A rock enigma wrapped around an R&B quandary, wearing platform shoes and purple velour. The cheekbones of an angel, dance moves and lyrics from an infernally sexy place, and more musical talent than it seems possible for a single person to possess in one lifetime…. These are some of the ways we remember Prince Rogers Nelson.
We do not typically remember him as a jazz pianist. But his facility with jazz earned him the admiration of Miles Davis, who made several efforts to collaborate with the extremely busy pop star. (They performed together only once, it seems, on New Year’s Eve, 1987 at Paisley Park.) Prince’s style, stage show, songwriting, and arranging drew from jazz of all kinds—from zoot suit-era big band to the frenetic movement of hard bop to the classically-inflected show tunes of George Gershwin. Just above see him “casually own” Gershwin’s “Summertime” during a 1990 soundcheck in Osaka, Japan.
For the first minute, it’s a Prince showcase, but once he coaches the band through the changes, he lets them take it, settling back while the guitarist rides out a solo. The candid moment does much more than demonstrate his chops on the piano and appreciation for Gershwin. It offers yet another contrast to the popular image of Prince as a charismatic, self-sufficient solo artist who just happened to work with a regular crew of stellar musicians and not-so-stellar actresses.
It’s true Prince played most or all of the instruments on many of his albums, wrote nearly all his own songs, directed or produced nearly every aspect of his music, career, and persona…. As solo artists go, no one comes close to defining full creative control. The Purple One ruled over a musical empire; most of the time, it seems, he got what he wanted, even if he sometimes had to fight like hell for it. We might expect such an artist to be a petty tyrant, hogging the spotlight and throwing his weight around at every opportunity. What we hear and see behind the scenes paints a much richer picture.
The footage here was shot by Steve Purcell, who directed several videos for Prince and, as he remarked, “spent six years of my life working for, creating with and laying the foundation for the rest of my career with Prince.” In his introduction to the video, he writes, “This may not be the Prince you think of but it is the Prince I knew.” A bandleader who was also an ensemble player, and who constantly paid tribute to the music that inspired him in live performance.
We might have known Prince as a generous hitmaker, who gave song after song to artists like Sheena Easton, Chaka Khan, Sinead O’Connor, and the Bangles, and launched the careers of a good many of his collaborators, musical and otherwise. Since his death, we’ve also learned much more about both his tremendous financial and emotional goodwill, and the time he took with other musicians to help them develop and learn.
The impossibly cool aloofness with which he glided through pop stardom did not extend to his relationships with the people closest to him. Prince was so beloved that his two ex-wives worked together to organize a star-studded memorial service for him. Stories of his kindness, good humor, compassion, and loyalty pour out at the same rate as the music he had locked up in his Paisley Park vault. We’ll likely see more candid videos like this one emerge as well, from those who, like Purcell, found their time documenting the artist a totally life-changing experience.