“The Ladder” is from the 1985 album”Around the World in a Day.” Prince said he gave co-writing credit to his father John L. Nelson because he based “The Ladder” on a chord sequence his father often used. “The Independent” wrote a summary of the troubled relationship between the two as Prince laid his father to rest in August 2001.
From the “Independent” August 31, 2001:
John L. Nelson, pianist: born 1916; three times married; died Minneapolis, Minnesota 25 August 2001.
The jazz pianist John Nelson was the father of the enigmatic pop star Prince, and was a major influence on his son, who was named Prince Rogers Nelson after the Prince Rogers Trio, his father’s combo.
Prince saw his father perform when he was five years old and never quite recovered from the excitement. “It was great, I couldn’t believe it. People were screaming. From then on I think I wanted to be a musician,” the singer said in one of his rare interviews. While he attributed the “wild side” of his character to his mother, the singer Mattie Shaw, Prince described his father as “real serene. It takes music to get him going.”
Born in Louisiana in 1916, John Nelson had moved to Minneapolis in the Fifties to escape the racism of the South. Quiet and soft-spoken, Nelson lived for his music but couldn’t quite earn a proper living from it. In 1955, when he married Mattie Shaw, who had been singing part-time with the Prince Rogers Trio, Nelson took a job as a plastic moulder at Honeywell Electronics in Minneapolis. Nelson had two daughters and a son from his first marriage, while Shaw had a son from a previous relationship. Prince was born in 1958 and his sister Tyka two years later.
Realizing both Tyka and Prince were musically inclined, Nelson encouraged them and Prince blossomed, writing his first tune, “Funk Machine” on his father’s piano when he was seven. Nelson and Shaw separated in 1968, divorcing two years later. Prince recalls how he played the piano “to fill the void. When I was 12, I ran away for the first time because of problems with my stepfather [Haywood Baker]. I went to live with my real father but that didn’t last too long because he’s as stubborn as I am. I lived with my aunt for a while. I was constantly running from family to family.”
Nelson had bought Prince an electric guitar but, when he caught his teenage son with a girlfriend, he threw him out. The pair were eventually reconciled in the early Eighties. During rehearsals for the 1983 tour which promoted the album 1999, Nelson jammed with his son as well as with Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman from The Revolution, Prince’s backing group. The resulting track, “Computer Blue”, featured in the film Purple Rain (1984). Its soundtrack album sold 10 million copies in the US alone and cemented Prince’s superstar status around the world.
“THE LADDER” LYRICS:
Once upon a time in the land of Sin-a-plenty
There lived a king who didn’t deserve to be
He knew not where he came from
Nor where he was going
He never once said thank you, never please
Now this king he had a subject named Electra
Who loved him with a passion, uncontested
4 him each day she had a smile
But it didn’t matter
The king was looking for the ladder
Everybody’s looking for the ladder
Everybody wants salvation of the soul
The steps you take are no easy road
But the reward is great
For those who want to go
A feeling of self-worth (everybody’s looking)
Will caress you (for the answers)
The size of the whole wide world will decrease (how the story started)
(and how it will end)
The love of God’s creation will undress you
And time spent alone my friend, will cease
Everybody’s looking for the answers
How the story started and how it will end
What’s the use in half a story, half a dream
You have to climb all of the steps in between