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LIFE CAN BE SO NICE
His Life and Its Beginnings
Beginnings consume us. Or rather, we consume them. We gobble them up hungrily, certain that they will explain all that follows. We break time into segments so that it can be apprehended and, if not overtaken, at least undertaken.
And, so, we start with the start of one particular segment: Prince was born on June 7, 1958. Prince was born. That’s important to remember. In a life filled with so many achievements—lyrics written, songs sung, instruments played, concerts performed—that they seem to require an army, or a mystical being, we should begin with a reminder that they belong to exactly one person, who arrived on the earth via normal channels rather than descending into our realm from the empyrean plane.
Prince lived in music from the first. His mother, Mattie Della Shaw, was a singer. His father, John Nelson, was a piano player and composer. The two of them, African-Americans in mostly white Minneapolis, floated around the city’s jazz scene in the fifties, and for a time Mattie sang with John’s band, the Prince Rogers Trio. It’s unclear how or why John thought of his stage name, though royalty was a common theme in jazz nicknames. Buddy Bolden was known as “King Bolden,” and there were others: King Oliver, King Watzke, King Kolax. Princes were rarer.
When he met Mattie, John Nelson had a long-term girlfriend named Vivian. Though he and Vivian never married, he had five children with her, beginning in the late forties and continuing through the late fifties. Somewhere in there, John’s relationship with Vivian wilted, and his relationship with Mattie bloomed. Mattie got pregnant. Their baby entered the world, and John transferred the name of his act to that baby: Prince Rogers Nelson.1
The world that Prince entered was a fragile one, at least as far as American identity was concerned. Sputnik had launched the previous October, kicking off the space race with the Soviets. The United States was just emerging from the Eisenhower recession, the first major economic downturn since the Great Depression—unemployment had soared; steel and auto production had dropped. Minneapolis was at the tail end of a decade of transformation. In 1950, the city reached the half-million mark in population—still an all-time peak—but legislation like the Housing Act of 1949 and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 were pushing population toward the near-ring suburbs and beyond. General Mills, one of the city’s industrial anchors, moved out to Golden Valley.
Faced with a new family to feed, John took work as a plastic molder at Honeywell, the industrial conglomerate that was the city’s largest employer. A daughter, Tyka, was born in 1960. Though the life of a plastic molder was more stable than that of a jazz musician, the marriage was not a happy one. John and Mattie fought frequently, separated more than once, and eventually split; over that period, Prince moved several times, always adjusting to new neighborhoods and new schools, making new friends while trying to keep in contact with the old ones.
Prince was smart and sensitive and a good athlete, but he was also shy and small. Early on, he took solace in music; it had been a source of joy for both his parents and it was a source of joy for him as well. When his mother brought him along to Dayton’s, a local department store, in the early sixties, he would sneak away to the musical instruments section. His mother would find him there, a four-year-old, plinking out melodies. In the early sixties, he saw his father perform. “It was great,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. People were screaming. From then on, I think, I wanted to be a musician.” But if his father was inspiring onstage, at home he could be demanding and discouraging. “He was so hard on me,” Prince told Tavis Smiley in 2009. “I was never good enough. It was almost like the army when it came to music … I wasn’t allowed to play the piano when he was there because I wasn’t as good as him. So when he left, I was determined to get as good as him, and I taught myself how to play music. And I just stuck with it, and I did it all the time. And sooner or later, people in the neighborhood heard about me and they started to talk.”
Success has many fathers. In April of 1968, a few months before his tenth birthday, Prince went with his stepfather, Hayward Baker—his mother had remarried quickly, to stabilize a shaky situation—to see James Brown at the Minneapolis Auditorium. “Yeah,” James told the crowd, “I was just a shoeshine boy and I’m still one of you; I haven’t changed. Can you feel it?” Prince could.
