20 Fascinating Facts From Prince's Unforgettable Life

On the fourth anniversary of Prince's passing, his legendary career will be celebrated with a star-studded concert, Let's Go Crazy: The Grammy Salute to Prince, on CBS.
By Billy Nilles Apr 21, 2020 4:00 PMTags
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Prince's Most Badass Moments

There was nobody quite like Prince, whose legendary life and career will be celebrated with a one-of-a-kind concert, Let's Go Crazy: The Grammy Salute to Prince, on CBS on Tuesday, April 21. In each and every one of his 57 years on this planet, he lived a truly one-of-a-kind life. Born into poverty—"We used to go to that McDonald's there," he told Rolling Stone in 1985. "I didn't have any money, so I'd just stand outside there and smell stuff. Poverty makes people angry, brings out their worst side. I was very bitter when I was young."—he took an undeniable talent, an unparalleled work ethic, and a otherwordly stage presence and turned himself into one of the world's most unforgettable stars. 

Every step of the way, he lived life on his own terms. So as we mourn another year without him, let's celebrate a life well lived by remembering 20 of the most fascinating moments from it, each one a reminder that there truly will never be another one like him.

His Tragic Loss

After meeting dancer Mayte Garcia backstage in Barcelona when she was 16 and hiring her as a backup singer and dancer once she graduated from high school, the two began a romantic relationship when she was 19 and he was 34. They tied the knot three years later, on Valentine's Day 1996, and welcomed a son Amiir Nelson on October 16. Sadly, a week later, Amiir died after suffering from Pfieffer syndrome, a very rare genetic disorder characterized by the premature fusion of certain bones of the skull which affects the shape of the head and face. Prince never commented on the tragedy. The toll of losing a child, followed by a miscarriage, was too much for the marriage and the two split in 2000.

Prince and the King

Michael Jackson and Prince had a famously contentious relationship throughout the '80s and '90s. As Prince explained to Chris Rock in 1997, he was originally intended to appear on Jackson's hit "Bad," but he bristled at nearly everything about it. "You know that Wesley Snipes character [from the video]? That would have been me," he said. "You run that video in your mind. The first line in that song is, 'your butt is mine' so I was saying, 'Who gonna 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."

According to Prince's former fiancee Susannah Melvion, "[Prince] couldn't believe Michael had the nerve to call it 'I'm Bad.' He was like, 'There's nothing badass about him.' He could not let Michael get away with it. Not only was he not going to sing it with him, he went into the studio and re-recorded it to what he thought it should be and sent it back to Michael. Like 'No. And by the way, this is what it should be.' That was the end of that. But that's how Prince was."

His engineer David Z told the Star-Tribune about a late '80s encounter he witnessed in a recording studio in Los Angeles, where Prince invited Jackson to play ping-pong. Apparently, the latter didn't know how. "'You want me to slam it?' Prince asked," he said. "Michael drops his paddle and holds his hands up in front of his face so the ball won't hit him. Michael walks out with his bodyguard, and Prince starts strutting around like a rooster. 'Did you see that? He played like Helen Keller.'"

A Super Show

In 2007, Prince delivered one of his most electrifying performances ever when he took the field at Dolphin Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. to perform in the Pepsi Halftime Show at Super Bowl XLI. Seen by 140 million viewers, his show—which saw the skies open and begin to rain just as he began singing "Purple Rain," as if it were some sort of divine intervention—is widely regarded as the best Super Bowl halftime show ever.

Like a Prayer

It's no secret that Prince appears on Madonna's fourth studio album—he did co-write and perform on the track "Love Song" with her after all—but his skills as a musician are featured elsewhere on the album, as well. Namely, on its iconic title track. You know that distorted guitar solo that plays at the top of "Like a Prayer" before the door slams? "That's Prince," the song's co-producer, Patrick Leonard, told Billboard in 2014 on its 25th anniversary. "What happened is, [Madonna] sent him something to play on and he played on it and sent it back. And we didn't feel that what he did served it. But that piece, that beginning, is him.

A Name for the Symbol

Who can forget when Prince—whose birth name was actually Prince Rogers Nelson—briefly changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in 1993 while in a contract dispute with Warner Bros., forcing people to refer to him as "The Artist" or "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince"? But did you know that the strange symbol actually had a name of its own? First appearing as the title of his 1992 album—and later explained as being a combination of the symbols for male and female—it was later copyrighted as "Love Symbol #2." To ensure that print media still covered the artist, Warner Bros. was forced to mass mail floppy disks with a custom font on them. Once his contract with the label expired at the end of 1999, he returned to his given name. (He would later resign with Warner in 2014.)

