BRILLIANT musician, charismatic performer, and bizarre personality, Prince has, remarkably, transfixed the pop-music world for over 20 years. Not since the Beatles has an artist's music so gracefully crossed the boundaries of nearly every popular musical genre, earning the universal admiration of musicians, the critical establishment, and the record-buying public.
Raised in a troubled home where his father was a struggling piano player, Prince's escape was, from an early age, his music. A genuine musical prodigy, he taught himself to play more than 20 different instruments by ear alone, and as early as junior high was fronting his own band, Grand Central. He graduated from high school at age 16 and moved out of his parents' house to live in a friend's basement. A year later, a studio engineer offered to swap him some recording time in exchange for some session piano work. After he stepped away from the keyboard, Prince added bass, drums, lead guitar, and backing vocal tracks to the same piece, stunning the studio tech and writing the script for the rest of his career. A trip to New York led to two contract offers, but also convinced the youngster that he'd left his heart in Minneapolis. Returning to his hometown, he cut a three-track demo that amazed Warner Bros. Records executives, and at 19, he was given a budget of $100,000 and total control over his debut album.
For You, released in 1978, featured Prince on every instrument, but still wound up going over budget. His next album, Prince, released a year later, increased his reputation well beyond a meager cult following thanks to the hit "I Wanna Be Your Lover," which landed Prince an appearance on American Bandstand. Things slowed down slightly when 1980's Dirty Mind failed to spawn a Top 40 single (inexplicably, the album's catchiest track, "When You Were Mine," was never issued as a 45), but it was the record that put critics firmly in the Prince camp. He bounced back commercially with 1981's Controversy, which cleverly capitalized on the fuss being made about his X-rated lyrics and androgynous persona. That same year, he gained his first exposure to the mainstream rock audience by opening a few shows for the Rolling Stones. Taking the stage in a trench coat and bikini briefs, he faced down nearly 100,000 Stones fans at the Los Angeles Coliseum, and was booed off the stage.
The stage was set for a complete crossover to the pop mainstream, and 1982's double-album 1999 provided it. Led by its three brilliant singles — "1999," "Little Red Corvette," and "Delirious" — the album put Prince all over the radio and the just-hatched MTV, and stayed on the Billboard charts for almost three years. With a successful tour and an album perched in the Top 10, 1983 was a great year for Prince, but it couldn't hold a candle to what he would achieve the following year. With the July release of Purple Rain, Prince moved into territory only Elvis Presley and the Beatles could relate to: at the age of 26, he simultaneously had a single ("When Doves Cry"), an album, and a movie in the No. 1 spot on the Billboard and box-office charts. Purple Rain didn't just visit the top of the charts, it moved into the penthouse and spent a staggering 24 weeks there, good enough for the fourth-longest stay in history by a pop album. The Purple Rain era ended triumphantly the following February when Prince won the Oscar for Best Score. A scant ten months later, he followed up his blockbuster with a more subdued effort, Around the World in a Day. It, too, topped the charts, this time for a more reasonable three weeks, and was the first release on Prince's new label imprint, Paisley Park.
The next three years were a period of truly remarkable creative output for the songwriter. While he continued his established pace of releasing a new album every year, efforts like 1986's Parade (which accompanied his second film — and directorial debut — the disastrous Under a Cherry Moon) and 1987's Sign o' the Times found Prince recording five songs for every one he put out — this despite the fact that Times was his second double-album. Some of the unreleased material went to other Minneapolis artists signed to Paisley Park, including the Family (who recorded the first version of the Prince original "Nothing Compares 2U," which would become a huge hit for Sinead O'Connor in 1990), the Time, and Madhouse.
In 1987, Prince's most explicit record ever, The Black Album, was scrapped — either because the artist or the label found the songs too controversial. (Dedicated fans heard the material anyway, as it was heavily bootlegged.) Just a few months after the withdrawal of The Black Album (it finally saw official release in late 1994), Prince was back with another record, Lovesexy, and a full-scale U.S. tour with an elaborate stage that included a basketball court. The 1988 album was the first since 1981's Controversy not to break the Top 10, prompting some to say Prince's career was over. In 1989, he squashed such claims with the resounding success of the Batman soundtrack, which spent six weeks at No. 1. An affair with the film's female lead, Kim Basinger, also put his name back in the tabloids. Following the lackluster soundtrack to the film Graffiti Bridge, "Cream" from 1991's Diamonds and Pearls, became his fifth No. 1 single.
In 1992, Prince signed a new contract with Warner Bros. worth approximately $100 million over six albums. But the untitled first album under the new deal, with its odd narrative storyline, suggested that things might get weird in a hurry — and they did. In June of 1993, Prince officially changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph (a combination of the male and female symbols) that entered his consciousness during meditation. There was immediate confusion, not to mention considerable derision, as to how he would be referred to in the future, prompting Warner Bros. to send out computer floppy discs of the symbol so publications could use it in print. In an apparent attempt to deflect the negative attention regarding his name change, Prince finally relented to his label's long-standing request to put out a greatest-hits album. In October, The Hits 1 and 2 were released (the two CDs were sold separately, and together in a limited-edition three-CD set which added a disc of non-album B-sides).
