here are musicians and there are instruments of God who happen to play music well. While the distinction is often concealed in the glaring lights of stage and the sounds that emanate from a recording studio, fate waits patiently. And then she speaks with unwavering force, revealing not simply talent and celebrity, but more so purpose and meaning. On April 21, 2016, the artist formerly known as Prince was taken from this world.
Once again, fate has spoken and who can ignore her haunting voice.
Fate is reminding me of numerous people who have touched my own life with a shared appreciation for this iconic figure that transcended art. Today, I’m wondering what they too must be thinking in a time of great loss felt throughout our nation and abroad.
Terry Gibson and I intersected on many levels. We grew up in a first ring community of Silverton, Oh. that buttresses the north border of Cincinnati. A relatively small municipality, Silverton was the childhood home of former Dallas Cowboy Roger Staubach, Fortune 500 mogul CEO Carl Lindner, Olympian George Quigley, Jr. and former residents of Cincinnati Reds Leo Cardenas, Frank Robinson, and Vada Pinson. Terry and I lived on Elwynne Drive, both just a few houses from MLB Hall of Famer Barry Larkin. Terry’s father and my father were both born on January 19, 1933. We enjoyed cruising Eden Park on Sundays. Basketball at Silverton Park. And Nik Nik shirts, popularized back in the day. Terry played catcher and me shortstop on Coach Richard Hunter’s championship Stacy Moving & Storage team out of Ken-Sil Athletic Association, in District 13. Terry went on to become a great musician. A guitar player in talented groups that appeared with legends such as Chaka Khan. On this day, I remember Terry’s early days, learning his craft.
That’s where our lives greatly differed. Terry was gifted with something that God bypassed in me. I was not musically inclined. Listening to my friend practice was as much amazement as it was entertainment. A young artist emerged on the international scene in the late 1970s, with songs like such as Soft and Wet (1978) and I Wanna Be Your Lover (1979).
Two artists particularly inspired Terry; George Benson and Prince. In these individuals, Terry found rare talents in how they worked through the strings in a seemingly effortless way. Prince inspired countless individuals, male and female, across America and the world at-large. As we our rapidly divesting in public school arts programs, our society must ask, “What of the future Terry Gibsons out there? And who will lay hold of the torch to inspire them?”
Walter (Walt) Coleman also grew up in Silverton and was a Woodward High School classmate of Terry. And like Terry, is a musician in his own right, with stage and production credits. When I caught up with Walt to reflect on Prince’ death, he had been playing Prince’s music to motivate his rehab from a recent muscular condition. Walt says of the multi-talented superstar:
“I know what kind of guy he was, gifted with it and so creative. Prince was determined to be smarter than the establishment by achieving everything by the greatness of what he left us with, which is the music! It was creativity at its best. Well thought out music. Educated! Most important was his excellence as a total entertainer and in charge. He was gifted on numerous instruments. I just don’t know if we’ll have another entertainer of Prince’s caliber in our generation. And I’m thanking Jehovah for him!”
Reggie Calloway, like Terry and Walt, graduated from Woodward High School; as did Reggie’s younger brother, Vincent. The Calloway brothers are arguably the most celebrated of a long line of the school’s musical products. During the 1970s, if you were in any way familiar with the rising talent scene in the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana tristate area, you would have known about and danced to the music of trumpeter (Reggie), trombonist (Vincent), and their crew. While Bootsy Collins was honing his craft on one side of town, the Calloways were busy at work just a few miles away.
Reggie’s years of commitment took shape in the forming of Midnight Star at Kentucky State University (KSU) in 1976, along with Belinda Lipscomb (vocalist), Melvin Gentry (guitarist/drummer/vocalist), Kenneth Cant (bassist), Bill Simmons (multi-instrumentalist), Bo Watson (keyboardist, vocalist), Jeff Cooper (guitarist, keyboardist); Vincent would later join the group. And for the next several years, Midnight Star would make some of the very best music that crossed genres of R&B, funk, and soul.
Reggie parlayed his talents to now serve as President of Spiral Galaxy Entertainment. His giving back to the community includes guest lecturing at KSU. Reggie is one of many, no doubt, who has transformed himself, even as Prince evolved. While we mourn Prince, perhaps we can honor his life, but remember those who stars might not be as bright, but whose work is meaningful in their own right. Musicians in a time of moral decline, simply holding onto good music that is good for the soul.
James (Jim) E. Clingman, for the better part of my adult life, has been colleague, mentor, and friend. Jim is a noted author that marries his love for God and people, with his economic development visions to assist the launch of more than Chambers of Commerce across our country. Through Jim, I have been blessed to meet and work with extraordinary individuals in the tourism industry, think tanks, government, etc. Jim encourages African Americans to seize hold of industry through ownership of brands, vertical integration, circulating dollars, and development of institutions.
