THIS THING CALLED LIFE
ON JUNE 7, 1958, AT MOUNT SINAI HOSPITAL IN MINNEAPOLIS, A baby was born. John Nelson faced his son in the crib and named him Prince Rogers Nelson--after his own musical stage name. "I named my son Prince because I wanted him to do everything I wanted to do," John later explained to Liz Jones.
They lived at 915 Logan Avenue, a humble home in North Minneapolis. John worked at Honeywell, an industrial supplier, and he and his wife Mattie--a former singer that John met while playing parties with his group, The Prince Rogers Trio--together cared for their first son. They were already trying to raise five kids on what John earned at Honeywell when Prince was born, but within a year Mattie was again pregnant. When their daughter, Tyka Evene, arrived in 1960, John saw his dream of a music career slip even further away.
Mattie also gave up her dream--since singing like Billie Holiday wouldn't pay the bills. She remained social, though, with a "wild side," Prince told Rolling Stone, while John was quiet, excited mostly by music.
Since John still played shows around town with The Prince Rogers Trio, and still sometimes answered to his stage name, Mattie took to calling their son "Skipper." Prince obviously knew about his father's history leading "his own big band, playing around the Midwest and stuff," and how his mother sang for the group. But he didn't truly understand what his father did until 1963. One day, his mother took him to a local theater. They took their seats, the lights dimmed, and John emerged from behind a curtain with a smile. People applauded as he sat at a piano. While he played, the curtain moved again, and scantily clad dancing girls came out. "People were screaming," Prince recalled, according to Per Nilsen. "From then on I think I wanted to be a musician."
The show took a hold of Prince, and for weeks after he tried to playany instrument within reach. He eventually settled, like his father, on the piano, and he would practice in the living room on John's. Then, in department stores, while Mattie shopped, Prince would rush to where the radios and instruments were kept to listen to music or play organs and pianos until his mother would get him. But piano wasn't enough. Prince would put two rocks in his hands, then smash them together to create a melody. He called this noise his first song. Soon, he'd use larger rocks to tap out a rhythm.
But while Prince was taking his first musical steps, John was finding the pursuit a rough life. He was, according to local reporter Neal Karlen, "a Jazz musician in the whitest metropolitan area in the country" With a wife and six kids to support, he continued to work at Honeywell, but he couldn't accept that he wouldn't someday be a music star. So he kept creating new melodies. Despite a limited income, John did things like install a TV in the living room wall. Or he'd parade around in new suits and shoes, as if about to take the stage. By 1966, John had bought himself a snazzy new white Thunderbird convertible. His dream seemed by turns impossible and just within reach. When he saw that Prince and his younger sister Tyka were interested in music, he encouraged them to play his piano, realizing he'd have to live his dream vicariously through them. While young Prince tapped out melodies, Tyka told City Pages, she sang, "because that's what my mom and dad did."
But just as quickly, moody John would see them bang away on the keys and tell them to get away from the piano. He needed it for his own dream, after all. Though the inner conflict persisted, inevitably he relented, and Prince showed him a melody he had written called "Funk Machine."
Monday through Friday, Prince attended elementary school, where other students sometimes insulted his diminutive size. By 1967, the fifth grader was being bussed to a school in an affluent, predominantly white suburb. He wasn't thrilled. One day in class, he turned to a page in a textbook that had a black-and-white photo of a young, dead black man hanging from a rope on a tree.
His sister Tyka recalled, according to Per Nilsen, that other students chased them back to the school bus many afternoons. "I didn't know it was because we were black," she said. Some days, other students by the bus protected them. But the next day would always bring another chase and more epithets. Inevitably, Prince tried to withdraw from the experience.
One morning he hid his socks, believing this would give his motherno choice but to let him stay home. No dice. She yelled, "You're going to get to that school and find some socks!" He sighed and kept dressing. "She couldn't have them calling me a nigger with no socks on," he told PAPER Magazine, in 1999.
