Director Albert Magnoli liked to call Purple Rain an “emotional biography” of Prince: An impressionistic mélange of the star’s pet themes, anxieties, and obsessions, true to its subject in spirit if not in every detail. And of all the themes, anxieties, and obsessions Prince brought to the film, none loomed larger than his father, John L. Nelson.
John Lewis Nelson was born on June 29, 1916 in Cotton Valley, Webster Parish, Louisiana, the youngest child of farmers Clarence Allen and Carrie Nelson (née Jenkins). Not long after his birth, John’s parents divorced; the reason, according to biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, was because Clarence had become involved with another woman (Hahn 2017 50). By the 1920 census, writes historian Kristen Zschomler, Carrie was remarried to a man named Charles Ikner and living in Webster Parish with three-year-old John and his siblings: James (born 1915), Ruby (born 1908), Olivia (born 1904), and Gertrude (born 1903) (Zschomler 9). By 1930, she was widowed, and had traveled north with Gertrude, Ruby, and their husbands and children to a rented home in Southside Minneapolis, near where Olivia had settled with her husband, Edward Mason Lewis. The now-teenaged John likely followed between 1930 and 1935 (10).
In 1938, aged 22, John married 18-year-old Vivian Howard; they are recorded in the 1940 census as residing with their newborn daughter, Sharon, in a duplex at 2929 5th Avenue, about a mile north of John’s mother and sisters. A year later, the young family moved into a detached home at 334 E. 38th Street–just around the corner from Olivia–to make room for their second daughter, Norrine. Official records listed John’s profession as a doorman at the Andrews Hotel, located downtown at Fourth and Hennepin (Zschomler 10). But he was also a budding musician: playing piano, as he later put it to MTV’s Martha Quinn, for the “strippers down on [Hennepin] Avenue” (Thorne 2016). Soon, with the nearby Honeywell plant ramping up to support the World War II effort, John was hired on as a plastic molder–the first Black worker at the company. The increase in salary enabled him to purchase a home at 3728 5th Avenue South, where he, Vivian, Sharon, Norrine, and youngest daughter Lorna (born 1942) moved in 1944. That same year, the family welcomed their fourth child: a son, John Rogers Nelson (Zschomler 10).
As the elder Nelson’s family grew, so too did his musical prospects. By 1946, following a brief stint in the U.S. Army, he was leading his own jazz group under the moniker “Prince Rogers”: a Duke Ellington-inspired sobriquet created by combining the name of the family dog, Prince, with the middle name of his son (Hahn 2017 53). He resembled Ellington as well, albeit shorter in stature–light-skinned and smartly dressed, with an aristocratic pencil moustache not unlike the one his most famous offspring would sport in the mid-1980s (see above).
For the next decade, John L. Nelson led a double life: supporting his family with his Honeywell wages by day, and subsidizing his wardrobe with the take from his Prince Rogers gigs by night. But the two identities–patriarch and jazzman–couldn’t coexist forever. Sometime in the mid-1950s, at the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House in North Minneapolis, Nelson met Mattie Della Shaw: a vivacious woman with a passion for music, recently divorced, who also happened to be 17 years his junior. He courted her first musically, recruiting her to sing for the Prince Rogers combo, and then romantically. In October 1956, he left Vivian and the children, moving into a “non-descript, three-level apartment building” on Fifth Avenue and 22nd Street (Hahn 2017 54). On August 31, 1957–less than six months after his divorce was finalized–he and Mattie were married. Just over nine months later, they had their first child together: Prince Rogers Nelson.
While his older half-brother was the one to inherit their father’s birth name, it was Prince who felt the full weight of his legacy. Growing up, he writes in his unfinished memoir, “There were 2 Princes in the house where we lived.” The younger one, more often than not, forwent his given name in favor of the diminutive “Skipper.” Still more imposing than Nelson’s regal stage name was his piano, which Prince recalled was “the 1st thing [he] remember[ed] hearing” as a child (Prince 2019 79). Yet, for as long as the “2 Princes” shared their family home–a pink midcentury dwelling at 915 Logan Avenue North, purchased when the little one was six months old–the piano remained forbidden fruit. “He didn’t like me to play as a kid,” the Artist Formerly Known as Skipper later reflected. “He was a musician, he didn’t want that racket on the piano” (Crampton 1998).
