Prince's half-sister Sharon: Preserving the Nelson legacy "at the top of her bucket list"

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'Don't Play With Love' cover art
Cover art for 'Don't Play With Love' by the John L. Nelson Project (The John L. Nelson Project)
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If you've seen Purple Rain, you'll remember the father of Prince's character, the Kid, as a gifted piano player with a mean streak. Prince's family has argued over the accuracy of that depiction, given that the movie is only semi-autobiographical. But one thing's for sure: Prince's dad, John L. Nelson, did write and perform on the piano, sparking his son's interest in jazz and blues music. And he could play.

Almost two decades after John Nelson's passing in 2001, his daughter Sharon Nelson has produced Don't Play With Love, an album of music composed by her dad. She found his old sheet music a few years ago — "You remember in Purple Rain?" she asks. When the paper spilled out of a cabinet in front of her, "It was like that." She'd been given the sheet music in 1978 but hadn't seen it in decades; once she found it, she planned to call Prince and ask to record at Paisley Park, but he passed three days after she rediscovered the music. She brought the music with her to Minneapolis, and the John L. Nelson Project recorded on Jan. 17-18, 2017 — the first group to use the studios since Prince's passing.

The result is a sophisticated, timeless set of bebop tunes. Sharon Nelson's cousin, jazz drummer Louis Hayes, leads the way; his band, comprising Rick Germanson on piano, Vincent Herring on saxophone, Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, and Dezron Douglas on bass, keeps right up. Observing tempos fast and slow, the band holds John Nelson's strong compositions up to the light — and the music gleams.

Prince "fams" have wondered about the musical influence John Nelson had on his son. He's credited on six of Prince's songs, including "Scandalous
" from Batman and the title track of Around the World in a Day. In Purple Rain, the Kid happens upon his dad playing "Father's Song," a John Nelson melody that doubles as half of "Computer Blue." But no one has been able to pinpoint their exact connection.

Sharon sheds some light: "The strong resemblance [between Prince and our father] is the dedication that they have to their music. They finish a project. They don't leave it hanging. Music is in their soul, their heart. It's just what they breathe."

Although Prince and his dad shared a dedication to music, only Prince had the boldness to make it his life. "Dad never thought his music was any good, until Prince started recording it," Sharon says. "He was ahead of his time." So John Nelson, the first black man to work at Honeywell, spent his days building a 35-year career in plastics. He saved music for the night.

Sharon Nelson says Prince started watching his father in clubs when he was 12. Early on, John Nelson would play piano in the house — and so would Prince, mimicking songs on the radio from the age of five — but when he was almost a teenager, Prince started going down to the club. "He would just sit and listen outside," Nelson says. "And then the owner of the club would go and tell Daddy, 'Your son's out there.' Dad would get off the piano and go outside, but Prince was gone by then." Nelson laughs. "Prince was pretty slick. He always knew: 'Uh oh, here comes Dad.' And he'd fly away."

Nelson traces Prince's wardrobe tastes back to those nights with their dad. "When he was young, he used to watch Dad play for the strippers," she said. "Downtown Minneapolis. And some of those clubs, I think, are still there. So if you notice how Prince dresses his women in his videos and movies, they look like they're strippers. You see that little resemblance. And you remember when Prince first began, when he was 17-18 years old, and he would wear those little costumes? Okay, don't they resemble strippers?"

Born in 1940, Nelson doesn't have too many years standing between her and 80. She's the eldest of Prince's siblings, born to John and Vivian Nelson. And that age difference, plus the fact that she moved to New York City early on, meant she didn't get to see much of Prince until he reached his late teens. "I met him for the first time at my mother's funeral," she explains in this audio clip, "which was June 25, 1973." Prince would've been 15. A couple of years later, Prince stayed with her outside New York City, shopping his record to major labels. He moved back to Minneapolis soon after, but the siblings would meet up whenever possible in New York, and Sharon would visit Paisley Park on occasion.

Her father spent much more time at Paisley Park. Before his death in 2001, he moved into "the purple house" (now occupied by the Roemer family) that Prince owned in Chanhassen. John would visit his son every other day. "When they were together," Nelson says, "they would discuss Duke Ellington. They did not talk about baseball, football, the president, or any of those type [things]. They talked music."

Nelson says her father would record melodies on cassette — including the ones that would become "Purple Rain" and "Scandalous" — and send them to Prince. "Listen to this! Listen to this!" she remembers her dad telling her on the phone one day. He played her a song on the piano, and she said, "Oh my god, that's beautiful. Put the melody up front [...] and Prince will hear that melody." Weeks later, "Purple Rain" topped the charts.

Nelson is a composer herself, and she's working on a new project to be recorded at Paisley Park with a mystery bandleader. ("It has to be a secret, now, so I can't say [who].") She released 57th Street Sound, an R&B/hip-hop/blues/jazz compilation album, in 2009. In fact, she says she used to work on music with her dad. "But then, our dear brother became famous! And Dad decided to work with him."

In Nelson's role as producer, she supervised the John L. Nelson Project as they recorded her father's music. Traditionally, she says, the pianist plays the sheet music for the musicians, just so they can get a feel for it. Then, the band takes off. Each member of the John L. Nelson Project had their turns to improvise, tossing the tune back and forth like a basketball. If anyone strayed from the melody too far, she'd step into the booth and get them on track. But with musicians this talented, she didn't have much of a struggle.

As befitting the oldest child, Nelson shoulders the responsibility of preserving her family's legacy, even amid sibling clashes and controversy. "It's at the top of my bucket list," she told me, and it has been for years. In 2011, she hosted an audio variety show called Three Generations of Music by the Nelsons. In 1994, she recorded another John Nelson project, this time with her dad: Father's Song, which she describes as "smooth jazz with a hip-hop beat." And she talks about the "several crates" of her father's music that her sister Norrine Nelson found. After all their father's moves, the sisters aren't sure where those crates are. But if they turn up, you can bet Sharon will try to share the music.

Click here to see a picture of baby Prince sitting on his dad's lap.

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  • Norrine Nelson, Omarr Baker and Sharon Nelson at Target Field
    MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 16. Left to right: Norrine Nelson, Omarr Baker and Sharon Nelson help celebrate 'Prince Night' at Target Field, a tribute to Minneapolis' own late musician organized by home team Minnesota Twins on June 16, 2017 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Adam Bettcher/Getty Images for Comerica)

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