Sundays, his mother took him to a wooden, two-story Seventh-day Adventist church where he was enrolled in a Bible study class. On these days, eight-year-old Prince bonded over music with his schoolmate, André Simon Anderson, the son of his dad's former bass player, Fred. "The most I got out of that was the experience of the choir," Prince said of church, according to Nilsen.
During this period, Prince's older half brother, Alfred--Mattie's son from her first marriage--was trying to dodge a few rules. In his room, Alfred sang along to his many James Brown records. He styled his hair in a Little Richard--type conk. He always seemed to have money. He also ignored John Nelson's curfews. Late at night, Alfred climbed out of a basement window and hit the street. With him gone, Prince and his cousin Charles tiptoed into his room to try on his clothes and play his James Brown records. Sometimes, Alfred caught them in the act. But he didn't mind.
In the end, things didn't end well for Alfred, Charles told author Per Nilsen years later. His recreational drug use led to confinement in a local mental institution.
Prince, himself, was born epileptic. As a child, he had seizures. While he trembled and shook, his parents stood nearby, wondering how to help. Still, "they did the best they could with what little they had," he explained.
There were other stressors. In 1981, Prince told New York Newsday that his father "felt hurt that he never got his break, because of having the wife and kids and stuff." With Mattie resenting this, "there were constant fights."
By 1968, Prince was watching things finally fall apart between his parents. They began having high-volume arguments that sometimes left Mattie in tears. Mattie and John had always been different. She was louder and more vivacious, while John was serious and strict. She had set aside music in the interest of her kids, while John did manage to play some shows in local clubs. "I think music is what broke her and my father up, and I don't think she wanted that for me," Prince later told New York Rocker. Serious musicians, like his father, could be moody. They needed space. Everything in their environment had to be just right. "My father was a great deal like that, and my mother didn't give him a lotta space. She wanted a husband per se."
Finally John and Mattie called it quits. After thirteen years of marriage, they decided to separate and filed for divorce. John packed his stuff and moved into a small apartment near Minneapolis's downtown. Prince was shocked when John left. He didn't even take his piano. "Everything was cool I think, until my father left, and then it got kinda hairy," Prince said.
At home, it would now be only Prince, his mother, and Tyka. "He left when I was seven, so music left with him," Prince said. "But he did leave his piano." Prince faced the abandoned instrument. In the past, John had often kept the kids away from it. For good reason: they would just bang on it. With his father gone, Prince approached the piano; he was the only one that seemed to notice it was there. And he started to play it in earnest.
Meanwhile, Mattie took three jobs.
Prince spent much of his time nearby on his cousin Charles's street. He told people not to call him "Prince." Referred to as "Skipper," he developed an acerbic sense of humor and coined numerous put-downs. But back at home, he'd return to being his father's son, playing melodies on the piano John left behind. At some point, Tyka stopped joining him. Though she never said who, someone, she said, had crushed her dream of singing, saying she was crazy to think she could be on stage. Prince taught her to draw and write stories. But he didn't abandon his own musical dream. Soon, he started practicing drums, playing on a box of old newspapers.
Mattie, however, didn't support Prince's musical aspirations. She wanted him in school, and later in college. She sent him to different schools, where he maintained high grades, but Prince viewed his studies as "pretty much my second interest. I didn't really care about that as much as I did about playing." Since music had destroyed his parents' marriage, he explained, "I don't think she wanted that for me."
Mattie eventually met Heyward Baker. With her divorce now official, Mattie married Baker and he moved into the house. Baker always brought the family presents. But, Prince told Barbara Graustark, "I disliked him immediately because he dealt with a lot of materialistic things."
Prince tried to build a relationship with Baker, as close as the one he had with John. But when Prince tried to engage Baker in conversation, Prince claimed, the man seemed to merely tolerate him. He mostly spoke up, Prince claimed, when Prince did something wrong. "I don't think they wanted me to be a musician," he said of Baker and his mother. They didn't want him to be like John. But the more they pushed, the more defiantPrince became. Before long, he felt rejected, and bitter. He began to rattle off things he disliked about his new stepfather and "it kind of hurt our relationship."
