(Featured Image: Prince at the piano, circa 1976; photo stolen from prince.org.)
“Guess how many times I’ve changed addresses,” Prince asked at one point in a 1979 interview with Cynthia Horner of the African American teen magazine Right On! “Twenty-two times!” (Horner 1979) His typically charming, almost childlike delivery made it seem like an amusing anecdote; for what it’s worth, it was also probably an exaggeration. But beneath the wide-eyed ingénue act, he was revealing something profoundly sad about himself. For about six years during his childhood, Prince’s living situation was unstable at best; at worst, he was functionally homeless.
The period of instability ended around the same time that Prince formed his first band, thanks to the same catalyst: André Anderson, whose mother Bernadette took him in around 1974, and with whom he lived until after he signed with his first manager in late 1976. It was at the Anderson household where Prince made his earliest home recordings, at the ages of 17 and 18. But it was in his proverbial “wilderness period” when he established the fierce independence and drive–as well as the distrust of and distance from others–that would define his art, for better and worse, in the decades to come.
Cultural critic Touré calls the divorce of Prince’s parents his “Rosebud”: the key to understanding the rest of his life, like the childhood sled of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (Touré 23). And, indeed, the first real upheaval in Prince’s life began with his father’s departure from the family home in 1965, followed by his mother’s remarriage in 1967 to a man named Hayward Baker. Stories differ on the nature of Prince’s relationship to Baker, except that it wasn’t good. Prince told Barbara Graustark of Musician magazine that he “disliked him immediately, because he dealt with a lot of materialistic things. He would bring us a lot of presents all the time, rather than sit down and talk with us and give us companionship” (Graustark 113). There was also talk of his mother and stepfather disapproving of his dream to become a musician, like his father (Ro 6). But the Reverend Art Erickson, a former supervisor of youth activities at Prince’s neighborhood church, claimed that something rather more serious was going on: he relayed a story Prince had told him to biographer Jon Bream, “about how his stepfather locked him in his room for six weeks and wouldn’t let him out and the only thing in there was a bed and a piano, so he learned to play the piano” (Bream 1984). Erickson’s tale sounds slightly mythical, but myths often begin with a kernel of truth–and, it’s worth noting, Prince’s 1994 song “Papa” includes a chilling moment in which an unnamed father figure locks his little boy in a closet. The recent biography The Rise of Prince 1958-1988 also argues convincingly that there is truth to the intimations of abuse.
In any case, Prince elected to live with his father on the south side of Minneapolis when he was 12. Even when they lived together, he and his father didn’t interact much: the elder Nelson was working two jobs, molding plastic at Honeywell Electronics by day and “downtown playing behind strippers” at night. The only time they saw each other, Prince later claimed to Graustark, was “while he was shaving or something like that” (Graustark 112). There have also been rumors of Nelson being abusive, fed in large part by Clarence Williams III’s portrayal of the violent patriarch/failed musician “Francis L.” in Prince’s semi-autobiographical 1984 film Purple Rain. Here, too, the historical record is murky: Prince was cagey on the degree to which his biopic imitated his life, often stressing the fact that Purple Rain was a work of fiction. But when Oprah Winfrey asked him in 1996 if his father was abusive, he replied that he “had his moments” (Oprah 1996).
One of those “moments” of abuse, albeit not physical, allegedly came when Prince was around 13: his father caught him in bed with a girl, so the story goes, and kicked him out of the house. Prince later told Rolling Stone about how he called his father from a phone booth on Plymouth Avenue and begged him to take him back: “He said no, so I called my [younger] sister [Tyka] and asked her to ask him. So she did, and afterward told me that all I had to do was call him back, tell him I was sorry, and he’d take me back. So I did, and he still said no. I sat crying at that phone booth for two hours. That’s the last time I cried” (Karlen 1985). Again, it’s important not to mistake legend for facts–and the phone booth story is, if nothing else, an indelible part of the Prince legend. Like the other legend of abuse at the hands of his stepdad, however, there is enough corroboration here to suggest a basis in truth. For example, Bernadette Anderson told a similar (albeit less dramatic) story to biographer Dave Hill: in her version, a girl followed Prince home after a Grand Central show and “his dad had got mad at him and put him out”; she allowed Prince to stay with her family after talking it over with his father (Hill 67).
