Behind Prince’s exceptional talent and daring sensuality was a genuine love and adoration for women. While that sometimes translated to high-profile affairs with proteges from Vanity to Mayte Garcia, more often it meant that Prince was using his capacity as a genius artist to constantly elevate women as musicians, performers, collaborators and confidantes.
Maybe this tradition began with his mother, the jazz singer Mattie Shaw, whose experience being abused by his father he loosely portrayed in Purple Rain and “When Doves Cry.” Though his family life was tumultuous and he gave conflicting interviews about the accuracy of those depictions, he remained loyal to her. Her death, in 2002, was the main reason he was motivated to become a Jehovah’s Witness.
Whatever inspired Prince to help women out in a rock era that reeked of machismo and was often explicitly anti-woman, he began doing so early on in his career. Gayle Chapman was the first, a keyboardist in his debut band—formed in 1979 and eventually named The Revolution—along with Linda Anderson, the sister of Revolution bassist André Cymone. In a 2013 interview, Chapman said Prince told her he hired her because she was “the funkiest white chick I ever met,” and when she decided to leave the band because she didn’t feel like she was growing, he was supportive:
I went over and we sat and talked. He wasn’t happy that this white chick was leaving. The last thing he ever said to me was “Gayle, if you ever need my help, you just let me know.”
Prince replaced Chapman with Lisa Coleman, who would famously be joined by guitarist Wendy Melvoin; together, Wendy and Lisa were key in developing Prince & the Revolution’s sound beyond 1981's Controversy. (Most notable, of course: the game-changing Purple Rain.) During that time, Prince was also shaped by Sheila E., a drumming phenom from the musical Escovedo family and his girlfriend for a time. She got album credits for the vocals on “Erotic City,” and scored her own mega-hit with 1984's “The Glamorous Life,” a song Prince wrote. (In 1986, Rolling Stone featured Prince, Wendy, and Lisa on a cover with the caption “Prince’s Women”—a month before he dissolved The Revolution. Prince was notoriously sudden about line-up changes and feisty about his art.)
Aside from that hit dance single, Prince handed off a slew of songs to many other artists throughout his career, many of which helped launch them to greater heights. There were many women, beginning in 1977 with “I Don’t Wanna Stop” by soul/funk singer and actor Ren Woods.
By 1982, Prince had convened his very first girl group, Vanity 6, featuring singer/girlfriend Denise “Vanity” Matthews (who also died earlier this year at the age of 57). He wrote the music for their sole album. “Nasty Girl” was the most famous of these, but “If a Girl Answers, Don’t Hang Up” is a cult favorite:
In 1983, Cyndi Lauper covered Prince’s Dirty Mind track “When U Were Mine,” and that same year, Stevie Nicks was inspired to write “Stand Back” after hearing “Little Red Corvette” on the radio. Nicks called Prince to tell him, and he ended up playing synthesizers on the song. He also asked her to help on a song that would ultimately become “Purple Rain,” but she said she was “too scared”:
“It was so overwhelming,” she later explained. “I listened to it and I just got scared. 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.’”
“I’ve still got it,” Nicks recently told Mojo when asked about the demo. “The whole instrumental track and a little bit of Prince singing, ‘Can’t get over that feeling’, or something. I told him, ‘Prince, I’ve listened to this a hundred times but I wouldn’t know where to start. It’s a movie, it’s epic.”
A year later, concurrent with the release of Purple Rain the movie, Vanity left Prince’s circle over bad blood and he replaced her with Apollonia. With remaining members Brenda Bennett and Susan Moonsie, Vanity 6 became Apollonia 6, which cut a single album and delivered “Sex Shooter.”
Also in 1984, which would prove to be an exceptionally prolific year for an already prolific artist, Chaka Khan’s Prince-penned “I Feel For You” became her first hit without Rufus, and updated her sound for a new decade of dance pop...
...not to mention writing “Sugar Walls,” an indelible tribute to vagine, for Sheena Easton:
By 1987, having written a host of tracks for Sheila E.’s second album and helping launch the career of The Bangles after they cut Prince’s song “Manic Monday,” Prince had disbanded The Revolution and hired Escovedo as his drummer. At this time, he also employed the choreographer and dancer Cat Glover to revamp the stage show and add a different dimension to his Sign O’ the Times-era work, showing his prescience into the crunchy ‘90s, and also helping to define it. During this era, he also found the time to mentor, release and write songs for his former back-up singer Jill Jones...
...the young Paisley Park signee Taja Sevelle...
...and help launch the career of actor Kristin Scott Thomas by casting her as the lead in Under the Cherry Moon, her debut film role.
Through the end of the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, Prince cowrote and sang on Madonna’s “Love Song,” as well as wrote or contributed to songs for Nona Hendryx, Deborah Allen, Missing Persons’ Dale Bozzio, Chaka Khan (again), Mavis Staples, Wendy & Lisa, Patti LaBelle, Robin Power, Elisa Fiorillo, Mica Paris, Ingrid Chavez, Jevetta Steele, Martika, Paula Abdul, Sinead O’Connor (“Nothing Compares 2 U”), Celine Dion, Rosie Gaines, Monie Love, and Carmen Electra (whom he named and was, for some reason, really adamant about turning into a sexy proto-Iggy Azalea). Of course, during this time he was also collaborating with and writing for male artists—George Clinton, most notably—but he mentored and signed to Paisley Park a majority of women artists and added several of the aforementioned to his then-new band The New Power Generation (including the musician and dancer Mayte Garcia, who would eventually become his wife).
In this interview with Carmen Electra, she says she learned “work ethic and kindness” from her mentor, and says that if he believed in you he’d be “your biggest cheerleader... he gave me confidence.” They dated, she said, but kept it quiet because he wanted “people to take you serious, and if people know that you’re my girlfriend, they’re gonna think that I’m just doing this for you because you’re my girlfriend.”
While Prince spent most of the 2000s writing music for himself, he always had women in his band (including the ill funk saxophonist Candy Dulfer), and reached out to a newer generation. There was the famous Grammys performance with Beyoncé in 2004, of course, but he also asked Salma Hayek to direct his “Te Amo Corazón” video, mentored and worked with former Girls Tyme member Támar Davis, and wrote for Alicia Keys.
In the latter part of his career, Prince was quite selective about who he chose to work with, but he did reach out to younger artists. In 2015, Rita Ora collaborated with the artist on “Ain’t About to Stop,” singing part of the chorus. And he was a vocal supporter of Janelle Monáe; he invited her to tour with him after she released 2010's The ArchAndroid and, in 2013, he performed on “Givin’ Em What They Love” off her album The Electric Lady. That year, for a Billboard cover story, she told me that he had invited Quincy Jones to a Monáe show, and that:
“We are great friends, and he is a mentor to us, to me. It’s a beautiful thing to have a friend—someone who cares about your career, and wants to see you go far and to push boundaries and shake up the world—give whatever they possibly can to the cause,” says Monáe. “I had a chance to produce an icon. It’s not everyday that he collaborates. I’m honored and humbled and honored that he trusted me. He is forever my friend and I am forever indebted. I can’t say too much else about it!”
From my interview transcripts for that story, Monáe also said:
Prince really does get a kick out of the fact that I run my own label. It’s like he just wants to come and watch. We talk about the world, the music industry, and how we can continue to contribute and create music that is freeing, revolutionary, innovative and continues to push boundaries.
Most notably, though, for the last four years Prince employed 3rdeyegirl—Hannah Welton, Donna Grantis, and Ida Kristine Nielsen—as his backing band, a trio of hardcore shredders who just by their presence disproved the longstanding, bewilderingly enduring notion that women cannot rock.
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