* * *
There are conflicting stories about what caused Prince to leave home. Some cite general instability, the wear and tear of too many moves. Others suggest that he was driven away by his mother’s sternness, which kept him from hanging out with his friends and bandmates. The most salacious rumor holds that Prince’s stepfather, a devout Christian, found him in bed with a girl and promptly kicked him out of the house. What is certain is that Prince left his parents’ home in his early teens and went to live with the family of his best friend, André Anderson, in the 1200 block of Russell Avenue. At first, he and André shared a room, but André was far messier, to the point where Prince had to move to the basement.
In that north-side neighborhood, kids streamed from their houses on Saturday morning to play football in the street. Walter Banks, who lived nearby and later became a local radio personality, remembered those games. “Prince was that athletic guy. He was unbelievable,” Banks said. “He had an afro so big, it was more like his afro wore the uniform because his body was so small. He was a little giant within his own right.” Prince also played basketball, and played well, a fact that would gain wide currency later on through the release of junior-high-school team photos and (more importantly, and more hilariously) a Chappelle’s Show sketch. He was quick and funny, though he tended to work out his jokes in advance, in notebooks. He was highly produced even then.
At the end of junior high, Prince and André—who was now calling himself André Cymone—formed a band, Grand Central, with Chazz Smith (Prince’s second cousin) on drums and André’s sister Linda on keyboards. Within a year, Chazz Smith was out and a new drummer, Morris Day, was in. Grand Central practiced in André’s basement, which was still Prince’s bedroom. Morris Day’s mother started managing the band, securing them gigs in local high school gyms, community centers, and hotels. Some were even paying gigs, after a fashion. In a late-nineties interview with Mel B. of the Spice Girls, Prince said that the band was compensated with Snickers bars: “That’s how we exchanged money back then. It was currency.” Grand Central’s main competition was Flyte Tyme, another group made up of Minneapolis teens. Flyte Tyme’s repertoire leaned toward soul artists like Al Green and James Brown; Grand Central also incorporated the work of rock and funk acts like Mandrill, Jimi Hendrix, and Santana, and even the songs of pop singers like Carole King. The two bands were on each other’s radar, and then some; Flyte Tyme would later take on Morris Day as a front man and morph into The Time, Prince’s greatest side project and one of his worthiest competitors. Jimmy Jam, who was then in a band called Cohesion but would later serve as Flyte Tyme’s keyboardist, remembered playing in a small combo that backed the junior-high choir. Prince showed up, too, casually wandering over to a guitar and magically reproducing the fuzzed-out solo from Chicago’s 1970 hit “Make Me Smile.” The guitar stunt was impressive, but it was only the start. Jimmy was sitting at the drums, and when he stood up, Prince took his spot. “He sat there,” Jimmy said, “and he killed ’em.”
* * *
Prince must have seemed like a perfect subject for a profile in the high school newspaper, and that’s exactly what he became, on February 16, 1976. His high school, Central High, was the oldest in Minneapolis, founded in 1860; since 1913, it had occupied a four-story Collegiate Gothic building at Fourth Avenue South and East Thirty-Fourth Street. The school colors were red and blue, which Prince would later combine to great effect. (The lyrics of the school song, not written by Prince, began, “Oh, red and blue, dear red and blue, our hearts are true to you.”)
