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From ‘Purple Rain’ to pop icon: How 1984 made Prince a superstar

Prince performs at the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas, in 2013. (File / MCT)

Prince opened the year 1984 poised for stardom.

Signed to Warner Bros. when he was still a teen, the Minneapolis native’s first four albums established him as a sex- and religion-obsessed musical genius who wrote, performed and produced all his own music, sometimes while wearing women’s panties.

His sales began to match his notoriety with his fifth album, “1999.” The single “Little Red Corvette” joined Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” as the first two videos by black artists to enter heavy rotation on the still-young MTV. The song peaked at No. 6, giving Prince his biggest hit to date.

When he began work on “Purple Rain,” Prince already had sold millions of albums, appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and opened for the Rolling Stones. He understood what it took to appeal to the masses, but like fellow Minnesota iconoclasts Judy Garland and Bob Dylan, Prince wanted to twist the rules and conquer the world on his own terms.

By this point, Prince already had carved out a distinct image. He channeled the mascara-smeared androgyny of Little Richard, the stage mastery of James Brown and the guitar skills of Jimi Hendrix.

While building what would become the Revolution, Prince consciously mirrored the approach of Sly Stone, populating his own version of the Family Stone with black and white and male and female musicians. He also wisely traded in lingerie for a frilly white shirt, purple velvet jacket and a motorcycle.

Rock classic But when it came time to turn the rain purple, Prince looked to no less than the Beatles for inspiration. Following the lead of “A Hard Day’s Night” two decades before, Prince crafted “Purple Rain” as a full-out, multimedia extravaganza, with a hit album, smash singles, feature film and sold-out tour.

Yet the project’s lead single, “When Doves Cry,” had Warner Bros. execs sweating. With its stark tone, harsh electronics, squealing guitars and lack of bass, the song sounded utterly unlike anything else on the radio.

Coupled with a literally steamy video — the Purple One spent much of the clip writhing around in a bathtub — “When Doves Cry” felt too dark and too weird for the mainstream, particularly at the height of the Reagan administration.

It was released in mid-May, and listeners quickly embraced the improbable hit as MTV made “When Doves Cry” a top priority. Just weeks after Prince turned 26 — 26! — the song hit the top of the charts and stayed there for five weeks.

The full “Purple Rain” soundtrack arrived in stores that June and sold more than 1.5 million copies its first week.

In a piece equating Prince with Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, the New York Times raved: “‘Purple Rain’ is not just another Prince album … the music feels equally intense and equally liberated.”

Long after that summer’s smashes are forgotten, the writer predicted, “‘Purple Rain’ will still be remembered, and played, as an enduring rock classic.”

Runaway success In many ways “Purple Rain” ended up soundtracking the latter half of 1984, with the singles “Let’s Go Crazy,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “Take Me With U” and the indelible title track fueling the success of the album and the often-silly film.

The record topped the charts in August and stayed there for 24 consecutive weeks. At one point, Prince set a new record by simultaneously claiming the No. 1 album, single and film in the country.

The only thing left for Prince to do was take a victory lap. He opened the “Purple Rain” tour in November with seven shows at Detroit’s Joe Lewis Arena. The tour played multiple nights in nearly every city, including a year-end five-show run at the old St. Paul Civic Center. The Purple One was even cheeky enough to play a matinee show that Christmas Eve for hometown fans.

The runaway success of “Purple Rain” changed everything. It pioneered the concept of the Minneapolis Sound and transformed First Avenue from just another dingy rock club into a tourist destination and cultural treasure. It allowed Prince to build Paisley Park Studios and start his own label of the same name.

The Prince Effect turned Sheila E. and the Time into stars, while collaborators Chaka Khan, Stevie Nicks, the Bangles, Sheena Easton and Madonna basked in his purple afterglow.

Warner Bros. ended up signing fellow Twin Cities acts the Replacements and Husker Du. Janet Jackson, the Human League and Fine Young Cannibals all turned to Prince associates to fashion their own take on the Minneapolis Sound.

That dizzying level of success proved impossible for Prince to maintain, something he noted himself in the lyrics to 1985’s “Pop Life” when he sang “everybody wants to be on top” and later concluded “everybody can’t be on top.”

But the legacy of “Purple Rain” endures to this day, as was in evidence earlier this year at the rapturous response to news that Prince and Warner Bros. planned to reissue the album with improved sound and selections from Prince’s legendary vault of unreleased tunes.

In the 30 years that have followed “Purple Rain,” Prince has endlessly tested himself and his fans, sometimes with groundbreaking new music, sometimes with canceled projects and frustrating dead ends. Thanks to “Purple Rain,” Prince will have listeners hanging on through to his very last note.