From Van Jones to Carmen Electra, publicists to Paisley Park members, those close to Prince Rogers Nelson tell tales—ordinary and out there—of the late legend.
He was a legend, a virtuoso, one of the true gods of music. But he was also (at times, anyway) a person in the world like anyone else. He liked to send goofy Internet memes to his friends. He made really good scrambled eggs. He rode his bike a lot, went to the hardware store, called old friends late at night. Chris Heath spoke with band members, fellow artists, and Paisley Park veterans about the life and times of Prince Rogers Nelson—the real Prince, the man so few people got to know before he was gone.
“Really, I’m normal. A little highly strung, maybe. But normal. But so much has been written about me and people never know what’s right and what’s wrong. I’d rather let them stay confused.” — Prince, 2004
Corey Tollefson (Minneapolis-based entrepreneur and fan; attended events at Paisley Park for over 20 years): The thing that was funny was you never saw Prince [ﬁrst], you smelled him. He always smelled like lavender. And you knew when he was there because you’d turn around and go, “Holy shit, I smell Prince.” And then, ten seconds later, you’d see him.
Kandace Springs (singer; befriended by Prince via Twitter after he discovered her cover of a Sam Smith song online in 2014): He smelled like lavender. Dude, I’m not even kidding you. Overtime. My sister burns lavender in my house and I’m, “Oh God, it smells like Paisley Park.” That’s Prince.
Maya Washington (photographer; befriended by Prince after he discovered her online in 2014): Before you meet him, you have the idea of him being this thing: He’s untouchable, he’s a unicorn, he’s a meta-planet. So the ﬁrst thing I was taken aback by, and a lot of people are taken aback by, is his size. Because I’m short, I’m ﬁve three…and he’s shorter than me. But, that aside, he is a unicorn. He’s somehow ﬂoating when he’s talking.
Morris Hayes (keyboard player; Prince’s longest-serving band member, 1992–2012): I remember taking him to the hardware store in my camping van. He wanted to go buy a lock. And we go to Ace Hardware—it’s snowing and freezing—and I say, “Okay, Prince, you stay in the car.” So I’m picking stuff up in the aisles, I look over, he just cruises by in a turtleneck sweater and his fuzzy boots, and people are looking like, “Oh my God, Prince is in the hardware store!” He comes and ﬁnds me and he’s got a handful of crap—like, “Can we buy this?” I’m, “What did you do with the car?” He says, “It’s out there—it’s just running.” I said, “Prince, you can’t leave the car running—somebody could just steal the car.” He said, “This is Chanhassen—nobody’s gonna steal the car.” So we get out to the car and sure enough it’s out there, just running, smoke coming out of the tailpipe. And he’s like, “I told you.”
Carmen Electra (dancer and singer; discovered by Prince in 1991): He never slept—he couldn’t sleep. I would wake up alone: Where’d he go? And his housekeeper said, “He’s in the studio.” Or he would leave the sweetest little notes on the stairs that would say: “Had to work! Couldn’t sleep. Come see me.”
Springs: I saw his room and all that. His room was so small compared with everything I saw. You’d never expect him to live there. It was kinda homey—he had this little queen-size bed, and a huge-ass TV, like a 52-inch ﬂatscreen. He had a little private bathroom right there, a big-ass bathtub in there, and fake palm trees and a tan-colored ﬂoor—doing a little beach look. I saw his bathroom because I left my hair dryer at the hotel and I needed to do my Afro for the show, and he let me use his hair dryer.
Misty Copeland (principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre; appeared in a Prince video and live performances): He never called from a number you’d recognize, so you’d never know it was going to be him. Loved to speak in different accents—British and French…everything. Sometimes I’d be, “Who is this?” It would go on for a while, and then ﬁnally he’d laugh and it would be him.
Van Jones: (political activist; met Prince after he tried to make a sizable donation to Jones’s charitable organization anonymously): He always said the same thing whenever he was getting on the phone: “This is Prince.” Not “How are you doing?” Not “What’s up?” Kind of low: “This is Prince.”
“When people say about me that I live in a prison and don’t go anywhere, it’s just not true. I go to the store, I go to the video store, I go to ballets, movies, the park. I live like anybody else. But I play music every day.” — Prince, 1996
Jill Willis (Prince’s publicist, 1989–90, and co-manager, 1990–93): He was always dressed in what could look like show/stage clothes: a couture suit, matching handmade boots from a shoemaker in Paris, his hair done and full makeup. One time, I had taken the red-eye from L.A. to Minneapolis and went home long enough to shower, threw on a baseball cap, jeans, sweatshirt, and drove over to the studio. I went up the stairs and Prince was coming down the hall from his ofﬁce. “Going ﬁshing?” he asked.
Gwen Stefani: The first time I met him, this is my memory: He was wearing an all-purple velour jumpsuit with the collar that goes up, kinda like an Elvis jumpsuit. And high heels and makeup. He was such a cool, amazing guy that just never turned off. Like, he really was living that version of what you think he was—that was him.
Ian Boxill (engineer at Paisley Park, 2004–09): Even when he was dressed down, he’d dress like Prince: three-inch-tall flip-flops, or these heels with lights—they’d light up when he walked. That was his comfortable clothing. He had no pockets. You know, if you got people around that can carry phones and money for you, you can get away with that. No pockets and no watch. If he needed to use a phone he’d use my phone or a driver’s phone.
Hayes: We have a thing called Caribou Coffee in Minnesota, which is like Starbucks. He’d go over there, and he didn’t have any pockets. He didn’t have a wallet or any credit cards. He just had cash he’d carry in his hand—like, a $100 bill. And whoever took his order, they’d have a good day, ’cause he’d buy his coffee drink and then just leave the whole hundred. He doesn’t wait for any change because he doesn’t have anywhere to put it.
Van Jones: He was very interested in the world. He wanted me to explain how the White House worked. He asked very detailed kind of foreign-policy questions. And then he’d ask, “Why doesn’t Obama just outlaw birthdays?” [laughs] I’m, like, “What?” He said, “I was hoping that Obama, as soon as he was elected, would get up and announce there’d be no more Christmas presents and no more birthdays—we’ve got too much to do.” I said, “Yeah, I don’t know if that would go over too well.”
Tollefson: In the’90s he wouldn’t walk anywhere, even within Paisley Park, without a bodyguard. And then I’d say around 2010…I’m not going to say he stopped caring; he stopped being over the top. He just didn’t give a shit. He just walked around and he talked to people. He was always smiling. He’d bring people in, we’d have listening sessions at Paisley.
Hayes: I took him to the bike store and I bought him a bike because he said he wanted a bicycle. I got him all sized up for it, and then I told him, “Okay, Prince, I’m only buying this bike if you get a helmet.” And he said, “I don’t want a helmet.” I said, “Well, I’m not buying this bike, sir, if you don’t get a helmet—you have to ride with a helmet or else I can’t be responsible for you being on this bike.” He says, “Well, I don’t want a helmet.” I said, “I’ll get you a cool one—and I’ll get one, too.” So we got the helmets, but I found out later that he was riding the bike and he didn’t wear it.
Tollefson: There’s an arboretum, literally down the street from Paisley. And during the day he’d ride his mountain bike around town, and nobody would bother him.
Keith Lowers (longtime fan): Once the lights turned on [after a Paisley Park event in September 2015], I left quick because I’m super claustrophobic and can’t take the cattle-exit style of most rock shows. So I’m walking real fast in the parking lot, trying to get to my car quick when—zoooom!—I see this dude on a bike ripping around the parking lot coming at me. I was ignoring him, trying not to engage, when he circled me and slyly said, “Where you goin’? The party’s just getting started.” WTF. It’s Prince…on a white mountain bike, wearing his full rock-star outfit—white, to match the bike, of course, with a multicolor print on it. So I returned to the doorman at the advice of Prince—only to be schooled that Prince plays this joke often and that the party was indeed over.
Christina Terrones (longtime fan and Paisley Park regular): That was his thing: He liked to roller-skate and he liked to bike.
Lowers: I recently heard they found a fully custom-painted BMX bike in his vault with videos of competitive BMX riding. I don’t doubt it. He was not only quick on the bike but nimble.
“When I first started, I tried one time to unify a group splintered by whether I was still ‘funky’ or not. That question still goes on, obviously.” — Prince, 2001, on his early experiences with web chat rooms
Sam Jennings (webmaster for various official online Prince sites, album-sleeve designer): At the end of the ’90s, when the Internet was kind of becoming a thing, Prince was a big AOL user at the time, and he would go in these chat rooms and have these organized chats. Napster was a big thing at the time, so we’d talk about file downloads and people paying for music. But also a lot of spiritual things.