Then, when the little Prince was seven years old, the big one left the palace. If John’s first divorce was caused by a clash between his parallel domestic and musical lives, then so too was his second: Now almost 50, and with two new children–Prince and sister Tyka, born 1960–his window to become the next Duke Ellington had long since closed. Yet, to Mattie’s chagrin, he continued to try, playing to dwindling crowds at any cocktail bar or burlesque show that would book him. According to Prince, Mattie was also frustrated that John couldn’t provide the glamorous jazz musician’s lifestyle she’d imagined: “Where she wanted adventure & traveling,” he writes, “he just wanted  make sure there was food on the table” (Prince 2019 97).
The tension between his parents, Prince recalls, came to a head in the form of “chilling” fights within his and Tyka’s earshot. Sometimes, these fights would “become physical.” On one such occasion, memorably dramatized in Purple Rain, “my mother crashed in2 my bedroom and grabbed me. She was crying but managed a smile & said, ‘Tell Ur father 2 b nice 2 me.’ She held me up as a buffer so that he wouldn’t fight with her anymore.” Finally, after “several breakdowns of communication & even occasional violence,” John moved out. As Prince told his co-author Dan Piepenbring, his parents didn’t use the word “divorce” with him: “It was, ‘I’m gonna have to go away for a while.’ ‘Will you come back?’ Probably not’” (Prince 2019 97).
Prince largely took his father’s side in the wake of the divorce. “Eye didn’t actually begin 2 know my father until he left my mother,” he writes in his memoir. “Being the only male in the house with Her, eye understood Y he left” (Prince 2019 97). By 1968, the year Mattie was remarried to Chicago-born Hayward Baker, 10-year-old Skipper longed to live with his “real father, who loved the Bible & had a keen sense of morality & class. None of which my stepfather possessed” (99). Two years later, he got his wish: moving from the home he shared with his mother, sister, and stepfather on 8th Avenue North, and into John’s one-bedroom apartment at nearby Glenwood Terrace (Zschomler 20).
In the memoir, Prince paints a rosy picture of this chapter in his life. He recounts the day he talked his father into taking him to see Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 concert film Woodstock, and they bonded over their shared love of music: “From that moment on,” he writes, “he never talked down 2 me” (Prince 2019 107). But his other remarks over the years suggest a more complicated reality. In 1981, he told Barbara Graustark of Musician magazine that between his day job and music gigs, his father was mostly absent: “I didn’t see him much then, only while he was shaving or something like that” (Graustark 112). Within a year, he had left to live with his Aunt Olivia back on the Southside–a move his memoir frames as a purely practical consideration: “The apartment we lived in was getting 2 small 4 us. So my father suggested my aunt take care of me 4 a while” (Prince 2019 107).
While attending Bryant Junior High, Prince spent the school year at his aunt’s place and the summers with his father on the Northside. He left John’s care for good in late 1973 or early 1974; the precipitating incident, which Hahn and Tiebert corroborated with Prince’s cousin Charles Smith, was when John caught the 15-year-old boy “in bed with a girl from school” (Hahn 2017 68). Years later, driving down Plymouth Avenue with writer Neal Karlen, Prince would point out the corner phone booth “where I called my dad and begged him to take me back after he kicked me out… He said no, so I called my sister [Sharon] 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).
This dramatic episode aside, Nelson remained a presence in his son’s life well into young adulthood. When Prince formed his first band, Grand Central, Hahn and Tiebert write that Nelson “attended many of the band’s gigs, giving members pep talks before and after shows, as well as shooting photos” (Hahn 2017 84). Yet, when Graustark asked Prince if his father was “supportive” of his musical ambitions, his response was telling: “I don’t think so because he didn’t think I was very good” (Graustark 112). Even as Prince’s solo career took off, Nelson remained sparing in his praise: “I think he’s confused about a lot of what is happening,” the son told the Los Angeles Times in 1982. “When I first played the ‘Dirty Mind’ album for him he said, ‘You’re swearing on the record. Why do you have to do that?’ And I said, ‘because I swear’” (Hilburn 1982).
Prince conceptualized the film that would become Purple Rain during a period of estrangement from his father; yet the specter of John L. Nelson haunted the project from the beginning. The artist’s initial treatment, published posthumously alongside his memoir, describes an eponymous main character “[n]amed by his musician father.” At “6 or 7 years old”–the same age as the real Prince when his parents divorced–“he watched as his mother shot his father dead then turned the gun on herself” (Prince 2019 218). Now an adult, the fictionalized Prince fears that he will end up like his father: “conducting life as though God were watching every breath–chauvinistic, stubborn, and quick to explode” (219). William Blinn, the film’s original screenwriter, recalled Prince being “semicommunicative about his dad” during the writing process. “He played me some of his father’s music on the piano, and when he played, and when he talked about his father’s life, you could tell that his father is very key in what he’s about. It was as if he were sorting out his own mystery… He saved all the money on shrinks and put it in the movie” (Loder 1984).
