next several months.
Tributes have already started. At the Majestic Café in Detroit, fans gathered Thursday to appreciate Prince and his music. And at Cinema Detroit, “Purple Rain” will show all next week. VH1 began airing “Purple Rain” on Thursday and will run on the cable network all weekend.
Prince was never a fan of the Internet — in a 2010 interview he declared it “completely over” — so fans looking to share his music online had difficulty doing so on Thursday. Last year he aligned with Jay-Z’s streaming company Tidal and was a fan of its payment structure for artists. Tidal released Prince’s final studio album, “HITnRUN Phase Two,” in December.
But if you need one Prince moment to sum up his legacy, his impact and what he meant as an artist, start with his 2007 Super Bowl performance. Taking the stage in the rain as if he ordered it himself, Prince tore down Dolphin Stadium in Miami with a transcendent performance that reminded everyone that may have forgotten what a singular force he was.
He opened with “Let’s Go Crazy” and rolled through versions of “Baby I’m a Star,” “Proud Mary” and “All Along the Watchtower” before reinterpreting the Foo Fighters’ “Best of You” as a soul-drenched orgy of funk. He then closed out the set with “Purple Rain” as the sky opened up and poured down on him, as if it was written in the stars.
If the performance wasn’t already considered the best Super Bowl halftime show in history, it will be from now on. It was a show worthy of his title and emblematic of an artist who defined music royalty.