In April 2016, the world was rocked by news of the death of Prince Rogers Nelson. One of music’s – or more correctly, modern culture’s – biggest ever stars, Prince was a man of small stature whose shadow of influence was mind-boggling large. Immediate musical tributes from fellow 80s icon Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, country star Chris Stapleton, the cast of the hit musical Hamilton, and many others were testament to the respect the man and his music were held in.
For much of the public, Prince was a ‘star’; a hell of a performer who they might have seen playing guitar and piano in different music videos. What most musicians knew, however, was that Prince was – beyond his singing, his dancing, his band-leading skills, and his audio production talents – a skilled instrumentalist of the highest order, on not only the guitar and piano, but drums, bass guitar and more. Indeed, it is difficult for anybody who hasn’t played each particular instrument to truly appreciate how good he actually was.
It is silly to have debates about “was Prince a better guitarist than Clapton” or whoever – there are many ways to value a musician’s skill, whether it’s technical, historical knowledge, talent at improvising, or ability to play ‘for the song’ (among others). Let’s just say that Prince’s live band (on record, he often played all the instruments himself) was filled with musicians of the highest calibre – and if Prince ‘blind’-auditioned for each of the parts of his own band, he would probably have got all of the gigs based purely on his skill on guitar, bass, keyboard and drums.
The almost supernatural array of talents that Prince possessed are enough to have made many wonder as to how anyone could have assembled such a formidable skill-set – remembering that much of it was already fully formed at the time of his debut album, in his teens (go back and listen to his debut album For You, with tracks such as “Just as Long as We’re Together” sounding like an extremely tight band of talented musicians – but it’s all him).
Most accounts of Prince’s life put his skill set down to the twin factors of being a ‘functional orphan’ – he was largely abandoned by each of his parents in turn, and so is said to have spent much of his time playing music – who nevertheless inherited from those parents some serious musical acumen (his father was a jazz pianist, and his mother a singer). His unfortunate family situation – along with his extremely short stature (Prince only stood 5’2”) – are also claimed to have made him absolutely driven to prove himself to the world.
But could there have been an additional factor at work?
A Prodigious Musical Talent
Many people are musically talented. Many also become extremely proficient at their chosen instrument at a young age. However, Prince’s abilities, excelling on multiple instruments, verge on the spooky – the type of talent that gives rise to ‘down at the crossroads’ mythologies. He mastered a variety of instruments rapidly in his youth, to the point of being able to play all of the instruments on his debut album while still in his teens.
With his estate in confusion following his tragic passing, and his legendary control of material being posted online at least temporarily on hold, YouTube has been flooded with video examples of his wonderful talent (though how long they will remain is another question). Here are just a few isolated examples, among many:
The now-famous ripping guitar solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”:
Playing some jazz piano during a soundcheck:
A bass solo from the Batman album sessions:
A short phone video of Prince messing around on drums:
Matt Thorne, in his biography Prince: The Man and His Music, notes that Prince composed his first song at age 7 – a common marker of child prodigies. And Touré, in his biography I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon, notes that “part of why Prince was so knowledgeable at such a young age is because he was able to soak in sonic information at an extraordinary rate”. Touré quotes Dez Dickerson, who played guitar with Prince from 1979 to 1983, as saying that one of Prince’s chief strengths “was his ability to observe, assimilate and then reinterpret.”
NPG band member Sonny T, who was a friend of Prince in his teen years, learning and playing music together, also noted this unearthly learning ability in an interview with Guitar World in 1994. He remembered that Prince was an extremely fast learner, to the point of being able to simply echo what he heard, and also seemed to possess perfect pitch (being able to identify the pitch of a note simply by hearing it): “Oh, man! Photographic memory. Anything you played for him, he could repeat it. I’ve never seen anything like it. He’s definitely got perfect pitch. Anything he hears, he can play.”
The Aloof Genius
The oft-portrayed image of Prince as an aloof and sometimes uncaring genius, while not completely deserved, certainly had its basis in reality. Biographer Matt Thorne notes that Prince’s early life was “characterised by aloofness and isolation”. Despite his love of music from an early age, the school’s band directors could never persuade him to join up, with Prince instead spending much of his time alone, playing guitar to himself. Even in his late teens, those who worked with him found the relationship a one-way street. One of his first recording collaborators, Chris Moon, recounted that he “was painfully, painfully shy and extremely introverted”. Another, Don Taylor, was said to have “found Prince emotionless”.