Jeremiah Freed (blogger who writes under the name of Dr. Funkenberry; befriended by Prince, who often used him as a conduit to his fan base): He was starting to embrace technology, but he wasn’t that great at it. Like, I saw him on a laptop, and the way that he’d work a mouse was…very interesting. He didn’t know how to do it. And to see him on a laptop, he just kinda taps really hard. I mean, the way he would re-tweet people, he wouldn’t do it how everybody else re-tweets. I could tell he was just copy-and-pasting stuff—when he first started to do it, he’d be copying the seconds or the minutes, however long since the person tweeted it.
Washington: When you get to know him, he’s really funny and has a wild sense of humor. He spends a lot of time looking up comedy. Laughing at things and sharing videos. I would always make fun of how pale he was—I thought he was super pale. I’m like, “Prince, you need to tan.” Like, you need some vitamin D in your life. Then he sent a meme of himself wearing glasses, saying, “She thinks I need a tan.” He made it. He makes a lot of stuff. He likes to mess around on his computer.
Freed: If he wanted to reach you, there’d be a text—he would write everything and it would be copy-and-pasted from his assistant or manager, ’cause he didn’t have a cell phone. I’d know it was from him because it would all be in caps. He didn’t see it as shouting. He just sees it as: That’s his way of doing stuff.
Washington: He [told me], “Pull up this website,” and I pulled it up, and he’s: “Listen to how they go on.” It was a video forum—like, What do you think Prince’s next album is gonna sound like? What do you think about the concert? I’m, this is so interesting, because he’s Prince and he has 200 people on this forum, and for me as a YouTuber those are ridiculously low numbers—for me, a good forum is 20,000 people. But he was so into it. And he knew them by name. He’s like, “Oh, remember when so-and-so came to the concert and she stole my maracas?” And he knew who it was who stole his maracas!
Freed: He wanted to sell a shirt for $1,000 that would get you into Paisley Park for free for life.
Springs: He just randomly hit me up on Twitter. He had a whole way of doing things. He wouldn’t follow people—he followed me for a brief second so he could directly message me, and then he would delete the messages. I kept screenshots! Then he called me, and we talked for a little bit. He was very mysterious.
Washington: He said that he was a fan of my photography. That was how his staff approached me, addressed me in an e-mail. I thought it was a prank, so I ignored it. [They] said, “Prince would like to work with you.” I’m very guarded. I don’t care who you are—if you have intentions that are sexual, I’m not interested at all. But when I met him, he genuinely was a fan of my photography and he wanted me to photograph his band. But I would say he might have been fishing.… I would be naive to say otherwise.
Van Jones: He’d always be on the Internet, going through YouTube, trying to find young artists. He’d find some 6-year-old kid that could play the violin, he’d have someone contact the parents: “Bring him to Paisley—I wanna talk to him.”
Danielle Curiel (dancer; directed Prince’s “Breakfast Can Wait” video and sang with Prince in her short-lived group, Curly Fryz): He was always sending me memes and funny videos. He liked memes of him when people take his face and write captions on his pictures. He was always sending me those. One, he had a duck face on, and it was how light-skin dudes roll dice or something. We were pretty close. He found me online when I was 18 years old, and he reached out to me to direct his music video, “Breakfast Can Wait.”
Vicky Curiel (Danielle’s mother and manager): From the very beginning, Prince wanted to go through everything through me, as respect to a parent, even though [Danielle] was 18 years old at the time. So that’s what drew me close to him, because to be honest with you, that’s the one person that’s given me the most respect in the industry. And he seemed so down-to-earth, very normal—not weird like everybody says. Super cool. He would Skype often. [One] day, Brianna [Danielle’s 13-year-old younger sister] was at a Harley-Davidson fashion show, about to perform Etta James’s “At Last,” and he asked if he could watch. Danielle was actually holding up the phone the whole time while she was singing the song. He said, “What key is she singing in?” We thought she did something wrong. A week goes by and he goes, “Hey, you guys want to come to Paisley Park?” We’re like, sure. And he’s, “Bring Brianna with you.” We got there at 10, 11 o’clock at night and the band is rehearsing, 25, 35 members, horns and everything, and then all of a sudden he says, “Brianna, go rehearse—you’re opening for me tomorrow.” Then they started playing “At Last.”
Brianna Curiel: My heart was racing. I was, “Oh my God, oh my God.” Like, I was about to open up for Prince. Like, he’s a legend, you know what I mean? So I was pretty freaked out. It was great. After I finished singing, I didn’t want to get off the stage and Prince grabbed the mic and was like, “Okay, stop taking my shine!” It was the best experience, like, I could ever ask for. You know, he’s the most coolest guy ever.
“I can cook. But only one thing. Omelets.” — Prince, 2014
Cat Glover _(dancer and rapper, Sign o’ the Times and Lovesexy tours):_ Prince was never an eater. He would usually smell his food. Literally. I never really seen Prince eat. I’ve seen him make pancakes—he made me pancakes, he made me eggs. But he’s not the type of person that eats a lot.
Jill Jones (backing vocalist for Prince, 1982–91): Prince did the cooking. Scrambled eggs. He put curry and a little bit of Cheddar cheese in them. It was really good, actually. You know, he barely ate. I was always starving around him. I was always freaking hungry!
Copeland: Yeah, he has made me scrambled eggs. Breakfast was his forte. He liked to use a lot of seasoning. Like Lawry’s, or one of those all-purpose seasonings. They were delicious.
Susanna Hoffs (co-founder, The Bangles): I just found this Polaroid of a birthday cake that he sent me. I was still living at my parents’. It was a beautiful cake, obviously custom-made, in the shape of a guitar. It had yellow frosting. It just said, “Happy Birthday, Susanna.”
Washington: He was gushing about this sweet-potato pie—”You have to try it, it’s so good”—and he sends his assistant out. And I’m in the kitchen and he says, “How do you turn on this oven?” I didn’t know if he was being funny. I turned it on for him, and he’s like, “Oh.” I’m, “Do you really not know how to turn on your oven?… Prince, have you never used an oven before?” I’m: “Of course he’s never used an oven. Why would he?”
Springs: After the show—it was maybe like 10, 11—everybody was leaving, and Prince grabs me and says, “Hey, let’s go bike riding.” He had four bikes—two white cruisers and two dark blue or black mountain bikes. So I got on a cruiser, he got on a mountain bike, and we rode past everybody with our Afros, and everybody’s like, “Oh my God! Prince!” He lives in a kinda rural area. We rode down Audubon Road, then there’s a park right across the street and there’s a path, so we rode down there a little bit.
Washington: First, when you go on the bike rides, you’re like, “Wow! I went on a bike ride with Prince down to Lake Minnetonka!” It’s fun. And you think you’re special. Then I stayed there long enough that I’m like, “Oh—this is his thing.” This is what he does. He has the movie theater where you go to watch a movie—he’ll buy out the theater. He has his routine with all these young girls who come in: movies, bike ride, possibly a jam session. That sounds about right.
Springs: He was actually very respectful. I mean, I never got with him like that. If I did, I would tell everybody! He deﬁnitely did try, I’m not gonna lie. [laughs] He tried to hold my hand in the movie theater. And he would send the most ﬂirty e-mails—he would make it very clear.
Tollefson: He’d always have the most beautiful women hanging around with him. [One time] I was 17, I’m here dancing, and this girl was really attractive, and I’m just kind of dancing next to her. And then all of a sudden I see him walking by me with his pimp cane and his glasses on, and I’m thinking, “Wow, this is cool, he’s gonna dance with us.” And then, to my left, this guy walks in front of me and gently pushed me back. Then [Prince] started dancing with her, and then he took her up to his private office upstairs. I call that game, set, match. Prince won that. How to Cockblock Somebody 101.
Jill Jones: I’d never met anyone like him before. Not at all. It was just his conﬁdence. And he was really shy, too, so there was this childlike thing that went with it. He totally threw me off, because he didn’t do what every other guy did—like, come to your house at the right time and pick you up, meet your mom and dad. Prince would throw rocks at your window while you were sleeping. He did things that were almost like something from a fairy tale.
Glover: Back in 1986, I was on Star Search, and one girl on Star Search with me invited me to Prince’s house for dinner. I was wearing purple. Afterward, we all went to a club and he kind of whispered, asked me if I would dance with him when a good song came on. I think it was a Robert Palmer song. Anyway, every time he did a step I would follow him, and he noted that I could keep up with him. I always said: If he ever saw me dance, he would love the way I dance. I just knew it. A month after that I was at another club, Vertigo. Prince saw me and he tapped me on the shoulder, and he says, “Hi…I would like for you to be in my band.” And I kind of blushed, and before I could pull my head up he disappeared. You know, he disappears really quickly. That happened to us a lot. The next week, he came back and asked me again, and this time I said, “Wait a minute—don’t leave before I answer you.” And I told him: “Yes.” And then he walked away. That’s how he is. He was always real slick with the mystery.