Years later, Prince credited Baker for helping to improve the family's quality of life. The only time he had money during this period, Prince said later, "was when my step-dad lived there, and I know I was extremely bitter then."
By 1969, Mattie was pregnant with Baker's child, and Baker really started telling Prince what to do. In 1970, Mattie gave birth to Heyward's son, Prince's halfbrother, Omarr Julius Baker.
Over time, Prince became more and more impatient with his family's demands. One day, his mother told him to be home at nine. Prince told his cousin Charles that he was running away. Are you gonna come with me? he asked. Charles said he'd meet him at a certain time. But when he didn't show, Prince went downtown to his father John's small apartment. John heard him out and agreed to let his son move in. Prince transferred to Bryant Junior High.
During this period, Prince told Musician magazine, John was still working a day job but moonlighted in a downtown club "behind strippers." For weeks at a time, Prince barely saw John, except occasionally when John stood over the sink and shaved. "We didn't talk so much then."
Prince always liked sports. At Bryant, he made the junior varsity basketball team. His coach felt that even though Prince was short, he made for a good sixth or seventh man. Everyone on the team liked him, but he still had to work hard to prove himself. He had bigger kids taunting him, calling him Princess, or claiming he had the face of a German Shepherd.
The girls--on the other hand--loved him. But the bullies wouldn't let up. Soon, he was scared to walk up the steps and into the school.
In the seventh grade, Prince took up the saxophone, but that summer, he abandoned it, recommitting to keyboard. His musical skills continued to develop, though John still didn't take his son's music seriously, claiming he wasn't very good. "I didn't really think so either," Prince later admitted.
For a while, father and son got along. Prince followed John's rules. Inevitably, though, tempers flared. Published reports say that one day John found Prince and a girl in bed together. What exactly transpired is unknown, but after this incident, John's patience with the boy had run out. He kicked thirteen-year-old Prince out of the house--and onto the street.
Prince stood alone on Plymouth Avenue in north Minneapolis, near the McDonald's. He smelled cheeseburgers, and wished he could afford one. He crossed the street, entered the phone booth on the corner, and called his father. Could he come home?
John said no.
He called Tyka at the old house. Could she call John and change his mind?
It would take a few minutes. Call back.
When he did, he was relieved. Tyka said Prince could call their father and apologize, and John would let him come back home. Prince did, but to his surprise, John still said no.
Tears burst from his eyes, Prince later told Rolling Stone, and for two hours, he sat in the phone booth and cried.
With no other option, he retreated to Charles's house, where Prince's Aunt Olivia, his father's sister, invited him to stay. Olivia was old, and just as strict as John. Eventually, the tension between Prince and his father eased. Sometimes he would visit on the weekends. But with no room for a piano in his new home and without the money to afford one, Prince's piano playing days were over. To foster his musical interests, John got him an electric guitar. Prince tuned it to an unusual straight-A chord and taught himself to play.
At school one day, Prince was back on piano, playing with a band behind the school choir. His playing awed drummer Jimmy Harris, who was a year younger. Another day, he lifted a guitar and knocked out Chicago's intricate solo on "Make Me Smile." On another occasion, Jimmy Harris told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "I made the mistake of getting up from the drums and he [Prince] sat there [at the drum set] and he killed 'em." He also had, Harris joked; with a hint of envy, "the biggest Afro in the world. That wasn't fair, either."
During this period, Prince reconnected with his old pal, André Simon Anderson, his friend from church. He and André had been in the same school for third grade, and saw each other when both of their mothers took them to the local Seventh-day Adventist church. But then the Andersons moved into a housing project. André's mother Bernadette and his father Fred, who was John Nelson's old bass player, then split.
Now, Bernadette was raising six kids on her own and had the family in a big, brick house on Twelfth and Russell in North Minneapolis. Andréfelt they'd "moved up" into "kind of an upper class black neighborhood," and he was thrilled to see his friend Skipper again.
One day, Cousin Charles recalled, Charles told them both, "Let's start a band."
