Prince’s career, which took him from humble origins in Minneapolis to megastardom, ended with a series of concerts that distilled his prodigious talent: In his final shows, he was alone on stage, singing at a piano.
With more performances ahead and a memoir planned for 2017, the singer seemed poised to sustain his prolific and unpredictable pace. Several days ago, Prince texted his team about getting a clear, acrylic piano made for those shows—ideally one where the black keys would turn purple when he played them, Marciano Agabon, one of Prince’s production managers for the past two years, said in an interview.
Pop music superstar Prince died Thursday morning at his Paisley Park home in suburban Minneapolis, according to his publicist. He was 57 years old.
After reports last week that Prince was hospitalized during a trip home from a concert in Atlanta, the performer held an impromptu public gathering days later at his Paisley Park compound outside Minneapolis, apparently to demonstrate that he was in good health. Prince, who was 57 years old, died Thursday morning at his home, according to his publicist. There were no further details about the cause of his death.
Prince leaves an enormous trove of unreleased music. The website PrinceVault.com lists 26 unreleased albums and the “unreleased Prince projects” Wikipedia entry lists hundreds of songs and goes on for pages.
Warner Music Group co-owns the rights to all the unreleased music in Prince’s vault that was recorded between 1978 and 1996, when Prince was under contract there, and those songs can’t be released without permission from both the label and whoever takes control of Prince’s estate. It isn’t clear who that will be because Prince wasn’t married, had no children and cycled through many business managers.
Alan Leeds, who worked for the musician from 1983 until 1992, first as a tour manager and then as president of Paisley Park Records, a joint venture with Warner Bros., Prince’s record label at the time, said the singer’s vaults contain “hundreds, if not thousands, of songs, but I’m not sure how many of them are really finished.
Each phase of the performer’s four-decade career added up to a towering musical legacy and a bundle of contradictions.
In 1958 Prince Rogers Nelson was born into music when he was given the stage name of his father, a jazz musician. He was playing piano by age 7, and soon emerged as a multi-instrumentalist, a talent that would allow him to exert control over every part of the music he wrote.
After signing with Warner Bros. Records at age 21, he entered the label’s star-making machine. His first album, “For You,” made its debut in 1978 to little notice. His national breakthrough came later, with the 1982 album “1999,” propelled by the title track and the hit “Little Red Corvette.” They coincided with new and powerful channels in the music business, as Prince became one of the rare black artists to benefit from the promotional muscle of MTV.
Meanwhile, Minneapolis was serving as an incubator for Prince’s masterwork as he built toward his signature sound: a hybrid of rock and funk driven by synthesizers and guitar working against tight rhythms.
Bob Cavallo, who managed Prince during much of this time, recalls that the singer wouldn’t renew their management agreement unless Mr. Cavallo could land a deal for a motion picture. “It had to be with a major studio, his name above the title, all that,” recalled Mr. Cavallo. He managed to line up what would become 1984’s “Purple Rain.” The hit movie and Grammy-winning soundtrack to “Purple Rain” vaulted Prince into the upper echelon of ’80s pop stardom on par with Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson.
Almost as influential as the synth pop of “When Doves Cry” and the rock frenzy of “Let’s Go Crazy” was Prince’s unconventional image. He flaunted sexuality without relying on machismo. One scene in “Purple Rain” featured Prince in lace and high-heeled boots writhing on stage to “Darling Nikki,” a song that was targeted in a campaign against explicit lyrics led by the Parents’ Music Resource Center.
On Thursday, the young singer Frank Ocean, who came out in 2012 as bisexual, wrote an online tribute to Prince: “He made me feel more comfortable with how I identify sexually simply by his display of freedom from irreverence for obviously archaic ideas like gender conformity etc.”
Flush with the success of “Purple Rain,” Prince poured money into an autonomous entertainment-production empire. He built a recording studio in a former cornfield in Chanhassen, Minn., and mentored a parade of protégé acts. Paisley Park Studios evolved into a complex where Prince lived, worked and often held spontaneous parties and performances.
Tributes were paid across America to the recording artist Prince who died on Thursday morning, age 57.
“He would go into the studio to record new songs the way an office manager would go to the office from 9 to 5,” recalled Mr. Leeds. The key difference: Prince worked on a schedule that stretched far beyond normal business hours, and few around him could keep up.
“His impulsiveness came way before quality control,” Mr. Leeds said. “As a result he wore out recording engineers. He would hold marathon recording sessions that lasted 48 hours. He would get impatient with tape machines that couldn’t rewind fast enough. He was that driven.”
That creative geyser was one of the biggest sources of friction with Warner Bros. Enraged by the label’s control over his output and refusal to grant him ownership of his master recordings, the singer appeared in public with the word “slave” written on his face and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, an act of defiance that was largely met with amusement by the public.
He would eventually make peace with Warner Music in 2014, as the copyrights on some of his early albums were set to revert to Prince’s control. The label got to extend its copyrights overseas but Prince got ownership in the U.S.—a symbolic victory since he agreed to license the U.S. copyrights back to Warner Music in perpetuity.
After bouncing from label to label, he released his music independently through an online music club named for his then-band New Power Generation. The subscription music club put Prince at the vanguard of digital music distribution, but some of his technical efforts suffered from poor follow through. Years later, Prince angered fans who paid for access to another subscription music site, LotusFlow3r.com, when it abruptly went dark.
While he embraced the Internet as a distribution tool for his own releases, Prince aggressively policed the Web for unauthorized use of his music by other artists and fans. After Prince covered the Radiohead song “Creep” at the Coachella music festival in 2008, videos of his performance were purged from YouTube.
Julie Swidler, general counsel and executive vice president of business affairs at Sony Corp.’s Sony Music Entertainment, said in a recent speech that one of her most memorable feats on the job was convincing Prince not to sue the company after Alicia Keys had covered his song “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” on her first album.
Working for Prince was unpredictable and demanding. Mr. Agabon, the production manager, said crew members never knew when or how much they would be paid. Prince was paranoid about others—from promoters to concession vendors—trying to profit from his performances, and didn’t believe he should be paying for anything, Mr. Agabon said. Interpreting Prince’s vision also was challenging, he said.
Before appearing on the Arsenio Hall Show in 2014, for example, Prince had watched the movie “Aladdin” and demanded a camel for the show.
“You never answer Prince with ‘no,’ but we said the L.A. zoo is closed right now, and we’ll try in the morning,” said Mr. Agabon, who ended up getting Persian rugs and lanterns instead to create Prince’s desired atmosphere.
A vegan, Prince forbade eating meat in his presence or anywhere on his estate except the parking lot. Crew members weren’t permitted to have facial hair or tattoos. Cursing or being rude to women were punishable offenses.
In recent years, Prince had been playing ping pong at home, riding his mountain bike and working in his recording studio, Mr. Agabon said.
After changing his name back to Prince in 2000, the singer re-emerged from the commercial wilderness of the previous decade. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, the same year he performed with Beyoncé at the Grammys, reminding millions of viewers of his virtuosic guitar skills. And he delivered a showstopping performance at the 2007 Super Bowl, where he played “Purple Rain” amid the rain.