by Michael A. Gonzales
Birthday Show, June 7, 1986, Cobo Hall, Detroit, Michigan:
Prince Rogers Nelson would’ve been 58-years-old today and although as a Jehovah’s Witness he would not have celebrated the day himself, you can be sure that across the globe people with be lighting purple birthday candles in his honor while jamming his songs until the day. While it is his birthday, over the thirty-eight years Prince made music professionally, he gave us many gifts in the form all of the music he left behind. Prince recorded 39 albums in his lifetime, but since his death there has been a slew of material released online that simply compounds what we already knew about the purple-clad prolific genius: for Prince, literally until the day he died, it was all about the making music.
Whether on stage or in the studio (working on his own projects or producing others), he was in the pocket, behind the groove and ready to get down. As my singer/songwriter Stephanie McKay told me a few days after Prince’s death, “It was as though he had a disease that just caused him to create. Creating was like air to him and he had to make music to feel alive and stay connected to his higher power, his divine source.”
He was a more than a creative force, Prince was magical. He was like an alchemist whipping-up spells and concoctions
-Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler of Digable Planets/Shabazz Palaces
Back in the day, when Prince released his self-titled second album in 1979, I was a high school student living in Baltimore. Knee-deep into the white boy music wonderland of Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, T-Rex, Heart and anything else that wasn’t disco, there weren’t many bros, besides George Clinton, Rick James and Miles Davis, whom I listened to on a regular basis. With a silken falsetto that was difficult not to adore, Prince straddled the fence that divided gritty blues boys from glam rockers. Embracing Santana’s guitar fury with the same furor as Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto and Kraftwerk’s synthesizer magic, Prince created brilliant cathedrals that were dubbed the Minneapolis sound.
“There have been periods in my life when I just binged out listening to Prince for two or three months at a time,” Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler of Digable Planets/Shabazz Palaces told me recently. “I realized so much about the world and about myself and what creativity is from listening to his music. He was a more than a creative force, Prince was magical. He was like an alchemist whipping-up spells and concoctions.”
In 1980, when Dirty Mind dropped on an unsuspecting audience, I knew I had found what I was looking for in a pop star. As Prince’s exploration into synth rhythms, funky sexuality and guitar-driven celebration inspired a new generation to take changes, he was simultaneously designing a sonic template for future explorations into sound. “My father named me Prince because he wanted me to go further in the world,” he told me in the summer of 1999 when I interviewed him at Paisley Park. “And that’s what I strive to do everyday.”
Better still, his passions inspired more than a few of us to discover the freak within and not be afraid. “That dare to be different ethos was very much a part of who he was,” says Living Colour leader/guitarist Vernon Reid. “He could go from P-Funk to seventies pop to some abstract jazz fusion. Prince was free and he wasn’t afraid of what people would say. He had access to all of it and would exploit it as necessary.”
Moving back to New York City the following year in 1981 to major in English at LIU, I bought every Prince album, every single with a non-album b-side, every offshoot band, slept out for concert tickets, dressed like him for Halloween and witnessed my grandmother singing “When Doves Cry” in the back of a taxi cab. Coming out at a time when Kool and the Gang’s syrupy “Joanna” and Lionel Richie’s corny ass “Hello” were ruling the charts, the non-bassline funk of “When Doves Cry” had been in regular rotation on my stereo since May. When the album went on sale the following month (June 25, 1984), I was at the “wrecka stow” early in the morning.
Prince’s rebellious edge on record, behind the boards (where he produced stellar albums for Vanity 6, The Time, Shelia E., Sheena Easton, The Family and Madhouse, among many others), on screen and on stage was unprecedented. With the productivity of a modern day Brill Building, Prince was kicking out the jams as well as creating visionary material with the intensity of a machine-man.
Another of Prince’s gifts to us was the many beautiful memories we have of seeing him perform live. While my first show was the Purple Rain concert, luckily, it wouldn’t be the last. The night that he died, my old girlfriend Initia called to reminisce about the Lovesexy Tour we saw in 1988 at Madison Square Garden. Having camped-out with other Prince fans a few months before to get prime seats, we were about twenty-rows from the stage. “I remember, he kept looking over at me,” Intitia said; I didn’t have the heart to tell her, I’m sure every woman in the Garden that night was thinking the same thing.
Twenty-eight years later, as we mourn Prince’s death while celebrating his life, let us remember that while it’s his birthday, we’re the ones with all the presents.
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.