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Prince’s Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction: The Full Story
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Prince’s Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction: The Full Story

On the night of his Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction, Prince delivered an epic tribute to George Harrison. Here’s the full story…

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Prince’s solo on While My Guitar Gently Weeps, performed during the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame’s 2004 tribute to George Harrison, has gone down as one of the best guitar solos in history. As part of an all-star band that included Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood and Harrison’s son, Dhani, Prince delivered a performance of such emotional depth and jaw-dropping virtuosity (matched by his flair for showmanship) that, for two minutes and 41 seconds, he effectively turned the other legends on stage into his own backing band. Having himself been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame earlier that evening, Prince’s status as one of the world’s most influential musicians was as secure as ever. But some questions remained: What did Dhani Harrison think of being blown off the stage during a tribute to his own father? And what happened to Prince’s guitar that night? From acceptance speech to incendiary solo, this is the full story of Prince’s Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction.

Listen to the best of Prince here.

The backstory: “You wouldn’t have to think twice about that”

Solo artists and bands alike become eligible for nomination as a Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer 25 years after issuing their first record. Having released his debut album, For You, on 7 April 1978, Prince’s first chance to be nominated came in 2003, and, according to Bob Merlis, the Hall Of Fame organisers considered it an “automatic” decision to induct him at the earliest possible opportunity. Having worked at Warner Bros as Senior Vice President, Worldwide Corporate Communications, when Prince was still signed to the label, Merlis was, in the early 2000s, on the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame voting committee. Speaking to this author for the book Lives Of The Musicians: Prince, he confirmed what a no-brainer Prince’s inclusion had been: “You wouldn’t have to think twice about that.”

The induction performance: “Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, thank you so much. You’ve been just lovely”

The 2004 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony was set for 15 March, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. Part of that year’s roll call, alongside Jackson Browne, The Dells, Bob Seger, Traffic, ZZ Top and Rolling Stone magazine co-founder Jann Wenner, with George Harrison receiving a posthumous induction, Prince ensured that his opening performance would prove to the room, full of musicians and industry insiders, just why he deserved his place in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame – and that was before he joined in on the George Harrison tribute.

Throwing out hooks of songs he’d written and which other people had taken into the charts (A Love Bizarre, Sheila E; I Feel For You, Chaka Khan), before unleashing a selection of his own hit singles (Let’s Go Crazy, Sign O’ The Times, Kiss), Prince used his Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame performance to celebrate some of the most crucial years of his career. Leading a core band bolstered by a four-piece horn section, and turning out riff after solo after riff on the Hohner Mad Cat that had been one of his most trusted guitars since he’d scored one for $30 in the late 70s, Prince, spinning on his glittered high heels while his flared trousers and asymmetrically-cut suit shimmered around him, commanded the audience while also teasing the cameras that filmed the performance for broadcast on VH1. Despite playfully wiping his face with his pocket handkerchief – black, to match his half-unbuttoned shirt – during Kiss, he seemed not to have broken a sweat during the whole ten and a half minutes. Taking a bow, he expressed his gratitude to the dearly beloved gathered there that evening to honour his Royal Badness: “Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, thank you so much. You’ve been just lovely. A real knock-out. Goodnight.”

The induction speeches: “There are many kings. But there is only one Prince”

OutKast’s Big Boi and André 3000, plus R&B singer-songwriter Alicia Keys, had been asked to do the honours inducting Prince into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. During his introductory speech, André 3000, who had been listening to Prince since childhood, admitted to only truly understanding the scope of his achievements after he began making music himself: the realisation “didn’t take”, he said, “until I started to get into music and to produce songs. And to see what it takes for a songwriter to make music and to write lyrics is when I really appreciated what Prince brought to the whole game. So I just really have to say thank you.”

For Big Boi’s part, Prince also shaped the way he acted as a teenager after hearing the Purple Rain album. “I tried to straighten my hair out,” he said with a smile. “I even tried… riding motorcycles and really being debonair with the ladies… All in all, man, he’s been an inspiration to OutKast. I mean, everything that we’ve done up until this point, man, he’s been a big influence on us… Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, there couldn’t have been nobody else that deserved it better than this man tonight.”

In an insightful and emotional tribute, Alicia Keys noted, “There are many kings. King Henry VIII. King Solomon. King Tut. King James. King Kong. The Three Kings. But there is only one Prince.” After praising his attitude (“Only one man who has defied restriction. Who has defied the obvious and all the rules to the game”), his impact (“There is only one man who is so loud, he makes you soft; so strong, he makes you weak… So bold, he defies you to be subtle; and so super bad, he make you feel so super good”) and his music (“Oh my god. Songs so powerful that you are forever changed. Songs that make you laugh and cry, think and dance. Songs that made me look at songwriting as stories that are untold passions dying to be heard”), Keys demanded that everyone in the room “get on your feet, and… pay homage to the one, the only Prince.”