Electra: He called me and said, “I have a ﬂight booked for you tomorrow morning to Minneapolis.” I packed up my little tiny suitcase, and I had maybe $20 and four or ﬁve outﬁts. As soon as I landed, a purple limo was waiting outside. He wasn’t there, but he called and he said, “Do you have a lot of clothes?” He made a kind of sarcastic comment, said, “I’m gonna have my brother take you shopping.” He specifically said what he wanted it to be: “I want you to buy something white—a white dress or white leggings and a top.” So we’re on a mad hunt in a little tiny mall in Minneapolis for something white. I stayed at his house for a little while—I thought I was going to go to a hotel. But he was a gentleman. There was a lot of makeup in the guest room, and someone said, “We’re gonna get all that stuff out for you—that’s Kim Basinger’s.” I think she had maybe just left.
Jill Jones: We shared clothes a lot—he’d see something I was wearing, the next day he would be wearing it. The ﬁrst day I got [to Paisley Park], I found these pants in his closet, these black-and-blue kind of leopard-print things. I went to this rehearsal, and this beautiful black girl walked up to me and said, “Hi, I’m Kim. You’re Jill, right?” And I said yes, and she was like, “Those are my pants.” I was so mortiﬁed. I was such a child then—I was, “Do you want me to take them off?” Then she took my hand and she basically took me aside and kind of schooled me on Prince’s ex-girlfriends. I think he liked it. I think he liked all of us.
Electra: I don’t know one beautiful woman who didn’t want to be with him. But it did hurt me. It hurt me really bad. And I was too young to really communicate with him, so I just kind of pulled away. And during that time I went out with a guy—I hadn’t slept with this person—and Prince found out. He said, “I wrote this song about you,” and then he played “I Hate U.” It was hard to hear. And it was even harder to hear the parts of the song that said it could have been a completely different way. Then to say, “I hate you because I love you”—I literally cried in front of him. I think he just wanted me to hear it and know that he was really upset. Then he ﬂew me back to Los Angeles.
Glover: I had a boyfriend at the time. That was one thing [Prince] respected. They actually played basketball together. He was, “It’s nice to meet you, man—I heard a lot about you.” I told him, “That’s the stupidest thing you could say! Everybody’s heard a lot about Prince!”
Jill Jones: With him it was kind of like Groundhog Day. A repetition. He’d drive to his dad, he’d see his mom—those were the same introductory things and they never changed, no matter what woman came in. They all took the 6 A.M. drive. And the late-night things—I don’t think I was the only one to say that Prince threw rocks or came and picked them up in the middle of the night. You’d go to a record store, you’d watch some movies, you’d make some popcorn. He was deﬁnitely a creature of habit.
“I ran away from home when I was 12. I’ve changed address in Minneapolis 32 times, and there was a great deal of loneliness. But when I think about it, I know I’m here for a purpose, and I don’t worry about it so much.” — Prince, 1981
André Cymone (teenage friend and early musical collaborator): He ran away, asked if he could stay with me. He was very frustrated. I don’t remember verbatim what the conversation was, other than “I can’t deal with that shit anymore.” He just turned up. I don’t think he turned up with his stuff—at the time we were basically the same height, so he just wore a lot of my clothes. [At first] we lived in the same room on the ground floor. Disastrous. He’s fairly neat, I’m completely a mess. [Then] he moved into the basement, I moved into the attic.
Jill Jones: When he decided to live with André, he said he was living in the basement and there were lots of centipedes, and he’d said, right then and there, he would never be poor.
Cymone: His sense of humor was really thought out. He wasn’t somebody who did a lot of stuff just off-the-cuff. When we became friends, he would tell me about the kids in the neighborhood. He’d say, “This kid Jerry, he’s going to try to do this…. If he ever comes up to you and says anything, his mom’s name is this….” His mom had some funny name, and Prince literally had a spiral notebook with jokes that he was ready to tell in case the kid said anything to him. He had them written down. Literally. He had all this stuff. And I finally just said, “Well, why can’t I just punch him in the nose?” And he said, “Oh, you don’t want to do that—he’s got, like, 16 brothers.” I was like, “Okay, what’s that joke again?”
Gene Andersen: (teacher and basketball coach, Bryant Junior High): I guess I knew him when he was 12, 13, 14 years old, okay? Just kind of coming into his own. Really nice kid. Very smart, okay? A quick learner. You know, maybe a little headstrong—he felt he was doing the right thing all the time. I had him in social studies, and I think I had him in geography and U.S. history. And I coached the little basketball team he was on. He was a smaller kid, but very athletic. And he could dribble the basketball probably better than anybody on that little team. You couldn’t get your hands on him. I mean, it was like chasing a water bug.
Jim Walsh (Minneapolis journalist who would later cover Prince for many years): I played basketball with him once when we were both in high school, down at Martin Luther King Park, where a lot of pickup games happened. Central High School’s basketball team were the rock stars of the neighborhood, the toasts of Minneapolis basketball. His brother Duane always wore those cool blue Puma Clydes. [Prince] was really quick. He had an Afro. He looked like all those dudes on that Central team—they were just smooth and quick and cool as hell. That basketball team was so cool and funky, a very mythic kind of boyhood basketball team. I just think that petri dish of ’70s, funk, and hoops—you drop a child prodigy in with a vision all his own into that petri dish, and I think that is why we’re talking about him today.
Cymone: He knew all the basketball players at the time. Whenever he’d shoot, he’d say some player’s name. Like “Nate Archibald!”
Andersen: At that point in time, I don’t think he could read music, but he could play any instrument that there was. The band director, Jim Hamilton, would spend lunch hour with Prince a lot of times—Prince came up to him and asked him to teach him about musical theory. That’s the kind of kid he was. I said to him one time, you’ll probably become a doctor or something like that, more than a musician: “Prince, stick to your brain, man—it’s gonna be better than music.” Shows how much I know.
Cymone: Neither one of us really knew how to approach girls in a proper fashion, in any shape or form. But like I said, he was writing everything down, so he’d have lines. Sometimes his lines would crash and burn, and sometimes they’d work. Obviously, you know, he was short, and a lot of girls were having their growth spurt at the time. They thought he was cute. I know, from his perspective, he hated that. I would try and get him to talk to girls. I’d go and say, “My brother likes you”—back then I would just call him my brother—and she’d say, “Sure, fine” or whatever, and then he’d work on one of his lines. Sometimes it’d work, sometimes she’d storm off and he’d come and say, “That didn’t work!”
Owen Husney (manager who got Prince his first record deal): The first thing I noticed on those demos: Here was this young, angelic, vulnerable falsetto, and Prince’s natural speaking voice was pretty low. And I thought, what did this kid look like? All I kept thinking was, God, I hope he’s not ugly.
Bobby Z (drummer with the Revolution who, earlier, was employed as Prince’s driver and helper; first met Prince at a local demo studio): I saw the Afro first. Just poked my head in and said “Hey.” And I got the cold stare we know now—the famous cold stare. It was new to me that anyone would kind of look at you without really looking at you. Barely an acknowledgment. Prince, of course, being Prince, was very reluctant, but I somehow, with a joke or a smile, started our 42-year relationship.
Husney: He didn’t look at all like he looked later on. The clothing he was wearing was not the clothing of a wealthy man, trust me. But he had put it together as deft as one could. He’d got some jeans—the jeans were ironed, he had ironed a nice little crease down the center of his jeans—and maybe a jean jacket kind of thing, and a brown turtleneck sweater. Obviously, like most 18-year-olds, he had acne and stuff like that. He had a rather large Afro, which I dubbed a J7, because the Jackson 5 were popular and they had these sort of shorter Afros and those were J5s. So I dubbed it a J7. Possibly a J8. It was huge.
“The ﬁrst line of that song is ‘Your butt is mine.’ I’m saying, who’s going to sing that to whom? Because you sure ain’t singing it to me. And I sure ain’t singing it to you. So right there we got a problem.” — Prince, in 1997, on why he declined Michael Jackson’s offer to join him for a duet on the title track of his album Bad
Jill Jones: Prince had spoken to me about that whole Bad thing. We were in the car, driving around listening to Jimi Hendrix, and then we pulled off the side of the road, looking at the lake, and he started saying, “Michael contacted me to do this song.”