Whether we believe Prince’s more cinematic story or Bernadette’s more prosaic one, we do know that Prince left his father’s home sometime in 1972 or 1973. It was at this point when he shuffled between the homes of a few family members–chiefly his Aunt Olivia, the mother of Grand Central drummer Charles Smith–and possibly a foster family or two. “I was constantly running from family to family,” Prince told People magazine in a rare 1984 interview. “It was nice on one hand, because I always had a new family, but I didn’t like being shuffled around” (Touré 26). The “shuffling around” resulted in a difficulty relating to others in a way most of his peers took for granted. “A lot of people felt sorry for him,” his best friend at the time, Paul Mitchell, said to Jon Bream. “He would get on people’s nerves sometimes; I think it was just his frustration lashing out at people. I think he was trying to be cute and get attention. He didn’t get it at home.” Bream’s book told the story of how Prince and his friends went through a brief phase where they’d “tickle and tease their moms” as a “sign of warmth and love and fun”: because Prince’s mother wasn’t in his life at the time, “he used to tickle Mrs. Mitchell” (Bream 1984).
When Prince moved in with the Andersons, he finally found the support and stability he’d been lacking since his parents’ separation. In Bernadette, he had a mother figure who was, for whatever reason, more available to him than his own; even Mattie was later known to introduce Anderson to friends as “Prince’s other mother” (Hill 71). “Bernadette was an absolutely amazing part in his life,” Charles Smith recalled to Per Nilsen. “She was mom to everybody” (Nilsen 21). Prince’s warmth toward his surrogate mother would crop up in his work as late as 1992, in the penultimate verse of his song “The Sacrifice of Victor”: “Bernadette’s a lady, and she told me / ‘Whatever u do, son, a little discipline is what you need.'” As Touré points out, “When Prince mentions his mother in his songs, he is never that sweet” (Touré 28).
In addition to a family environment, the Anderson home also provided a fruitful place for Prince to further his musical aspirations. For a time, it served as Grand Central’s rehearsal space; according to André, Bernadette’s connections as the director of the local YWCA ensured that “she would have us playing every kind of little local gig, every school function. Homecoming, things like that” (Swensson 2012). Even after the band practices moved next door to Terry Jackson’s house, André and Prince were always writing or rehearsing in their respective rooms. “All the time they’d play,” Bernadette said to Per Nilsen. “Sometimes it’d drive me crazy. I’d be in bed, and everyone’s supposed to be sleeping, and all of a sudden I’d hear this guitar in the basement, and Prince was playing Minnie Riperton, and singing it. Sometimes I’d go holler, and other times I’d just let him go ahead. Then above my head was André doing the same thing” (Nilsen 22).
Prince’s earliest home recordings, which circulate on bootlegs as various untitled “Instrumentals,” provide a fascinating glimpse into this period. As songs, of course, they’re barely sketches. The longest, a dirgelike piece played on electric piano, clocks in at only a minute; the shortest, a fragment of an a capella melody, is barely ten seconds long. Taken together, however, they provide the opportunity to hear Prince experimenting with a variety of musical styles: from acoustic blues to jazzy, high-speed guitar runs to some very of-the-time wah-wah pedal funk. Only a few of the tracks have anything approaching vocal melodies; none have lyrics. But in the vocals, too, you can hear Prince trying on different registers, seeing what fits. In one track, he harmonizes with himself, opening with an eerie lower-pitched melody, then overdubbing in a midrange and finally an ethereal falsetto counterpoint. It’s a technique he would use–to much less primitive effect–throughout his career, creating a choir out of multiple tracks of his own voice on songs like 1978’s “For You” and 1987’s “Adore.” And while it would be overstating things to suggest signs of genius amidst the juvenilia, one thing at least is for sure: even at 17 years old, Prince’s falsetto was unmistakable.
As we’ll continue to discuss over the next few weeks, the Andersons’ home–and the basement in particular–would take on a deep symbolic significance in Prince’s artistic journey. His onetime publicist, Howard Bloom, has characterized it as the source of a series of “imaginary Utopian societies” created by Prince–culminating, of course, in Paisley Park–all born out of “a conscious desire to replicate the happiness he found in André’s basement” (Thorne 2016). In many ways, however, Prince’s time without a stable home was equally influential to his development, if not more so. It is there, more than anywhere else, that we can locate the source of his preternatural ambition and ability: quite simply, as biographer Liz Jones put it, a kid with a more normal, fulfilling upbringing “wouldn’t have spent the time he needed to become an accomplished musician by his early teens” (Jones 40). Prince, as we noted back in the first post last week, used music to fill the empty space left by his isolation from others. By 1976, he had a lot of space to fill.
(Note: This post was slightly edited to clarify some historical details, and to fix a factual mistake: I originally said Prince moved out of the Anderson house after signing with Warner Bros., but it was actually earlier, when he signed with his first manager. For a more detailed, definitive telling of Prince’s early years, please see the new biography The Rise of Prince 1958-1988. I also can’t find versions of these pieces streaming anywhere. If anybody comes across them, let me know and I’ll throw up a link.)