Prince Rogers Nelson (June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016) was an American singer, songwriter, musician, record producer, dancer, actor, and filmmaker. A guitar virtuoso and multi-instrumentalist is known for his eclectic genre-crossing work, flamboyant and androgynous persona, energetic live shows, and wide-ranging singing voice, in particular, his far-reaching falsetto and high-pitched screams, Prince is regarded as one of the greatest musicians in the history of popular music.
Prince Rogers Nelson was born on June 7, 1958, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the son of jazz singer Mattie Della (née Shaw) and pianist and songwriter John Lewis Nelson. All four of his grandparents hailed from Louisiana. Prince was given his father’s stage name, Prince Rogers, which his father used while performing with his mother in a jazz group called the Prince Rogers Trio. In 1991, Prince’s father told A Current Affair that he named his son Prince because he wanted Prince “to do everything I wanted to do”. Prince was not fond of his name and wanted people to instead call him Skipper, a name which stuck throughout his childhood. Prince has said he was “born epileptic” and had seizures when he was young. He stated, “My mother told me one day I walked into her and said, ‘Mom, I’m not going to be sick anymore,’ and she said, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘Because an angel told me so.'”
Prince’s younger sister, Tyka, was born on May 18, 1960. Both siblings developed a keen interest in music, which was encouraged by their father. Prince wrote his first song, “Funk Machine”, on his father’s piano when he was seven. Prince’s parents divorced when he was 10. His mother remarried to Hayward Baker, with whom she had a son named Omarr; Prince had a fraught relationship with his half brother Baker to the extent that it caused him to repeatedly switch homes, sometimes living with his father and sometimes with his mother and stepfather. Baker took Prince to see James Brown in concert, and Prince credited Baker with improving the family’s finances. After a brief period of living with his father, who bought him his first guitar, Prince moved into the basement of the Anderson family, his neighbors, after his father kicked him out. He befriended the Andersons’ son, Andre, who later collaborated with Prince and became known as André Cymone.
Prince attended Minneapolis’ Bryant Junior High and then Central High School, where he played football, basketball, and baseball. He was a student at the Minnesota Dance Theatre through the Urban Arts Program of Minneapolis Public Schools. He played on Central’s junior varsity basketball team and continued to play basketball recreationally as an adult. Prince met songwriter and producer Jimmy Jam in 1973 and impressed Jimmy with his musical talent, early mastery of a wide range of instruments, and work ethic.
Prince was romantically linked with many celebrities over the years, including Kim Basinger, Madonna, Vanity, Sheila E., Carmen Electra, Susanna Hoffs, and Sherilyn Fenn. In 1990, he saw a 16-year-old dancer Mayte García standing outside of his tour bus, and he said to Rosie Gaines, “There’s my future wife.” After graduating from high school, García began working as one of his backup singers and dancers. They were married on February 14, 1996; he was 37 and she was 22. They had a son named Amiir Nelson, who was born on October 16, 1996, and died a week later on October 23 after suffering from Pfeiffer syndrome. The distress of losing a child and a subsequent miscarriage took a toll on the marriage, and the couple divorced in 2000. In 2001, Prince married Manuela Testolini in a private ceremony. Manuela is from Toronto and the couple lived part-time there. They separated in 2005 and divorced in May 2006.
Prince was an animal rights activist who followed a vegan diet for part of his life but later described himself as vegetarian. The liner notes for his album Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999) featured a message about the cruelty involved in wool production. He became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, following a two-year debate with bassist Larry Graham who became his mentor and a close friend at this time. Prince said that he did not consider it a conversion, but a “realization”, comparing it to “Morpheus and Neo in The Matrix“. Prince attended meetings at a local Kingdom Hall and occasionally knocked on people’s doors to discuss his faith.
Prince had needed double hip replacement surgery since 2005. A false rumor was spread by the tabloids that he would not undergo the operation because of his refusal to have blood transfusions. The Star Tribune reported that Graham “denied claims that Prince couldn’t have hip surgery because his faith prohibited blood transfusions” and put the false rumor to rest as hip surgery does not require blood transfusions. According to Morris Day, Prince, in fact, had hip surgery in 2008.
Prince did not speak publicly about his charitable endeavors; the extent of his activism, philanthropy, and charity was publicized after his death. In 2001, Prince donated $12,000 anonymously to the Louisville Free Public Library system to keep the historic Western Branch Library, the first full-service library for African Americans in the country, from closure. Also in 2001, he anonymously paid off the medical bills of drummer Clyde Stubblefield, who was undergoing cancer treatment. In 2015, he conceived and launched YesWeCode, paying for many hackathons outright and performing musical acts at some of them. He also helped fund Green for All.
In late March 2016, Prince told an audience he was writing a memoir titled The Beautiful Ones, although its publication seemed unlikely with his death only a few weeks later. His co-writer, Dan Piepenbring, continued work on the memoir and The Beautiful Ones was published in October 2019.
Prince sold over 100 million records worldwide, ranking him among the best-selling music artists of all time. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2006, and the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame in 2016. In 2016, he was posthumously honored with a Doctor of Humane Letters by the University of Minnesota. He won seven Grammy Awards, seven Brit Awards, six American Music Awards, four MTV Video Music Awards, an Academy Award (for Best Original Song Score for the film Purple Rain), and a Golden Globe Award. Two of his albums, Purple Rain (1984) and Sign o’ the Times (1987), received the Grammy Award for Album of the Year nominations. 1999 (1982), Purple Rain, and Sign o’ the Times have all been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. At the 28th Grammy Awards, Prince was awarded the President’s Merit Award. Prince was also honored with the American Music Award for Achievement and American Music Award of Merit at the American Music Awards of 1990 and American Music Awards of 1995 respectively. At the 2013 Billboard Music Awards, he was honored with the Billboard Icon Award. In 2019, the 1984 film Purple Rain was added by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.