Who Was Prince? The Life of Prince Rogers Nelson
The musical dilletante, fashion icon, and international sex symbol changed the world with his music and signature style.
Prince was born to change music—and the world. The consummate showman known for his erotic performances and musical virtuosity left an indelible mark on the music industry.
He defied genre and defined a generation.
Few men could pull off what Prince did, striding across the stage in Edwardian-inspired suits and high-heeled boots, driving audiences wild.
But who was Prince, really? What was it like to know and work with him? And what happened in his final years?
These are the questions writer and music journalist Touré explores in his new podcast, Who Was Prince? Be sure to subscribe, and keep reading to learn more about the music legend who brought us Purple Rain and forever changed music.
To understand the life of Prince Rogers Nelson we need to go back to Minneapolis. That’s where Prince was born on June 7, 1958.
His father was a pianist and songwriter, his mother a jazz singer. Determined to play as well as his father, Prince taught himself piano at a young age, writing his first tune at age seven. He also taught himself to play the guitar and drums.
Music was a bright spot in an otherwise difficult childhood. His parents separated when he was 10, and his mother quickly remarried. Prince had a strained relationship with his stepfather and spent years toggling back and forth between his parents’ homes.
In a 2009 interview with Tavis Smiley, Prince revealed he had epileptic seizures as a child and was teased by kids at school. He told Smiley he tried to compensate for a painful childhood by being “as flashy and noisy” as possible.
When Prince was 10 he had a fallout with his dad and moved in with neighbors—the Andersons. He befriended the couple’s son, Andre, who adopted the stage name André Cymone. Together they started a local band, Grand Central, and played gigs around the Minneapolis area (André would later become Prince’s bass guitarist in the early years of his fame).
During his teen years, Prince spent countless hours in the basement studio of a local DJ, where he feverishly transcribed the lyrics of musical greats like Aretha Franklin and James Brown.
Soon he was writing his own songs and mastering his vocal skills.
He left school at 16, by which time he had already begun to pioneer what came to be known as the “Minneapolis sound,” a sub-genre of funk rock heavily characterized by synthesizers and electronic drum machines.
The Enigmatic Artist’s Breakthrough
By age 18 Prince was working as a session guitarist for Minneapolis Sound 80 Studios. By 19 he had signed a contract with Warner Records. His debut album, For You, was released in April 1978. It wasn’t a hit with the critics, but Prince was just getting started.
In 1979, he started touring solo, drawing audiences with increasingly lavish and erotic shows. The theatrics may have been a draw for audiences, but his raw musical talent was undeniable.
“What’s missing from pop music is danger.” –Prince
Prince quickly gained attention for his musical versatility, incorporating jazz, funk, R&B, soul, pop, new wave, punk, and rock into his music, pushing conventional boundaries. But his controversial lyrics and carnal performances had TV networks and radio station managers clutching their pearls.
Success in the 1980s
In 1982 Prince released 1999. It immediately thrust him to the top of the charts and made him an MTV icon.
The release of his sixth album, Purple Rain, along with the film of the same name, helped Prince become a figurehead of pop music. It was the first of his albums to reach number one on the Billboard 200, where it remained at the top of the list for 24 consecutive weeks.
Purple Rain remains one of the best-selling albums of all time, with a total of 25 million copies sold worldwide.
A Musical “Army General”
Despite his eccentric persona, Prince was notoriously private. He was also a demanding perfectionist—both of himself and of those he worked with.
Susan Rogers worked as a sound engineer for Prince in the 1980s. She told HuffPost in 2016, “There was no life outside of my life for him, so in that sense it was like a tour of duty. I belonged to his army.”
“You’d be up for 24 hours, sleep for two hours, then get a phone call that said, ‘I need you to come back to the studio’ — you didn’t negotiate. You just came back to the studio.”
Prince used the same analogy in his 2009 interview with Tavis Smiley. He said when it came to music nothing ever seemed good enough for his father. “It was almost like the army when it came to music,” Prince told Smiley.