It’s a message that has its roots in the African American experience, going back to Marcus Garvey and Vernon Johns. And unfortunately, it’s a message that is too often rebuffed within the black community as wishful thinking. Delusions of grandeur. Words from a pied piper.
Prince personified these visions. Having considered the calculus in transforming his position as “artist”, the multi-platinum star reasoned that his fortunes were better suited by releasing control of the “Prince” name. In 1993, Prince engaged in a bitter dispute with Warner Bros. over financial control of his works. The artist drew attention to an age-old darker side of entertainment, appearing in public at the 1995 Brit Awards with the word “slave” inscribed on his cheek. In his book, Michael Heatley recalled the entertainment entrepreneur’s insight and basic contention:
“The first step I have taken toward the ultimate goal of emancipation from the chains that bind me to Warner Bros. was to change my name from Prince to the Love Symbol. Prince is the name that my mother gave me at birth. Warner Bros. took the name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music that I wrote. The company owns the name Prince and all related music marketed under Prince. I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Bros…I was born Prince and did not want to adopt another conventional name. The only acceptable replacement for my name, and my identity, was the Love Symbol, a symbol with no pronunciation, that is a representation of me and what my music is about. This symbol is present in my work over the years; it is a concept that has evolved from my frustration; it is who I am. It is my name.”
The move from Warner Bros., while forfeiting distribution volume, secured Prince greater rights and economic control under innovative branding made famous by a glyph. Prince, in essence, leveraged technology to vertically integrate his brand, while taking control over products produced by that brand. Rarely have Ivy-league educated African Americans, wealthy athletes, and other economic units accomplished as revolutionary a commercial feat.
The separation continued until April 18, 2014, when Prince and Warner Bros. signed a new agreement to release volumes of music maintained by Prince in his private vault. It was in that same year that Prince announced the ownership of his catalog being transitioned to NPG Music Publishing, the terms of the deal kept undisclosed. At the time of his death, Prince, controlled his masters.
The sudden death of Prince will surely have some conspiracy theorists suspicious of the artist’s passing in light of the economic implications, the likes of which we have not seen in recent history.
African Americans like Jim have traveled the country to preach the message of seizing the opportunities to grow our economic base from within. Prince’s model affirms the soundness of economic self-determination. I’m grateful that my friend, Jim, witnessed someone on such a grand scale who “got it”.
Geoffrey Webster and I were colleagues at Procter & Gamble Co., working at that time in Customer Business Development. The division was responsible for peer-to-peer, multi-functional supply chain interfaces with P&G’s top 100 retailers in a strategic initiative known as Efficient Consumer Response. We grew a friendship during a number of projects, and that friendship endures some 20 years later.
During one fall in the early 1990s, Geoffrey and I traveled to Minneapolis, Minn. for meetings at the headquarters of retail giant, Target. What started as a rather ordinary activity turned into one of the coolest experiences of my life. Rather than do the typical, land, pick up car, check-in, and eat, we decided to get firsthand exposure to the funk vibe of a city that placed a stake in the pop culture of the times through its musical talents such as Morris Day and The Times and pop movies like Purple Rain.
We rolled through the Glam Slam and then First Avenue; nightclubs featured in the 1984 film. A sea of people were in the house at First Avenue, the site of many of Prince’s concerts and off-stage appearances. It was rocking like a kaleidoscope of the area’s demographic groups. And we had a great time, welcomed as though we lived in the Minneapolis. The Love Symbol #2 was woven into fabric that stretched across the wall. A mini-museum inside the nightclub housed Prince memorabilia such as guitars, apparel, and other items.
Prince was as much a part of defining Minneapolis as were the Vikings and its many lakes. He was his own man. And at times, that meant being the target of criticism. But the Grammy winning recording artist and pop icon made an often frigid Minneapolis, cool.
Did the Prince Create a King ?
It comes along but few times in the history of art and entertainment that an individual star rises to a zenith that causes other stars to wonder. Arguably, the latter half of the twentieth century produced two such stars – Michael Jackson (MJ) and Prince. No other performers harnessed the chemistry of a room, fused it, then emitted out the kind of electricity that filled the moment with anticipation of a simple word, note, or song. Epic scenes in awards shows, interviews, and ordinary appearances were evidence that we were witnessing something very special in our time and space. When contextualized as two fixtures at the very top of all-too-often fleeting popularity, the musical dual between MJ and Prince was at times no short of Attilus and Hilarus in the center of a Roman amphitheater. If not from the perspective of the artists, understandably from their adoring fans.
