The Powerful Influence of Prince’s ‘1st Love,’ His Mom
When Prince’s mom, Mattie Della Shaw Baker, died on Feb. 15, 2002, he’d long been aware of the great influence she’d had on his art.
It hadn’t all been positive, but it had all been powerful – leaving him, he said, as a person capable of writing the best breakup songs anyone could ask for.
Mattie had been an aspiring jazz singer when she met John L. Nelson at a concert in 1956. They got together both romantically and artistically, with Mattie as lead vocalist in Nelson’s Prince Rogers Trio. They married in 1957 and Prince was born the following year, named for Nelson’s stage persona Prince Rogers. There had even been some drama at that point, Prince reflected in his unfinished memoir The Beautiful Ones, since he believed that his dad had chosen the name in order to demonstrate how important music was to him – a feeling Mattie didn’t share.
“U know how U can tell when someone is smiling just by looking in their eyes? That was my mother’s eyes,” Prince wrote in the book. “Sometimes she would squint them like she was about 2 tell U a secret. I found out later my mother had lots of secrets. My mother liked 2 wink at Me… She never told me what it meant and sometimes it would b accompanied by a gentle caress of her hand 2 my face. But I am quite sure now this is the birth of my physical imagination.”
He recalled how his dad’s mood would “change instantly” when the couple prepared to go out, adding: “She craved attention & He gave her plenty of it when she was [dressed] sharp.” However, he believed that they were two alpha characters trying to inhabit the same space, and reported that angry outbursts were common in the family home.
Mattie had an another important aspect to her life: with a master’s degree in social work, she spent decades with the Minneapolis education service, where she developed a reputation for providing strength and support for those in need. “She was a big community figure,” Prince said. “Whenever there are documentaries about North Minneapolis, they bring her up before they bring me up.” He argued that her drive came from her ancestry as an African woman, coming from a world where the women ran the villages with a balance of affection and coercion.
That, however, made her difficult to live with sometimes. When her marriage to John ended in 1965, partly because his music career had faltered, Prince said he learned first-hand how difficult she could be. “Being the only male in the house with Her, I understood Y he left,” her son said. “She was 2 strong & not always in a good way. She would spend up what little $ the family had 4 survival on partying with her friends, then trespass in2 my bedroom, ‘borrow’ my personal $ that I’d gotten from babysitting local kids, & then chastise me 4 even questioning her regarding the broken promises she made 2 pay me back.”
He believed that Mattie always wanted John to come back, remembering nights when she’d wake him and younger sister Tyke, and ask them to ask him for her. “She’d put on breakup music, have a drink and then make the phone call [to John],” he said. “I think that’s why I can write such good breakup songs, like ‘Nothing Compares 2 U.’” He noted that the couple had always been some distance apart, she looking for action and adventure, he just trying to make sure there was food on the family table.
Mattie and John’s divorce was finalized in 1969, when Prince was 10. She went on to marry Hayward Baker two years later; and that was the day, Prince recalled, that he decided to live with his dad. “The best thing that can b said about [Baker] was that he made my mother happy. At 12 years of age, I left them 2 each other 2 go live with my father. It was the Happiest Day of My Life.” He reflected: “Music is what broke up her marriage. My father was too serious about music.”
He struggled to normalize relations with both parents, although things were more settled by the time John died in 2001, and Mattie passed the following year after a long illness, having spent 15 years living in a house bought by her son. He never forgot the influence of his mom, though, and had vowed to write a full chapter about her in the memoir before his own death.
“I missed the admiring eyes from the other kids cause I had the most beautiful mom,” he wrote of the period after he moved out. “Most of all I missed the knowing wink that she’d give me whenever I was unsure about something. That wink meant everything was alright. When in fact everything was different now.” Elsewhere, he added: I wanted 2 prove 2 my 1st love, my mother, that the name Prince – my father’s stage name & now my given name, was worthy of her love, adoration, & respect.”