Touré too notes that in high school, Prince “was an introvert and a loner…[with an] inability, or lack of interest, in connecting with people.” And later in life, “even though Prince was extremely mature in some ways, he remained immature in others. He never developed the basic social skills and the ability to be comfortable with people.” In I Would Die 4 U, Touré quotes Alan Leeds – who as Prince’s long-time ‘road manager’ became one of his closest associates (if there was anybody who could be described as such) in affirming that Prince’s difficulty relating to people in small groups or one on one followed him into adulthood:
He doesn’t have normal relationships…He’s not a person who finds it easy to share, whether its his thoughts or his time or his energy. If it isn’t within the context of a specific purpose he doesn’t enjoy or solicit sharing life… He’s a very distant personality. Prince isn’t close to anybody. He’s a very, very emotionally aloof person. I don’t know anybody who’s ever gotten past that wall.
And Alan Leeds’ brother Eric, who as saxophonist in Prince’s band had one of the longest working relationships with him (sax was one of the few instruments Prince did not play), reinforced that view in commenting that “Prince always looked at his band as being his family, but he did not know how to express those feelings or have those relationships in a normal sense.”
“A Vessel for Music”
What is also worth noting about Prince is that he wasn’t simply a person skilled at playing instruments. His reason for playing music was due to the fact that he was, almost continually, flooded by creative inspiration – his head was filled constantly with a torrent of music that seemed to flow through him from some other source, demanding it be released into this world. So much so, that even Prince himself felt moved to attribute it to a higher power. Alan Leeds, who during his career represented some of the greats of music – including James Brown – gave this ‘insider’s view’:
I’ve been around a lot of artists, including several icons, and I’ve never seen anybody like Prince. He’s a freak of nature in terms of how the music flowed through. The gift that allowed him to pick up any instrument and figure it out quickly to the point where he’s not really playing the instrument, it’s just music coming through him through the instrument, it’s just part of that funnel from whatever this source is and you can’t separate his work from his spirituality.
And I think Prince really does think he’s special. I’ve always believed that he thinks he has an in with God. Where that comes from is that this is a guy who sits there and says how in the world did someone like me get the gift I have? Where does that come from? Because the level of his gift is spooky. I’ve been around a lot of brilliantly creative people, from Miles Davis to James Brown to D’Angelo, and I’ve never seen anyone who’s a vessel for music the way Prince was.
He’d be trying to sleep because he hasn’t slept in two days and he can’t because he’s gotta write down lyrics, and then it’s can you find me a studio, I gotta get this out. Gotta get it out. Gotta get it on tape. Once it’s on tape, it’s out, and then I can sleep. It was crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it… His every waking moment there was music or lyrics flowing to a piece of paper… That’s why he plays after shows to the point of exhaustion. Because he has to play. To the point of obsession that’s borderline sick. (quoted in Touré’s I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon)
Prince was famous for working non-stop until whatever musical idea was flowing through him had been recorded, sometimes foregoing sleep for days at a time to do so. Chuck Zwicky, one of his audio engineers, remembered that he would just keep “going and kept working until he had it. I’ve had more than one forty hour day with him… He was so prolific, by the time he released an album, he may have had literally ten albums sitting around.”
Another Prince associate, Gilbert Davidson, tells an amazing story about this never-ending flow of musical ideas, in regards to the creation of one of Prince’s most critically acclaimed albums, Sign o’ the Times:
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, fifteen 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.
Touré notes that an old girlfriend of Prince said that the musical icon didn’t always welcome this never-ending flow of music, considering it both a blessing and a curse. “He has no control over his life… When the music tells him to play, he does. When the music tells him to sleep, he does… He has no say over the flow of music, so he feels that it must be coming from a higher power.”
Writer and fashion expert Michaela Angela Davis, who spent time with Prince both on tour and at his Paisley Park studio in Minneapolis, described how, for Prince, the flow of music was his focus and ‘happy place’, far more so than social interaction with friends. Davis notes that Prince at times would seem very normal, sitting around with others watching basketball on the TV. But then…
…he would just leave, just get up and leave. And later I got the courage to ask him. He’s like ‘You know how you think in words? I think in music. I hear melodies, I hear combinations, I hear chords…it’s in my head.’ And if ‘this’ [i.e. what’s happening socially] is not engaging, and ‘this’ [the music in his head] is, he just leaves. The explanation to me was, ‘most of the time, what I’m hearing in my head, is waaay more interesting than what’s going on out here’.
