I vividly remember the first time that I saw Prince. It was the summer of 1980, and I was on vacation, staying at my aunt’s house in Brooklyn, New York. I was up late one night watching a television programme on which I saw the video for the song ‘I Wanna be Your Lover’, his first Billboard Top 40 hit. The song rocked, and I instantly became a fan. As I followed his career, I realised that Prince Rogers Nelson was one of the greatest musicians to have ever lived.
Prince's parents, John L. Nelson and Mattie Shaw, were musicians, and Prince was named after his father, who was known as Prince Rogers in his music career. Prince wrote his first song, ‘Funk Machine’ at age seven.
By age 18 he signed a recording contract with Warner Brothers. But Prince was not just a singer, he was also a multi-instrumentalist who taught himself to play over 20 instruments, and insisted on not just playing all the instruments on his debut album, ‘For You’, but on producing it as well. The record label gave him creative control after seeing him in action and realising his capabilities. He played all 27 instruments on the album, and wrote all the songs himself, except for the title track, which he co-wrote. The album did not do well on the charts, but his follow-up album, ‘Prince’, produced ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’, and people began to take notice.
‘1999’, released in 1982, was his breakthrough album. It was his first to reach the top 10 on the Billboard album chart, achieving multi-platinum status, and producing the hits ‘Little Red Corvette’, ‘1999’ and ‘Delirious’. The title track, one of his most popular songs, was a protest against nuclear proliferation, and became his first top 10 hit in countries outside the United States. Some consider ‘1999’ to be Prince’s most influential album, fully showcasing and defining the Minneapolis Sound (named after the city where Prince was born and spent much of his life), Prince’s own musical genre, combining elements of funk, soul, R&B, pop, synthpop and rock.
However, it would be his next album, ‘Purple Rain’, released in 1984, that would catapult him into superstar and iconic status. ‘Purple Rain’ sold more than 13 million copies in the United States, achieving Diamond status (over 10 million copies) and spent 24 consecutive weeks at Number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. It was the first album to feature his band, The Revolution. All five singles from the album became worldwide hits.
In addition to reaching the number one spot in the US, ‘When Doves Cry’ became the top selling single of the year. Interestingly, the song has no bass line, which was very unusual for a dance song in that era. Prince won two Grammy Awards for the album, which was the soundtrack for the movie of the same name, in which he starred in the lead role. The film won Prince an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score and grossed over $68 million in the US. At one point, Prince simultaneously held the number one spots for album, single, and film in the US, becoming the first artiste to do so.
In addition to his Oscar, Prince has won seven Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, his first year of eligibility. Prince was the consummate showman, giving some of the most memorable performances ever seen, including a guitar solo during rendition of fellow inductee George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ during the Hall of Fame ceremony, and the Super Bowl XLI halftime show in Miami, Florida in 2007, considered by many to be the greatest Super Bowl performance ever.
His songwriting skills not only garnered him hits (30 on the Billboard Top 40 charts), but also benefited other artistes. ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ by Sinead O’Connor, ‘I Feel For You’ by Chaka Khan, ‘Manic Monday’ by The Bangles, ‘The Glamorous Life’ by Sheila E., ‘Sugar Walls’ by Sheena Easton and ‘Do Me Baby’ by singer Meli'sa Morgan were all written by Prince.
I was fortunate enough to have seen him live at Madison Square Garden in 2011. The musical genius performed a blistering 90 minute set, before returning to the stage for three encores, including one in which he joined CeeLo Green, who opened for him, to perform the hit ‘Crazy’, which CeeLo recorded as a member of Gnarls Barkley. It was during this concert that he playfully chased Kim Kardashian off the stage after she went onstage to dance with him and froze. Seeing him live in action was a mind-blowing experience that made me understand just how powerful he was as a performer and why he has influenced a multitude of artistes, including Lenny Kravitz, Miguel, The Weeknd, Janelle Monae, Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams, Andre 3000 and D’Angelo.
But it was not only about the music. Prince defied gender and racial stereotypes. ‘Little Red Corvette’ was one of the first two videos by a black artist played in heavy rotation on MTV, along with Michael Jackson's ‘Billie Jean’. Prince set trends rather than follow them, substituting numbers and letters for words long before the advent of the cell phone culture and texting jargon. He believed that artistes should not be controlled by record labels, writing the word ‘SLAVE’ on his face during his infamous dispute with Warner Brothers, while changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol.
While writing this article, I was interrupted to attend to a patient of mine who was in labour. I usually give my patients the option of choosing which songs they wish to listen to. My patient delivered rather quickly, without a soundtrack, then turned to me and said that she wished to hear ‘Purple Rain’. I took out my iPod, placed the purple earphones (purchased in memory of Prince) in her ears, and played the song. I left the room soon afterwards, as she softly sang the chorus, “Purple rain, purple rain…”