Prince Meets Jess

In 2014, Prince made a legendary cameo in an episode of New Girl's third season. As it turned out, the Fox sitcom was a favorite of his and he had his people reach out to star Zooey Deschanel to make the appearance happen. "I got a cold email from his manager, and it was like the most on-brand Prince email ever—like too on-brand. It was like, 'Hello, I am manager to legendary artist Prince. He is loving the show New Girl. He would like 2 B'—you know, like, 2 B—'on the show.' And I'm like, 'This has to be a prank. There's no way!'" she told Jimmy Kimmel in 2018. "But I had several people check it out. It turned out it was his manager. You know, you never know. When you put stuff out there, you're in the entertainment business, you never know who might just be flipping channels and find your show. And randomly, Prince found the show, and he was watching it every week with his band, and they'd watch it on tour, and it was like he couldn't miss it, and they were really invested in the Nick and Jess relationship. It was just one of those really surreal moments."

"It was a highlight of my whole life," she added. "It was amazing just to get to hang out with him. To the very last second, we weren't sure if he was going to come to set...We were like, 'I hope he's the type that shows up'...We had no back-up plan, but he showed up. He was awesome. He was such a pro...A good actor and very kind of chill all the time. Such a cool guy."

Songs for Sale

On top of his own legendary output, Prince's prolific songwriting nature saw him provide tracks for other artist as well. Throughout the course of his career, he wrote tracks for Sinead O'Connor ("Nothing Compares 2 U"), Chaka Khan ("I Feel For You"), and The Bangles ("Manic Monday"), among many others, often utilizing pseudonyms for his writing credit. On "Manic Monday," he's credited simply as Christopher. At times, he also used Jamie Starr, The Starr Company, Joey Coco, and Alexander Nevermind.

Anything for Kim

Legend has it that Prince only agreed to contribute to the soundtrack for Tim Burton's first Batman film because he had a crush on star Kim Basinger and wanted an opportunity to meet her. And it worked. The two dated for nearly a year before she met her future ex-husband Alec Baldwin. According to Page Six, she moved to Minneapolis to be with him and even recorded an unreleased album while they were together.

Too Hot to Handle

After purchasing the Purple Rain soundtrack for her then-11-year-old daughter, Tipper Gore, wife of future Vice President Al Gore, became so outraged over the sexually explicit lyrics to "Darling Nikki," which references masturbation and other sex acts, that she felt music should, when necessary, carry a warning label to let parents know what they're getting themselves into. To do so, she founded the Parents Music Resource Center, which put pressure on the record industry to adopt the label. On November 1, 1985, the RIAA agreed to put "Parental Advisory" labels on select releases at their discretion. 

Feeling the Force

When Star Wars visionary George Lucas tied the knot with longtime girlfriend and Ariel Investments president Mellody Hobson in 2013, their big day was given the ultimate soundtrack. "I didn't know Prince, but I loved his music, so much so that when George and I got married and we planned our wedding reception, we reached out to ask him if he'd be willing to play. And much to our shock and sheer delight, he said yes!" Hobson recalled while speaking at the Matrix Awards in 2016, according to The Hollywood Reporter. "So for one extraordinarily busy day, I got to see his genius up close. Watching his passion and perfectionism reminded me of a rhyme that my mother used to say to me. She said, 'Be the labor, great or small, do it well or not at all.' She said it over and over again. This labor, in the whole scheme of things, it was a wedding, it was small. But Prince, with his 22-piece band, they had 40 guitars, they played like it was everything. It could've been the Oscars, it was a full concert."

His Little Idiosyncrasies

Like most geniuses, Prince often displayed some peculiar behavior. He would routinely take to writing "Slave" on his face while performing during his contract dispute with Warner Bros., likening his treatment at the hands of the label to slavery. In 2010, after blocking YouTube and iTunes from carrying any of his music and even shutting down his own official website, he told The Mirror, "The internet's completely over...The internet's like MTV. At one time MTV was hip and suddenly it became outdated. Anyway, all these computers and digital gadgets are no good. They just fill your head with numbers and that can't be good for you." (In 2015, he clarified that statement with The Guardian, explaining, "What I meant was that the internet was over for anyone who wants to get paid, and I was right about that. Tell me a musician who's got rich off digital sales. Apple's doing pretty good though, right?") And in 2014, he sued 22 people, some fans, for direct copyright infringement, unauthorized fixation, contributory copyright infringement, and bootlegging. Some had simply shared links to bootleg video from his concerts on Facebook. Within days, he dismissed the entire action without prejudice.

His Big Year

When Prince made his acting debut in the 1984 rock musical drama Purple Rain, he learned what it was really like to reign. Not only did the film hit No. 1 at the box office during the week of July 27, but the soundtrack became the week's best-selling album and the track "When Doves Cry" became the No. 1 single, giving him three distinct No. 1 successes all at once.