Returning to Alan Leeds, in a recent eulogy posted at Medium he described how Prince’s creativity, and musical skill, was so prodigious that the normal business cycle of record labels and publicity channels just weren’t up to coping with the amount of content produced: “the music, the ideas — both creative and promotional — flowed out of him like a raging river,” Leeds notes. “There was no industry that was equipped to process and digest his ceaseless flow. Radio couldn’t keep up, record companies couldn’t market and promote fast enough, fans couldn’t re-focus fast enough… His brain never shut off. We wrestled with words to describe him — tireless, driven, obsessed, manic. But just maybe it wasn’t any of that. Maybe he was simply put here to be that funnel…”
Legends have circulated since the 1980s about Prince’s vault, where music that was ‘left behind’ in this ceaseless flow was stored – in some cases, entire albums that, once recorded, were felt to be behind the musical locale Prince’s mind had moved on to, and so he simply shelved them. Some bands struggle to come up with an album’s worth of material over a few years – and yet Prince, writing and recording everything as an individual, couldn’t find time to release everything he came up with. So much so that the vault is now said to contain over 2000 songs – perhaps enough to release an album every year for the next century after his passing.
Islands of Genius
In reading about these aspects of Prince’s talent and personality, I was struck by an interesting correspondence to the traits of those individuals who are said to have ’savant syndrome’, particularly those whose enhanced skills lie in the field of music. Savant syndrome is…:
…a rare but remarkable condition in which persons with developmental disabilities (including but not limited to autistic disorder), or other central nervous system injuries or diseases, have some spectacular “islands of genius”.
…The same five general areas of skill – art, music, calendar calculating, lightning calculating and mechanical or spatial skills – all coupled with massive memory continue to dominate the condition wherever in the world it appears.
Autistic savants are the most commonly known about type of savant (perhaps due to Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning portrayal of autistic savant Raymond Babbitt in the film Rain Man), and so readers’ knee-jerk reaction might be to dismiss the idea that Prince’s skills could be associated with savant syndrome as ridiculous. But savant syndrome is present in people with IQs measured between 40 and 140, with another group, the ‘acquired savants’ being less recognised by the general public. Perhaps the most respected investigator of savant syndrome, Darold Treffert, describes this group as…
…normal (neurotypical) persons who, having previously shown no particular special savant skills or abilities, suddenly, after a head injury, stroke, or other brain disease or disorder, develop art, music or math skills, for example, sometimes at a prodigious level.
Most savants do lie on the autistic spectrum though, even some of those who are considered acquired savants, such as Daniel Tammet. His prodigious savant skills are in calculation and memory (he famously sees mathematical calculations visually, via colours, shape and texture; has memorised pi to 22,514 digits; and taught himself ten languages, including learning ‘conversational’ Icelandic in a week). While some savants’ autism is severe and debilitating, others like Tammet are diagnosed in the ‘high-functioning’ range (Asperger Syndrome). For nearly all these individuals though, social interaction is extremely difficult and is something that, at best, they learn how to do over time. (Tammet notes, in the foreword to Darold Treffert’s Islands of Genius, that “scientists now know that the brains we are born with are not ‘fixed’ at birth, as once believed, but continue to change throughout our lifetime. It is how I have learned to look people in the eye when I talk, or to understand body language, or to tell funny jokes.” )
As Darold Treffert points out, the prodigious skills of acquired savants are generally brought on by some “central nervous system trauma, disease, or disorder”. For Daniel Tammet, the cause of his development into a savant is thought to have been a series of childhood epileptic seizures, possibly in concert with his already existing high-functioning autism. Though Tammet is not a musical savant, it is interesting to note that Prince too suffered from childhood epilepsy, from birth to the age of seven (he famously recounted once that he told his mother an angel had cured him of the neurological disorder).
Darold Treffert ranks musical ability as the second most frequently reported savant skill:
It is usually performance, and it is almost always accompanied by perfect pitch. Composing in the absence of performing has been reported, as has playing multiple instruments, as many as 22 or more. Almost all musical savants have a remarkable “literal” memory, which allows them to play back entire pieces after hearing them for the first time.
