By Avis Thomas Lester, Urban News Service
‘Rest in purple,’ millions wish as pop master dies at 57.
As the world mourns the passing of the falsetto-voiced Prince – known for his sexual lyrics, sensual performances and steely determination to control his work – the music industry is reeling over the loss of a peerless talent.
Prince Rogers Nelson died Thursday at his Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis where he was found unresponsive in an elevator. He was 57.
Local authorities announced Friday that an autopsy had been performed and a cause of death would be forthcoming. Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson said there were no signs of trauma at the scene and the case will remain “an open investigation” until autopsy results are returned. Authorities do not believe Prince took his own life.
News of his death stunned fans, inside and outside the music industry.
Prince was “one of a kind, the greatest musician ever,” Washington radio personality Donnie Simpson, a personal friend of the performer.
Stevie Wonder tearfully called him “incredible.”
The praise over the airwaves and on social media was effusive.
“Boys 4 Life…Ain’t nobody bad like Prince!” tweeted Morris Day, head of the Time, a Minneapolis-born funk group whose members worked with Prince and upstaged the star in his own celebrated 1984 movie “Purple Rain.”
“I have no words. The king is gone,” tweeted R&B singer Lalah Hathaway.
“Our GRAMMY family is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of seven-time GRAMMY Award winner Prince. Today, we remember and celebrate him as one of the most uniquely gifted artists of all time. Never one to conform, he redefined and forever changed our musical landscape,” posted Neil Portnow, president and CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Prince’s death comes a little over two months after the passing of one of his protégés, Vanity, lead singer of the 1980s glam group Vanity 6. Vanity, whose real name was Denise K. Matthews, died Feb. 15 of renal failure; she was also 57. A few hours after her death, Prince remembered Matthews with a special rendition of his popular song “Little Red Corvette” while on tour in Australia, according to news reports.
His passing is the latest among several influential musicians in recent months. Rock legend David Bowie died Jan. 10 after battling cancer. And Earth, Wind & Fire founder and front man Maurice White died on Feb. 4 at age 74 of Parkinson’s disease.
Washington radio personality DJ Flexx said the deaths of Prince, White and Bowie will have a permanent impact on the music industry. “We are losing innovators. We are losing trendsetters. We are losing leaders,” he said. “We are talking about people who changed the game, were responsible for trends that made people want to be like them. Who are we going to look to now to continue to lead?”
The son of a pianist father and a vocalist mother, Prince showed musical talent early in life. He taught himself to play the piano at age 7 and added guitar and drums to his repertoire by the time he reached high school.
According to statistics from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Prince has sold 20.5 million records.
Grammy-winning producers Terry Lewis and James “Jimmy Jam” Harris, who worked with Prince as musicians in the Time, told Simpson in an interview that Prince was already a talented musician when they met him in middle school in Minneapolis.
“He was gifted, just totally gifted,” Lewis said. “We’ll always be celebrating his life because we’ll be celebrating that music forever.”
Harris said that Prince, Lewis and he took a piano class in middle school that was beneath their skill level. While the teacher was attempting to teach them children’s ditties, they were playing sophisticated music.
“I just remember he could play waves around me, man,” Harris said. “I thought I was good, but I was like, ‘Damn, this dude is ridiculous.’ He was on a whole different level, man.”
Lewis, a bass player, said Prince’s attempts to help his classmates could prove painful. “He could pick up the bass and give you fits,” he said. “And … he could do that same thing to any person who stepped on the stage because he was a student of music … We used to say, ‘He is music.’ ”
Harris said Prince auditioned for a high-school program playing a complicated guitar solo from Chicago’s “Make Me Smile” album. During a break, Harris heard someone in the music room playing a drum solo so well that he thought it was the teacher. “I come out and it is Prince on the drums. I didn’t even want to get back behind the drums after that,” he said.
He said Prince’s work ethic was unparalleled. “Prince would rehearse us for four hours. He’d go rehearse his band for four hours. And then he’d go work in the studio all night. Then, the next morning he’d come to our rehearsal with a cassette in his hand and he’d put the cassette in and all of a sudden “1999” would play. And I don’t mean a demo of ‘1999’ – I mean ‘1999’. ‘Little Red Corvette’ would play. We’d be like, ‘Damn, when did you do that?’ He would say, ‘Like, last night.’ ”
While many entertainers of his day had faded away, Prince was never far from the spotlight. After a string of hits in the 1980s and 1990s, people around the world welcomed the new millennium partying to his dance anthem “1999”. His 2007 Super Bowl half-time performance, delivered in a driving rain, is considered by many to be the best such performance yet.
He stayed relevant even as he worked to stay out of the spotlight. His penchant for privacy, as well as his colorful outfits and trademark high-heeled boots earned a reputation for being eccentric.
“He wore high heels and makeup and I still thought he was the sexiest man alive,” said Dorina Roberts, who was listening to Prince songs on her iPhone at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument in Washington, on Friday. “I loved his music and I loved him.”
Prince was also an activist. He traveled to Baltimore in May, 2015, in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, who died after allegedly suffering an injury while in police custody, and the unrest that resulted. His “Rally 4 Peace” concert sold out. He sang a song he wrote called “Baltimore.” He donated the proceeds to charitable causes in the city.
Robert Scott Adams, student services director at the Omega Studios in Rockville, Maryland, where Prince once worked, said he first heard Prince’s music in 1979 while working as a student deejay at Clark Atlanta University and at rock station WKLF 96.
“I heard the first single from his first album, Prince, called ‘Soft and Wet,’ ” Adams said. “That was back in the day when you would read the album cover. First, I noticed that he had produced it himself and that was a really big deal to produce your own music back then. Then, I saw that he played all of the instruments on the album. It said he played 27 instruments and he was only, like, 17 years old. That was the start, pretty much from then on, I’m a fan.”
Adams, who said he frequently encountered musicians as a deejay, said he found himself speechless when he met Prince while working for a record company in 1983.
“I feel a presence behind me and I turn around and it is Prince and I freeze and I turn into a child,” Adams said, laughing. “I mumble something like, ‘Wow, you’re Prince!’ He said, ‘Yes, I am.’ I wanted to ask him my questions, but I froze. He waited some more, then he just walked away.”
As he signed off from his Washington radio show Thursday, Donnie Simpson said he believes there may be more of Prince’s music to come.
“It’s hard to believe [his] life is over, but I thank God that he left us with so much music, man. You know how much stuff he released. Just imagine how much is in his vault, thousands of songs, man, guaranteed.”
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