Prince worked relentlessly throughout his career. Dancer-singer Carmen Electra briefly dated Prince in the early 1990s. She told GQ she’d find him working in his home studio at all hours of the night. “He never slept—he couldn’t sleep,” said Electra. “I would wake up alone [and think] ‘Where’d he go?’”
Music journalist Alan Light saw firsthand Prince’s obsessive discipline and unwavering work ethic while traveling with the band.
“A regular day on tour involved a three-hour soundcheck, a two-hour show in front of a sold-out arena, and then an after-show at a local club,” Light wrote in 2019. “While his pure, sheer talent—as a singer, instrumentalist, songwriter, producer, performer, bandleader—was always beyond compare, I have also never seen an artist work harder.”
Prince’s obsessive work habits and exacting standards weren’t always easy to deal with, but they delivered some of the most audacious music of a generation.
Throughout his career Prince was known for fiercely defending his artistic independence, once calling the music industry “a matrix that is counter to what is natural and right.”
In his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech in 2004, he said, “When I first started out in the music industry, I was most concerned with freedom. Freedom to produce, freedom to play all the instruments on my records, freedom to say anything I wanted to.” He thanked Warner Brothers Records for granting him that (hard fought) freedom.
Still, Prince felt stifled by the white establishment. In a posthumous memoir, he bemoaned how his work was constantly described as “magical” or attributed “alchemical qualities.”
The music he produced didn’t simply happen by some unseen force, said Prince. “It’s about rules.”
Personal Life & Legacy
Prince had his share of romances, including a steamy affair with Kim Basinger in the late ’80s. The two caused a stir after it was reported that Basinger provided vocals for Prince’s EP, The Scandalous Sex Suite, that were recorded while they had sex.
Basinger’s family was so concerned about Prince’s influence over her, they were apparently once compelled to “rescue” her from Prince’s Paisley Park estate while he was out of town.
“People say I’m wearing heels because I’m short. I wear heels because the women like ‘em,” –Prince
In 1993, Prince made the now infamous decision to change his name to an unpronounceable symbol, becoming known as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” It was a protest move against Warner Bros—Prince was angry at the way the company was releasing his music. It would be three years before Prince would change his name back.
In 1996, Prince married belly dancer Mayte Garcia, 15 years his junior. The two had a son, Boy Gregory (aka Amiir Gregory Nelson), but were devastated when the baby was born with a rare skull defect called Pfeiffer syndrome. Their son died a week later.
Not long after his son’s death, Prince gave a bizarre interview to Oprah during her visit to the Paisley Park compound. He denied rumors that something was wrong and claimed his new baby was fine (he was likely in a state of shock at the time). Garcia became pregnant again not long after losing their son, but she miscarried. The losses were too much for the couple, and they divorced in 1998.
In 2001, Prince married charity worker Manuela Testolini. Unfortunately, the marriage wouldn’t last. Five years later, Prince reluctantly agreed to the breakup.
Prince never married again and had no children.
Although he didn’t enjoy the same level of success as in his heyday, Prince continued to record music throughout the 2000s.
In 2010, he was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People In The World. Forgoing the flashiness of LA or New York, he stayed true to his roots and remained in Minnesota at his Paisley Park estate.
He continued to perform live right up until the time of his death in 2016. He showed incredible energy, with generous performances that often started after midnight and went on until dawn.
Prince died on April 21, 2016, from an accidental overdose after taking Vicodin laced with a large amount of fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller that is 50 times stronger than heroin. He was found alone and unresponsive in an elevator at his Paisley Park estate.
His death sparked an outpouring of grief from fans and celebrities.
“It would be silly to say that he has inspired our music,” said Justin Timberlake. “It’s beyond that. He’s somewhere within every song I’ve ever written.”
Prince reportedly kept thousands of recordings hidden in a room at Paisley Park. There’s so much material, in fact, it would be possible to release an album once a year for the next century. Let’s hope so.
Want to know more about the musical virtuoso, style icon, and indefatigable artist that was Prince?
The eight-episode series is an in-depth look at Prince through the eyes of those who played in his bands, managed his career, engineered his music, and dated him. You won’t want to miss it.