It is interesting to compare Prince’s childhood development to diagnosed savant Matt Savage, who quickly mastered the piano at age 6, created his first CD of jazz compositions at age 8, and by 17 was touring the globe as the leader of the Matt Savage Trio. Matt has a chapter devoted to him in Treffert’s Islands of Genius:
[Matt] rarely played with other children and would often run away from any such interaction… Matt’s musical ability appeared quite unexpectedly when he was about six years old. One evening Matt’s parents were startled to hear ‘London Bridge’ being pounded out, in an adjacent room, on a toy keyboard his mother had purchased for him. His mother then introduced him to the full piano and he learned to play ‘almost overnight.’ In six months he mastered a Schubert sonata… After a year of classical music lessons, he was enrolled in the jazz program at the New England Conservatory of Music where he progressed quickly.
In a similar manner to how Prince felt that the flow of music was coming from somewhere else, as if it was being transmitted into his head asking to be transcribed into the physical world, one of Matt’s jazz instructors commented that “Matt seems to know things that are deeper than his own existence”, while his mother told how “Matt tells us the music is already in his head. He hears it, and he plays it. He knows he has to practice technique. But the music itself – it’s already there.” (It’s also interesting to note the progression of Savage’s social skills from his early difficulties: “As Matt’s evolved on stage, his social life has grown too. He’s learned how to talk onstage to the point that he’s almost a ham.”)
We find a similar theme in the case of orthopedic surgeon Dr. Tony Cicoria, who suddenly acquired his musical savant skills after being struck by lightning (during which he had an intense near-death experience as well). Cicoria has noted that after this point, he began to hear music in his head: “It’s like a frequency, a radio band. If I open myself up, it comes.” Oliver Sacks wrote about Cicoria’s case in his book Musicophilia, describing how after his near-death experience at age 42 he became – rather like descriptions of Prince – “inspired, even possessed by music, and scarcely had time for anything else”. Savant syndrome expert Darold Treffert has noted that when the new ability arises in acquired savants, it becomes “an all-consuming interest and it takes over the person’s life. So it becomes as much of a force as a gift, because they can’t turn it off.” Compare Treffert’s words to how Prince considered his musical gift both ‘a blessing and a curse’ because it continually ‘flowed’ through him.
The breathtaking musical skills of autistic savants are also reminiscent of some of the descriptions of Prince’s level of talent. For example, Derek Paravacini is an autistic musical savant who has been blind from birth. And yet Derek has perfect pitch, and a prodigious memory, allowing him to repeat any piece he hears instantly – as well as remembering it perfectly, forever:
Compare Derek’s skills to what Sonny T said about Prince: “Photographic memory. Anything you played for him, he could repeat it. I’ve never seen anything like it. He’s definitely got perfect pitch. Anything he hears, he can play.” Additionally, in hearing about the ’thousands’ of songs that Derek has heard and remembered, I am reminded of an anecdote that Morris Hayes, long-time keyboardist for Prince, told about his first rehearsals attempting to learn just some of the vast repertoire of His Purpleness’s song catalogue:
I was just one of those church cats that played music by ear, so at first it was very difficult for me to keep up. We wouldn’t just learn one song, we’d learn a string of songs, and when we’d come back the next day I’d forget some. I remember he pulled me to the side and said, ‘Are you a genius, Morris?’ I said no. ‘O.K., then write it down. I don’t write it down ‘cause I’m a genius. I’ve got a million of ‘em, and I can remember. But unless you’re a genius, write it down.[my emphasis]
Derek Paravacini is not an outlier when it comes to musical savants. Time and again they demonstrate this perfect pitch and note perfect memory and reproduction. Leslie Lemke is blind, severely cognitively impaired and has cerebral palsy, but played back Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 flawlessly after hearing it for the first time at age 14. Derek Amato is an acquired savant whose skills manifested after he dived into a shallow pool and suffered a severe concussion at age 40 – he developed the ability to play piano ‘overnight’ and can play any piece he hears.
Thomas Bethune, known as ‘Blind Tom’ was the most celebrated black concert artist of the nineteenth century, and the greatest musical prodigy of the age. Tom was also blind and mentally handicapped. In 1860, aged 11, he played at the White House before the President. Several musicians were convinced by this performance that he was a fraud, and so tested him the following day: they played two newly composed pieces, one 13 pages long, the other 20, which Tom was able to immediately repeat “from beginning to end without error”. One account notes that Tom’s musical skill extended to astounding his audiences “by turning his back to the piano and [giving] an exact replication – a reversal of the keys the left and right hand played”!