The acceptance speech: “I wish all of you the best on this fascinating journey”

Often reserved in public, Prince was in a reflective mood when he approached the podium to make his Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame acceptance speech. Earlier in the day, he had spent an hour in the company of a former collaborator, Roy Bennett, his lighting and set designer from the Dirty Mind era through to the mid-90s. As Bennett recalled in Lives Of The Musicians: Prince, they shared “a really heart-to-heart, beautiful” conversation ahead of the induction ceremony. Now on stage, glancing down at a red notebook as he spoke, Prince acknowledged others who had helped him during his career:

“When I first stared out in this music industry, I was most concerned with freedom. Freedom to produce. Freedom to play all the instruments on my records. Freedom to say anything I wanted to. And after much negotiation, Warner Bros Records granted me that freedom. And I thank them for that.”

Having praised “the most high Jehovah” at the start of his speech, and noting the influence of one of the best bassists of all time, Larry Graham, on his life, Prince also impressed upon up-and-coming artists the importance of choosing the right paths to follow – and the right people to look to for support. “A word to the wise: without real spiritual mentoring, too much freedom can lead to the soul’s decay,” he cautioned. “And a word to the young artists: a real friend or mentor is not on your payroll. A real friend and mentor cares for your soul as much as they do their own. This world and its wicked system will become harder and harder to deal with without a real friend and a mentor. And I wish all of you the best on this fascinating journey. It ain’t over. Peace.”

The George Harrison tribute: “My dream right from the start was, imagine if… Prince comes out and does the guitar solos”

It was certainly far from over – in fact, for Prince, the night was only just beginning.

Revisiting the evening for The New York Times in the wake of Prince’s death, Joel Gallen, producer and director of the 2004 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame ceremony, revealed, “My dream right from the start was, imagine if I can get everybody up onstage at the end of the night to do While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and Prince comes out and does the guitar solos.” One of George Harrison’s signature Beatles songs, While My Guitar Gently Weeps came pre-loaded with an iconic guitar solo, thanks to Eric Clapton’s guest appearance on the original 1968 recording. However, performed in tribute 36 years later by many of Harrison’s closest friends, the song would inspire Prince to deliver a career-best guitar solo that would become the lasting memory of the whole evening.

Harrison’s widow, Olivia, had initially wanted the tribute to consist solely of musicians who had known her late husband. After the Hall Of Fame convinced her to let Prince be part of the band, Gallen wrote Prince a letter, personally asking him to perform. During a private meeting in Los Angeles, Prince told Gallen, “You know, I got your letter, I liked the idea, I’m going to listen to the song a few times, and I’ll get back to you.” As negotiations continued over the following weeks, Prince recognised the importance of being asked (“It was an honour to play with him,” he later said of sharing the stage with Tom Petty. “Free Fallin’ is one of my favourite songs”), but he expressed concern over who would own the broadcast. “He wanted to make sure that his performance was not exploited without his knowledge,” Gallen explained.

The rehearsal: “I got the sense that he was holding back… He’s gonna blow us offstage later”

Despite delivering a flawless performance ahead of his own induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, Prince had been plagued by sound problems throughout rehearsals the previous night. Before heading back to his hotel, he was noncommittal about returning later that evening to attend rehearsals for the George Harrison tribute – and, in the event, he didn’t have to.

Planning to run through the song as part of a band consisting of Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison’s son, Dhani, on vocals and guitar (with Lynne collaborator Marc Mann on lead guitar); Steve Winwood (keyboards) and Jim Capaldi (percussion), of fellow 2004 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductees Traffic; session ace Jeff Young on piano; and members of Petty’s Heartbreakers, Scott Thurston (bass) and Steve Ferrone (drums), Prince arrived for rehearsal, waiting on the sidelines to take his solos.

“When we get to the middle solo, where Prince is supposed to do it, Jeff Lynne’s guitar player just starts playing the solo. Note for note, like Clapton,” Gallen later recalled. “And Prince just stops and lets him do it and plays the rhythm, strums along.” A concerned Gallen then looked on aghast as the same thing happened at the song’s final solo. “Prince doesn’t say anything, just starts strumming, plays a few leads here and there, but for the most part, nothing memorable.” Worried that they’d blown their chance to rehearse with Prince, Gallen raised the alarm with Petty and Lynne: “This guy cannot be playing the solos throughout the song.”

Looking to smooth things over, Gallen took Prince aside, “And he was like, ‘Look, let this guy do what he does, and I’ll just step in at the end. For the end solo, forget the middle solo.’ And he goes, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ And then he leaves. They never rehearsed it, really. Never really showed us what he was going to do.”

