Oh, there were stories surrounding the December 1984 Rupp Arena debut of Prince. He wanted his dressing room painted purple. He wanted his hotel room painted purple. He wanted a bathtub painted purple. It didn’t matter if the tales were true or not, although the latter request was granted and became one of the Rupp show’s more outrageous stage props. They all fit the persona so completely of a star that had reached a level of commercial popularity the previous summer with Purple Rain that equaled his far more established critical and artistic reputation.
To many, Prince was the epitome of celebrity. He was a funk-soul renegade, a monster guitarist and a restlessly creative and prolific recording artist. But it was his sheer stage presence, along with an innate ability to embrace and shatter social extremes within pop tradition, that will forever define a career unexpectedly halted Thursday at the age of 57.
To that end, Prince joined a very short list of artists whose cultural impact was profound enough to completely shift the way an audience perceived pop, soul, funk and rock music. There was Little Richard. There was Chuck Berry. There was Miles Davis. There was Sly Stone. And there was Prince.
Listen to his early albums — especially Controversy and 1999 — and you heard the sound of youth gone wild. But the means of expression wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll, it was soul music retold with unharnessed drive, curiosity and sensuality. Critics immediately championed him as much for his instrumental smarts as his remarkable sense of songcraft.
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With Purple Rain, Prince’s commercial profile exploded. But by 1986, when he played a surprise show at Louisville’s Freedom Hall, Purple Rain was already in the rearview mirror. Audiences expecting Let’s Go Crazy and Purple Rain’s epic title tune got monstrous jams that were, in essence, psychedelic stepchildren of the innovations the artist had cultivated only two years earlier.
Everything was reshuffled again a year later with Sign O’ The Times (which, along with 1999, stand as Prince’s finest work) for music that blended the spiritual, the social and the sexual into a parade of multi-generational groove. There was also 1991’s pop-soul scrapbook Diamonds and Pearls, 1999’s triple disc Emancipation that broadened its soul scope into retro and futuristic terrain, 2004’s unexpectedly streamlined Musicology and 2014’s unapologetically forward thinking groovefest Art Official Age.
There were nearly 40 studio albums in all. Some were brilliant, others were comparative throwaways. But they all paled next to what Prince summoned onstage. In the four times I witnessed him in concert, the moments that were truly magical weren’t forged out of the hits but rather instances when the artist celebrated life with music that both defined and defied the times.
There was the Santana-like guitar charge of Computer Blue (from his 1984 Rupp show), the brassy soul intrigue of A Love Bizarre (from the 1986 Louisville concert), a cover of Joan Osborne’s One of Us that became a treatise of faith (from a 1997 Rupp return) and a cover of the Sam and Dave staple Soul Man with sax giant Maceo Parker (at his 2004 performance at Cincinnati’s U.S. Bank Arena).
But as fans were absorbing their power and beauty, Prince was already at the next mile marker working on a new groove. The older songs may have indeed been signs of the times. But for Prince, time never stood still.