So at the age of fourteen, Prince was in his first band. He played his guitar, tuned to that strange A-chord. André played bass. Charles was on drums. André's sister, Linda, got in on keyboards, while Terry Jackson and William Doughty, two friends, handled percussion. Initially the band was named Phoenix, according to Charles, after Grand Funk Railroad's 1972 album Phoenix. But really, "we tried to imitate The Jackson 5. Prince was singing 'I Want You Back.'"
In September 1972, Prince started attending Central High School, near his father's apartment. According to a classmate interviewed for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, he still had a globular Afro and wispy mustache, and now wore dress shirts with huge collar points, baggy pants, platform shoes, and neckbands. When other students stared at him in the hall Prince would nod. In the lunchroom he sat with the biracial kids.
Despite his reported height of five foot four, he made the school basketball team. Assistant principal Don McMoore joked, "his hair made him look like he was six feet tall."
Prince reacted to taunts by putting up his dukes and hitting first. "I was a very good fighter," he claimed. "I never lost ... . I don't know if I fight fair, but I go for it." Bernadette, Andre's mother, agreed. "He'd hit and run," she said, "but he'd get even."
This all changed once his father John remarried, and his teammate Duane Nelson suddenly became his half brother. People felt Duane (also on the school football team) had Prince's back. Prince also hung with school quarterback Paul Mitchell. Most afternoons after school, Prince's basketball coach, Mr. Nuness, would come in and discover the boys had sneaked into the school gym. They were usually in the middle of a game when Nuness chased them out, but they kept "bringing their bikes and their dogs in," Nuness recalled.
Other afternoons, Prince practiced with his band, which expanded its sound to include covers by jazzman Grover Washington and singer-songwriter Carole King. Sly Stone's deep tone began to inspire Prince's vocals. So did Stevie Wonder, who was producing melodies with over a dozen instruments. By August 1973, Prince's band had changed its nameto Soul Explosion, after a local TV show André liked. They played high schools and the local YMCA. At a talent show, they battled an older group, Flyte Tyme. "We didn't have nothing," said André, referring to their equipment. But Soul Explosion--at the time just Prince, André, their drummer Charles, and a percussionist--asked their opponents, "Can we, like, play on your stuff, man?" In the end, Charles told a deejay for San Francisco radio station KPFA, the judges announced the winner: "Charles' Cousin and Friends." The group looked dejected until Charles said, "We won, we won!" Everyone laughed. Someone asked Charles, "Man, when did you change the band's name?"
By this time, Prince was making headway with the group, but his strict Aunt Olivia reportedly tired of the noise. And so, as Rolling Stone reported, once again the teenage Prince found himself kicked out of the house and onto the street.
Eventually, he wound up on André's doorstep. Once André's mother Bernadette spoke with Prince's father John, Prince moved his things into André's room and staged rehearsals in the basement. "The cutoff time for the music was ten each night," Bernadette recalled. But some nights Prince lowered the volume and quietly played guitar.
He also turned on the radio. With blacks representing less than I percent of the local population, station programmers felt there wasn't a demographic. So Prince listened to black station KUXL until eight thirty, then switched over to rock station KQRS. Soon, he counted Santana, Graham Central Station, Led Zeppelin, and Fleetwood Mac among his favorites. He also dug Jimi Hendrix's cover of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" and considered Jimi "one of his heroes," local writer Neal Karlen recalled.
When he moved into the basement--a move inspired by André's untidiness--Prince used the weekly allowance John sent him to buy mirrors and a ten-dollar-swatch of rabbit fur. He hung them on his walls, along with the Hendrix posters his female friends brought over.
Sophomore year, Prince didn't make the school basketball lineup (for one of the city's finest teams). At the same time, Duane was moving in on girls that Prince liked. Prince would speak with one, watch Duane arrive, then see them leave as a couple. Prince poured his frustrations into a film class project. In the short movie, he reenacts such a scene, then depicts himself in the library reading a book on kung fu. He uses his newfound martial arts skills to get the girl and defeat his Duane-like competitor, acast member told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He also penned new lyrics about two-timing women who leave him for his best friend.
