John L. Nelson, pianist: born 1916; three times married; died Minneapolis, Minnesota 25 August 2001.
The jazz pianist John Nelson was the father of the enigmatic pop star Prince, and was a major influence on his son, who was named Prince Rogers Nelson after the Prince Rogers Trio, his father's combo.
Prince saw his father perform when he was five years old and never quite recovered from the excitement. "It was great, I couldn't believe it. People were screaming. From then on I think I wanted to be a musician," the singer said in one of his rare interviews. While he attributed the "wild side" of his character to his mother, the singer Mattie Shaw, Prince described his father as "real serene. It takes music to get him going."
Born in Louisiana in 1916, John Nelson had moved to Minneapolis in the Fifties to escape the racism of the South. Quiet and soft-spoken, Nelson lived for his music but couldn't quite earn a proper living from it. In 1955, when he married Mattie Shaw, who had been singing part-time with the Prince Rogers Trio, Nelson took a job as a plastic moulder at Honeywell Electronics in Minneapolis. Nelson had two daughters and a son from his first marriage, while Shaw had a son from a previous relationship. Prince was born in 1958 and his sister Tyka two years later.
Realising both Tyka and Prince were musically inclined, Nelson encouraged them and Prince blossomed, writing his first tune, "Funk Machine" on his father's piano when he was seven. Nelson and Shaw separated in 1968, divorcing two years later. Prince recalls how he played the piano "to fill the void. When I was 12, I ran away for the first time because of problems with my stepfather [Haywood Baker]. I went to live with my real father but that didn't last too long because he's as stubborn as I am. I lived with my aunt for a while. I was constantly running from family to family."
Nelson had bought Prince an electric guitar but, when he caught his teenage son with a girlfriend, he threw him out. The pair were eventually reconciled in the early Eighties. During rehearsals for the 1983 tour which promoted the album 1999, Nelson jammed with his son as well as with Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman from The Revolution, Prince's backing group. The resulting track, "Computer Blue", featured in the film Purple Rain (1984). Its soundtrack album sold 10 million copies in the US alone and cemented Prince's superstar status around the world.
The royalties John Nelson earned undoubtedly made up for the fact that the film, based on Prince's early days in Minneapolis and his troubled relationship with his parents, played fast and loose with the truth. In particular, Nelson was adamant that, unlike the actor portraying the father character in the movie, he had never used a gun.
Prince also gave Nelson a co- writing credit on "The Ladder" from the 1985 album Around the World in a Day because he had based the piece on a chord sequence his father often used. This happened again on various tracks included in the 1986 album Parade and the soundtracks for the films Under The Cherry Moon (1986) and Batman (1989).
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