Rolling Stone pays tribute to late music icon Prince with it’s latest cover, shot by Richard Avedon/© The Richard Avedon Foundation. The issue hits newsstands on Friday, May 6.
Check out an excerpt from the cover story below.
Prince Rogers Nelson was born on June 7th, 1958, at Mount Sinai Hospital in Minneapolis. From the beginning, he carried the hopes and burdens of his father’s dreams. John Nelson led a group called the Prince Rogers Trio, though his day job was at Honeywell, a manufacturer of everything from thermostats to airplane parts. “I named my son Prince because I wanted him to do everything I wanted to do,” John once said. His mother, Mattie Shaw, was a vocalist who brought to mind the wounded grit of Billie Holiday. She had sung with John’s trio, but let it go after they married – the couple already had five children from previous relationships. Mattie was 17 years younger than John, and their personalities differed. “My mom’s the wild side of me,” Prince told Rolling Stone in 1985. “She’s like that all the time. My dad’s real serene; it takes the music to get him going.” Wildness and serenity would be one of many contradictions he embodied throughout his life.
Music came to him young. “He could hear music even from a very early age,” his mother told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1984. “When he was three or four, we’d go to the department store and he’d jump on … any type of instrument there was. Mostly the piano and organ. I’d have to hunt for him, and that’s where he’d be – in the music department.” When he was no more than five, his mother took him to see his father perform. It was a burlesque show. As the dancers did their thing, the theater vibrated with screams and excitement. “From then on, I think I wanted to be a musician,” Prince later said. Eros and music were fused, the power of the combination imprinted on his mind. It would never leave.
Both of his parents were strict Seventh-day Adventists; Prince would say later that the most he got out of religion was “the experience of the choir.” He told Chris Rock on MTV in 1997 that the church’s message “was based in fear,” but he took much from his Adventist Bible study: The church focuses strongly on the Book of Revelation, and the imminent apocalypse that will precede the return of Christ. Prince would begin his breakthrough album,1999, with a song that turned the apocalypse into a celebration. And his greatest album took its name from the Adventist magazine Signs of the Times.
When Prince was about eight, his parents separated. He’d later remember constant arguments, with his father’s music career as a fric tion point. His father “felt hurt that he never got his break, because of having the wife and kids and stuff,” Prince said. “I think music is what broke [my mother] and my father up.” John moved from their home in North Minneapolis into an apartment downtown. He left behind his piano, and this is when Prince gravitated to the instrument in earnest. “I had one piano lesson and two guitar lessons as a kid,” he told the Star Tribune. “I was a poor student, because when a teacher would be trying to teach me how to play junky stuff, I would start playing my own songs.” By the time he’d reached high school, he had already mastered keyboards, guitar, bass and drums.
Not long after the divorce, his mother remarried, and Prince moved in with his father. Their reunion didn’t last long. When Prince was 13, his father kicked him out, perhaps because of a dalliance with a girl. Years later, Prince remembered calling him from a pay phone, begging to come back, and being refused. “I sat crying at that phone booth for two hours,” he told Rolling Stone in 1985. “That was the last time I cried.”
He moved in with his Aunt Olivia, but his domestic exiles created longing and anger that played out in his career: He would build a community in his music and his band, but then cut off band members whenever he felt it necessary; he would most often record albums by himself. He was the only one he could count on. “What if everybody around me split?” he said toRolling Stone in 1990. “Then I’d be left with only me, and I’d have to fend for me. That’s why I have to protect me.”
He was shy and quiet in public, but a cutup with his friends. At school, he was a disinterested student. Music and sports were his passions. James Harris III (later known as Jimmy Jam) met him in a junior-high music class. “As soon as the teacher left the room, we just started jamming,” says Jimmy Jam. “His keyboard runs were amazing – things I couldn’t dream of doing, and I thought of myself as a pretty good keyboard player.” Prince made the basketball team in junior high and freshman year of high school, despite being not much more than five feet tall. “He was a great basketball player,” says Jimmy Jam. “He would come up the court and girls would be screaming. He had a huge Afro, and if you had an Afro in those days, it was definitely a premium.”
His first band came at 14, named Phoenix, then Soul Explosion. Prince played guitar, his friend André Simon Anderson (later known as André Cymone) played bass. When his aunt tired of the band’s noise, Prince ended up living at André’s house. Soul Explosion would rehearse in the basement. “We used to have a philosophy that when everybody else is eating turkey dinner and watching football games and doing all that kind of stuff, we need to practice,” says Cymone. “We’re going to be superstars, and if we’re going to be superstars, we have to practice.” There was a 10 p.m. curfew on music, but Prince eventually moved from André’s room down to the basement, where he could turn down his guitar and play until 4 a.m. These nocturnal music-making habits would stay with him the rest of his life.
By 16, he was writing his own songs. The group became Grand Central (with Morris Day on drums), then Champagne. A demo session brought Prince to the attention of Chris Moon, who ran a local studio. When the rest of the band went across the street during a lunch break, Prince stayed behind. “I look out of the control room into the studio, and he’s playing the drums,” says Moon. “Then I see him wander over and play a bit of piano. And then he stops playing that and picks up the bass.” Moon wanted someone who could add music to some lyrics he’d been working on. He proposed a partnership, and eventually gave Prince keys to the place. It took him about six months to master the studio well enough to run sessions for his one-man-band adventures.
Moon played a demo tape for Owen Husney, a Minneapolis promoter. “Most artists, their sound would be derivative,” Husney says. “This didn’t have that. He was attempting to create something new. And when I heard that vulnerable little falsetto voice, it was like, ‘I want to protect this person.'” He signed on as manager and raised $50,000 so that Prince had new instruments and a place to live. Then he created an elaborate press kit to market his new artist.
Warners offered a three-album deal and signed a 19-year-old Prince in 1977. The label wanted Prince to collaborate with Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire. “The ink wasn’t dry on the Warner Bros. contract, and he said, ‘Nobody is producing my album,'” Husney says. A session was arranged so that Prince could prove to the label that he didn’t need help in the studio. “He put down a guitar track and got it right,” Lenny Waronker, then head of A&R for the label, remembered. “Then he put down the drums – wow. You could just tell – the guitar was locked in, the timing was good, you could tell it was easy for him.”