There were no obvious signs.
In the months before his death Thursday at 57, Prince was active, onstage and off. In concert at his Paisley Park complex in Chanhassen, he jumped atop his grand piano and carried on with abandon. He was seen attending basketball games and concerts by the likes of Madonna, strutting with his usual purple attitude.
But in retrospect, those who saw him regularly say there were indications that the always-mysterious Minnesotan might have been concealing health problems. He abandoned his trademark high-heeled boots for custom platform sneakers, for one thing, and began carrying a cane.
The mystery deepened after Prince canceled a pair of concerts April 7 in Atlanta, blaming the flu. He finally played those dates a week later, but his plane made an emergency landing in Moline, Ill., on the return flight.
A Prince associate said he was suffering from extreme dehydration. However, celebrity news website TMZ, citing unidentified sources, reported that he was treated for an overdose of Percocet, a painkiller that contains acetaminophen and the opioid oxycodone.
When he held court at Paisley a day later in an attempt to quell rumors about his health, “he looked pasty, weak and frail,” said longtime fan Nancy Andersen of Minneapolis. “I didn’t attribute it to anything other than he’d had the flu. He did have trouble walking up the steps to the piano.”
While he never confirmed it, rumors had swirled for some time that Prince had a hip operation several years ago — part of the physical toll exacted by his decades as one of rock’s most electrifying live performers.
“There was always something kind of bothering him, as it does all of us,” former bandmate Sheila E told the Associated Press. “We know all the years of him jumping off the risers and the speakers onstage in the heels, you know, messed up his hip and his knee, but he kept doing it because he loved doing it and it was something no one was doing.”
At the same time, “he really took care of himself. He ate well — he ate better than I did.”
In the past three years, Prince had maintained an unusually high public profile. Attuned to every nuance, the superfans who attended nearly all his public events at Paisley were struck by his appearance six nights before his death.
“It was like his curtain call,” said Paisley regular Denise Young, 36, of Rosemount. “When he said, ‘Wait before you waste your prayers on me,’ I was like, ‘Why you saying it?’ Now you put it together and you understood it.”
Two nights before that, a Georgia critic thought Prince sounded congested in what turned out to be his final show.
Private service at Paisley
Prince was cremated and his final resting place will remain private, a spokesperson said Saturday.
A private funeral service was held Saturday afternoon at Paisley Park, attended by, among others, Sheila E; model Damaris Lewis; Prince siblings Tyka Nelson and Omar Baker, and Prince’s close musical and spiritual mentor Larry Graham, decked out in a purple suit and hat. Afterward, Paisley Park staff handed out about 300 purple boxes filled with Prince souvenirs to fans congregated outside the complex.
A musical celebration will be held on a date to be determined, according to the statement.
The results of an autopsy conducted Friday may not be known for weeks, according to a spokeswoman for Midwest Medical Examiners of Ramsey.
In the meantime, the people closest to Prince are not talking — his assistant, Meron Bekure, and Kirk Johnson, a longtime friend who served as aide-de-camp, running Paisley Park and playing drums in Prince’s latest band.
The two passed out pizzas Friday afternoon to fans outside Paisley Park. Helping out were Hannah Welton, the now-pregnant drummer for Prince’s former backup band 3rdEyeGirl, and her husband, Josh Welton, who coproduced Prince’s latest albums.
All four were with Prince when he was last seen in public, at a concert Tuesday night at the Dakota in Minneapolis.
Twin Cities musician Pepe Willie, who worked with Prince four decades ago, is not surprised by the mystery surrounding his death.
“He didn’t want people to see him weak,” Willie said. “That’s why he worked so hard. He wasn’t going to fail. He wasn’t going to share much information on what was wrong with him, whether it was the flu or pneumonia or whatever.”
‘Tiptop shape’ last fall
Since forming 3rdEyeGirl in the fall of 2012, Prince became more open. “He got very accessible,” said Paisley regular Danny L’Amour, 27, of Minneapolis, who became so familiar to Prince that he used a couple of her designs for souvenir T-shirts.
The reclusive superstar opened Paisley more often, whether for a pajama party for fans or a private concert after the Minnesota Lynx clinched the WNBA title Oct. 14.
Lynx assistant coach Jim Petersen, a former NBA player, was struck by Prince’s stamina.
“I’m three years younger than Prince,” Petersen said. “And not only is the guy playing music at 1 in the morning, he’s playing until 4 in the morning and then he’s riding his bike around afterwards. It was incredible. His stamina, his ability to move from one instrument to another so effortlessly, to still be playing music with such veracity — it was mind-blowing.”