Z: I don’t know what Michael was thinking, but he just didn’t know the ﬁerceness of Prince. I know that he didn’t want any part of that. You don’t come to Prince with a song like, “Who’s bad in this song—Prince or Michael?” It’s gonna be Prince. It’s not gonna be Michael. He loved Michael Jackson. He was just at a level now where he was competing. He was a ﬁerce competitor—he wasn’t going to do anything that looked like they were buddies. He was gonna win. And he won with the movie. He won with Purple Rain.
Husney: [During the recording of Prince’s first album in San Francisco,] Santana wanted to meet Prince. He lived [up near] the very top of Mount Tamalpais. He was very much into his guru—everything is white. He asked us to take off our [shoes]. Prince wouldn’t take off his boots: “I don’t take ’em off for anybody.” You have to remember, my guess would have been that even the boots were slightly elevated, so to take those boots off might be to be two inches shorter. So they’re walking, he and Santana went off in this room, and Prince must have walked in some mud, and I saw mud on this white floor, so I’m down on my hands and knees, cleaning it up as best I can while they’re walking, so Santana won’t see it.
Glover: On the plane, he brought up Grafﬁti Bridge as something he wanted to make into a musical. He said, “It’s gonna be you and Madonna.” She was actually supposed to be the lead of the movie. [Glover describes how Madonna later ﬂew to Minneapolis to discuss the project.] He said he was having a hard time with Madonna and would I come down? He couldn’t deal with her by himself, is what he told me over the phone. So I came down and Madonna and Prince started arguing over the script. She was funny. I liked her. They both started ragging on each other. Madonna said she didn’t like the script, and Prince said to Madonna, “Well, I don’t like your shoes.” That’s how it all started. I was sitting there going, “Oh my God, here we go.” So Madonna told Prince, “I don’t like your shoes, either. Look at ’em with those peace signs and zippers and shit all over ’em.” And Prince was saying, “What are you wearing? Are those shoes or boots?” ’Cause Madonna had on these cowboy-boot shoes. This is what happens when you get two big egos in one room. It was jokey and serious. They’re the same way.
Bobby Shriver (philanthropist; was executive producer of the Special Olympics broadcast when Prince played at the 1991 opening ceremony): The party [afterward] at Paisley, that was quite a scene. When he came out of the elevator that night, I happened to be standing with the great Warren Beatty. He came over and Warren said, “I love your music,” and he said, “I love your movies,” and then Warren says, “Here we are! At your house! It’s great!” And Prince goes, “Yeah. Yeah, it is. But I’m still short.” It wasn’t really a joke. It was kind of poignant. He didn’t laugh—he just observed the fact of the matter. He happened to be talking to relatively tall fellas—I’m six-one, I think Warren is six-two. Having a nice conversation. And despite all that, and despite playing at the Special Olympics, and despite his own brilliance, and despite whatever, he still, standing with us, experienced what he must’ve experienced his whole life. I said, “Oh, come on, man.” I tried to make it into a little joke—I think he laughed a little bit, but it was obviously a serious thing for him. I thought, “Wow.”
Glover: Prince’s cook wanted me to let him know that she had made dinner for them. I walked with them back through Paisley to the kitchen. Prince’s cook had candles all over the table—it was so pretty how she did everything. And Madonna says, “What, are we having a séance or something?” And I thought, that’s cold. I can’t remember what really happened after that. I just remember Madonna complaining a lot. She said it was too cold in Minneapolis and she was ready to go home. That night she was supposed to have a special party. It was all set up for her to have a party, and she just left. He wasn’t too happy about it. Because he did go out of his way to make her feel comfortable.
Michael Pagnotta (Prince’s publicist, 1991–1995): I found him to be incredibly competitive and incredibly intense. We were out on the road on the Diamonds and Pearls tour, and I had to leave for a couple of days—George Michael was doing that “Too Funky” video. I have to tell him that I have to go to Paris to do this George Michael video. And he just looked at me and was like, “What do you want to do that for? George Michael? George Michael ain’t shit.”
Tollefson: So I’m outside of Paisley Park—this was in ’95—and all of a sudden this girl, like, is pushing up to go into Paisley. And I’m like, “Chick, there’s a line here. Like, what are you doing?” And she was like, “Oh, well, my agent said I could get through.” I’m like, “I don’t know who your agent is, but I don’t think you’re getting in.” And so she’s going up to the front of Paisley Park and she’s begging, “Please let me come in.” And they’re, “Well, no, you have to have tickets for the show tonight, and it’s sold out.” And she’s like, “No, no, I just wanna go in and see it and I’ll come out.” And she told them her name and she went in and she came out 15 minutes later looking like she’d just won the lottery. Like, oh my God. She goes, “This is Paisley Park, this is like Willy Wonka.” And that was Angelina Jolie, who was 20 years old, premiering her movie [Hackers] at the Mall of America movie theater, just down the street.
Chaka Khan (singer whose picture Prince had on his wall as a teenager and whom he ﬁrst met in 1978; much later signed to his NPG Records label): Somehow he got my hotel number. At the time, Sly [Stone] and I were really close buddies. And Prince is a very good mimic, and he mimicked Sly on the phone and said, “I’m up here at Electric Lady Studios—come up here and chill.” I said, “Okay, I’ll be right over.” The studio looked completely empty. Finally I found this short little guy in this one studio with a guitar. I asked, “Where’s Sly?” He said, “That was me.” I said, “Who are you?” He was just everyday about it. I wanted to strangle him. I said, “Okay, nice meeting you,” and I left. So that’s how we met. He never let me forget it for a long time. He thought it was one of the funniest things that ever happened to him.
In a 2004 sketch on Chappelle’s Show, Eddie Murphy’s brother Charlie told an absurd, but substantially true, story about a late-night basketball game at Paisley Park between Murphy’s and Prince’s entourages; Prince ran circles around Murphy’s team, then fed his vanquished guests pancakes.
Gilbert Davison (worked with Prince from 1984 to 1993, rising from bodyguard to president of Paisley Park): The funniest thing about it was how much Charlie Murphy got right.
Micki Free (guitarist, sometime member of Shalamar): It was the craziest thing ever. We were in a club again—Eddie Murphy was there, Eddie’s crew, Prince and I—we were all just hanging. And we got to where we were gonna go to Prince’s house, which I’d been to many times before in that day and age. Sometimes I’d go up to the house, and Prince would go in his bedroom and he wouldn’t come out—he was pretty funny that way. But this particular time we all go up there—Eddie, Charlie, Uncle Ray—and there’s a bunch of girls as usual, and Prince goes, “Let’s play basketball.” And Eddie and those guys go, “Sure, let’s play.” Eddie and the other guys changed into basketball clothes—I think they got them out of their car. Prince didn’t change, and neither did I. Prince was wearing exactly what he had on from the club, and trust me, if we came from the club, he was looking like new money. He always did. Perfection: matching boots, matching outfit, matching handkerchief, hat, cane, whatever—it was always on point. And as far as I can remember, he was wearing his heels.
Davison: Yeah, Prince had his normal nightlife attire, which was typically stage clothing, and we went from the club to the court. It was Prince, myself, and Micki Free. I just took my jacket off, but I played in my shoes and tie.
Free: It was just us six playing. Oh my God, I’ll never forget it. We go out, the Murphys are looking at me like, “Yeah, baby—Free, I’m gonna eat you alive.” I’m thinking that, too. So Prince…I’m not kidding you, he started playing basketball like he was Michael Jordan or someone, man. First shot of the game was nothing but net. He was just so bad. And everybody looked at each other like, “What the hell?” He was just so, so good—really controlled, sidestepping, just style. He could play basketball. That’s how the night went, and we won. And then his cook, Rande, made us blueberry pancakes.
Davison: The backstory to that was—and this is the part Charlie doesn’t tell—Eddie had wanted to play Prince his new album. So during that basketball game, Eddie’s music was playing, via boom box, on a cassette. After that game, Prince goes over and he tosses the cassette out of the boom box and he says, “Let me ask you a question: Do you see me stop my show to do comedy?”
Neal Karlen (Minneapolis journalist who would know Prince for 31 years; his two articles for Rolling Stone sparked an unlikely friendship that continued for the rest of his life): I did play with him. He was unbelievably good. People have said they saw him when he was wearing platform shoes—I’m not saying that’s not true, I just never did.
Damaris Lewis (model, tour dancer): I tried playing Prince in Ping-Pong once. I told him he was the Serena of Ping-Pong and I would never be playing him again. He was literally a master of Ping-Pong.