Blinn’s draft screenplay reportedly retained the childhood murder-suicide from Prince’s treatment; but when Magnoli completed his revision, he elected to keep the parents alive. The result is surely one of the most nakedly Oedipal biopics ever committed to celluloid. “Francis L.,” the film’s thinly-veiled stand-in for John L., may not look anything like Prince’s real-life father (he’s portrayed by six-foot-tall, dark-skinned Clarence Williams III, the better to fit Hollywood’s racist archetype of the violent Black man). But he reenacts actual events and repeats actual lines from the star’s childhood–it’s just that here, for maximum emotional surreality, his “child” is a 25-year-old man named “the Kid.” Even the modest local residence used for exterior shots of the Kid’s family home bears more than a passing resemblance to the Newton Avenue house from which Nelson expelled his son in the early 1970s (see above).
It would be reasonable to expect such a hyper-public reckoning to drive the wedge further between Prince and John L. Nelson; on the contrary, though, it seems to have brought them closer together. Prince’s girlfriend at the time, Jill Jones, recalls him “visiting his father a lot more” during the lead-up to Purple Rain. “He would go and visit, and I’d sit in the car–it wasn’t really a long visit, but I think they started mending some fences” (Light 2014 87). Most notably, Prince took the opportunity to record one of Nelson’s original compositions: a brief, elegiac piano instrumental which he titled, simply, “Father’s Song.”
It’s unclear whether “Father’s Song” was a melody Prince remembered from his youth, a borrowing from the Prince Rogers repertoire, or of more recent vintage. Former engineer Susan Rogers has even cast some doubt on whether it was written by Nelson at all: from “what I have heard of John Nelson’s piano playing,” she told Alan Freed of Uptown magazine, “it’s quite a bit different, although he may have taken up a musical theme that Prince inverted and turned it inside out and put it to his own music” (Tudahl 2018 129). To my (admittedly inferior) ears, however, it shares a spectral, slightly eerie quality with other Prince songs co-credited to his father, such as “The Ladder,” “Under the Cherry Moon,” and “Scandalous.”
The idiosyncrasies of the elder Nelson’s songwriting can sometimes be overstated; I confess I still don’t understand what biographer Matt Thorne meant, for example, when he described his music as “something far stranger” than jazz, “perhaps closer to outsider music” (Thorne 2016). But he undeniably had a style of his own: defined, as Hahn and Tiebert put it, by “unconventional structures” with “odd phrasings and minor-key voicings” (Hahn 2017 53). And Prince clearly admired this nonconformist streak in his father: “He can’t stand any music other than his,” he told Graustark, with evident pride. “He doesn’t listen to anybody” (Graustark 113).
“Father’s Song” went through a handful of iterations in late 1983 and early 1984–the first and most famous of which was its interpolation as the second, lyrical guitar solo in “Computer Blue.” Next, on October 24, 1983, Prince revisited the melody with a solo piano arrangement recorded at his Kiowa Trail home studio. Given the session’s timing–less than a week before shooting commenced on Purple Rain–he likely intended the track to be used for the film’s score. Yet there’s a languorous, exploratory quality to his performance, which gives the impression that he’s playing more for himself than for the screen; one can imagine it fitting seamlessly into the contemporaneous “work tape” later released as Piano & A Microphone 1983.
Sensing, perhaps, that his initial recording wasn’t ideal for the film, Prince further embellished the track during a break from shooting on November 20: turning it into more of a mood piece, with layers of overdubbed synths, bass, and pitch-shifted guitar. This version, which eventually saw release on the 2017 expanded edition of Purple Rain, would have made a killer B-side. The juxtaposition of the haunting main piano line with otherworldly electronic textures calls to mind Vangelis’ iconic 1982 score for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner; it’s both stunningly beautiful and utterly unique in Prince’s Purple Rain-era oeuvre.
