Sherry Rayn Barnett /Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Ebet Roberts/Redferns
Sherry Rayn Barnett /Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Ebet Roberts/Redferns
Prince Rogers Nelson was born on June 7, 1958, in Minneapolis. Michael Joseph Jackson was born on Aug. 29, 1958, in Gary, Ind.
Both born to religious, musical families; both talented beyond belief; both destined for greatness; both undeniably great.
And now both gone before their time, proving all too human and vulnerable to forces that don't discriminate among the famous, the rich or the legendary. As it turns out today, after the release of autopsy findings following Prince's shocking death on April 21, he and Jackson both died of prescription drug overdoses.
While music fans could just consider themselves lucky when Prince's debut For You dropped in 1978 and Jackson's first solo album, Off the Wall, followed in 1979, and Thriller came out in 1982, and Purple Rain poured forth in 1984, etc., now we know that they were on a cosmic collision course that would result in music being changed forever—albeit while one watched the other warily from afar.
Because their trajectories altered so drastically about 15 years ago, when Jackson's changing appearance, odd personal life, and legal allegations against him started to dominate the conversation, it was easy to forget until Prince died at 57—almost seven years after Jackson passed at 50—that they had so many similarities as artists when Jackson was in his prime.
They didn't sound the same or approach their craft in the same way, but both bridged pop, R&B, funk, soul and more, resulting in smash-hit creations, the best of which sound just as fresh today as they did 30 years ago. Each one had an instantly identifiable style and was a fashion icon, and both unleashed their presence on film, Jackson's 1980s-era videos ranking among the best of all time and Prince winning an Oscar for Purple Rain's titular original song. While being adored by millions they both maintained fiercely insular worlds, Jackson at his Neverland Ranch in California and Prince at his Paisley Park compound in his native Minneapolis. They were even both ripe for parody thanks to their singular quirks and affectations.
Warner Bros.; Sony
While Prince was arguably never not in his prime at any time after his emergence on the world stage at 20, it was Jackson who became something of a pop superhero in the 1980s. Prince was always beloved and both were protective of their copyrights and were known as sharp businessmen (minus certain issues on both ends that would reveal themselves later on, be it Jackson's lavish spending or Prince's lack of posthumous planning), but it was Jackson who became a brand while Prince became a symbol.
Their paths could've easily crossed countless times, being the visionary contemporaries that they were, but they did not. And by numerous accounts, it's Prince who kept Jackson at arm's length while his fellow pop icon tried to reach out to him.
"Nobody really quite knows the full extent of their rivalry, and I think both of those guys had an interest in keeping it somewhat mysterious because they are both mysterious dudes," Rolling Stone editor and Jackson biographer Steve Knopper told Esquire last October while discussing his book MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson.
Without any official explanation, Prince pulled out of participating in the all-star recording of "We Are the World" produced by Quincy Jones in 1985 (a solo Prince track, "The Tears in Your Eyes," is on the We Are the World Album); then he turned down the role that later went to Wesley Snipes in Jackson's 1987 "Bad" video, directed by Martin Scorsese.
"The first line in that song is, 'your butt is mine', now who gonna sing that to whom?" Prince recalled later to Chris Rock in a 1997 interview for MTV. "Because you sure ain't singing that to me. And I sure ain't singing that to you."
Predating the lyric feuds that seem to crop up on a weekly basis, on his 2004 album Musicology Prince sang on "Life O' the Party," "My voice is getting higher and I ain't never had my nose done / that's the other guy."
And while that didn't turn Jackson off for good, he was reportedly pretty pissed off when, in 2006 when they were supposed to have a handshake and bury the hatchet, Prince seemed to be trying to make some sort of point during one of his Las Vegas shows that Jackson had been invited to.
Scott Gries/ImageDirect; Brian Rasic/Getty Images
"There was a point during the show where Prince was playing bass and he came out into the audience with this giant bass—he knew where Michael was sitting—and he walked right up to Michael and started playing bass in Michael's face. Like aggressive slap bass," Knopper recalled to Esquire.
"The next morning, Will went over to Michael's house for breakfast, and they're talking about Prince and the show. And then Michael goes, 'Will, why do you think Prince was playing bass in my face?'"
"Will" being Will.i.am, who arranged the meeting.
"Michael Jackson called," Will.i.am. recalled the night last month on The Graham Norton Show. He softened his voice, "'Hey, it's Michael. I hear you guys are doing a show tonight.' Yeah, we go on at 9 o'clock. 'Oh, rats, I got to put the kids to sleep.' So I was like, 'I'm performing with Prince later on at 12.' So anyways, Michael came to see me rock with Prince and it was a magnificent night to see—it was me, Chris Tucker…and Michael Jackson watching Prince rock on stage. So, to make a long story short, Prince steps off the stage and plays the bass in Michael Jackson's face. Rips the freakin' bass into 10 different pieces."
Jackson left, he recalled, and asked Will.i.am to come to his house for breakfast the next day.
"So I go to his house for breakfast, knock on the door, first words he says: 'Why was Prince playing the bass in my face?'"
"'Prince, he's always been a meanie,'" the Black Eyed Peas artist remembered Jackson saying.
