There’s always been a notion that if we could emulate the lives of those we admire, then our lives would have the same outcomes as theirs – talented, successful, rich, famous, happy, whatever. That, of course, explains all the “Seven Secrets of…..” books and the popularity of biographies as treasure maps to our desired fortunes. Although the lives of successful music artists fall into that same category and there are certainly crafts and skills to be mastered, there are two areas that cannot be duplicated, which are, unfortunately, the two most important things required for success – artistry and luck. Which is why nothing compares to Prince. His was the perfect storm of skills, artistry and luck.
His talents were unparalleled in the world of popular music and so heralded so much recently that there’s really no reason for me to list them here again. Know that each of the skills he mastered required the now-proverbial 10,000 hours of learning, practice, and self-discipline – each of them. All the talent in the world still requires that amount of woodshedding, trial and error and back to the drawing board perseverance. Who among us has that drive? Who’s out there now picking up the torch?
Even putting in that kind of life-long work doesn’t necessarily produce a successful career in the arts. You have to have the inborn talent to take those well-honed crafts and elevate them into art. Prince had that talent. I don’t and probably neither do you.
And even putting that innate talent aside, there’s the inevitable requirement to be in the right place at the right time with the right thing. Here’s where luck favored Prince. His heritage was black music from Louisiana but he grew up in white bread Minneapolis. That meant he had parental music influence from an early age but wasn’t hampered by local customs of what music he should or shouldn’t be doing. That way, much as the Beatles in Liverpool, he opened out of town so that when his time came, he was ready.
His artistry was influenced by the immediately previous two decades of black music crossover and he blatantly stole from the best of them (a la the Beatles again) – Little Richard, Elvis, Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Sly Stone and, of course, Jimi Hendrix. The time was ripe for someone to combine all of those performance elements with the music of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. And that’s where he set himself apart from all of those who preceded him and apparently all of those who followed – live performance.
And speaking of luck and live performance, I was fortunate enough to have been a part of the Warner Bros. Records Artist Relations staff in the early ‘80s, which provided me with the assignment to go out on tour with Prince, mainly to work with whatever other talent he had found, developed and brought out on tour with him, i.e., The Time, Vanity Six, Apollonia 6, Sheila E. That afforded me the opportunity to witness any number of Prince shows and see first hand on a nightly basis how he had amalgamated all of the now-standard performance tropes into one concert – essentially a history lesson in showmanship, drawing on what had preceded him in the previous two or three decades.
His shows were non-stop music – no between-song tunings or swigs of water from plastic bottles – non-stop music. Just as an example, you can Google the late 1982/early 1983 Controversy tour and find video of the opening numbers. During the course of the first song, “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”, he went from an a cappella gospel intro, into a funky pop/rock band groove, to an Allman Brothers twin guitar break with Dez Dickerson, to a James Brown thing with the mic stand, to a Hendrix-inspired solo guitar break, to a hair band pose with Dez and bassist Mark Brown, to a stage right stunt playing guitar with his left hand on the fretboard and his right hand banging out a riff on a synthesizer, back to center stage for a heavy metal band bombastic ending, which included a directed vamp to the final chord, à la James Brown on the TAMI show. All in the 12-minute version of the first song! And it went on from there – stopping along the way to visit every possible 20th century musical style – all done seamlessly and with professional panache.
And that’s why nothing compares to Prince. It’s hard enough to imagine that such an artist actually existed and in our lifetime, let alone thinking someone might be able to duplicate his artistry. Although the luck of being in the right place at the right time with the right thing certainly played a part, this guy had it all. He taught himself how to do it all. He had the drive and the talent to do it all. When his big break came, he was ready. Like no one before him and, from what I can tell, no one since.
Epilogue: Everybody I know has a Prince story – most are either strange or befuddling, but here’s one with an amusing ending. My wife and I attended the “1999” tour show at the Universal Amphitheater in LA later in 1983. We had some great seats in the Warners allotment, about 15-20 rows back, center section, left aisle. Actually we were seats 3 and 4, no one was in seats 1 and 2. Then about two or three songs into the show, two big guys came stumbling down the aisle stairs in the dark looking for what ultimately would be our row. The first guy in apparently couldn’t see a thing and the other guy had to help him into his seat – it was Stevie Wonder. His security guy asked him if he wanted anything, Stevie said no, and the other guy left, leaving Stevie sitting next to my wife.
We naturally thought that this was pretty cool as did everyone around us and we went back to enjoying the show. Prince kicked into I think “Let’s Go Crazy” or some big rave up song and Stevie turned to my wife and shouted, “What’s he doing?” My wife shouted back, “What’s who doing?” and Stevie replied, “Prince! What’s he doing?” So my wife proceeded to describe to Stevie, to the best of her ability, what was happening on stage. He thanked her and said, “I love your accent!” Next song, same thing. Every song after, same thing. By the end of the show, she was practically in tears from the ludicrousness of the whole situation.
When Prince left the stage for the false exit, Stevie’s guy reappeared. “C’mon, Stevie,” he said. “Let’s get out of here before everyone else.” And Stevie shouted back for everyone to hear, “I’m not going anywhere until I hear ‘Little Red Corvette!’” Sure enough, Prince came back on and played “LRC”. Stevie got up for the first time and danced like a wild man, singing along with every word until the final chord of the song. Then he said to his handler, “OK, we can go now.” He thanked my wife for her help and disappeared up the aisle into the passageway out.
Larry Butler is a Los Angeles-based 40-year veteran of the music business, serving at various times as musician, singer, band leader, songwriter, booking agent, tour manager, record company exec, publisher, personal manager and live performance coach, as well as a few other music-related things that really have no apt description. He can be reached through his website – www.diditmusic.com