Van Jones: At Paisley, the Ping-Pong table’s right outside the studio. So it’s kind of back and forth between recording, destroying somebody in Ping-Pong, go back to recording. Oh my God, it was embarrassing. To the point that he wouldn’t even play me, he was just so disgusted with my inability to play. One time, he wouldn’t even move—he’d stand in one spot, and his arms were not that long and I’m six feet two. Talking crap the whole time. He’s like the worst trash-talker.
Springs: We played checkers, and I beat him. He did not like that. He’s so competitive. We played almost three years now—in January I was, “So you wanna play checkers again?” and he said, “Don’t remind me of that.”
“It is my real name. It’s not a publicity gimmick. I hated it when I was coming up. But…it’s better than Leroy.” — Prince, 1981
Martin Keller (Minneapolis journalist): I met Prince when he’d just signed to Warner’s. He was 17 or 18. We were in the apartment of Bobby Z, the drummer. He was so shy that he sat on the kitchen floor. I thought, How am I gonna connect with this kid? So I just went in there and sat on the floor with him and proceeded to interview him. He was just very hard to talk to—very sparse, inarticulate answers. Extremely shy and vulnerable-looking. He was from a classic…what we used to call “broken home,” so he had lots of issues about abandonment and trust, and I’m not sure that he really reconciled those.
Dez Dickerson (guitarist and former member of The Revolution): Early on, there were some experiences with interviews that were very unpleasant for him. He was very disappointed that people weren’t faithfully reproducing what he was saying. So he just didn’t want to talk anymore.
Cymone: In private, you couldn’t shut him up. But in public… You know, it became a thing about mystique, and not that I’m trying to debunk, but I think it was really an honest reality. You know, let the music do the talking. Let the performance do the talking. And so it wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m gonna create this mystique,” like it was that calculated. I think it was a natural metamorphosis, a natural sort of evolutionary thing.
Still, an early indication of how things would evolve: In Prince’s 1979 appearance on American Bandstand, by far his biggest media exposure to that point, he fielded Dick Clark’s questions with obstructively brief and uninformative—and sometimes even non-verbal—responses.
Dickerson: Totally calculated. We knew when one of those cornerstone moments was coming—it was a look he would get on his face. He called us to order in that band meeting when Dick Clark had just left the greenroom, and he had that look on his face, and he said, “I got it—here’s what we’re gonna do: When he talks to you, don’t say a word.” It was uncomfortable, watching Dick and Prince kinda go back and forth, watching him handle something that was obviously a pitch he’d never been thrown before. The answer that was given was so pared down that there’s nothing to piggyback on. Excruciatingly uncomfortable.
In 1982, as his fame began to grow, Prince stopped giving interviews. His only extended interview for the remainder of the decade was with Rolling Stone in 1985.
Karlen: Wendy and Lisa talked to him and said he should talk to me because I was a Minneapolis guy. My parents went to the same junior high as he did. He [told] Rolling Stone, “I’ll only talk to him.” I remember my mother saying, “Some guy named The Prince called, and I hung up because I was talking to your aunt Cheryl.” He thought it was hilarious: “Your mother hung up on me!” It was just us driving around for three days. At his house, he said, “You know how easy it would’ve been to just change ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ a note and make a new song and it would be a hit?” I said, “Oh really? Show me.” So he sat me down at the piano, took “Let’s Go Crazy” and came up with this great song. After, I got a letter: “Thanks for telling the truth.”
A few years later, Prince resumed giving occasional press interviews, though until the end of his life he insisted that these not be recorded and for many years forbade even the taking of notes.
Pagnotta: He didn’t really care if you misquoted him—he just didn’t want you writing anything down. For whatever reason, it was his thing. That was a situation that he wanted complete control over. I think he realized that he could get a lot more mileage out of the mystery play than you could out of saying anything—I don’t necessarily think he thought he had anything to say that could match his music.
Karlen: [Asked to write a second Rolling Stone cover story in 1990, Karlen was the first to run into these new statutes] I was gonna cut a hole in my pants, hide a tape recorder in the crotch. First of all, it didn’t work very well—because I tried—but also it was just too sleazy. So I lied—I feigned a bladder infection. We were in a hotel room. All he had was tea, Doritos, and Diet Coke, and I swilled Diet Cokes and I would run to the bathroom literally after three minutes and write on toilet paper. My hair was really long and I had really curly hair and I always kept a pen behind my ear back then. I knew I could do two and a half to three minutes of conversation verbatim. I did this, like, 15 times in six hours. You can get a lot of toilet paper in four pockets. He must have known, because no one has to pee every three minutes.
Pagnotta: As I recall, the goal was not to have very much contact with Prince. Because if you had to have contact with Prince, there was probably something wrong. One of the strangest things I remember: We were in Australia and the show was over, and I’m walking down the hallway and behind me I hear this voice saying, “Get your pen and paper!” I was, “Okay.” “Meet me in the dressing room.” And I’m [thinking], I’m fired. I’m in his dressing room, and he’s got all of his Prince stuff—his gold statues, the incense, the candles, the caftans, and interestingly enough, a couch with a kind of broken seat so that you would be much shorter than you would ordinarily be on a couch. That’s where I was told to sit. And Prince comes in and he doesn’t really say anything, but he’s kinda walking around in a circle and doing his Prince shit—like, going from one leg to the next, almost like a shuffle. Like a pendulum. And he would spin. I don’t know what he was doing. Almost like a bird might do some kind of intimidation dance. But maybe he was just thinking of what he was going to say. I’m just like, “Holy shit, what the fuck is going on here?” And he said to me, “How many T-shirts did we sell tonight?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “How many programs did we sell tonight?” I said, “Prince, I don’t know—you know, I’m not sure if you know this, but I don’t do merchandising for you, I do publicity for you.” He said, “You trying to tell me that’s not your job?” And I’m like, “Holy shit, is Prince scolding me? Is Prince yelling at me?” Like, how fucking cool is this? But it was cool and scary at the same time. I’m thinking: “Why is this guy chewing me out? Doesn’t he know what a great job I’ve done for him? Doesn’t he know where he was two years ago, and look where he fucking is now? He’s on the cover of every magazine and doesn’t have to talk to a fucking soul!” [Also] I couldn’t really get at what the issue was. But once I left the dressing room and I stopped kind of shaking, I thought, “Okay, what he’s trying to tell me is that everything is my job—whoever’s working with him and around him has to understand that everything’s their job.” What Prince was trying to say was “Look, if you’re here, you’re capable, right? If you’re capable, you’re responsible. And if you’re responsible, you better fucking do the job, whatever that job is, and it may change.”
Karlen: I was on tour with him for weeks where smoking a cigarette was a firing offense—I had to take a shower before I talked to him.
In 1993, Prince announced that he was changing his name to a graphic symbol.
Davison: He comes to the office, where I’m in a morning meeting, and he says, “Guess what I’m going to do?” I’m like, “What?” But I’m half paying attention and half not. And he says, “I’m gonna change my name.” I’m like, “Okay.” He goes, “Guess what I’m going to change my name to?” I’m like, “I don’t know,” but I’m really focused on my notes. And then he held the symbol, which he had on a necklace, said, “I’m gonna change my name to this.” And my reaction was, “Oh yeah, that’s cool.” I really didn’t think he was serious.
Pagnotta: I put together a press release that was a “phoenix rising from the ashes” kind of thing. I sent it back to Paisley, and it was one of the few things that came back to me with very few notes on it, because I’m not sure anybody really knew what he was up to. So I just said it was some sort of rebirth, knowing what I knew about Prince at that time. However much anybody knows Prince at any given time is up for grabs. And it went out, and I swear I got condolence calls from MTV, and people just laughing hysterically: “Oh, you poor bastard, how could you have to do this?” I had to send out not just the press release but the image itself [of the symbol that was now Prince’s “name”]. In those days, it had to go out on floppies. We had a Mac floppy and a DOS floppy. The oddest thing I’ve ever done professionally—I sort of thought it was the end of my career.
Davison: I think that for him, it was another form of expressing where he was at that point in time. I mean, as big as Prince was, even Prince wasn’t big enough for Prince at that time.
Pagnotta: Internally, no one ever referred to him really as “Prince,” anyway. People sort of referred to him as “he” or “him.” The way you do God.
Davison: What was going on outside of that circle was not always what it was for me. So I always called him Prince. It’s just the relationship that we had. I never did not call him Prince.
Prince * I go by an unpronounceable symbol…but you can call me Spud.
