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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 mural in Cleveland

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.


Early Life


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.