Prince: In appreciation of a virtuoso, enduring genius

Prince died as he lived, in his recording studio, where the musical mines worked day and night

Nick Hasted
Friday 22 April 2016 09:10 BST
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Louise Thomas

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“He can be the new Duke Ellington of our times,” Miles Davis said of Prince in 1989. Jazz’s most restless revolutionary recognised a kindred spirit in the younger man, going on to compare him to Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Little Richard, even Charlie Chaplin. For most of the Eighties making records, and his whole life in concert, Prince was the equal of those earlier black American geniuses. He was an androgynously sexy, self-created hybrid of all their images and musical strands, fusing funk, soul, rock and jazz for a new age.

His early albums – For You (1978), Prince, Dirty Mind (both 1980) and Controversy (1981) – saw significant US chart success, but kept him in an R&B ghetto where, as the album titles acknowledged, songs such as “Soft and Wet” had him tagged as a creatively filthy-minded, funk provocateur. In a USA where radio formats had racially and racistly schismed pop since Sly Stone’s early Seventies heyday, that ghetto was where Prince was meant to stay.

Right from the start, though, his label Warner sufficiently acknowledged his talent’s scale to give him total control of his records. 1999 (1983) rewarded them with undeniable, major hits, with the giddy future-rush of the title track, and “Little Red Corvette”.

The following year’s Purple Rain, the soundtrack to a semi-autobiographical hit film in which Prince also starred, blew down American music’s ghetto walls. Prince rode a purple motorbike on its sleeve, an outrageous update of James Dean and Brando. His image spliced the similarly heedless cultural atom bomb Little Richard with Hendrix, and his virtuoso, liquidly questing brilliance on the guitar restated Hendrix’s case that rock could and should still be black.

In a swirl of provocatively polymorphous sex which Prince denied was perverse, and music which was equal parts early digital futurism and roaring rock’n’roll, this was a man the sight and sound of which was a wonderful affront to Eighties orthodoxies.

For a brief moment, Prince was a commercial icon to stand alongside Madonna, Springsteen and Michael Jackson. But he refused to stand still simply to sell records. Around the World In A Day (1985) announced he could be The Beatles, too, finding a richly melodic vein of psychedelic funk which nodded to Sgt. Pepper. The following year’s Parade soundtracked a far less successful second film, Under the Cherry Moon, but also offered “Kiss”, an itchily danceable single which found funk’s skeletal essence. It was a regal US Number 1, and the end, already, of his commercial prime.

Prince’s artistic peak followed immediately. Sign “O” the Times (1987) was a double-album which was immediately recognised as a new equivalent to sprawling masterworks of an earlier era – The Beatles’ “White” album, and Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde. The title track ranged across the iniquities and tragedies of Reagan’s America, updating the social outcry of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, Gil Scott Heron’s Winter In America and Curtis Mayfield’s Back In the World, over “Kiss”-like, itchy funk.

But there was so much more, as Prince unveiled his full protean genius, from the James Brown dance track “Housequake” to the gorgeous, stately melody of “Ballad of Dorothy Parker”, which hinted at the earlier worlds of Ellington and Gershwin. Hip-hop and the hilariously cheeky uber-androgyny of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” were also brought inside Prince’s tent here.

Prince's most iconic looks

“It’s the church thing I hear in his music that makes him special,” Miles Davis noted. And, prefigured by Around the World In a Day track, “The Ladder”, Sign “O” the Times climaxed with an astonishing statement of spiritual longing, “The Cross”. Along with final song “Adore”, it triumphantly tapped the fervent gospel longing to transcend and remake an unjust world which lay at the heart of 20th century America’s music. This was Prince the soul man, too.

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The quality control dipped afterwards, though Diamonds And Pearls regained some lustre, and the one-off single “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” (1994) was an almost casually inevitable US Number 1, as if to let it be known Prince had this in him all the time. A long dispute with Warner, during which The Artist Formerly Known As Prince renounced his own name and declared himself, with uncharacteristic lack of perspective, a slave, was followed by unchecked, wildly uneven releases. Though prolific, Prince’s mining of seemingly inexhaustible private reserves of often indistinguishable funk effectively destroyed his album career. A committed Jehovah’s Witness (the faith he had found on that ladder) who famously knocked on doors to gain converts in his native Minneapolis, it was always easy to snigger at Prince. But he retained an ethereal, unique mystique.

Seemingly an almost unreal presence in the real world, he had created his own, Paisley Park, where he rarely seemed to sleep, the musical mines working day and night. “It’s huge,” Hannah Welton, drummer for his most recent band, 3rdeyegirl, told me. “There’s multiple recording studios inside, a huge sound-stage, that whenever we do shows and open up Paisley Park holds 1800 in that room. It’s a complex, but once you walk inside it’s very homey, very comfortable, a perfect environment. It’s a wonderland for artists.”

Prince’s enduring genius was reaffirmed in 2014 by his Hit & Run shows across London. Materialising with little notice at small venues, he riffed and morphed through his career with quicksilver ease. Sitting at the piano at Ronnie Scott’s, wholly his own mighty talent but with every aspect of the black American past at his fingertips, Miles’ mention of Duke made perfect sense. It's astonishing to believe that that tireless, barrier-breaking creative well has now suddenly stopped.

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