Walsh: I wrote 99 percent glowing things, loving things about Prince. [Then] I wrote something critical about him that he didn’t like. He was having a birthday for himself out in Paisley Park called “Prince: A Celebration,” and I said, “What are we celebrating? The fact that you haven’t put out a good record in two years?” [The article, published on June 2, 2000, was presented as an open letter to Prince headlined “Best gift you can give is a great new record,” and was heartfelt and confrontational: “Do you have anything left to say? If not, get out of the way. Don’t tease us, because it hurts too much.”] I was always rooting for him when I was writing. I asked him to make a great record that was emblematic of the times we were living through. Within two hours [of publication], and this was pre-Internet, too: “Prince wants to talk to you about what you wrote.” I go out to Paisley and the band is rehearsing “When You Were Mine” and he goes, “Hey, can you hang a sec?” They keep doing the song, we go to his studio, we’re talking and laughing, Larry Graham comes in and hangs. He sat down in front of his computer and he read my column to me, word for word, looking at me with those big doe eyes. I think he wanted to explain himself.
Karlen: We’d really communicate over the phone. Over 31 years. From often to regular to irregular to nothing at all. Several times a year, on average. A few years, I’d say from four to ten times a year. And some years none, some years 20. I always teased him that we weren’t really friends. That he knew I’d be up, because I stay up late. In the beginning, he’d call between three and ﬁve. On my phone, it would either be a friend or it would say “Unknown”—if it was “Unknown,” I knew it was him. I mean, no one else called me at four in the morning. He’d say, “Did I wake you up?” I truly am an incompetent person—the only thing I can do is have a 4:48-in-the-morning conversation with friends about life, death, and loneliness, because I have enough Jewish angst to discuss that at 4:48 in the morning. It wasn’t just sexist, macho bullshit—he wanted kids and a wife and a family, you know. And we talked about death a lot. From the age of 25, he was always talking about heaven and what it would look like. And would he get there?
Walsh: I said to him, “Come on, man—don’t you want to make another Sign o’ the Times, another Purple Rain?” I don’t know if I framed it exactly like that, but he said, “No, no—Jim, I’ve been to the mountaintop. There’s nothing there.”
“What we did was take a microphone and place it on Mayte’s stomach and move it around with the gel till we get the right spot. And then [imitates heartbeat], you know, you start to hear that and then we put the drums around that.” — Prince, in 1996, explaining how he used the heartbeat of his as-yet-unborn baby on a new song, “Sex in the Summer”
Hayes: Prince is one of them kinda dudes—he’s an all-in kinda cat. So even before the baby was born, Prince had built basically a shrine to the baby, this big giant playground with swings. All this infrastructure was put in place. Like he had a back room that got converted into this pink-and-blue baby lair. He just shifted into that mode. He basically was gonna take a few months off.
In October 1996, Mayte, Prince’s ﬁrst wife, gave birth to a son. The boy, reportedly born with severe skeletal abnormalities, died a week later, a death that Prince declined to acknowledge publicly. A second pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, and he and Mayte later divorced.
Hayes: Oh man, that was devastating. He was devastated. It’s like he never had any foresight that anything could ever be a problem. And I think that not being able to do anything and to be helpless was a real thing for him to come to terms with. Everything he did, he already saw it done—that kid was already out and playing with kids and everything. He already saw it. And for it not to turn out that way was a very difﬁcult thing—I think it really humbled him.
Boxill: I think a lot of times we’d have recording or rehearsals just because he had nothing else to do. He seemed a little bit more intense after the divorce [a second marriage, to Manuela Testolini, ended in 2006], like he had nothing else to do.
Jennings: I’ve never been around someone whose whole focus was really centered around his creativity, his creation, his art. You know, this wasn’t somebody who put out a record every few years and just spent his money in a big mansion. He was always trying to come up with ideas. He just felt he needed to create, and his life was in service to that. I guess with the expected consequences being that he wasn’t able to maintain a marriage, or his friends are kind of kept at a distance. He put music first, and everything else came second.
Pagnotta: There was a willful mysteriousness about him. I guess the word would be “inscrutable.” I found it was an almost adolescent thing, where he would give different people within his world partial information so that nobody ever knew exactly what he was thinking or what he was going to do or could communicate about it.
Karlen: He so compartmentalized his life, no one knew what was going on.
Khan: A lot of people, I’m sure, didn’t get to see how sweet and generous he could be. How much he really did love company, he loved people. He was a very different thinker, another kind of thinker—I just wish people to know that he was a really sweet, loving person. But he denied himself a lot of what people had to offer. I don’t know why. Who knows?
“‘Let’s Go Crazy’ was about God and Satan. I had to change those words up—the de-elevator was Satan in that song.… And ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ was God to me…stay happy, stay focused, and you can beat the de-elevator.” — Prince, 1997
Jill Jones: I think it became a battle of: Will it be good Prince or will it be bad Prince? An experiment—bad Prince would get, in his mind, all this action, and then good Prince would have to serve penance somewhere. If there really are two forces in this world—good and evil—I think they really existed within him. I think there was a struggle, a battle, and I think he was the ultimate person who created the battle. And somewhere there may have been this thing of: I’m wrong for wanting to conquer the world. I have to suffer for that.
Dickerson: [At the end of 1980, Dickerson rediscovered his religious faith and subsequently became increasingly conflicted by the content of Prince’s music.] He had us join hands and pray in the dressing room before each show. I began to have moments of: “Huh?… Based on what we’re doing onstage, I’m not sure who we’re praying to.”
Tollefson: In the mid-’90s there was a lot of “Pussy Control” and “Billy Jack Bitch” and all these songs, and suddenly it turned into “Everyday People” and, you know, basically Larry Graham [the ex–Sly and the Family Stone and Graham Central Station bass player who later became Prince’s bass player and spiritual guide]. They were handing out New Testament Bibles onstage sometimes, back in the ’98, ’99 era.
Hayes: Oh yeah, I saw a really big change. It’s funny, man. We did this record, The Gold Experience, and for the most part we had really good reviews, but we got this one scathing review. Usually it didn’t bother him, but for whatever reason, this particular one kinda bothered him. He showed it to me and—I was the funny guy—I said, “You know what, Prince—they can kiss my ass. As a matter of fact, when we die they can bury us facedown and they can kiss our ass on the way out.” I said all of this stuff, I went on a cussing tirade, and he just died laughing. And two days later he plays me this song, “Face Down,” and it’s everything I said to him about that review. It was a crazy song. There was some pretty rough language in it. Larry Graham was on tour with us, and every time we played the song, Larry and his wife and his daughter would leave the stage. And finally Prince asked him [about it], and Larry asked, “Do you ever consider doing a show without the profanity in it?” And Prince told me he said, “Well, I could do—I mean, it’s just artistic expression.” But he said it embarrassed him. The fact that Larry would go backstage and then wait until the song was over—he said it really called into question how he was delivering his show. I think that’s when him and Larry started studying, and I noticed at that point a change kicking in. Then everything changed, and a lot of the songs we used to do, any of the stuff that was super racy, it got killed. There was a seismic shift.
Graham: I never had to leave the stage. Because he wouldn’t, you know, put me in that position.
Hayes: Larry was very apparent about his thing. I mean, he gave me and everybody else tracts. Larry did what Jehovah’s Witnesses do: He witnessed. He gave us all the reading material. He started studying with Prince—you could see the evolution happening.
Graham: He knew from following my career that I was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses since 1975. And so he figured I would be a good person to talk to about the Bible. After the show, sometimes we’d stay up until bringing the sun up. My wife and I and our daughter had been living in Montego Bay, Jamaica, for about seven years, over there helping teach the Bible, and he knew that we were about to move back to California, so he asked, would we move to Minnesota to continue teaching him the Bible? So that’s how we ended up here in Minnesota. We were neighbors; so many times he’d just ride his bike over or walk over—we brought the sun up many, many mornings! The biggest part of our relationship was spiritual. I never suggested to him: You ought to become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Again, that was his decision.
Boxill: I believe he did door-to-door stuff. As a matter of fact, there was one particular couple that, I think, he had knocked on their door and they ended up coming and being Jehovah’s. He actually recruited them.
Graham: We’d go out in the ministry, he’d walk around like anybody else. We’re witnessing about God. That’s what you do.
Prince (2008): Sometimes people act surprised, but mostly they’re really cool about it.
In keeping with his new faith, Prince culled his most explicit songs from his repertoire, and he began to require that those around him refrain from profanity.
Prince (2004): There’s certain songs I don’t play anymore, just like there’s certain words I don’t say anymore. It’s not me anymore. There’s no more envelope to push. I pushed it off the table. It’s on the ﬂoor. Let’s move forward now.
Boxill: He didn’t want people cursing around him. His music went from X to PG—he wouldn’t put out something that was truly risqué or too sexual in nature. He had a swear bucket. It looked like one of those big plastic five-gallon buckets. If someone messed up, he’d give them side-eye and pretty much chide them.
