Prince Climbs ‘The Ladder’ With His Dad
Prince could do it all — and he often did — but as insistently as he often followed his own singular vision, he was also open to collaboration. For "The Ladder," from 1985's Around the World in a Day, he shared co-writing credit with a creative partner he knew quite well: his father, John L. Nelson.
For casual fans who only knew Prince's story through the fictionalized narrative spun around his Purple Rain movie, the idea of His Purple Majesty making music with his father might have come as a surprise — on the screen, the pair's tormented relationship could be seen as a story of largely one-sided abuse. The reality, of course, was much more complicated; although Prince's father threw him out of the house as a young man, they were still family, and remained in one another's orbit well after the younger Nelson skyrocketed to fame.
"I can be upstairs at the piano, and [my cook] can come in," Prince told Rolling Stone in 1985. "Her footsteps will be in a different time, and it's real weird when you hear something that's a totally different rhythm than what you're playing. A lot of times that's mistaken for conceit or not having a heart. But it's not. And my dad's the same way, and that's why it was so hard for him to live with anybody. I didn't realize that until recently. When he was working or thinking, he had a private pulse going constantly inside him. I don't know, your bloodstream beats differently."
That deeper understanding helped spill over into a number of songwriting collaborations between the two during the '80s, including cuts from Purple Rain, Parade, Under the Cherry Moon, and Batman. "We have the same hands. We have the same dreams. We write the same lyrics, sometimes. Accidentally, though. I’ll write something and then I’ll look up and he’ll have the same thing already written," Prince told Ebony. "Our personalities are a lot alike, but his music is like nothing I’ve ever heard before. It’s more complex. A lot of beautiful melodies are hidden beneath the complexity. That’s why it takes me to pull all that out. That’s why we work so well together."
They worked together twice on Around the World in a Day — on "The Ladder" as well as the title track, a three-way co-write with David Coleman, the brother of Revolution member Lisa Coleman. Neither track was destined for single status, but both reflected the decidedly less commercial slant of Prince's Purple Rain follow-up, which deliberately didn't try to scale the same commercial heights as its predecessor. An inward-looking album, Around the World offered early proof of Prince's ability to tune out the demands of his label and growing fanbase and simply follow his muse. Whether consciously or not, his father's involvement spoke to the importance of honoring his creative roots.
"My melodies are a little different from the way he does them. I’m a little stricter with melody," he explained of their collaborative process. "For example, 'The Ladder' — he wrote the chords for that, but it had a little faster, a little bit more on the top hand. I just took the chords and gave it a simple melody on top. ... Without his idea, I would not have come up with that particular song."
While arguably one of the deeper cuts from Prince's vast catalog, "The Ladder" still found its way into millions of homes — the chart-topping Around the World in a Day went double-platinum — and the song returned to Prince's setlists throughout the rest of his career, marking its final concert appearance in early 2016. After Nelson's passing in 2001, Prince dedicated a track on his One Nite Alone... live LP to his father's memory the following year — but rather than picking any of their collaborations, he picked one of his favorite Joni Mitchell songs, covering her "A Case of You" as "A Case of U."
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