Prince, iconic singer-songwriter and seven-time Grammy winner, has died. He was 57. In the mid ’80s, just as his career hit an all-time high following the release of his hit single “Purple Rain”, Prince sat down with PEOPLE to discuss his life and riqu e music. Read the 1984 cover story below:
He glittered in a white sequined cape, ornately futuristic atop a bank of speakers in the darkened hall. Eerie synthesizer chords echoed through the arena, laser lights dappled the crowd and a garbled heavenly voice rumbled, “I’m confused.” And as confetti rained down, 19,000 fans at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena saw the song and spectacle of Prince Rogers Nelson. “Detroit,” he thundered, “I’ve come to play with you!”
For Prince, a playground is a place where the id runs free. Prince’s former manager once said that “his worst fear is being normal,” and even the singer’s friends admit that he’s weird. On one other point fans and critics alike can agree: At 26, the musical polymath, film star and stage stud is currently the hottest act in show business. One newspaper has even coined a word for the hysteria he generates: Princedemonia.
Prince’s ascendance began two years ago with his rhapsodic dance LP, 1999, which still rides the charts after 105 weeks. He followed that with a feature film, Purple Rain, that became a surprise summer hit. The film spawned a sound track, which he produced, arranged, composed – and made into the No. 1 album. Spinning off clones faster than a Cambridge lab, he transformed a jazz percussionist named Sheila Escovedo into the singing sex-pot Sheila E. and turned a former consort, Denise Matthews, a Pearl Drops tooth polish model, into Vanity, the leader of a camisole-clad girl group whose songs – written by Prince, of course – became dance-floor hits.
Last week Prince and his band, the Revolution, hit the concert trail for the first time in two years. In Washington, D.C Prince-lovers gobbled up 130,000 tickets in less than 10 hours, prompting one reporter to crack, “Maybe those Jackson fellows could open for him when they finish their Victory tour.”
The comparisons with Michael are inevitable, since each is young, gifted, black – and a notorious recluse. Each has ignited, and united, black and white audiences with music that breaks down barriers among soul, funk and rock. But Prince’s risqué lyrics extolling the joy of sex go where no mainstream rocker has dared to go before. And while Michael is a man of mystery, Prince is a person of paradox. Consider the evidence.
Onstage, at his most outrageous, he has writhed atop a stack of speakers in nothing more than bikini briefs, leg warmers and a layer of sweat. Yet he covered up with a ’30s-style tank suit when he went swimming at his hometown Y. He controls every facet of his career and his music, yet he’s too shy to face the press. He claims to speak “the truth” in his songs but early in his career lied to reporters about his name (he denied it was Nelson), his birth date (1958, which he pushed up to 1960) and even his racial heritage (he says he is “mixed” but his father says both parents are black).
He is a religious paradox as well. He gives thanks to God on his albums, yet his songs celebrate the pleasures of flesh, and the gospel he preaches is salvation by sex. In a song called Sister he even exploited the Big Daddy of all taboos: incest.
Who is this guy?
“The filthiest rock ‘n’ roller ever to prance across the stage,” fumes Dan Peters, 33, a minister at the interdenominational Zion Christian Center in North St. Paul, Minn. For five years Dan and a brother have been kindling an antirock crusade by crisscrossing the country urging youngsters to destroy offending albums. At the moment the brothers are particularly incensed about a new song called Darling Nikki, in which Prince sings, “I am fine, fine because the Lord is coming soon.” “Kids come up to us and say, ‘See, that shows he is a Christian,’ ” sputters Dan. “And I say, ‘As far as we can tell from listening to the lyrics, his Lord is a penis.’ ”
Yet Prince’s songs, which include themes of lost love, politics and gun control, seem to mirror the concerns and anxieties of a sexually precocious, socially aware generation. “I guess if there’s a concept, it’s freedom– personal freedom – and the fact that we all have to do what we want to do,” Prince said of his music in my interview with him in 1981. A swaggering conqueror onstage, he seemed vulnerable in person, speaking in short, grudging bursts of words that nevertheless revealed more than he wanted me to know. Denying that he wanted to shock or outrage, he insisted, “I think I say exactly the way it is. I don’t particularly think what I sing about is so controversial. My albums deal with being loved and accepted. They deal with war. They deal with sex. When a girl can get birth control pills at age 12, she knows just about as much as I do. My mom had stuff in her room that I could sneak in and get…books, vibrators. I did it. I’m sure everybody does…It could be that I have a need to be different.”
The difference began in Minneapolis, where Prince was born to Mattie and John Nelson, who already had seven other children from previous marriages. He was christened Prince after his father, a jazz pianist whose stage name was Prince Rogers. He was a man whose musicianship – and possibly arrogance – Prince admired. His songs were different, “unique,” Prince said. “He doesn’t listen to any other music. I respect anybody who doesn’t try to copy other people.”