In the school paper, Prince—identified as “Prince Nelson, senior at Central”—was pictured in the music room, his wide collar flared beneath his even wider afro. The piece didn’t explore his personality, which was shy but playful (André Cymone would later say that “everybody who really knew him [knew] that he was a funny dude”). It didn’t mention his participation in a student film, in which he played a shy but playful musician competing with a muscle-bound jock for the affections of a pretty cheerleader—the musician failed repeatedly until he learned a secret kung fu move and got the girl. Rather, the piece focused mainly on Prince’s accomplishments as a musician: he had started playing piano at age seven, guitar “when he got out of eighth grade”; at the time of the article, he was also proficient on bass and drums, and he regretted having given up the saxophone, which he had played in seventh grade. He played by ear, though most budding musicians, he advised, should invest in lessons. “One should learn all their scales too,” he said. “That is very important.” He did not, the article noted, play in the school band. “I really don’t have time to make the concerts,” he said. After a brief mention of Prince’s “more enthusiastically athletic” brother Duane, a member of both the football and basketball teams, the article returned to musical matters. Prince liked the school’s music teachers—Mrs. Doepke and Mr. Bickham were especially supportive—but he felt stranded in Minneapolis. “I was born here, unfortunately,” he says. “I think it is very hard for a band to make it in this state, even if they’re good. Mainly because there aren’t any big record companies or studios in this state. I really feel that if we would have lived in Los Angeles or New York or some other big city, we would have gotten over by now.” Still, he was determined not to be marooned. Grand Central, the article concluded, was “in the process of recording an album containing songs they have composed. It should be released during the early part of the summer.”
It wasn’t, though there is evidence that Prince, André, and Morris visited ASI Studios on West Broadway in early 1976 to cut a set of tracks that included “39th St. Party,” “Lady Pleasure,” “You’re Such a Fox,” “Machine,” “Whenever,” and “Grand Central.” Tom Waits, touring behind Nighthawks at the Diner, his first live album, played a show at ASI for FM broadcast about a month before Grand Central’s session. There’s no evidence he knew anything about Prince at the time, but a decade later, he would name him as one of the few popular artists who consistently impressed him: “Prince is rare, a rare exotic bird … To be that popular and that uncompromising, it’s like Superman walking through a wall.” Waits also said, “Writing songs is like capturing birds without killing them.” Triangulate accordingly.
* * *
In early 1976, a studio owner named Chris Moon hired Prince and André to record background music for an educational slide presentation. Bespectacled and bearded, Moon was also an aspiring songwriter—or rather, a poet in search of songs. He had notebooks filled with lyrics, and he noticed that Prince had a head filled with melodies. He gave Prince a key to his Moonsound studio, and Prince started to record there at night.
At around the same time, Prince struck up a relationship with a veteran R&B musician named Pepé Willie. Pepé Willie came from Brooklyn, but he had spent time in Minneapolis since the early seventies as a result of his on-again, off-again relationship with Prince’s cousin, Shauntel Manderville. He had first met Prince in 1970 and over the years served as a kind of informal mentor to him. In 1974, back in Minneapolis and now married to Shauntel, he attended a ski party for which Grand Central had been hired as entertainment. He was impressed with Prince’s progress:
He would take off his guitar and go over to Linda and play the chords on the keyboard he wanted her to play. And I’m like, “Wait a minute, this guy plays keyboards too?” Then he would take André’s bass and play like he had been doing it for twenty years, playing the funkiest lines.
By the end of Prince’s time in high school, Grand Central was at a crossroads. For starters, their name had become a liability—they were too often confused with Graham Central Station, the popular Bay Area funk band led by Larry Graham, the former bassist with Sly and the Family Stone (and a distant-future collaborator of Prince’s). When the band rebranded itself as Champagne, Prince began to distance himself from the group, first to work with a local musician named Sonny Thompson and then, with André, to support Pepé Willie and his group 94 East. Some of Prince’s earliest recordings date from this period, songs like “Lovin’ Cup,” “Dance to the Music of the World,” and “One Man Jam.” Prince didn’t sing on the tracks and cowrote only one of them, “Just Another Sucker.” Still, he was instrumental in the sessions, contributing on guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums.