“I got the sense that he was holding back,” Dhani Harrison later told Esquire. “He wasn’t gonna play like that in the real thing. I said to Tom, ‘He’s being really nice, but he’s gonna come and blow us offstage later.’”

The tribute performance: “I just started nervous laughing”

For those watching the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame’s tribute to George Harrison at home, it wasn’t immediately clear that Prince was onstage. Now clad in a black suit with a crimson-coloured shirt and matching handkerchief, set off with a wide-brimmed crimson hat, Prince, standing to the side, made for an inconspicuous figure, bobbing his head in the shadows as the group wound their way through While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Marc Mann took the middle solo as planned, delivering a faithful homage to Eric Clapton’s original. Three and a half minutes in, however, there could be no mistaking Prince’s presence in the room.

Dhani Harrison, previously concerned about being blown off stage, breaks into a smile when he sees Prince step forward, the unmistakable sound of his Hohner guitar cutting through as he releases all his pent-up rehearsal energy into a once-in-a-lifetime solo. “I was imagining what Tom Petty was thinking, and I just started nervous laughing,” Harrison later admitted. “Then his solo was so incendiary that I started really laughing and enjoying it.”

The solo: “It was just like, ‘Oh my fucking word.’ They were blown away”

The first few bent notes might have been warning shots, but across bluesy runs, pinch harmonics, power chords and even Eddie Van Halen-style finger taps, Prince’s rapid-fire guitar solo strafes the audience and the musicians, whose repeated “I look at you all” backing vocals take on a special irony as everyone – band included – has their eyes firmly locked on Prince. “You see me nodding at him, to say, ‘Go on, go on.’” Petty told The New York Times.

Looking on from the side of the stage, Roy Bennett, Prince’s former set designer, clocked the band’s reaction: “You could see ’em: they’re so in awe that they’re laughing,” he told this author for Lives Of The Musicians: Prince. “Because it was just like, ‘Oh my fucking word.’ They were blown away.”

Petty may have been making what he termed a “‘This is going great!’ kind of look”, but Prince needed no encouragement. Turning to face the band, and with Dhani Harrison grinning from ear to ear (“It looks like I’m hysterically laughing while trying to play the end of While My Guitar Gently Weeps and sing the backing vocals,” Harrison later observed), Prince nonchalantly leans backwards off the stage, only to be caught and returned by a security guard. When he’s back on his feet, it’s Prince who’s grinning at Petty, allowing himself to savour the fact that he’s delivering a performance far beyond anything anyone expected. And when it’s over, he deftly slips his guitar loose and launches it off the front of the stage, strutting out through a side door before the applause has ended.

What happened to Prince’s guitar? “I just saw it go up… it didn’t come back down”

“Everybody wonders where that guitar went,” drummer Steve Ferrone told The New York Times, “and I gotta tell you, I was on the stage, and I wonder where it went, too.” Despite having one of the best seats in the house throughout the entirety of Prince’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps solo, Ferrone said: “I just saw it go up, and I was astonished that it didn’t come back down again.”

Reporting on Celebration 2017, a four-day-long celebration of Prince’s life and work, held at Paisley Park a year after his death, The Current’s Jay Gabler noted that Prince’s guitar tech of the time, Takumi Suetsugu, had told fans during a Q&A session that he’d “caught the guitar Prince threw off – seemingly into the void – after his searing guitar solo at the 2004 Rock And Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony”. And, Suetsugu revealed, he’d received strict instructions on what to do with the instrument once he’d caught it: “Prince told him to hand the guitar to Oprah [Winfrey], said Suetsugu, and after the performance, internal monitors cut to a shot of the dumbstruck talk show host holding Prince’s axe.”

The legacy: “He just burned it up. You could feel the electricity of ‘something really big’s going down here’”

As if being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame earlier that evening weren’t enough, Prince’s solo on While My Guitar Gently Weeps not only defined the George Harrison tribute, but it has also been hailed as a landmark moment in the Hall Of Fame’s entire history – what producer Joel Gallen called “one of the most satisfying musical moments in my history of watching and producing live music”.

To mark the fifth anniversary of Prince’s death, in 2021 Gallen revisited the performance footage and remastered it for a new edit. “Seventeen years after this stunning performance by Prince, I finally had the chance to go in and re-edit it slightly – since there were several shots that were bothering me,” he wrote in a comment on YouTube. “I got rid of all the dissolves and made them all cuts, and added lots more close ups of Prince during his solo.”

The improved edit brought fans closer to the magic, but no one was as close to Prince on the night than Tom Petty, who believed that George Harrison would have been as amazed as everybody else. “He just burned it up,” The Heartbreaker said of Prince’s performance. “You could feel the electricity of ‘something really big’s going down here’… I think George would have liked it a lot.”

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