Prince would tell the story of his departure from MJ’s Bad video project. Prince revealed to Chris Rock in a 1997 interview that his formidable competitor had initially conceived of him playing the role that ultimately went with actor Wesley Snipes. The fallout arose out of the opening line, “Yo butt is mine“, and a question as to who was singing to whom. It was rhetorical. Prince asserted, “You sho ain’t singin’ it to me. And I sho ain’t singin’ it to you!”
This MJ/Prince polarity produced one of the more intriguing questions for historians, critics, industry insiders, and fans to ponder for years to come. Specifically:
Did the purple magnetism of Prince influence the creation of the King – that is, the King of Pop?
An ongoing debate has very sources behind MJ’s defining mantra. Some speculate that MJ endued himself with the music royalty labeling. Various other sources suggest that Elizabeth Taylor anointed MJ during a 1989 awards gala at MJ’s insistence. As the logic goes, if no one has claimed the throne, seize it for one’s self. It’s plausible. After all, soul had a Queen, Aretha Franklin. Surely, the throne needed a partner – regardless of person behind the coronation.
Born just 84 days apart, the younger MJ’s major recording deal (Motown, 1969) preceded Prince’s debut album (For You, 1978) by nine years. First through the Jackson 5, then as a solo artist, MJ had solidified himself in the industry with a treasure of hit singles, gold and platinum albums, stirring live performances, and even film projects before rival out of Minneapolis would be broadly known. But within a year, Prince had reached platinum sales, with a series of widely acclaimed works.
In 1983, MJ released Thriller that earned him and Quincy Jones Producer of the Year awards. But by 1984, Prince’s release of Purple Rain and a movie by the same name had created a following on an equally grand scale. The jousting continued, one hit and one album after one another. The latter comer danced with equal precision and, like MJ, had extraordinary vocal. However, he played a reported 40 instruments – some 27 on his debut album. The 5’9″ MJ stood much taller than his 5’2″ contender. But while MJ was winning the hearts of children and humanitarians worldwide, his opponent was resurfacing in purple the road to women’s hearts paved by Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Teddy Pendergrass, and Marvin Gaye.
Yet, he was a “Prince”. How then, does a member of entertainment royalty assert himself over a Prince? Well, in the realm of kingdom, only one figure reigns over the prince. That being, the king.
Even the most die-hard MJ fans might consider the possible influence of Prince on one of the greatest talents and musical brands of the past century – none other than Michael “King of Pop” Jackson. Inconceivable? To some, maybe. But we might not have known MJ to be “King”, had a Prince not come on the scene.
Walking Among Kings, Not Losing His Common Touch
What makes Prince a special figure in contemporary times are the kernels of his revealed soul that eked-out of an otherwise private individual. Beyond the pretentious nature of show business, stars like ordinary people, are not simply matter; flesh and bone. But they are comprised of spirit and soul as is the rest of humankind. As one of the most recognizable on a planet of 7.5 billion people, Prince could not shield himself from the very challenges that visit each of us. In that sense, the Apostle Paul is correct that we are individuals of “like passions”. [Acts 14:15]
The man who drew standing cheers at his appearance once suffered from deep depression. He once revealed in a 1985 Rolling Stone interview that during his Dirty Mind period,
“I would go into fits of depression and get physically ill…. “I would have to call people to help me get out of it. I don’t do that anymore…. A lot had to do with the band’s situation, the fact that I couldn’t make people in the band understand how great we could all be together if we all played our part.. A lot also had to do with being in love with someone and not getting any love back. And there was the fact that I didn’t talk much with my father and sister.”
Born with epilepsy. The product of a broken home. So poor that he would pace outside of McDonald’s just to smell the food. That individual did pretty good in his life. Hopefully, those who admire Prince will remember these aspects of his life and find hope in them. Likewise, that leads us to the following observations…
In the End, What Things Matter
Prince, the Jehovah’s Witness, is about as intriguing as Kiss’ Alice Cooper, the born again Christian. Imagine being that person who opens the door and is shocked to discover the person ready to his faith was none other than the voice, lyrics, and musician of tens of millions of albums. Consequently, we must ask, “Will Prince, the spiritual being, be remembered in the showers of acclaims to come?”
Early signs suggest that political correctness will have no such thing. And if so, that would be a sad reminder of our fallen condition that honors artistry, while ignoring substance.
One day after Prince’s passing, President Obama hosted a press conference while in the UK for the celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday and talks regarding the UK’s upcoming referendum on leaving the European Union (EU). A reporter asked the President to reflect on Prince. President Obama, while acknowledging that he did not know Prince in any profound way, greatly appreciated his music. Indeed, Obama noted that he listened to Purple Rain as morning motivation before bilateral talks ahead. The President shared, “I love Prince because he put out great music. And he was a great performer.”
