With his own album and the Time’s both more or less finished–emphasis, in the former case, on “more or less”–Prince finally turned his full attention to Apollonia 6 in early February 1984. The two songs he’d completed for the project to date, “Sex Shooter” and (soon to be reclaimed) “Take Me with U,” had focused on the group’s frontwoman and namesake, with some difficulty. Luckily, there were two other members to write for–one of whom could actually sing!
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).
“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 during his proverbial “wilderness period” when he established the fierce independence and drive–as well as the distance from others–that would define his professional life for decades to come.
In the fall of 1972, André Anderson walked into the new student orientation at Bryant Junior High and locked eyes with a kid who reminded him of himself. “I didn’t know any of these people, and they just looked weird,” he told Wax Poetics in 2012. “I looked down the line, and I saw this kid and I thought, ‘He looks cool.’ I went up to him and said, ‘Hey, how you doin’? My name is André.’ He said, ‘My name is Prince.’ I said, ‘What are you into?’ He said, ‘I’m into music'” (Danois 2012).
André was into music, too. He played horns, guitar, and bass; Prince played piano and guitar. In addition to their mutual talent, both teens were mutually ambitious: André later recalled to Billboard magazine how he “started talking about how [‘]I’m going to be this[’]. And he’s [‘]yeah, me too[’]. Next thing you know we became best friends.” They went back to John Nelson’s house, where Prince was living at the time, and jammed; Prince showed off his expertise with the theme songs from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Peanuts. That same day, they learned of a weird coincidence: André’s father, Fred Anderson, used to play in the Prince Rogers Trio with Prince’s father John. Pretty soon–“maybe within the week or month,” according to André–he and Prince had formed a band of their own with Prince’s cousin, Charles Smith (Cymone 2016). The group went through the usual teen-band assortment of quickly-discarded names–“the Soul Explosion,” “Phoenix” –before finally settling on “Grand Central.”