In the meantime, his partnership with Chris Moon had started to bear fruit. One of their songs, “Soft and Wet,” became a new favorite in Prince’s set. It wasn’t the crowning jewel of his early catalog, though. That honor was reserved for “Just as Long as We’re Together,” a sparkling demonstration of his singing, playing, and songwriting. Prince put together a demo and briefly went to New York to shop it, without much luck. At the same time, Moon sent the songs to a local music impresario named Owen Husney. Husney had been the lead guitarist of the mid-sixties Minneapolis garage-blues band the High Spirits—a forerunner to Twin Cities groups like Hüsker Dü and the Replacements—and he had gone on to work in various aspects of the music business, everything from catering to advertising. Husney liked what he heard of Prince’s music, though he thought the songs were too long; most were extended soul-funk workouts designed to showcase all of Prince’s instrumental skills. Husney felt that they weren’t going to attract veteran A&R men, and he called Prince with a pitch: he would help shepherd Prince through the process if Prince would come back to Minneapolis and work on the songs. Prince agreed. Husney was instantly impressed by Prince’s intensity and intelligence, as he told Kim Taylor Bennett of Noisey:
I’ve seen pictures of Little Richard when he was in a band before he was Little Richard. They’re all sitting around, one of them is looking off right, one’s looking off left, one’s looking down, and then there’s a very young Little Richard, and his eyes are laser focused on that camera. You can see the burning; you can see there’s something else. That was the feeling I had about Prince. There was a focus, there was a brilliance of intelligence.
Husney also took note of Prince’s massive afro, which he dubbed a J7, because it dwarfed the afros of the Jackson 5, which were themselves significant. Husney wanted to get Prince his own apartment and some recording equipment, so he sought out local professionals whom he knew—a doctor, a lawyer—and signed them up as investors. While Prince set about shortening and sharpening his songs, Husney started to package him for major labels. He created press kits in which he lowered Prince’s age by a year: whatever he was worth as an eighteen-year-old wunderkind, Husney figured, he was worth that much more as a seventeen-year-old. He outfitted Prince in a three-piece suit to distinguish him against the prevailing fashions, which tended toward casual dress, jeans and open shirts. He sent out demos not on cassettes but on reel-to-reel tapes, coloring them silver for maximum impact. Finally, he played labels off each other: He called Warner Bros., where he knew people through his advertising work, and told them that he had already secured a meeting with Columbia, which was flying him to California, and would be interested in stopping by Warner’s offices while he was out west. He then did the same thing in reverse, calling Columbia and telling them that Warner was flying him out but that he’d love to stop by and give Columbia a look at his client as well. He ran the game a third time, on A&M Records, and called two other labels for good measure, RSO and ABC/Dunhill.
Husney’s plan all along was to place Prince at Warner Bros., the most artist-friendly of the labels, and Warner was receptive, though the label wanted to assign him a producer. They suggested Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, and there were some backup ideas as well: Norman Whitfield, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Prince put his foot down. It wasn’t that he didn’t respect their suggestions, but he wanted to make a record that sounded only like himself. Husney understood Prince’s perspective, but he thought it would be a tough sell. “I had the great job of going to the chairman of Warner Bros. and saying that an eighteen-year-old artist, who has never made an album before, is going to be producing his own album and having complete creative control,” Husney later told NPR. “I didn’t relish that meeting.” Warner agreed to a kind of test. Bring the kid in, they told Husney. Let’s see what he’s got.
On a summer morning in 1977, Prince was ushered into a Warner studio. He sat down immediately at the drums and created a rhythm track, after which he started in on the bass. As Husney stood in the hall watching, Lenny Waronker came around the corner. Waronker, the head of A&R for Warner, was an industry vet who had produced hits like the Mojo Men’s “Sit Down, I Think I Love You” and signed artists such as Randy Newman and Ry Cooder. Waronker stopped to watch Prince, who had by now moved on to guitar. Husney couldn’t read Waronker’s expression. Was Warner going to scotch the deal?
They weren’t. “By the time the drum part was recorded, it was clear,” Waronker told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2004, as part of a tribute to Prince for his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “We didn’t want to insult him by making him go through the whole process, but he wanted to finish. As I was walking through the studio, he was on the floor. He looked up and said, ‘Don’t make me black.’ I thought, ‘Whoa!’ He said, ‘My idols are all over the place.’ He named an array that was so deep in terms of scope of music that for an eighteen-year-old kid to say what he said was amazing. That, as much as anything, made me feel that we shouldn’t mess around with this guy.”
