Pushing envelopes: Remembering legendary Prince
As Prince proved during his most recent San Diego concerts at downtown’s Hard Rock Hotel in 2013 with his all-woman band 3rd Eye Girl, he did so many things so exceedingly well that he was in a league of his own.
A great singer, songwriter, guitarist, showman and all-around musical visionary, he created some of the most striking and inspired recordings and concerts by any pop, rock, funk or R&B artist of the past half century.
Prince being Prince, he put his stamp on all of those musical styles, and more, and helped blur the distinctions between them. His sudden death Wednesday at the age of 57, following a bout with the flu, robs the music world of one of its most singular artists, only days after he played a solo concert in Atlanta.
As this enormously influential maverick reaffirmed during his Hard Rock Hotel concerts here, he could electrify audiences in an instant and then sustain, and increase, that jolt for long as he remained on stage.
Of course, not all of his three-dozen or so albums were classics. And his second feature movie, “Under the Cherry Moon,” was at times laughably bad. Likewise, he was off-target with some of his pronouncements, most notably his 2009 declaration - or was it just wishful thinking - that the Internet was dead.
“The Internet’s completely over,” Prince said at the time. “I don’t see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won’t pay me an advance for it, and then they get angry when they can’t get it.
“The Internet’s like MTV. At one time MTV was hip and suddenly it became outdated. ... All these computers and digital gadgets are no good. They just fill your head with numbers and that can’t be good for you.”
Mind you, Prince had amassed some impressive numbers of his own. They included his worldwide album sales of more than 100 million, and the dozens of classic songs he wrote and recorded, from “Controversy,” “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Kiss” to “Purple Rain,” “When Doves Cry,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Superfunkycalifragisexy,” and the list goes on.
A Prince primer
Born: Prince Rogers Nelson
First album: “For You” (1978)
First Top 40 single: “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (1979)
First No. 1 single: “When Doves Cry” (1984)
Total number of albums released: 36, give or take (and many more recordings that remain unreleased_
First movie: “Purple Rain” (1984)
First alternate stage name: An unpronounceable symbol (1993)
Second alternate stage name: “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince” (1994-2000)
Most recent stage name: Prince (since 2000)
Other musical pseudonyms used: Jamie Starr, Joey Coco, Alexander Nevermind, Christopher
Grammy Awards: 7 (the first in 1984, the most recent in 2007)
Academy Award: 1985 (for Best Music, Original Song Score for “Purple Rain”)
Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: 2004
Last San Diego concerts: 2013 at the Hard Rock Hotel
On his best albums, and there were many, virtually every song stood out. Listen to some of his best albums today - 1980’s “Dirty Mind,” 1984’s “Purple Rain” and 1987’s “Sign O’ the Times” are three choice examples - and you hear a creative genius so talented that even jazz-and-beyond icon Miles Davis was impressed.
As Davis once noted in a TV interview: “Prince is so talented he can be wake up every morning and be anyone he wants to be.” (The two recorded together, although their collaborations are so far only available only on low-audio-quality bootlegs.)
Even Prince’s lesser releases - such as 1999’s “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic” and the 2001’s tepid pop-jazz exercise “The Rainbow Children” - had a hidden musical gem or two. Had he bothered to trim his three-CD 1996 set “Emancipation” and four-CD 1998 CD set “Crystal Ball” down to a single album, each, they, too, could have been classics, And let’s not forget that on some of his albums, Prince ably handled all of the instruments and vocals.
Prince also wrote a slew of memorable songs that became hits for other artists. This formidablee list includes The Bangles’ “Manic Monday,” Alicia Keys’ “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore,” Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You,” Sheila E’s “The Glamorous Life,” The Time’s “The Bird” and Sheena Easton’s “Sugar Walls.” The beyond-racy lyrics of “Sugar Walls” almost singlehandedly prompted the 1985 launch of the Tipper Gore-led Parents Resource Music Center, and the resulting Parental Warning labels that subsequently were stickered on many albums).
Prince seemed to back away from his more sexually frank songs in 2001, after he became a Jehovah’s Witness. He seemed to grow embarrassed by his most lyrically raw songs, including “Erotic City,” “Head,” “Gett Off” and “Darling Nikki.” He also changed a key line in “I Feel For You” from “I’m physically attracted to you” to “I’m spiritually attracted to you.”
That he was once as skilled at pushing boundaries - social, sexual and cultural - as he was at pushing musical ones is undeniable. Yet, while he had no trouble stirring up controversy at he drop of a hat, or garter, it is Prince’s music that will ultimately endure over the envelope-pushing moves of his early career.
By 2004, Prince had become a crusader for old-school musical values. As he told the audience that year at one of his Staples Center concerts in Los Angeles: “We do not believe in lip-syncing. This is real music by real musicians.”
When Prince was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that same year, he began his acceptance speech with: “All praise and thanks to the most high Jehovah.”
He concluded his remarks by saying: “A word to the wise: Without real spiritual mentoring, too much freedom can lead to the soul’s decay. A word to the young artists - a real friend and mentor isn’t on your payroll. A real friend and mentor cares for your soul as much as they do their own. I wish all of you the best on this fascinating journey. It ain’t over. Peace.”
The physical part of Prince’s journey, very sadly, is now over. But his best work has endured, and it will no doubt continue to inspire millions of listeners and myriad musicians around the world, not just in 80 days, but for years to come.
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