Certainly, those of us who mourn his death, concur with President Obama on Prince’s talents. And yet, one irony of Prince’s appearance at The White House is found in the his political views that reached into spiritual dimensions of the quieted star. By his own profession [of faith], Prince did not participate in the electoral process. He saw no meaningful difference in the political parties. And Prince was not shy about expressing himself on issues, including one that has captured the American political landscape – gay marriage. Unlike so many of his celebrity contemporaries, Prince would not hide his light under a bushel. In a 2008 New Yorker interview, the candid entertainer recalled an exchange that occurred during a gathering with Christian businessman Philip Anschutz. During the exchange, Prince summarized the moral erosion in our nation, expressly demonstrated in America’s largest political parties:
“We started talking red and blue. People with money—money like that—are not affected by the stock market, and they’re not freaking out over anything. They’re just watching. So here’s how it is: you’ve got the Republicans, and basically they want to live according to this. But there’s the problem of interpretation, and you’ve got some churches, some people, basically doing things and saying it comes from here, but it doesn’t. And then on the opposite end of the spectrum you’ve got blue, you’ve got the Democrats, and they’re, like, ‘You can do whatever you want.’ Gay marriage, whatever. But neither of them is right.”
Prince went on to make comments to Hoffman that unleashed a firestorm of criticism. On issues such as homosexuality and abortion, Prince stated,
“God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out. He was, like, ‘Enough.”
In 1999, Prince and his musical partner, Larry Graham, appeared on the Dutch television program to discuss the arts, relationships, and faith. Prince spoke eloquently about the invaluable role Graham was playing in his spiritual maturation. In this exchange, the audience was provided a glimpse into a rarely discussed aspect of life that transcends celebrity and reaches into each journey. Relationships matter. For men, relationships that move from wine and women, to the more weightier things, matter.
Will Prince fans retell this essential element in what the public saw as a transformed public figure? Will Prince aficionados consider his faith-based relationship with Graham that extended beyond music? Or will an increasingly secularized society send that Prince into the way of persona non grata?
Will the history books remember Prince’s song, Baltimore. During tensions that erupted over the arrest and death of Freddy Gray, Prince performed in a Dance Rally 4 Peace charity concert, releasing the song dedicated to the people of Baltimore. It conjured up the human tragedy of African Americans dying by the hands of police and other blacks. Of social unrest. And of hope for a spiritual transformation that leads to reconciliation and peace. In his masterful way, Prince transformed a timely moment at the 2015 Grammy Awards to iterate a message that continues to compete with indifference, indeed hostility, for the hearts of the American public:
“Like books and black lives, albums still matter.”
Will police departments across America honor Prince by examining these words? Will the young men and young women whose hearts are heavy, consider the dangers of a lifestyle that predisposes them to becoming victims of violent crimes or perpetrators of them? Will artists that have the attention of impressionable minds consider their opportunities to positively impact society?
It is somewhat enigmatic that one figure, who unapologetically entered the room wearing a blouse, bell-bottomed pants, and high heels, could command the affection of women, while preserving respect from men. This speaks of manhood that magnetizes the female gender, but also one that brings clarity to pressing issues of the day. The charismatic figure who was loved by people of all races did not diminish his skin for favor and acceptance, but embraced it as an instrument for change. The 58-year old songwriter, musician, producer, and entrepreneur accomplished these and more. Musical envelope-pusher. Definer of style. Social critic. And man of faith did just that. He, like other artists turned humanitarians and pursuers of God, did just that.
To honor Prince is to first understand Prince. Ultimately, that means grappling not with terms safe and familiar, but rather by exploring those revealed by Prince, himself. During the aforementioned Dutch television program, the interviewer asked Prince, “What’s your definition of your own destination?” It was an existential question to uncover purpose and meaning. In his response, Prince gave us this most deeply-felt legacy:
“I would say complete oneness with the Spirit of God and knowledge of the truth…
There’s a lot of temptation out in the world. And it can confuse you.
And get you wrapped up into something that keeps you from the truth.”
Prince will surely be remembered. The question is, “Which Prince?”
The world awaits toxicology reports from Prince’s autopsy. And once again, mainstream media is creating a circus atmosphere for post-death “tell-alls”. But let’s not forget that Prince Rogers Nelson brought us into a discussion about style and sensuality, culturally relevant music, politics, race and civil rights, economics, and faith. In his passing, these questions are left for our answers.
In Memory of
Prince Rogers Nelson
June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016
(Feel free to leave comments and tributes below)
1. Apr. 27, 2016 inclusion of photo of “Songs In Transition” CD cover.
2. Apr 27, 2016 addition of photo of James E. Clingman.
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