Warner extended the gangway, and Prince came aboard. In the September 1 issue of the St. Paul Dispatch, the signing was the subject of a short news story. It began with the facts, such as they were (Husney’s age deception was not exposed): “A just-turned-eighteen-year-old Minneapolis youth has signed a six-figure recording contract with Warner Bros. and is scheduled to begin recording his first album today in Sound 80 studios, Minneapolis.” The article reviewed Prince’s bona fides (he played “drums, bass, lead and rhythm guitar, piano, synthesizers, and percussions,” and sang “lead as well as all the backups”), engaged in some myth-making regarding his career to date (Prince and Husney pretended that he had not performed yet in the Twin Cities because his “ambition was to be a national recording star and he did not want to wear out his talent in local clubs”), and remarked upon the unusual terms of the contract (the grant of full creative control, plus the fact that three albums were guaranteed rather than the customary one or two). The piece ended with an assessment of his prospects:
Do you think Prince will become a star? “I know he will,” shot back Husney. But after a pause, he said, “Maybe I shouldn’t use the word star, but I know Prince is a legitimate talent and he’ll do well.”
He was a legitimate talent. He did well. There would be false starts, but they would pass quickly, and once his star began to rise, it went so quickly that it was as if everyone else was falling away. Life unfolded in a series of rapidly accelerating moments, a flip-book under time’s thumb.
Moment: It’s 1985, the night that the American Music Awards are broadcast on ABC. The ceremony takes up most of the evening, running an interminable three hours. Lionel Richie hosts. The producers entrust the job of presenting Favorite Black Single to the whitest performers imaginable—the country singer Janie Fricke, then at the height of her popularity, and the Beach Boys. There are only three nominees per category, because that’s how business is done at the American Music Awards: there’s Billy Ocean, for “Caribbean Queen”; Tina Turner, for “What’s Love Got to Do with It”; and Prince, for “When Doves Cry.” Al Jardine announces the winner; it’s Prince. “Big Chick” Huntsberry, Prince’s blond, Hulk Hogan–like bodyguard, clears the way for the band. Prince—hair curly, one eye covered, decked out in an Edwardian blouse and purple jacket—accepts the award. “Outrageous,” says Lionel Richie, happily. Later, Huey Lewis and Madonna present Favorite Black Album; the nominees are Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and Purple Rain. Huey Lewis pretends that he can’t remember Prince’s name and snaps his fingers for recall. “Well, what is it?” Madonna says. “This is going to come as a surprise,” Huey Lewis says, “but it’s Purple Rain, by Prince and the Revolution.” The whole band returns to the stage for the second award, Prince bringing up the rear, walking like George Jefferson, trailed by Big Chick. Wendy Melvoin, Prince’s guitarist in the Revolution, takes the second award and says some nice things about vinyl. Lionel Richie says “Outrageous,” again. The word has lost much of its meaning by now. The third time, it’s Favorite Pop/Rock Album, presented by Vanity and two members of Night Ranger, one of them chattering ceaselessly just off-mic. Vanity reads Prince’s nomination and then announces him as the winner. “I Would Die 4 U” plays on the PA system as Prince comes to the stage again. This time, he finally speaks; it’s as if he knew he’d have a third shot at the mic. “For all of us,” he says, “life is death without adventure, and adventure only comes to those who are willing to be daring and take chances.”