With basketball no longer an option, Prince threw himself into an extracurricular course, "The Business of Music," taught by a pianist that once played with Ray Charles. He also mapped out a trajectory toward rock stardom. "Not a musician, but a rock star," Prince's future employee Alan Leeds stressed. In Prince's mind, mass appeal would bring acceptance, power, and security, Leeds suggested.
At the time, other students were ostracizing him; he was an excellent ball player, but too short to make the team. His older brother's height made him more attractive to the ladies. Prince meanwhile felt he was in everyone's shadow. Leeds speculates that Prince told himself, Okay, here's how I can get back at the world. Here's how I can get the girls and be the number one guy and get the attention that I never get.
At sixteen, Prince kept writing songs. "I wrote like I was rich, had been everywhere, and been with every woman in the world," he said. "I always liked fantasy and fiction." Instead of tentative two-minute funk ditties, he brought his band seven-minute epics.
Before he knew it, André was planning his own changes. During one rehearsal, Prince saw André's shy, freckle-faced North High schoolmate Morris Day watching. Prince resented the intrusion but said nothing. Away from the group, André and Day had cut class and spent the day in Morris's home, where Morris mentioned he also played drums. After he rocked a few beats, André told him, "Man, you're good. We just happen to be having some scheduling problems with our current drummer," referring to Charles, who had been missing practices.
Within days, Prince saw André lead Day in to another rehearsal, this time to audition. Day got the gig. When Charles arrived another day, he saw Morris's drums in his usual spot, and asked, "Who sold me out?"
Everyone said, "Prince."
"It wasn't just me," Prince cried. "André, too!"
"Oh, so it's like that, huh?" Charles faced his replacement. "Morris, man, you're my friend, and you just took my band like that, man." Charles shook his head and left.
Now, Prince played lead guitar, André played bass, Linda handled keyboards, and Morris was on drums. They wore suede-cloth suits with zodiac signs on the back (Prince with Gemini, the twins). Morris's mother, Lavonne Daugherty, managed them: She shaped a professional image,named them "Grand Central Corporation," formed a company that technically owned every instrument, and booked as many shows as possible.
At age seventeen, though he had a local band with some success, Prince still loitered near the McDonald's on Plymouth and Penn. "I didn't have any money, so I'd just stand outside there and smell stuff." Being broke left him tired, bitter, and insecure, he continued. "I'd attack anybody" He couldn't keep a girlfriend for two weeks. "We'd argue about anything." Standing there, sniffing the air, he wished he had enough for a cheeseburger, he told reporter Neal Karlen.
Prince also wanted to leave school. "The only reason I stayed was because of André's mother," he later said. Bernadette was permissive about most activities but told him, "All I care about is you finishing school."
During their local shows, the band played the same old songs. "I hated top forty" Prince said. Everyone did. But white club owners and audiences expected it so they played "anything that was a hit; didn't matter who it was." It held the band back, but eventually earned them enough to finance demo tapes. It also let Prince include his family in his burgeoning career. Between sets, he'd let Tyka come out with her pals and perform the dance moves they picked up from Soul Train.
One time while performing, he saw his father John in the crowd, taking pictures.
Performing was great, but still, Prince had to do something more.
Minneapolis was behind the curve. New music and dances arrived three months later than they did in other cities. Prince had to ignore trends. "Otherwise, when we did split Minneapolis, we were gonna be way behind and dated." So down in the basement, he filled new lyrics with sexual fantasies and stories about "insane people" (perhaps inspired by half brother Alfred's institutionalization). "I liked the idea of being insane, of someone who grew up totally alone and ended up in a hospital," Prince explained in Musician magazine.
Prince used cassette tape recorders to overdub separate performances onto dual tapes. He kept playing tapes back and taping more sounds on the other deck, teaching himself to arrange and produce. He also mixed incongruent influences--Santana solos with James Brown yells, Sly Stone's elocution with his father John's unconventional piano playing (inspired, John claimed, by Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk).
