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The quiet one: A high school classmate recalls the Artist as a young man

  • Article by: Jon Tevlin
  • Star Tribune
  • March 13, 2004 - 10:00 PM

It was no "Purple Rain," but the movie Prince shot at Minneapolis Central High School had some of the artist's hallmark themes: He wrote, directed and starred. He played the self-conscious underdog. And, of course, he got the girl.

Schoolmate Robert Plant remembers the film class well. He was in a group with Prince and his best friend, Paul Mitchell. Prince conceived of a movie in which a small, shy kid tried to win the heart of a pretty cheerleader.

"He had a crush on a girl named Kim Upsher," said Plant. "So the movie was about him trying to get the girl. Paul Mitchell played the team quarterback -- which he was -- and every time Prince was with the cheerleader, Paul would come by and push him out of the way and walk away with the girl."

Cut to Prince in the library, reading a book on kung fu. In the final scene, "Prince pulls this kung fu move and walks away with the girl," Plant said.

To those of us who roamed Central High in south Minneapolis, he was the little guy with the big name and the Afro to match: Prince Rogers Nelson.

We just called him Prince.

He walked almost unnoticed in the uniform of the day: An open shirt with large collars, maybe a pair of "baggies" over platform shoes, a "choker" around his neck. His hair was teased into an enormous dome that Buckminster Fuller would envy, and his upper lip wore a faint moustache.

Pass him in a hallway, and he'd meet your eyes, smile and nod. In class, he'd seem bemused, but never impolite or rowdy. You wouldn't see him in the adjacent alley where some kids gathered to smoke pot before class, or hanging across the street, where they could smoke cigarettes with impunity.

"He was very quiet," said Al Nuness, Prince's sophomore basketball coach and physical-education teacher. "Very low-key. He was so shy you couldn't believe it to see him perform in front of people."

Although he was obviously smart and a decent student, "he never said anything in class," Nuness said. "He is one of those students everybody talks about, but he was an average kid that you really didn't notice very much."

Except when he played music, which he did nearly every day in the Central music room. Football players coming in from practice could hear him banging on the piano or the guitar, hours after other students had gone home. During lunch hours, the music teachers locked the door for him so he could practice without interruption. Maria Muldaur's "Midnight at the Oasis" was a favorite.

The prodigy of Prince is well known: He learned to play piano at age 7. By seventh grade, he joined a local dance band, Grand Central, and played in it until age 16.

Despite his shyness, he was confident. In a 1976 interview in the school newspaper, he said: "I was born here, unfortunately. I think it is very hard for a band to make it in this state, even if they're good. I really feel that if we would have lived in Los Angeles or New York or some other big city, we would have gotten over by now."

'A real good kid'

Don McMoore never saw Prince's instant success coming. McMoore was an assistant principal -- and the school enforcer -- during those years. Racial tensions sometimes led to fights. There was a fair amount of drug use. If you spent much time with McMoore, you were probably a problem student.

Prince didn't spend any time with McMoore.

"He was a real good kid," said McMoore. "I don't remember him getting in trouble at all. I admired him for his ambition; even though he was very small, he played basketball. Though his hair made him look like he was 6 feet tall."

Nuness said he "had to chase Prince, Paul Mitchell and [Prince's brother] Duane Nelson out of the gym all the time. They were always sneaking in there to play, bringing their bikes and their dogs in. But they were all good kids."

In fact, he said, "Prince was a darn good basketball player. The problem is he just didn't grow." His class had one of the best basketball teams in Minnesota history, and Prince couldn't crack the giant-sized lineup despite great quickness and ball-handling skills. He wasn't pleased.

As youth leader for Park Avenue United Methodist Church -- where Prince had his first wedding in 1996 -- Art Erickson saw him almost every day throughout his teens. Prince came to play ball, and also went to church camp. Erickson made the rounds at local schools, so he often would join Prince at lunch. Blacks, whites and biracial kids segregated themselves, and Prince normally sat with the biracial kids, Erickson said.

One day, the budding musician told Erickson that his home life was troubled, and that his stepdad had sometimes locked him in a room for hours. There was a piano in the room, and Prince taught himself to play, said Erickson.

He believes Prince's continuing religious odyssey is not a gimmick, but a search to find meaning in his remarkable, controversial life. "There are periods in people's lives when they sense the bottom, and reach out for something," Erickson said. "Prince has been doing this for years.

"I don't know [whether] he has many friends. That's the problem with his story. He's a musical genius, but just who is Prince? I don't think anyone knows."

Jon Tevlin is at jtevlin@startribune.com.

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