The world was shocked when rock and roll musician and icon Prince passed away suddenly on April 21, 2016. The singer was found unresponsive in an elevator at his home in Chanhassen, Minnesota. He was only 57 years old. The autopsy found that his system contained lethal amounts of fentanyl. But following investigations opened more questions, such as how the singer accessed the opioid and why it was manufactured to look like a prescription drug.
What Happened on April 21, 2016?
On April 21, 2016, emergency dispatchers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, received a phone call stating that an unidentified male had been found unresponsive in an elevator in Paisley Park. Moments later the caller said he believed the person was dead—and that it was the famous singer and icon, Prince.
Paramedics arrived on the scene, where they found Prince as reported, lying in an elevator. Though they attempted to resuscitate him, they knew there was no use: the singer had already been dead for at least six hours before he was found.
They pronounced him dead only 19 minutes after arriving on the scene. Prince’s body was taken away for an autopsy to determine the cause of death. Meanwhile, reporters and fans gathered outside, many of them weeping openly.
The autopsy found that the singer had died from an accidental overdose of fentanyl. Fentanyl, an extraordinarily potent opioid, is 50 times stronger than heroin. But the question was, how did Prince obtain it and was he intentionally abusing it?
It was true that Prince was struggling with drug addiction at the time of his death, but he wasn’t addicted to fentanyl. He was in the process of getting treatment for an addiction to pain pills. Prince had suffered from chronic pain for many years, and he had been prescribed many medications to help manage his pain.
The pain dated from his 2010 hip replacement surgery; the singer’s hip continued to cause him significant pain for the rest of his life.
Doctors theorized that the fentanyl that caused his death had been made to look like generic Vicodin. However, investigations found no evidence of suicide or foul play, indicating that the singer’s death was totally and tragically accidental.
Prince knew that he had a pill problem in the months leading up to his death. Just a few weeks before his fatal overdose, he suffered another overdose—this time on a plane heading back from an Atlanta concert. The plane was forced to land and the singer was taken to the hospital, where medical staff administered naloxone. Though he was initially unresponsive when the plane landed, Prince regained consciousness after receiving the medication.
Doctors advised him to remain in the hospital. Instead, he checked out against medical advice. Nevertheless, Prince arranged for his staff to contact Dr. Howard Kornfeld, an addiction specialist, and set up an appointment to begin treatment.
Kornfield arranged for an initial appointment to take place on April 22, 2016. In fact, the person who found Prince’s body on the morning of his death was Kornfeld’s son, who was arriving with Prince’s prescribed medications to begin his addiction treatment. Tragically, it was already too late for the singer, who passed away on April 21, just a day before he was due to meet with the doctor.
Before Prince’s Death
Prince’s worsening addiction in the months before his death didn’t escape media notice. The singer first attracted notice when he canceled several shows on his “Piano & a Microphone Tour,” which had kicked off in January 2016. His publicists released a statement saying that the singer was sick with influenza.
Prince’s final show took place at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, on April 14. He was still feeling sick at the time. It was during his return flight that his first overdose occurred, forcing the plane to make an emergency landing to take the singer to the hospital.
In the following days, his representatives continued to publicize that he was still recovering from a bad bout of influenza and that he had been treated in the hospital for dehydration. The singer’s reliance on pain pills would not become widely known until after his death.
The representatives were not, however, lying; reportedly Prince had indeed come down with the flu, which progressed to walking pneumonia.
In the last days leading up to his death, Prince was seen in public several times. The day after his first overdose, he went for a bike ride in Chanhassen, Minnesota. On April 19, he attended a live performance at the Dakota Jazz Club.
He also made an impromptu appearance at a community dance party in the Paisley Park complex where he himself lived. During the party, Prince responded to worried questions about his health by saying that he felt fine and wasn’t in need of prayers for his recovery. Eyewitnesses reported that he showed off his new guitar during the party and that he seemed to be in great spirits, highly-energized, and full of humor.
Investigations Following His Death
An autopsy was performed on Prince’s body to find out the cause of death. After the medical examiner’s ruling of death by a fentanyl overdose, the question remained: how did this happen?
The following investigation would take two years and involve a lawsuit from Prince’s extended family against his doctor, Michael Schulenberg. However, Schulenberg said that he never prescribed Prince fentanyl; he did, however, prescribe him Percocet in the weeks leading up to his death.
But Schulenberg also said that Prince’s representative misrepresented the situation to him, acting as though the pills were for themselves. In other words, Schulenberg said he never knew he was treating the late singer or that he had helped him access painkillers.
Nevertheless, the actual pill that killed Prince was not made to look like Percocet, which means that the singer must have accessed it elsewhere. Unfortunately, long-term investigations into where the medication came from revealed no information. Authorities questioned not just Prince’s doctors, but also workers from his pharmacy, and found no additional answers.
People around the world expressed their grief at Prince’s passing, including Barack Obama. MTV exclusively aired the singer’s music videos, while SNL aired a special episode entitled Goodnight, Sweet Prince with reruns of Prince’s past performances on the show.
Nielsen reports indicated that plays and downloads of Prince’s music skyrocketed as fans around the world expressed their grief. Monuments throughout the world were lit in purple to pay tribute to the singer.
After the results of the autopsy, Prince’s remains were cremated. They were placed in a custom-made urn that had been 3D-printed in the image of Paisley Park estate. The urn remains on display in the atrium of the complex.
The singer did not have an official public funeral or memorial. His sister Tyka Nelson announced that there had been a private gathering of personal friends and family from Paisley Park who met to remember him shortly after his death. There was a less impromptu memorial later that year, in October 2016. Prince’s remains were not present, however, and neither were his living family members; Nelson posted on her Facebook page that one memorial service was all that they felt they could bear. The memorial took place at the Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in Minnetonka, Minnesota.
It was, however, attended by a number of Prince’s celebrity collaborators and friends. The event was planned by his ex-wives, Manuela Testolini and Mayte Garcia. Attendees at the private event included Spike Lee, Gwen Stefani, and Larry King.
Prince left no will. At the time of his death, he was unmarried and had no known descendants; he had one full sibling and seven half-siblings. His brothers and sisters opened a probate case to lay claim to his estate, as Minnesota law allows for this in the absence of an official will. Although nearly 700 people claimed to be Prince’s descendants or relatives following his death, DNA tests never found any additional claimants.
Sadly, like so many other musicians, Prince fell victim to addiction. He knew he had a problem and was taking steps to get help. Tragically, that help arrived just hours too late to save him. His legacy lives on in his music, which changed the course of rock and roll as we know it.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.