Prince was similarly impressive offstage, according to veteran reporter Kelley Carter of ESPN, one of 10 journalists who had a private audience at Paisley in August.
“He looked in tiptop shape,” Carter said. “He didn’t look like a man in his 50s. He looked like he was drinking pints of vampire blood. His skin looked as supple to me as it did in ‘Purple Rain’ in 1984.”
At a Paisley party in November, Prince invited the attendees to a late-night showing of the James Bond movie “Spectre” at the nearby Chanhassen cineplex — his treat.
Going solo on tour
As the new year arrived, Prince dropped hints on his Twitter account of a special event Jan. 21. After his staff installed carpeting for the first time on the floor of the Paisley soundstage, Prince kicked off his first-ever trek as a solo performer — the Piano & a Microphone Tour — with perhaps the most revealing performance of his career.
The next week, he held a three-night celebration at Paisley where he was seen dancing to the music of Larry Graham and Morris Day and the Time.
In February, he gave 11 performances over the course of two weeks in Australia and New Zealand. He brought his one-man show to small theaters in Oakland and San Francisco in early March, topped by a big concert in Oracle Arena the night after watching the Golden State Warriors there.
The piano man took a detour on March 18 to New York City to announce his memoir, “The Beautiful Ones” — an event that, in typical Prince fashion, included a cameo concert.
Then it was back on tour in Canada, for three shows March 21-22 in Montreal and two March 25 in Toronto, where in the early 2000s he had maintained a home with his then-wife, Manuela.
“I thought he was at the top of his game,” Toronto Sun music critic Jane Stevenson said. “He was the sunniest, the chattiest that I’d ever seen him. … It’s not like I thought, ‘He looks frail, or looks sick.’ He was vintage Prince. Why would you be dancing if you’re in so much pain?”
‘We have a major problem’
Next up was Atlanta on April 7. However, the morning of the scheduled two shows, the promoter received a call from Prince’s agent.
“We have a major problem,” promoter Lucy Freas said she was told. “Prince is really sick. He’s not going to get on the plane and he needs to postpone the show. … He has the flu and he’s just coming back from the doctor.”
Three days later, Freas was surprised to learn that Prince would do the Atlanta shows April 14. Seeing him backstage that night, Freas realized that he was still under the weather.
“He said he wasn’t feeling 100 percent,” she said. “But like anyone in the audience, if I didn’t know that, there’s no way you could tell while he performed.”
Atlanta Journal Constitution critic Melissa Ruggieri noticed that Prince sounded a bit nasally or congested when he spoke onstage, like he was getting over a cold. But he didn’t sound fatigued.
“When he sang, he sounded amazing. His range was there. His falsetto was there,” she observed. “He was fully into the show and not just coming out and going through the motions.”
Prince also conversed with the crowd. “For someone who is so private he talked a little more and was even a little playful,” Ruggieri said.
‘He looked frail’
That’s the Prince the regulars at Paisley Park knew.
As they took a break from their Paisley vigil on Friday night, nine of them gathered at a Chanhassen apartment complex. Most had attended more than 35 events at Paisley in the past three years.
Paisley manager Johnson nicknamed them “True Blue” and sometimes gave them little jobs such as selling T-shirts.
Prince knew their faces if not their names. He’d talk to them, invite them to exclusive performances and even brought them onstage to dance and sing backup last fall when he coaxed Madonna to Paisley.
This proximity afforded the True Blue crew a special view. And these fans noticed things. Especially at Prince’s final Paisley appearance April 16 — a performance of “Chopsticks” on his new piano and a very brief speech.
“He looked thinner and pale,” said Sara Savoy, 45, of Prior Lake. “He had changed somehow.”
Fellow fan Andersen agreed, but observed that “he was happy he had a new piano and guitar. This past year, he seemed more happy than I’ve ever seen him.”
Prince’s people flew influential Los Angeles music blogger Dr. Funkenberry, aka Jeremiah Freed, to the Twin Cities for the dance party to make sure the word got out that Prince was indeed OK after the Moline scare.
Freed said that Prince didn’t seem his usual happy-go-lucky self, but had his usual mission in mind.
“Even when he was not at his best and didn’t want to be around people, he wanted us to party.”
Staff writers Jackie Crosby, Neal Justin and Mary Lynn Smith contributed to this report.
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719