Three Recordings that Spotlight Elements of Prince’s Genius

There’s a great moment in an interview with Miles Davis where he talks about Prince. Watch the 30 second video here. He says:

Prince has James Brown (his father took him to see James Brown when he was young and he got on stage and danced with him). He has that and Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye. He combines all that all the time — that’s what he is. . . . His concept on stage is Charlie Chaplin. . . . How can you miss with that?

I spent Thursday night — like we all did — revisiting my favorite Prince songs. Craving video, I turned to YouTube, but due to his copyright vigilance there’s very little there. But three recordings kept coming up for me, and they perfectly spotlight the components of Prince’s genius that Miles was talking about:

His epic guitar solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony for George Harrison, his ethereal cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Case of You” and the power of his songwriting in Sinead O’Connor’s performance of “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

Each spotlights a specific element of Prince’s genius. It’s like that documentary of George Martin sitting at the board in Abbey Road studios with Dhani Harrison listening to the original tapes of “Here Comes The Sun” — first focusing on only George’s vocal, then the guitar, then putting it back together.

Miles points out that Prince somehow merged the genius of Hendrix, Marvin and James “all the time.” But these three recordings are like prisms that help us refract the bright ecstatic light of Prince’s genius into a few of its components.

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” Prince, Tom Petty, Steve Linwood, Jeff Lynne et al at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction of George Harrison

First, guitar. As Miles says, he has Hendrix. The guitar solo (starting at 3:28) has filled my Facebook feed like some giant mournful “reply to all.” It establishes him, to my ears at least, as the true heir to Hendrix. Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom writes better than I ever could about it here.

“Case of You,” Prince (covering Joni Mitchell)

Second, voice. One of my favorite covers of all time. It’s just Prince (harmonizing with himself of course) and a gorgeously rolling piano and not much else. This recording is the perfect exhibit of how many gears that crazy voice has — the inimitable falsetto that can suddenly swoop down across seamlessly bent notes to that low, direct vocal. If you hear nothing else, listen at 2:25, when he sings “You’re in my blood like…” and his voice takes an invisible elevator to an octave you didn’t think was possible, leaving that falsetto stories below and sings — “holy wine” — impossibly high and somehow not even in falsetto at all.

“Nothing Compares 2 U,” Sinead O’Connor, (written by Prince)

Third, songwriter. You don’t need me to talk to you about this. Your eyes read “Nothing Compares 2 U” and your mind’s eye sees Sinead’s face in the video and hears her burning voice. But this song is all Prince — direct, pleading, defiant, supplicant. Transfused through another artist, it’s still him we hear.

What makes Prince such a singular artist is the fact that he combined so many talents in one small but powerful person. He was one of the greatest performers of all time, a virtuosic multi-instrumentalist with an octave-defying voice, a crafter of deep songs and indelible grooves, a collapser of the sacred and profane, a defier of genre categorization, a showman, a shaman, a businessman, an activist, a local hero.

What other artist had so many other artists in him, and yet was so entirely original and himself? He even had a little Miles in him.

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