The Start of "Purple Rain"

While "Purple Rain" has gone on to become one of the most iconic songs in Prince's oeuvre, it was almost an entirely different song altogether. After becoming friends with Stevie Nicks when he played the synthesizer on her hit "Stand Back," she asked if the two could collaborate again, so her sent her a 10-minute long instrumental and asked that she write lyrics to it. "It was so overwhelming, that 10-minute track, that I listened to it and I just got scared," she told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2011. "I called him back and said, 'I can't do it. I wish I could. It's too much for me.' I'm so glad that I didn't, because he wrote it, and it became 'Purple Rain.'" Once she turned him down, Prince and his band reworked the song from its original country feel, played it for six hours straight before locking in the new arrangement, and the rest is history.

The Wonka Playbook

In 2006, Prince followed Willy Wonka's lead and had Universal Music hide 14 purple tickets—seven in the U.S. and the rest internationally—inside copies of his latest album 3121. The 14 lucky to find a ticket were invited to attend a private performance at his residence in Los Angeles. And when he took his show on the road for the Earth Tour, which was really just 21 nights at London's O2 Arena, he made sure that each and every ticket sold for 31.21 pounds, regardless of their proximity to the stage.

Nevermind

Days before the intended release of The Black Album on December 8, 1987, Prince experienced a "spiritual epiphany" and decided the album was "evil," later blaming it on an entity named Spooky Electric. (The reaction may or may not have been influenced by a bad experience with MDNA.) As a result, he recalled all copies of the album and abandoned the entire thing, leaving about 100 European copies and several American copies in circulation. As a result, it became one of the most legendary bootlegs in pop music. The album would be legally released by Warner Bros. in 1994, with the label offering a free copy of their version to the first 1,000 fans who mailed in their bootleg copy in return.

Don't Call It a Conversion

In 2001, Prince had a change of faith and became a Jehovah's Witness, he told The New Yorker, after a two year-long debate with musician friend Larry Graham. "I don't see it really as a conversion," he told the publication in 2008. "More, you know, it's a realization. It's like Morpheus and Neo in The Matrix." As he revealed, he would often go door-to-door to proselytize. "Sometimes people act surprised, but mostly they're really cool about it," he said. In 2003, a woman in Eden Prarie, Minn. spoke to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune about the moment she opened her door and found Prince and Graham on the other side, knocking.  

"My first thought is'‘Cool, cool, cool. He wants to use my house for a set. I'm glad! Demolish the whole thing! Start over!' Then they start in on this Jehovah's Witnesses stuff," Rochelle recalled, according to EW. "I said, ‘'You know what? You've walked into a Jewish household, and this is not something I'm interested in.' He says, Can I just finish? Then the other guy, Larry Graham, gets out his little Bible and starts reading scriptures about being Jewish and the land of Israel." She said they stayed for about 25 minutes, got into a big black truck, and left the neighborhood without visiting any other houses. "It was so bizarre, you would have just laughed," she added.

Master of All Domains

While Prince was highly-regarded for his ability to absolutely wail on the guitar, he was a true renaissance man, having learned to play at least 27 different musical instruments. At least. On his debut album, 1978's For You, he played every single instrument heard. According to the liner notes, he played "electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, bass synth, singing bass, Fuzz bass, electric piano, acoustic piano, mini-Moog, poly-Moog, Arp string ensemble, Arp Pro Soloist, Oberheim four-voice, clavinet, drums, syndrums, water drums, slapsticks, bongos, congas, finger cymbals, wind chimes, orchestral bells, woodblocks, brush trap, tree bell, hand claps and finger snaps," as well as writing, arranging, producing, and, you know, singing everything.

Hoop Dreams

Despite his rather diminutive stature—he measured in at only five-foot-two—Prince was an extremely talented basketball player. He played on Minneapolis' Central High School's junior varsity team and continued to play recreationally as an adult. While in high school, he was never a starter, however, and that bothered him. "I knew he wanted to be starting and felt he should be starting. He was unhappy and he expressed that many, many times," his coach once recalled.

A Century's Worth

Over the course of his career, Prince released a whopping 39 studio albums, but upon his passing, the contents of his vault were assessed and it was determined that the prolific writer had amassed enough unreleased material to an album of new music every year for the next century. "I write so many songs that I don't even think about those songs any more," he told The Guardian in 2015. "I don't get attached to it. Because if I did, I couldn't move on and there'd be no space for a new song..."

Oh, Sister

In 1987, Prince faced down a lawsuit from—of all people—his half-sister Lorna Nelson. She hit her famous sibling with a copyright-infringement suit in federal court, claiming that the lyrics to his hit song "U Got the Look" were too similar to an unpublished song she'd written called "What's Cooking in This Book." After a federal judge threw out her case in 1988, ruling that no substantial similarities between the lyrics existed, the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling, while the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, allowing the earlier decisions in Prince's favor to stand.

Let's Go Crazy: The Grammy Salute to Prince airs Tuesday, April 21 at 9 p.m. on CBS and streaming on CBS All Access.

(Originally published on April 21, 2019 at 3 am. PT.)