When a British journalist found a solution to the name game by dubbing him the Artist Formerly Known As Prince, the moniker stuck. While it was undeniably useful, it also carried with it a certain measure of ridicule that has dogged the artist ever since. What's amazing about this period in Prince's career is how his loyal fans took the name change and other weird behavior in stride. The fanzines devoted to his music discussed such actions matter-of-factly, and sneered at the rest of the world for being too narrow-minded. Warner Bros., however, was getting frustrated with Prince for reasons that went beyond his name.
The label was reportedly after control of Prince's master tapes. Meanwhile, the artist accused Warner Bros. of stifling his creativity by not allowing him to release as much music as he wanted to. The disagreement escalated to a battle royale, and Prince protested his situation by appearing in public with the word "Slave" written on his face. He also vowed that he would not release any "new" albums through WB, and would instead fulfill his contractual obligation as "Prince" by drawing on a backlog of some five hundred songs he had recorded over the years but never released. In the summer of 1994, he released a single under his non-name on a new label imprint, NPG (distributed by the small independent label Bellmark). "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" became a surprise hit, climbing to No. 3 on the Billboard charts, and gave the artist a bit of leverage over Warner Bros. by showing that he could deliver without the company's help. In September, Warner Bros. released Come, which was said to contain the last recordings he made as Prince, as evidenced by the years "1958-1993" on the album cover signifying Prince's birth and "death."
The stalemate continued until the summer of 1994, when the two parties reached an agreement under which Prince would be allowed to leave the label after delivering two more albums. Upon its October release, The Gold Experience was greeted with rave reviews; some called the album his best work since 1987's Sign o' the Times. The excellent Chaos and Disorder followed in July of 1995, but disappeared from the charts in just four weeks. In the fall of 1996, Prince signed a distribution deal with the EMI-Capitol Records Group; the initial release through the new alliance was a triple-CD called — what else? — Emancipation. Not a huge success (perhaps owing to its high price tag), it nevertheless earned double-platinum status and thrust Prince squarely back into the spotlight. Emancipation was also his first album as a married man: on Valentine's Day, 1996, he married Mayte Garcia, one of his backup singers. Their son was born prematurely the following October, and reportedly died hours after his birth. Interviews with Bryant Gumbel and Oprah Winfrey did little to answer the questions surrounding the infant's fate, but Prince eventually confessed to a Danish magazine that his son passed away due to a rare skull defect. The mark the child's short life left on Prince can still be heard: his heartbeat was mixed into the song "Sex in the Summer" on Emancipation.
Freed from the tyranny of label affiliation, married, and dealing with the grief of his child's death, Prince found himself at a personal and professional crossroads. Ever the master of his own destiny, he engineered a scheme to sell Crystal Ball, a three-CD collection of previously unreleased material recorded throughout the '80s and '90s, over the Internet, through his official Love 4 One Another site.
Following that successful release, which reportedly earned him millions, he teamed up with NPG stable members Chaka Khan and Larry Graham (Sly & the Family Stone) for a tour in the fall of 1998, including a series of European dates. During the tour, the Purple one took the stage adage "break a leg" a bit too seriously; an ankle injury forced him to cancel several shows.
Though temporarily sidelined, the Artist still managed to keep himself in the spotlight with a strange bit of news about his marriage. That came in the form of an announcement that his blissful union with Mayte would soon be over — though not for long. It seems the two plan to annul their three-year marriage because marriages are based upon contracts, which, according to him, "guarantee the possibility of divorce." So, on Valentine's Day 1999, three years to the day after they were wed, the two came together again in a symbolic ceremony, leaving the legal world of marriage behind.
As the end of 1998 grew near, the topic of 1999, the year and the song, came to the forefront when Warner Bros. released a promotional single of "1999" to radio stations. Prince's 1983 hit was already the de facto anthem of millennium change, but given his less-than-amicable parting with his former label, just who "1999" rightfully belongs to became a contentious issue. The Artists's solution was to reclaim the tune with the release of 1999 — The New Master, an EP featuring seven different remixes/re-recordings of the song, on Groundhog's Day (Feb. 2, 1999) through his own New Power Generation record label. His EP battled head-to-head with the original "1999," which Warner Bros., as the legal owner of the original recording, rereleased. To celebrate the EP, the Artist appeared in Las Vegas on Jan. 1 and 2 for a pair of shows at the MGM Grand's Studio 54. Tickets, which ran $100, featured the Artist with old pals Morris Day and the Time, Larry Graham, and the NPG.
In early 1999 came word that the Artist purchased a new home for Mayte (according to a chat on his Web site). And good news for fans of Purple Rain — NPG records released Roadhouse Garden, a Prince and the Revolution album that includes older and recently finished songs from the band.
Whether the multi-faceted musician will succeed in making the marketing and distribution muscle of major labels obsolete remains to be seen, but he has managed to do away with all restrictions on his creative output — and turned a profit in the bargain. The "two-thousand-zero-zero" he sang of is underway, but for now it seems the party's nowhere near over. In May , he announced that he was reverting back to his birth name of Prince, stating, "On December 31, 1999, my publishing contract with Warner-Chappell expired, thus emancipating the name I was given before birth — Prince — from all long-term restrictive documents. I will now go back to using my name instead of the symbol I adopted to free myself from all undesirable relationships."