As you read this, a metamorphosis is taking place, one that has occurred yearly since 1979. One in which the name remains the same, but the look and sound constantly changes. The subject is Prince. Perhaps the most important musical and stylistic innovator of our time, Prince remains fascinating, yet enigmatic. British author Dave Hill attempts to unravel the mystery behind the little Minneapolis boy who grew up to become a musical giant in the new biography “Prince: A Pop Life.”
Writing about Prince has never been easy since he rarely speaks to the press and makes those close to him sign nondisclosure agreements. However, through extensive research and interviews of family, friends and business associates, Hill has pieced together what is probably the most intimate look yet at his Purple Badness.
The book documents Prince’s start in a band featuring Morris Day and Andre Cymone, through his peak with the Revolution, to his “Lovesexy” LP. He is portrayed going from a shy kid, to a paranoid superstar, to a relaxed veteran performer. But through it all, Prince remains a puzzling character full of contradictions — God versus sex, male traits versus female, religion versus material gains, new versus old, and black versus white.
The author details Prince’s first record deal with Warner Brothers. The label executives could not believe Prince’s tapes were the work of just one musician. They also could not believe Prince, then 18, wanted to produce himself and play all the instruments. And he wanted a three-record contract! Prince would go on to become Warners’ biggest act and eventually form his own Paisley Park label under the WB umbrella.
Hill reveals Prince to be a marketing whiz, who intentionally composed his band and stable of understudies as racially and sexually diverse entities. The book also indicates he demanded total control over his employees and used mind games to instill them with fear. These tactics led to a falling out with Day, Cymone, Vanity (Denise Matthews) and many others. Hill insinuates that although still perfectionist, Prince now has a better knack for dealing with his fellow musicians.
There are several amusing anecdotes in the book as well. One depicts how Prince shocked the pop world by keeping silent during a brief 1979 interview with Dick Clark on “American Bandstand.” Dez Dickerson, then guitarist of the Revolution, recalled, “I thought it made him look foolish, but other people thought it was brilliant.” Another tidbit concerns the roots of an ongoing feud between Prince and Rick James. Apparently it stemmed from an incident in which Prince lured a beautiful young girl (Matthews) away from James at an America Music Awards party. “One day she was Denise, and then she was Vanity, and suddenly she was a star,” said Dickerson.
Hill does a fine job of detailing and dissecting every Prince LP. He even discusses a couple of bootleg works, including the infamous “Black Album.” There’s a complete discography in the back that lists all LP, single, video, bootleg and B-side releases. The book also contains several photographs of Prince and supporting characters.
This biography arrives in the wake of Prince’s work on the upcoming “Batman” soundtrack, which will reportedly contain nine of his tunes, and his production chores on a reunited Time project and on Cat Glover’s solo debut. Glover came to the forefront as a dancer during the “Sign ‘O’ the Times” tour. With that in mind, and until he decides to pen his autobiography, “Prince: A Pop Life” provides an excellent opportunity to study the history and elements that went into creating one of the most alluring icons of modern musical times.