“Put the right letters together and make a brighter day.” — Prince, “Alphabet Street”
I will never be accused of being a music guy. My mobile devices are overflowing with movies and TV episodes, but the most music from this century on there is that U2 album Apple put on there a few years ago.
My home growing up was not a musical one. Myself and my three siblings all played in the band, but music didn’t fill my small-town Midwestern home the way it for others. My mom is of the Elvis generation, but she always said she liked Pat Boone better. My dad wasn’t much different. If talk radio would have been a thing in the late 70s and 80s, he would have been in the target demographic. Instead he listened to a station that played what is best describes as elevator music because it also happened to be the station that the University of Illinois football and basketball games aired on.
So when the pop culture world lost the likes of David Bowie, Merle Haggard and Motorhead’s Lemmy this year, I was obviously saddened. I knew and appreciated all their work, but it didn’t feel personal in the way yesterday’s news about the death of Prince felt to me.
Prince vaulted to stardom when I was in my early teens and his rise, like Madonna and Michael Jackson, spanned across all platforms. His movie, Purple Rain, was a surprise hit in the theaters. It spawned what felt like a dozen videos on MTV and other music video shows of the era. He dominated Top 40 radio and junior high dances. So if you didn’t know Prince, you were in trouble. The Purple Rain soundtrack was one of the many cassette tapes I lugged around with me on long bus rides for band and basketball trips. I knew those songs backward and forward.
The charismatic little man from Minnesota’s knack for controversy also helped spark what would become my interest in news and pop culture. Every video seemed to cause pearl clutching the likes not seen since Elvis. Every album was filled with sexually charged tracks that my lizard brained teenage self wanted to hear even if it really didn’t understand what it all really meant. The man was a force of nature and it was fascinating to see how his influence rippled across entertainment.
His prolific songwriting and musical influence became the background music of a generation. Mega-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are a part of Prince’s musical family tree and they produced most of Janet Jackson’s biggest hits. Sinead O’Connor exploded on the scene with the Prince penned “Nothing Compares 2U.” Vanity, Morris Day and the Time, Sheena Easton and Apollonia all got career boosts from this man’s genius.
Although his personal lifetime was too short, he stayed vital to music and performance for almost 40 years. This is a business where careers are fleeting and change is rejected. Prince found that magic spot where he was able to evolve his music without changing his unmistakable sound.
I’ll associate the unmistakable sound with so many memories of my life. What 90s kid didn’t shake it to “Batdance” and “1999”? Who hasn’t made out (or more) to one of Prince’s slow jams? What pop culture nerd hasn’t laughed at director Kevin Smith’s behind the scenes story about Paisley Park?
One of my fondest memories with Prince as the background comes from when I first moved to Memphis. I worked downtown and worked at night. So by the time Beale Street was firing up, I was just getting off work. After closing down one of our regular haunts, a co-worker suggested we head to Raiford’s Hollywood, a smoke filled, light-up-floor disco a few blocks off the main entertainment district.
The place didn’t seem much bigger than a double-wide trailer. It only sold beer in quart bottles. The place was slammed with people writhing on the dance floor and the leather couches that stretched across one wall. The DJ/proprietor/pimp in residence loved, Loved, LOVED Prince. Like every fourth song loved Prince. It was one of my earliest uniquely Memphis experiences and it was a blast, some of the best people watching ever.
There were many more trips to Raiford’s for the fog machine ambiance and a bullet of Bud Light. But there was always one rule: You never left unless you heard Prince’s “Erotic City” at least once.