Moment: 1991, the MTV Video Music Awards. Arsenio Hall is hosting at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles. Much of the night is spent handing trophy after trophy to R.E.M. for their “Losing My Religion” video, which firmly establishes the ascendancy of so-called alternative rock. There are a dozen performances, and many of them are sexual in nature, including Van Halen’s “Poundcake” and Poison’s “Talk Dirty to Me.” But only one is sexy. “This is the one,” says Hall, wearing a sweatshirt with way too many colors. “This is the reason I took the gig again.” The opening scream of “Gett Off” sounds in the hall. Dancers appear. There’s (safe) fire on the stage. Then Prince strides out: swoop of hair, ventilated yellow suit, Yellow Cloud guitar. He lip-syncs the scream a second time, falls to the ground, magically rises to his feet via a reverse split, approaches the mic, and snags his sleeve on the stand, botching a word or two in the process. (I contend this was at least partly on purpose, to remind the audience that he’s singing live.) Midway through the song, he spins around to reveal that his outfit is entirely assless. The song proceeds, with plenty of full-bacchanal dancing, a lead vocal that finds a lovelier melody than the one on the album, guitar played while spinning, and a closing chant of “peace and love,” but all anyone will ever to be able to remember is the assless pants. “What’d I tell you?” Arsenio says afterwards. “I told y’all it was funky like doo-doo.” The next year, Howard Stern appears as Fartman (Wikipedia offers a helpful taxonomy: “Species: Human”) and displays the second most famous ass in MTV Video Music Awards history.
Moment: 1999, Larry King Live on CNN. Larry King’s is the first voice we hear. “Tonight: he’s rocked, he’s shocked, and he’s been telling us to party like it’s 1999 for seventeen years … a music world original, The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” It’s hard to tell who dressed more flamboyantly for this interview: Larry is sporting a wide white collar, purple-and-green suspenders, and a green tie. Prince wears a black jacket with a gold decorative edge. On the chyron, he’s identified by his now famous glyph. Larry opens by discussing the relative scarcity of Prince releases in the late nineties, and Prince explains that he has been discouraging bootleggers by releasing his own versions of leaked songs. Larry calls him “unusual.” Prince begins to protest. Larry calls him “different.” Prince protests again. “Well,” Larry says, “most people don’t get famous with one name and then change it. What’s the story about that?” Prince speaks softly and quietly, like he’s thinking as he goes: “Well, I had to search deep within my heart and spirit, and I wanted to make a change and move to a new plateau in my life. One of the ways I did that was to change my name. It sort of divorced me from the past and all the hang-ups that go along with it.” He mentions the fact that he is in a “deep dispute” with his record label, and Larry interrupts. “That’s Warner Brothers, right? Which owns this network, I might add.” Prince recoils a bit. Larry presses the name issue. Larry says that the only other person who changed names after achieving fame was Muhammad Ali—he doesn’t remember Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Ron Artest hasn’t yet become Metta World Peace. Finally, Larry endorses the symbol. “It’s pretty cool,” Prince says, pretty cool himself. “It makes for great jewelry, too.” The name issue seems settled, though a little later on Prince confuses matters again: “I’m still Prince. I just use a different sound for my name, which is none.” Larry asks about Spain, where Prince is living at the time. Prince likes the Iberian pace, the fact that everything shuts down in the afternoon. Larry says, hilariously, “Siesta—fiesta—siesta.” When Prince says he doesn’t like to live in the past, Larry says, “You’re not a reminiscer.” Prince leans in. “Is that a word, Larry?” But Prince is a reminiscer for a little while, recapping his Minneapolis origins, throwing shade at Owen Husney in the process (“I was taken out to Los Angeles by my first manager, whose name escapes me”). Finally, Larry King asks a predictable but good question: How would Prince describe his own music? “The only thing I could think of, because I really don’t like categories, is ‘inspirational.’” Then Prince talks about the origins of “1999” (including the claim that he will retire the song on New Year’s Eve, which turns out to be as ridiculous as Larry King’s suspenders), takes a backseat during a secondary interview with Larry Graham, who has just been signed to Prince’s label NPG Records, and fields questions from callers. A woman on the phone asks Prince what different people in his life—his wife, his bandmates—call him. He answers, still speaking softly and quietly: “Larry [Graham] calls me ‘baby brother,’ Mayte calls me ‘honey.’ Let’s see, my enemies call me ‘squiggle,’ and, you know, all kinds of crazy.”
Copyright © 2017 by Ben Greenman