The enduring influence of Prince, the trailblazing singer and songwriter who died on Thursday aged 57, is perhaps best measured in the praise of his musical peers. Responding to the news of his passing, Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson wrote that Prince “could do it all: sing, play, arrange and produce.”
The veteran songwriter Diane Warren tweeted: “U wanna learn what a great song is? Go listen to every f***ing song on Purple Rain,” referring to Prince’s classic 1984 album.
The body of the celebrated musician – full name Prince Rogers Nelson – was found in a lift at his Paisley Park recording studio in Chanhassen, Minnesota on Thursday morning. Entertainment website TMZ was the first to report his death, which was confirmed to The Independent by a spokesman. “The news is devastatingly true,” they said.
The Carver County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that it was investigating the circumstances of the singer’s death. Concerns about Prince’s health had been raised at least a week previously, when his jet made an emergency landing in Illinois early last Friday morning, on the way back to Minnesota from a concert in Atlanta.
Prince had reportedly complained that he was feeling “considerably worse” after being laid low for several weeks with a “bad bout of flu”. He was treated at a local hospital but released three hours later. The following night he appeared at a dance party close to his home, where he did not perform, but told the audience: “Wait a few days before you waste any prayers.”
Born in Minneapolis in June 1958, Prince grew up in a musical family: his mother sang in a local jazz band, which was led by his father. He was playing the piano by age seven, guitar and drums at 14, all without ever receiving lessons. His debut studio LP, 1978’s For You, was not a huge commercial success, but he followed it up with his first hit single, “I Wanna Be Your Lover”.
The subsequent, eponymous 1979 album Prince went to number four in the Billboard Soul LP charts. Drawing on a spectrum of musical influences, from funk to rock and from disco to jazz, Prince’s instrumental talent, flamboyant stage presence and unabashed originality made him one of the most distinctive musicians of the past four decades.
A prolific songwriter, he composed a string of hits for other singers, among them the searing Sinead O’Connor ballad “Nothing Compares 2 U”. But it was Purple Rain that secured his place in music history. The LP, which featured multiple hits including “When Doves Cry”, is a stalwart of greatest-ever album rankings and earned the singer his first brace of Grammy awards.
As a cultural figure, Prince blurred the lines of gender, race and sexuality, both delighting and confounding fans with his sexually expressive lyrics and androgynous persona. Much of his third album, 1980’s Dirty Mind, was deemed too obscene to receive radio airplay. But, rather than tone down his lyrics, Prince lasted long enough to see radio standards bend in his direction.
That refusal to conform became a defining characteristic: at one point, Prince changed his name to a symbol no-one could pronounce. He rarely gave interviews, and was known to refuse to allow journalists to record his voice. Given his private nature, it came as a pleasant surprise to fans when it was announced last month that he had signed a publishing deal for his memoirs. He had reportedly written around 50 pages prior to his death.
Though his public profile was lower than in previous decades, Prince remained prolific in the last few years of his life. His most recent album, 2015’s HITnRUN, was released in two parts. He was also believed to have a “vault” of unreleased recordings sufficient to fill an album per year for decades to come.
Even President Barack Obama was moved to pay tribute to the late singer, saying in a statement: “As one of the most gifted and prolific musicians of our time, Prince did it all. Funk. R&B. Rock and roll. He was a virtuoso instrumentalist, a brilliant bandleader, and an electrifying performer. ‘A strong spirit transcends rules,’ Prince once said – and nobody’s spirit was stronger, bolder, or more creative.”
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