After having three daughters, Minneapolis jazz musician John L. Nelson was hoping for a boy when John Roger Nelson was born in 1945. Of course, there would be another boy 13 years later — Prince Rogers Nelson — who would follow in Dad's footsteps and go into music.
Johnny Nelson was the kind of man who held hands with his big sister throughout his life. Inspired by Prince, he taught himself how to play piano. He loved Westerns, Jesus and family gatherings.
Nelson, who died Sept. 3 of lung cancer at age 76, was remembered Thursday at Park Avenue United Methodist Church in south Minneapolis as a man who had a complicated life but who wasn't a complainer.
"When my uncle died — Prince — and Dad and everybody came back to Minnesota, it was like a whirlwind," Johnny's daughter, Breanna Nelson, said during the service. "My dad had a rough life." But during the past five years "he gave so much to us kids," including two-hour phone calls with her, attending his grandsons' football games and inviting the grandkids to swim at his apartment complex.
She spoke of Johnny's love for watching Westerns. He was especially fond of "Once Upon a Time in the West," a 1968 Sergio Leone epic starring Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson. Johnny loved the theme song, an instrumental, so much so that he asked Breanna to learn the melody and "belt it out." She did it for him once again shortly before he died.
The Rev. Will Healy pointed out that Park Avenue Methodist was a church where a memorial service was held for Prince. (It was also the site of his first marriage, to Mayte Garcia in 1996.)
Healy recalled that at Prince's service, Johnny said: "Prince had a strong influence on my life, and I was so impressed how he used the gifts and talents God gave him. I believe he exhausted them all. I felt if he could do it, I could, too. So I sat down and taught myself to play the keyboard and sing."
Healy said that memory summed up Johnny Nelson: "generous, artistic, not complaining, wise spirit."
Norrine Nelson spoke about how close she was to her brother, who was three years younger, and how they held hands throughout their lives. He would show up at her home, job and church. After she renewed her faith, Johnny did the same shortly thereafter. And she remembered his last words: "I'm tired."
New York lawyer L. Londell McMillan, who has represented Johnny, Norrine and oldest sister Sharon in Prince's estate issues, said Johnny painted a portrait of him.
"That was the kindest and sweetest thing, to take the time to use his creativity to show his appreciation," said McMillan, who was a pallbearer.
Johnny's granddaughter Harmony sang "Reckless Love" by contemporary Christian musician Cory Asbury. It wasn't the only music during the service. Healy delivered a harmonica reading of "It Is Well With My Soul," and a video was shown of Johnny, wearing a hoodie, playing a short piano passage.
Sharon Nelson declined to attend the service ("I don't do well at funerals") but visited the church, dressed in black with a ball cap and leather gloves emblazoned with Prince's glyph.
"Johnny looked like Dad," she said, looking at a presentation of photos of Johnny at the back of the sanctuary. "Only he was taller."
She later traveled to Oakland Cemetery in St. Paul for the burial. Prince heirs Tyka Nelson Phillips, Johnny's youngest sister, and Omarr Baker, Prince and Tyka's youngest brother, did not attend the service.
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719