Prince himself had a few ‘tricks’, such as playing piano and guitar at the same time:
(On a sidenote, you might have noticed the regular theme of musical savants often being blind, including Derek Paravacini, Leslie Lemke, Ellen Boudreaux, Tony DeBlois, Thomas Bethune. Darold Treffert devotes space to this rare but “recurrent musical triad” of blindness, mental impairment and musical genius in chapter 5 of Islands of Genius. A common cause of this blindness in a number of savants is retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), where the growth of the retina goes awry, often as a result of excess amounts of oxygen being supplied to premature babies (the developmental process is highly sensitive to oxygen levels). Treffert notes that many of the prodigious savants living today were prematurely born in the 1950s and suffered from ROP, but since that point – when the cause of ROP was discovered – the number of cases has dropped significantly
In light of the above, and given this article is about Prince, I feel compelled to mention with curiosity that another multi-instrumentalist, child prodigy pop icon who was a role model for Prince – Stevie Wonder – is also a child of the 1950s who suffers from ROP blindness due to being born 6 weeks early)
Musical savants are also often not restricted to one instrument. Wen Kuei, of Taiwan, fell in love with music aged 12 when he unintentionally touched an organ keyboard. Darold Treffert notes that “he now plays multiple instruments with ease”. Ellen Boudreaux is a virtuoso performer on piano and guitar. Tony DeBlois, a blind autistic musical savant who graduated Magna Cum Laude from the prestigious Berklee College of Music, plays over 22 instruments, including piano, guitar, harmonica, violin, banjo, drums, trumpet, saxophone and flute.
Given all these similarities, is it possible that Prince’s talent originated, like the case of Daniel Tammet, in acquired savant syndrome from his childhood epilepsy, along with perhaps some form of high-functioning autism?
Resisting the Temptation
While the similarities are compelling, I am chastened by the words of Darold Treffert, who during his career has been bombarded with theories about past geniuses, and communication from parents concerned that their child is autistic:
It is popular these days to apply the diagnosis of high-functioning autism or Asperger syndrome to almost anyone generally considered to have been a prodigy or genius in the past. Names such as Mozart, Rembrandt, Einstein and others are bandied about, conjecturing that these persons were really persons with high-functioning autism rather than prodigies or geniuses.
…Suffice it to say that prodigies and geniuses do exist. They are not all savants. There is a critical difference in that prodigies and geniuses, unlike savants, do not have some underlying developmental or other disability…not every child who reads early, likes to line up railroad cars, remembers songs, draws spectacularly, plays tunes prolifically and likes routine is autistic.
…Likewise, with respect to adults, not every absent-minded professor has Asperger syndrome. Instead, genius, sometimes with generous eccentricity, can exist without being “on the spectrum.” The temptation to label all exceptional talents as autistic disorder or Asperger syndrome, rather than recognizing prodigy, genius or simply precociousness as distinct entities, needs to be resisted lest “diagnostic creep” erroneously blurs the lines between these circumstances and voids all meaningful classification. When that occurs all those disorders lose their specificity and the spectrum engulfs us all.
In reality, we will likely never know the explanation of Prince’s musical genius, and we should be skeptical in considering the idea that it may have originated with savant syndrome due to his childhood epilepsy – there are certainly other explanations, such as his family situation mentioned earlier.
But a key question raised by Treffert’s research on savants – especially in light of the sudden, almost miraculous abilities of ‘acquired savants’, is whether these talents lie dormant within us all as a hidden potential waiting to be unlocked in some way.
Savant syndrome has always raised questions about how much hidden brain potential, and memory capacity, might lay buried and dormant within each of us. Through the years people have wondered that if persons with savant syndrome can recruit and utilise undamaged brain capacity to compensate for dysfunction or injury somewhere else in the brain, might there be such an untapped reservoir of brain capacity within us all?
Some researchers have made attempts to do exactly that, such as Dr Allan Snyder’s experiments using magnetic pulses directed at the left temporal lobe. Do we all have these powers unlocked to variable amounts, with just a precious few, like Prince, having the lid of this treasure chest of abilities thrown open?
These are questions that the science of the future might one day answer. For now though, we have just lost one of the all-time greats of music, and we are only left to wonder at the source of his magic.