By Ross Leckie
An 18-year-old kid gets a record deal with Warner Bros. and he demands complete control over his music. I doubt that Warner Bros. knew what that meant. They cheerfully announced that the album would be produced by Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire. Prince Rogers Nelson replied, “No one produces Prince music but Prince.” He had, after all, spent an entire year in a friend’s studio when it was free at night recording and producing his demo.
Prince was a child prodigy. By 18 he was one of the best rock guitarists in the world. He was an excellent pianist, and, well, great with any keyboard. He was a very fine drummer and a superb bass player. He knew his way around synthesizers and MOOG’s. And he had written an album’s worth of songs. Then there was that voice: a tenor with a slight rasp, an astonishing falsetto unlike anything heard before, and a screech that would raise the hair on the nape of your neck. So, his first record reads simply, “Produced, arranged, composed, and performed by Prince.”
As with any kid in high school in the late sixties I listened to rock by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and so on, but I also listened to R&B: Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Otis Redding, and a whole pile of other things I’m forgetting right now. I saw Sly and the Family Stone twice at the Montreal Forum. As R&B dwindled into disco I gave it up for dead. I was vaguely aware of Michael Jackson and the moonwalk, but it was Prince who grabbed me by the throat, slapped my face, and said pay attention.
His song-writing ranged across soul, R&B, funk, and rock, and he was prolific, producing close to an album a year for the rest of his life, which, of course, ended just over a month ago, from a fentanyl overdose, probably prescribed originally for a hip problem, that resulted from too much leaping and dancing in the high heels or platform boots. Michael Jackson was the better dancer, but Prince’s dancing was crazy and thrilling. He would jump from five-foot risers or dance on the soundboard of a grand piano, then leap to the stage. He could do the splits and rise slowly by squeezing his legs together.
Prince in his early career was either a man with a vision, or a control freak, depending on your point of view. He plays all twenty-seven instruments on his first album, For You, which remains one of my favorites. He brought together a performing band, The Time, got them a record contract, then wrote or co-wrote all the songs and went into the studio and played all the music. Morris Day would come to lay over the vocals at the end of the recording; at one point Day says, “take it, Terry” (Terry Lewis, bassist for The Time), which is followed by a scintillating Prince bass line.
Prince had an extraordinary range of musical taste, covering in his concerts everything from Radiohead to Sheryl Crow. One of his absolute favorites was Joni Mitchell, and from his earliest concerts to his most recent he would throw in a cover of “A Case of You.” YouTube can turn up a variety of sensational Prince guitar solos. My favorite comes from the Hall of Fame induction of George Harrison. Harrison had recently died and his friends Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Stevie Winwood arranged a tribute performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” As the song is winding down Prince concludes with a two-minute guitar solo.
All Prince fans have a list of their favorite albums. Here’s my somewhat lengthy list: For You, Prince, Controversy, 1999, Purple Rain, Parade, Sign o’ the Times, Lovesexy, Batman (the soundtrack), Graffiti Bridge, the “Love Symbol Album” (with the glyph standing for the artist formerly known as Prince), and Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic.
Prince had a wonderful sense of humour. He pranked Jay Leno of the Tonight Show, disguising his voice and calling him in the middle of rehearsal as a workman asking how well his chair was swiveling. Known for the sexually explicit shows of his early days, Prince was asked in an interview what he thought about the endless hip hop videos featuring near naked women shaking their booty. Prince replied, “they’re too obvious. There’s no wit in it. They are just trying to shock . . . (sly grin) and nothing can shock me.”
AP Photo/Chris O'Meara