He was only 5-foot-2, but Prince was as big as Minnesota gets. No one put Minneapolis on the map more emphatically.
His music of the early 1980s — especially the album and movie “Purple Rain” — generated international excitement for a man and a city that many deemed too small for such fanfare. The 57-year-old continued to blaze his own independent, innovative path out of his hometown for more than three decades.
His shocking death instantly dominated news and social media channels by midday Thursday and even drew a swift reaction from President Obama.
“Michelle and I join millions of fans from around the world in mourning the sudden death of Prince,” the president said in a Facebook post. “Few artists have influenced the sound and trajectory of popular music more distinctly, or touched quite so many people with their talent. He was a virtuoso instrumentalist, a brilliant bandleader and an electrifying performer.”
In his incomparable 38-year recording career, Prince brazenly blended rock, R&B, funk, pop and jazz like few artists before or since. He pushed the envelope on sexuality and androgyny in music, dared to take on the corporate music industry and took some of the first bold steps in releasing music over the Internet, a medium he later railed against.
His career soared even as he cut against the norm. He sold more than 100 million albums worldwide, racked up four No. 1 albums and five No. 1 U.S. singles and won seven Grammy Awards and one Oscar. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, the first year he became eligible.
Along with the title track to “Purple Rain,” his most-recognized songs included “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Kiss,” “Raspberry Beret,” “1999” and “Little Red Corvette.”
His greatest moments, however, were often in concert. He capped off his breakout year, 1984, with an unprecedented five-night stand at the St. Paul Civic Center over Christmas week.
Thursday’s response on Twitter from some of the biggest names in music spoke to the widespread respect Prince commanded.
Beyoncé wrote, “We lost a legend.” Paul McCartney tweeted, “God bless this creative giant.” Mick Jagger said via a series of tributes, “Prince was a revolutionary artist, a great musician, composer, a wonderful lyricist, a startling guitar player … but most importantly, authentic in every way.”
Another tribute to Prince out of the nation’s capital came from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who made a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate about her hometown hero.
“We were so proud of that movie [‘Purple Rain’], and everyone would point at every spot in the movie that they knew from growing up,” Klobuchar said. “He was a superstar composer, an amazing performer and a music innovator with a fierce belief in the independence of his art.”
The color purple shines
Outside Paisley Park on Thursday, fans lined up in the rain to pray, share memories and console each other. Mourners began lining up with flowers and stuffed animals outside the studio on Audubon Road, some sobbing and embracing.
“He was a magical being, and watching him grow up and evolve brought a little magic to us,” Kari Swalinkavich, an attorney from Chanhassen, said as she stood with friends and wiped away tears.
Another hub for mourners, the First Avenue nightclub in downtown Minneapolis added a late-night, all-Prince dance party on Thursday. Then the city agreed to block off 7th Street outside the club for an impromptu “street memorial party,” organized with public radio station 89.3 the Current.
Prince not only filmed “Purple Rain” at First Avenue, he recorded songs for the soundtrack in concert and often hung out there. His last time at the club was March 11 for a performance by locally rooted women’s R&B trio King.
“There’s not a day that goes by where we don’t hear a band playing one of his songs during sound check or someone asks for a tour because of Prince, or wants to come take a picture with his star on the wall,” said First Avenue General Manager Nate Kranz. “We cannot overstate what he means to this club.”
Fellow Minneapolis music vet Paul Westerberg of the Replacements told the Minnesota News Network that Prince “was a ray of light in a sometimes dour and cloudy place.” Compared to other local musicians, he said, “We were playing with toy trucks, and he was like Mario Andretti.”
Birth and reinvention
Although he always put forth an invincible, cocky image, Prince overcame a troubled childhood and endured heartache later in life.
Born on June 7, 1958, Prince Rogers Nelson was the son of a social worker, Mattie Shaw, and a jazz pianist, John Nelson, both deceased. His closest living relative is his younger sister, Tyka Nelson. Prince married and divorced twice in the 1990s and 2000s. He and his first wife, Mayte Garcia, had a son who died after one week from a rare birth defect.
Prince’s parents had a volatile relationship, which partly inspired “Purple Rain.” In his midteens he moved in with friend and bandmate André Cymone’s family.
Cymone expressed his grief by phone from Los Angeles, saying he traded messages with Prince last weekend after the reports of his illness. Several other former bandmates declined to comment Thursday, citing shock.
“He said he was doing OK and we’d try to hook up next time he was in L.A.,” Cymone said. “I’m just devastated now. I’m in utter disbelief. It’s such a tragedy.”
Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001 and on at least one occasion went proselytizing door-to-door in an Eden Prairie neighborhood. He toned down the sexuality of his albums and concerts in the ensuing decade, when his recording career faded considerably.
However, he maintained a high-profile persona and reputation as a live performer. He wowed audiences at the Grammy Awards with Beyoncé in 2003 and again at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in 2004. In 2007, he played the halftime show for Super Bowl XLI, which Rolling Stone magazine later ranked as the best in Super Bowl history.
He was still reinventing himself in concert. In January he embarked on his first all-solo trek, the Piano & a Microphone tour, earning raves from critics across the United States and Australia.
Previewing the tour for hometown fans at Paisley Park in January, Prince turned unusually personal on stage as he talked about growing up in Minneapolis and his dad’s influence on him as a musician. “How does Dad do that?!” he recounted himself saying as a kid when listening to John Nelson perform.
Kids worldwide are going to be asking the same thing about Prince in decades and maybe centuries to come.
Staff writers Pam Louwagie and Matt McKinney and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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