Hayes: A cuss jar. It was a gigantic jar in Studio A, and it was getting pretty full. It had loot in it, brother. I wish I could find it now—I’d be set for a few months.
Khan: By the time we were recording [to make Khan’s 1998 album, Come 2 My House], he had a big plastic water bottle, and every time someone cursed they had to put a dollar in the bottle. And I said, “I’ll be fucked if I’m gonna put any money in your bottle in your studio ’cause I’m cussing.” I didn’t say a cuss word while I said it. What could he say? Nothing. He used to like it when I’d go off on one.
Hayes: Even he had to put money in from time to time. ’Cause, you know, you just slipped
Prince (2011): If I can stop swearing, everybody can stop swearing.
Springs (Discussing her first invitation to Paisley Park to sing, in 2014): I wanted to look cute, so I just put a little crop top on, my lower stomach out, some tight little jeans. And he’s like, “You’re not wearing that.” He’s super conservative—he went from when he was the one wearing underwear and fishnets and stuff to now, where he’s like the most conservative ever. I guess becoming a Jehovah’s Witness and stuff. I would occasionally pick on him, go on Google and paste a picture of him in his underwear. He would crack up. Like, “Hey, I was there—I don’t do that anymore.… I was there at one point. That’s who I was. But I’m not that anymore. I’ve changed.”
Van Jones: Prince is always duality. You know, the sacred and the sexual, black and white, male and female, all those kind of things. But later in his life, the biggest dynamic was worldly versus otherworldly. His religious faith versus his growing political and humanitarian concerns. The Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t much approve of him weighing in on this stuff, and that was important to him, so it was a constant kind of balancing act.
Khan: He seemed to get a little more paranoid on one hand, and on the other hand he became more of a human being. He became more humane. You get older and wiser, and you see the commonology of man, how we are all intertwined, we are all the same. It seemed like he’d come to that sort of recognition in life. I was happy to see that.
“I count time different.… There’s no such thing as time, really, once you study the orbits of the planets.” — Prince, 2010
Van Jones: He’s six hours off from everybody else. So when it’s midnight to you, it’s only 6 P.M. to him. And when it’s 6 A.M. to you, it’s only midnight to him. But time just kinda stops working around him. It’s hard to explain. Suddenly four in the morning doesn’t seem so late, because whatever is going on around him is so free. Paisley Park is the one place, besides a couple of experiences that I’ve had at church, as an African-American man, where I’ve ever felt truly free and human.
Hayes: Nobody was allowed to say “deadlines” around him. He hated that word. He said: “That’s arbitrary and stupid. What happens when I go over the line? I’m dead?” Prince would always tell us “time is a trick.” I remember one day I was late, and he was, “You’re late, Morris!” and I said, “Well, you know, Prince, time is a trick…” It didn’t work. He was, “How about I Jedi-mind-trick that check when you don’t show up again?”
Willis: The middle-of-the-night calls from Prince were a consistent reality. Two, three, four in the morning—having the phone ring was not uncommon. And if you didn’t answer, he’d call back. Or call someone to call you to say that Prince was trying to reach you. “Got a pen?” was the way many of those conversations started. A not untypical story: being awoken at three-ish in the morning on a weeknight. “Um, got a pen?” “Not under my pillow. I’ll be right back. Okay, I’m back. What’s up?” “I’m not sure which morning show it was, but one of them was doing a story on this woman—I think she was in Boston. Somewhere in Massachusetts. She has spent most of the past 10 years trying to save money to buy a building for feeding homeless people, and she’s found a building but doesn’t have enough money. I want to ﬁnd her and give her the money.” “Okay. Did you catch her name?” “No.” “Okay. We’ll ﬁnd her.” “Let me know. Thank you.”
Tollefson: There was always this folklore that he levitates for people. I wouldn’t go that far.
Van Jones: Prince wrote music the way you write e-mails, okay? If you were transported to some world where the ability to write e-mails was some rare thing, you would be Prince. He was just writing music all the time. He slept it, he thought it. And it wasn’t all great—some of it was good, some of it wasn’t. But he had no expectation, he was just being himself. It’s like you cut the water faucet on—I don’t think the faucet is sitting there thinking, “This is the best water ever!” The faucet is just doing what the faucet does. That’s kind of how he was.
Davison: We were on a flight from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, about a three-and-a-half-hour flight, and we’d been up pretty late the night before, but he wanted to go out to record. On the plane, [he’s] asking for pads and paper, and so I get him a notebook and pen and he starts writing, and he writes a poem and he hands it to me. And I read it and I go, “Well, you know, that’s nice…sounds clever, good.” I hand it back to him. Ten minutes, 15 minutes later, he hands me another poem. I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s just as good as the first.” And I’m like, “Why does he keep handing me these poems?” This goes on for the whole flight, and we land and he says, “Do you mind if we go to the studio?”—he was always cordial—and I’m like, you know, “You can do whatever you want to do.” And he says, “Well, I’ll just be there for a few hours, and then we’ll head to the house.” And so we go to the studio. We were in there for three days, almost four days, straight. When he’s finished, I go into the studio and I’m listening to the music. I asked him on the way home: “Did you have all that in your head? Not just the lyrics, not just the music, not just the melodies, but the arrangement, everything?” And he said, “Yeah, you know, I have to get it out when it’s in there or I can’t sleep.” He had written [the first two album sides of] Sign o’ the Times. He had basically written an album in a three-and-a-half-hour plane ride.
Stefani: We went out one night in a limousine—we went to a club, I think—and it was when Jennifer Lopez had that song [sings] “waiting for tonight….” And he said to me something weird: “That’s your competition.” And I was, “What are you talking about?” Like, that was a completely different planet of music, compared to what I was doing at that time with No Doubt. I thought that was interesting, that he saw some kind of parallel between us. He was just a super-smart, amazing guy. He said to me [one time], “Have you ever tried to write a hit? Why wouldn’t you just try to?” I was like, “Okay.…” It was something that never really dawned on me. Like, how do you write a hit? And for me, I’m not one of those arty album-track kind of girls that likes all the obscure songs—I live by hits. That’s what I love. And I think when he said that, it just kind of resonated with me. I was, “Wow, that’s interesting.”
Freed: I remember one time he had a house party where there was ten of us after an Emmy party, 2009. He was playing for two and a half hours, like it was the Staples Center, 20,000 people. He would bring it, no matter what the crowd. He never half-assed anything at all.
Khan: He loved to read about prophecies and the Third World Order and Big Brother, those sort of books. That just appeals to human nature: We want to know all the big secrets. One way to keep an intelligent mind occupied is to pretend we have the secrets. A riddle or a secret? We’re on, baby! For the most part, it’s just a way to occupy your mind.
Willis: Although he had whispering down to an art when others were around, he typically would speak at a regular volume, although in a bit of a monotone—the voice you might hear when he is speaking at awards programs. That was one voice. The other one was reserved for those of us he knew well—and whether he was jovial or agitated, he was often pretty animated, even loud, if he was excited, moved, or inspired about a topic, and had a twinkle in his eye much of the time. But he was moody. From one day to the next, I never knew if I was walking into his office as friend or foe.
Washington: He can get carried away in the moment and be quote-unquote normal. He’s like, “Yes! Let’s take photos!” And he’s, “Great! I’m done for the day!” So I go back to the hotel and he’s now again in his galaxy. Because he’s still Prince, he still has a conspiracy kind of thought process. So Theo [London, a Prince assistant] would call me [in the evening] and say, “Hey, Prince wants you to destroy everything.” I said, “I’m going to edit it first, and then if he still doesn’t like it, then I’ll destroy it.” Because I already get his personality type. In my time with him, he flip-flopped from hot to cold—one minute he’s really jovial and laughing, the next he’s really quiet. I e-mailed the album cover, and Theo called me and said, “Hey, we’re gonna cancel your flight and you’re gonna stay and work on the rest of the album.”
Keller: I think they were rehearsing for the Controversy tour, and he was dating Vanity at that point, and she was with him in a BMW. We were across the street, and we see this BMW with Prince in it, like, “Oh, Prince is just pulling up to rehearse.” And I think he got very self-conscious, because he kept looking at us. He started to back into the space, then he didn’t do the one-two-three maneuver that you do when you parallel park, so he hit the curb. Went up the curb a little bit, then he looked sheepish, pulled out, and I think Vanity started laughing. Then he pulled back in and completed the exercise. I think he was embarrassed. He’s just like the rest of us—some days you can parallel park, some days you can’t.