By December 1975, Prince met Linster Willie at a ski party. Marriedto Prince's cousin Shauntel, Linster was a Brooklyn transplant known locally as "Pepé," who was trying to get his disco group 94 East off the ground. "I remember thinking, 'Boy, he's got a big Afro,'" Pepé recalled. Pepe started attending the band's rehearsals in the attic of a South Minneapolis home. There, Prince played guitar while André handled bass, Morris Day played drums, Andre's sister Linda played keyboards, and William Doughty added percussion. One day, Pepe asked them to play an original song. "It was a disaster," Pepe recalled. The young band would play a song for three minutes, then improvise for ten. Then they leaped into Andre's work, "You Remind Me of Me." But Prince was singing "she" while André sang "he." "I couldn't believe they didn't take the time as a group to learn the words," Pepe continued. He asked them to stop, put their instruments down, and actually learn the lyric.
Even so, Pepe liked Grand Central's playing. Before Prince knew it, his manager was telling him Willie wanted to pay Prince and his band for session work. They agreed to play his disco stuff. "We were just trying to make some money," said André, who played bass, in a radio interview with KPFA.
Hopes were high in early 1976, when Morris's mother Lavonne got them into another studio to record six originals. The results so pleased Prince, he bragged about his group in the school newspaper that February. By early spring, Prince was done with school. Despite Day's mother's promise that Grand Central would have an album out that summer, that "wasn't fast enough for Prince," Bernadette recalled. "He wanted her to get them a contract right away"
Prince didn't give up, though. "I'm going to get out there and see if I can make it," he told Bernadette. But if he couldn't--if he failed at music like his father John--he still wouldn't waste his life in some local factory. He'd come back, enroll in college, and "major in music."
With no money, dependents, or girlfriends, and without a day job, Prince started writing more songs--up to four a day--about romantic relationships. "All fantasies," he shrugged, or about ex-girlfriends. He was "broke, and poor, and hungry" and dreaming of meeting people with money, success, and "a lot of food in their fridge." But he also faced reality. If one thing didn't work, Grand Central had to try another. He told the band they needed more instruments, assembling a twelve-piece outfit called "Shampagne." The rest went along, though only four people on stage actually played instruments. "Eight were faking," said Prince.
But things weren't working out. Conversations among the band members became arguments. The others resented Prince's changes. "It was always me against them," he said.
Still, Prince was joined by his bandmates for a session that spring at Moon-Sound, an eight-track studio that charged about thirty-five dollars an hour. He showed up early, sipping from a chocolate shake and ignoring Chris Moon, a young, bearded white man with an Afro. He set his beverage aside, bashed some drums, and played piano. Once everyone arrived, Shampagne worked on a few more songs.
Later, back at André's house, the phone rang for Prince. Moon, from the studio, said, "I've got an idea for you. I'm looking to put together some music that I have written." They were on acoustic guitar but needed some piano. He'd pay for Prince's work.
And so Prince returned to the South Minneapolis neighborhood to work with Moon. Twenty-four-year-old Moon had moved to town from Britain while in his teens, and tried his hand at everything from advertising, to professional photography to real estate, to promoting local rock concerts. Now, instead of using his homemade studio to tape rock bands and advertising jingles, he wanted to give pop music a try.
Back at Moon-Sound, Prince finished the piano riffs. Did Moon need bass?
"Sure, but I don't want to pay for a bass player."
Prince added a bass line, drums, electric guitar, and cascading backup vocals. Awestruck, the studio owner proposed teaming up. He handed Prince a key to the place and handwritten instructions on how to run the equipment. "He'd stay the weekend, sleep on the studio floor," Moon recalled.
Prince had bigger aspirations now than his band could handle. "Do you want to stay here, or do you want to go to New York?" he finally asked.
His bandmates wanted to stay in town. "They liked their lifestyle, I guess," Prince said.
He was left with no choice: He left the group.
PRINCE. Copyright © 2011 by Ronin Ro. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.