Finally, at Sunset Sound on February 7, 1984, Prince recorded what would become the second-most famous version of “Father’s Song” for a pivotal scene in the film. That scene comes shortly after the traumatic episode from his own childhood, where a violent argument between the Kid’s parents spilled into his room. Now, arriving home from a full day of riding his motorcycle and brooding, the Kid finds his mother (played by Greek actress Olga Karlatos) sobbing on the front curb. He bursts into the house to confront his father and–after nailing an impressive pirouette in the kitchen–finds him downstairs, playing the piano.
At this point, viewers know the gist of the Kid’s family history from a brief dialogue between Morris Day and Billy Sparks earlier in the movie: “Francis L.” was a local musician of some renown, who “messe[d] his career up” and “ruined his wife’s, too.” But it isn’t until now that we actually get to see him play–or, for that matter, do much of anything besides brutalize his wife and adult child. Hearing his father’s music clearly humanizes him in the Kid’s eyes, as well: when the song ends, he asks, “Is that yours?” But his attempt at bonding is quickly shut down by his father’s brusque reply: “‘Course it’s mine. Whose else would it be? I got lots of ’em. And they’re all different, too.” The Kid tries again to connect with his father, expressing interest in the songs and asking if he’s “got them written down somewhere.” Francis, however, remains cold: “I don’t write ’em down. I don’t have to. That’s the big difference between you and me.”
The scene concludes with another exchange that, according to Magnoli via Alan Light, came “directly from Prince’s own life” (Light 2014 120). When the Kid finally confronts Francis about his mother, he responds quietly, “You got a girlfriend?” The Kid replies in the affirmative. “You gonna get married?” Francis asks. The Kid shrugs; “I don’t know.” “Never get married,” Francis whispers. Indeed, something like this conversation does appear in Prince’s memoir–though, typical of his attitude toward his father later in life, he gives it a sunnier spin: “He said, ‘U got a girlfriend? Good. Don’t get married & whatever U do don’t get anybody pregnant. Cya when U get home’” (Prince 2019 103).
Purple Rain should not, of course, be mistaken for an authentic portrayal of the relationship between Prince and John L. Nelson. But, like any good “emotional biography,” it hits the high points: the anxiety of abandonment and longing for approval; the filial pride fraught with resentments over a dream deferred; the broken family as generational curse. Weeks before Prince’s death in 2016, he would ask Dan Piepenbring if he believed in “cellular memory”–the idea that memories could be stored in the body and passed on from parent to child. “The sins of the father,” he mused, paraphrasing Exodus. “How is that possible without cellular memory?” Making sense of the contradictions he inherited from his parents was, he told his co-author, one of his “life’s dilemmas” (Prince 2019 5). Purple Rain was his first real attempt to solve this dilemma by turning it into art.
Meanwhile, “Father’s Song” itself marked the beginning of another, oft-overlooked phase in Prince’s personal and artistic development, introducing his father as a collaborator. As noted above, Prince’s next several albums would be littered with tracks co-credited to John L. Nelson; and there is an unmistakable shift in his sound over the same period, which can be attributed just as much to Nelson’s influence as it could be (and, often, has been) to Wendy and Lisa or Eric Leeds. “Prince’s music started to change when John L. came into the fold,” Jill Jones told Wax Poetics. “Prince’s dad could play the most intricate chord structures, and Prince started working on his chops more” (Gonzalez 2018 66).
“Father’s Song” was not the last chapter in the saga of Prince and John L. Nelson; there would be plenty more ups and downs, fallings-out and reconciliations, between 1983 and the latter’s death in 2001. But it was a critical step forward in their relationship: “a healing gesture,” as keyboardist Lisa Coleman later put it, through which Prince turned the pain of his youth into an olive branch (Bream 2017). On film and record, “Father’s Song” was a wistful melody and a publishing credit. But it was also something much more than that: a door through which an estranged father and son could reenter each other’s lives.
(Big thanks are due to Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, whose 2017 biography The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988 was the first major effort to correct the record on Prince’s family history; and to Kristen Zschomler, Barbara Howard, and Jessica Berglin, whose recent application to the National Register of Historical Places helped fill in a lot of factual holes in the narrative. I tried hard to synthesize these authors’ research into something approximating the truth; any remaining errors are mine. Thanks, also, to new patrons sean d, buffalostyle, and Matthew Hawkins! Last but not least, thanks to everyone reading this for your patience as I hemmed and hawed over this post for a month. Plenty more is on the horizon for 2022; in the meantime, I will be back next week to sum up, at long last, our progress through 1983!)