"All this disrespect for Prince came out from Michael that morning," Knopper also told Esquire. "One day, I hope Prince sits down and tells the truth about everything between him and Michael. Before I die, I want to know what the full deal was between the two of them."
After Prince died, cultural critic and Prince biographer Touré said that the rivalry was indeed very real.
"I know from people who were friends with Prince that he cared very deeply about the competition with Michael Jackson, the rivalry with Michael Jackson," he told Salon in April, recalling that Prince's 1999 may have been huge in 1982, but Jackson's Thriller came along a few months later and blew it out of the water commercially.
AP Photo/Doug Pizac/Saxon
"So he's spurred by Michael," Touré continued, "and that led him to make some changes with 'Purple Rain' that led that to being the album it is—widely accessible pop-rock instead of the edgy soul and funk he'd been doing earlier.
"And at one point, Michael sent Prince a song called 'I'm Bad,' with hopes that Prince would jump in it and they could collaborate on the song together. Prince was so offended at the notion of Michael Jackson doing a song called 'I'm Bad'—in a world where Prince existed as an actually bad person— Prince re-recorded the song, and sent it back to Michael, like 'Here's how you should have done it.' It was kind of a superstar way of saying, 'F--k you.'"
Already an entertainment veteran when Off the Wall came out, Jackson, meanwhile, "didn't want to get replaced by some newcomer," Hip-Hop Weekly writer Cynthia Horner explained to Vibe in 2011.
In one of the few times Prince ever spoke about it, when asked during a panel discussion who would win in a fight, he had a laugh and suggested, "Michael's not a fighter, he's a lover." Then, more seriously, "I've never really spoke publicly about Michael. We should all just kind of, like, chill because, you know, he may know something none of us really know and let's wait it out. Let's just wait it out," he added cryptically, shaking his head, "'cause you just never know, right? You just never know. Ultimately we all got to come back home, so let's just make a home for everybody."
Jackson was in the middle of rehearsals for a 50-date engagement in London—footage that ultimately became the concert documentary This Is It—when he died on June 25, 2009. The cause was revealed to be an overdose of the surgical-grade sedative propofol, which a doctor had been administering to Jackson to help him sleep at night. There were also traces of lidocaine, diazepam, nordiazepam, lorazepam, midazolam and ephedrine in his blood.
The doctor, Conrad Murray, was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
Jackson was rumored for years, however, to be abusing prescription drugs—his 1997 song "Morphine," which was about the opioid painkiller Demerol, serving almost as a confessional.
"Everybody around him knew about it," former Jackson friend and colleague Marc Schaffel (who had successfully sued Jackson for $3 million over unpaid productions fees) told ABC News after the artist's death, saying Jackson was given "daily doses" of Oxycontin. "He didn't advertise it to the world, but anybody in his inner circle knew."
"This family has been trying for months and months and months to take care of Michael Jackson," Jackson family attorney Brian Oxman also told ABC News in 2009. "The people who have surrounded him have been enabling him."
Lester Cohen/WireImage; Eamonn McCormack/WireImage
And we'll now see what sort of stories come out about Prince, who was known for being eccentric and solitary but it wasn't until just weeks before his death that the public at large suspected he was seriously ill or had some sort of problem. Because Prince kept performing until days before his death—and was a bit frail-looking yet still unbelievable onstage—and had never stopped for any significant amount of time over the past 35 years, there was no particular moment that invited speculation into what he actually did in private.
A source confirms to E! News that Prince's plane had to make an emergency landing a couple weeks before his death because he needed treatment for a Percocet overdose. Those closest to him were indeed worried but Prince was determined to show that he was fine, throwing a party at his Paisley Park compound upon his return to Minneapolis.
AP Photo/Polfoto/Jakob Joergensen
Prince was a practicing Jehovah's Witness and the faith prohibits blood transfusions, so the artist refused to have surgery that he needed to repair a chronic hip injury that left him in constant pain.
A source told us that Prince was receiving weekly cortisone shots but that one of the reasons Prince's Piano and a Microphone tour featured a piano was so that he could sit down.
Autopsy results released today state that Prince, who was found unresponsive in an elevator at Paisley Park on the morning of April 21, died of an overdose of fentanyl, a potent opioid pain reliever.
As was the case with Jackson, whose reputation was revived in death, Prince left a lasting legacy—and it's not in question, as Jackson's initially was. While his $300 million estate is figured out in the absence of any will, his rumored vast archive is just waiting to be raided for what fans are hoping will be worthwhile musical gems. Meanwhile, Jackson continues to rank high on the list of top-earning late celebrities. His estate made $115 million in 2015, according to Forbes.
While neither man might have thanked the other in life for his influence, be it creative or purely competitive, when at their best either one would have been safe in taking a teeny slice of the credit for making the other better.
But while both enjoyed global success and larger-than-life status, it turns out that within the enigmatic, isolated worlds that Prince and Michael Jackson had created for themselves, despite being two of the most recognizable people on the planet, they each suffered in private.
And for whatever reason, despite common sense suggesting that countless people would've come to their aid in a heartbeat, neither could be helped in the end and, reminiscent of what happened to Elvis Presley almost 40 years ago, no one in the circle wanted to cross the King. Or the Prince.
—Additional reporting by Sara Kitnick