Washington: He could be abrasive. You have to think about it—he is Prince. He’s never had a job, I don’t think. I asked him: “Have you ever worked anywhere for anyone?” “Never.” For his photo shoot for that album cover, his clothing came from a dry cleaner, and he had another freak-out moment just before we shot. He was, “Look at my clothes! Look what they did!” According to Prince, the dry cleaners stitched labels into his shirts, and he went on to say, “They’re stitching bar codes! I don’t know what that bar code means.” There’s some sort of paranoia he’s being tricked or something like that. He’s, “Should I fire her?”—his assistant for putting the dry cleaning there. I’m like, “No, I don’t think you should do that.” And then he’s, “Should I sue the dry cleaners?” And I’m like, “Oh my God…no!”
Hayes: When he says, “Oprah’s on,” that means “Get out—go watch Oprah. I don’t need you.”
Free: After Shalamar, I designed my whole look to look like Prince. You know, he was the guy. I found out where he had his clothes made and his boots made. He didn’t ever blatantly go, “Why are you trying to copy me?” He would look at me and bat those big Bambi eyes and go, “I like your look,” or something like that. So I’m coming into this club, and Prince is walking out with his bodyguard, and he says, “You look very handsome tonight—there’s only one thing missing.” And he takes out his handkerchief from his suit—which was a pair of frilly, lacy red panties—you know, Princely shit—and put it in my pocket where my handkerchief would go. Then he patted it and goes, “There you go—now you’re all together, Mr. Free.” And then he walked out. That was Prince, you know. It was just so cool. I’ve still got those panties today, baby.
Van Jones: He was patient with people around him who didn’t get it. Often Prince talked to people the way a sober person talks to a drunk person.
Shriver: Prince was a careful cat, you know. One time I remember seeing him out, and he had a lollipop. And that was a kind of fancy restaurant to be eating a lollipop. I was like, “Can I order that? Is that on the menu?” And he says, “No. I brought it with me.” I said, “Well, what about your buddies? Do I get one?” And he, like, rolled his eyes.
Van Jones: This dude was ridiculously hilarious. He would have been one of the most famous people in the world if he had never touched an instrument, just as a comedian. We would sit up and just laugh and laugh. You know, his particular kind of black comedic sensibility that you see with Kevin Hart or Eddie Murphy or Dave Chappelle. Prince was as funny as those guys, or funnier, easily. Because that sense of timing is so important for music or for sex or for comedy, and his comedic timing was just ridiculous.
Copeland: There was one Pee-wee Herman movie that he was obsessed with. It was silly, like him, and funny, and quirky—watching Pee-wee Herman dance he just thought was the funniest thing.
Khan: We had a great time during recording. We would go bowling at two in the morning. We’d see a movie at four in the morning. It was cuckoo.
Brianna Curiel: We went two times to the movies. One time was in Minnesota, and he rented out the whole theater and we saw a movie about space [Gravity]. He liked sitting all the way in the back on the top row. I fell asleep, because I always fall asleep.
Danielle Curiel: I had gotten Buncha Crunches, and I guess he had never heard of them or seen them, so I gave him some and he loved it. He made one of his faces. It was so funny—I gave him the bag, and the next day he sent me a picture of him on the floor with the Buncha Crunches, chocolate all over him.
Kandace Springs: The last time I went with him [to the movies], it was just me and him, the day before my birthday in January. His driver picks me up, and he said, “Let’s go and see Ride Along 2.” So he rented out the theater. It was like, the midnight showing. It was really not the best movie. Halfway through, we’re just, “This is so bad.” He turned and looked at me and goes, “Do you wanna leave?” I’m, “Yes, sure.”
Brianna Curiel: At Paisley Park, he would always have Finding Nemo playing, and he loved that movie. Actually, that’s my favorite movie, too. He would have loved to see Finding Dory.
“I want to tell you a little bit about myself. I was born in Minneapolis. My father taught me how to play the piano…. When I got a little older, I started doing things my way.” — Prince, onstage in Atlanta, April 14, 2016, a week before his death
Washington: He thought it was funny that I kept asking him questions. He thought it was endearing, like when I asked him, “What are you gonna do when you die? Are you going to have an album come out?” Like, if I was Prince, I would have this entire project set out, ready to go. He’s like, “Let’s not talk about such things.” In his mind, I guess, death is negative.
Freed: Everyone tried to talk to him about a will. He would just say, like, “I’m not planning on dying.”
Karlen: Three years ago, we had promised each other what we’d do, depending on who went first. He said, “Will you write just one thing for the hometown paper?” He suggested that. The agreement was, if I died first—I was sure, I was positive, he’d be like B. B. King and be playing at 93—he was gonna play an hour unannounced at my high school, St. Louis Park High School. And I knew he’d play three hours. I hadn’t written about him for decades. I stayed up two nights straight, which I’ve never done in my life. The piece was the hardest thing I ever wrote in my life.
Van Jones: He was really inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. He wrote this song “Baltimore” [sample lyric: Does anybody hear us pray / For Michael Brown or Freddie Gray? / Peace is more than the absence of war]—he was in Baltimore within weeks of the upset there. Onstage he said something so profound that most people missed it. “To African-American young people who were there,” he said, “the next time I come to Baltimore, I wanna stay in a hotel owned by you.” He was saying: Don’t burn it down, build it up. Don’t just protest injustice, create justice. Create your own economy, create your own enterprises. That was his view. His response to Trayvon Martin was to say: “When black kids wear hoodies, people think they’re thugs—when white kids wear hoodies, they think, ‘There’s the next Mark Zuckerberg.'” Like, we need to create some black Mark Zuckerbergs. You’ve got to create a situation where, when a cop sees a black kid wearing a hoodie, they think, “Wow, that kid could be the next Mark Zuckerberg.” We have to create that. This guy’s such a genius. Everybody else is talking about racial injustice and Trayvon Martin, and Prince instead keys in on a fashion statement.
Washington: He was supposed to do something with Netﬂix, a reality show on Paisley Park. He’s, “Why don’t you help me?” I’m, “I’d love to, but you’d have to be in it.” And he’s, “No, no, no, I’m not in it.” I’m, “Why not? You’re so funny—why don’t you want anyone to see your sense of humor?” And he would shut it down: “Maya, I can’t be funny. I have to save the world.”
Van Jones: At the end, he was a true believer. And he didn’t believe in anything but God and music.
Jill Jones: The picture on Around the World in a Day, when he showed me the cover, he pointed out who everybody was. Jerome was the little old man with the cane. He told me Sheila was combined with Melvoin] with the violin. And he goes, “And this is you.” And it was the old maid crying, with a blue dress and these horrible boots. I’m still: Why was I always crying? I cried in Purple Rain, I cried in Graffiti Bridge, before he cut it out. He always had me crying, and I’m crying on the cover. And then he said, “I’m gonna know you until the very end of this—you’re gonna be here.” And I said, “Why aren’t you in the [picture]?” He said, “I’m up the ladder. I’m gone.”
Springs: The night of my birthday—that’s the last time I saw him—he took me to the Dakota club [to see Living Colour]. There was a huge full moon that night. Like a super moon, I guess. And he was, “Whoa.” So we actually went the other way to see if we could get a better view of the moon. But then the clouds got in the way—we couldn’t ﬁnd it. We’re like, driving in circles in the neighborhood just trying to ﬁnd it.
Tollefson: There’s an electronic gate at the front of [Paisley Park]—most of the time it was wide open. Now you’d just get a tweet—you’d know if there was a party because around 8 o’clock he’d start tweeting it out on his Twitter handle. Twenty years ago, you literally had to drive by Paisley, and if you saw the purple light going through the pyramid, that meant he was there.
Albert Magnoli (Director, editor, and co-writer, “Purple Rain”): I learned that the entire area of Minneapolis, before a storm, the skies would turn this amazing blue-purple before the rain came. It was a phenomenon. So for me, the concept of “purple rain” was very speciﬁc in terms of the feeling you get just before the clouds would open up and literally gush raindrops. Later on, when Prince and I were working at Paisley Park, we would go outside prior to a rainstorm and just stand in the ﬁeld, looking at the sky together. Waiting for the rain to drop. And those skies went purple.
Van Jones: Think about it: He grows up this poor black kid on a march to nowhere in a nowhere white town, and when the news announces “Prince has died”—there have been princes for 10,000 years, there must be princes in Saudi Arabia and Europe and Africa right now—nobody said “Prince who?” The color purple has been part of the universe since the Big Bang. Prince dies, they bathe global monuments in purple, nobody says, “Why?” I think from a racial point of view, from a class point of view, it’s such a profound achievement. You know, this guy is the one genius that every other genius says is a genius. And he was able to pull that off.
This story originally appeared in the December 2016 issue with the title “The Extraordinary Ordinary Life of the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.”