Iconic Performer Prince Dies At Age 57

Apr 21, 2016
Originally published on April 22, 2016 6:40 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We're going to take a few minutes now to look back at the life of a gender-bending artist who gave us wailing guitar ballads, excellent dance songs and a lot more. Prince died today at Paisley Park, his home in Minneapolis. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Where do you begin to tell the story of a man who had hit after hit after hit?

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "WHEN DOVES CRY")

BLAIR: For more than three decades, Prince has influenced just about every major pop, rock and R-and-B artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN DOVES CRY")

PRINCE: (Singing) Dig, if you will, the picture of you and I engaged in a kiss. The sweat of your body covers me. Can you, my darling, can you picture this?

BLAIR: People have tried to pigeonhole Prince, but he drew from such a broad palette; that's nearly impossible. He was a student of all kinds of music. He mixed it up and invented a new style.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "GIRLS AND BOYS")

PRINCE: (Singing) I love you, baby. I love you so much. Maybe we can stay in touch.

BLAIR: Alan Light is the author of "Let's Go Crazy: The Making of Purple Rain."

ALAN LIGHT: Now, there were a lot of easy comparisons. People would say, oh, he's like Jimi Hendrix because he's a black guy playing a guitar. And he would say, you know, I love Jimi Hendrix, but I'm not trying to play like Jimi Hendrix. There are people who are doing more melodic work and different kinds of work, and that's the stuff that I, you know, would draw from.

BLAIR: He was born Prince Rogers Nelson on June 7, 1958 in Minneapolis. His parents were both musical. He was named Prince after his father's jazz group, the Prince Rogers Trio. His home life was difficult. After his parents divorced, he moved around a lot, bouncing between friends and family. Music was his refuge.

By the time he was a teenager, he could play several instruments. He was known to be a perfectionist. In 2009, he told Tavis Smiley on PBS that came from his father who was tough but taught him a lot about music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRINCE: My father was - he was so hard on me. He - I was never good enough, and there was something about that. It was like - almost like the Army when it came to music. It's like, that's not even close, he'd say; it's not even close to what I'm doing. And he'd - play again. And I could hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DELIRIOUS")

PRINCE: (Singing) I get delirious whenever you're near, lose all self-control - baby, jut can't steer.

BLAIR: Prince was ahead of his time. In the 1980s before he reached the height of his popularity, he made a movie. He combined that movie with a new album and a tour. "Purple Rain" was a hit at the box office and earned him an Oscar. The album sold more than 13 million copies. It also produced a song that got the attention of the vice president's wife. She was furious over its sexual content.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DARLING NIKKI")

PRINCE: (Singing) I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with magazine. She said, how'd you like to waste some time? And I could not resist when I say little Nikki grind.

BLAIR: After buying the album for her then 11-year-old daughter, Tipper Gore spearheaded a system of labeling albums for their explicit lyrics.

Prince could be flamboyant with velvet suits, ruffles, makeup. In 1993, he took a very public stand against the music industry. He changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and scrawled slave across his cheeks to protest what he saw as the industry taking advantage of artists. Alan Light...

LIGHT: He was, you know, openly ridiculed. I mean, this was seen as, you know - it was sort of a spoiled tantrum or something that he was throwing. People made fun of him and, in some ways, never fully recovered. But the fact is, he did draw attention to these issues that have really become central over the last five or 10 years to debate within the music business.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WOULD DIE 4 U")

PRINCE: (Saying) I'm not a woman. I'm not a man. I am something that you'll never understand. I'll never beat you. I'll never lie. And if you're evil. I'll forgive you by and by 'cause you - I would die for you.

BLAIR: One of the musicians he inspired was Sheila E. She once said, the sky's the limit with Prince; there are no rules in the studio; nothing matters as long as the energy is there. That energy is a force that will continue to inspire musicians for years to come. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GO CRAZY")

PRINCE: (Singing) Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. Electric word life - it means forever, and that's a might long time. But I'm here to tell you there's something else - the afterworld, a world of never-ending happiness. You can always see the sun day or night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.