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.”