How the Beatles, Stones, Hendrix and Others Influenced Prince
A new book about Prince digs deep into the musician's studio catalog, live shows, controversies and personal relationships. Arthur Lizie's Prince FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Purple Reign is out June 15 via Backbeat, but we have an exclusive excerpt below.
According to a listing on Amazon, Prince FAQ will offer a "detailed chronological overview of Prince’s prodigious released and unreleased recorded musical output and epic live performances," while also diving into his musical collaborators (including the Revolution, New Power Generation and Third Eye Girl), rivalries and other iconic career moments (like "his battle against Warner Bros. and the music industry that caused him to change his name to an unpronounceable symbol"). The book, currently available for pre-order, will also feature "dozens of rare images" among its 368 pages.
In our preview, Lizie details Prince's eclectic musical influences, including the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, Carlos Santana, Joni Mitchell and Parliament/Funkadelic. (Sections devoted to James Brown, Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis will also appear in this chapter.)
You can read the excerpt below.
Musicology: Musical Influences
Prince’s work feels both familiar and different. As with other talented artists, it’s like he joined an ongoing conversation, but he says things no one ever said before and says them in ways no one else imagined. This chapter is about the familiar that allowed Prince to be different, the other speakers in the ongoing conversation Prince joined with his music. Whom was he listening to? Whom was he responding to? On the shoulders of which giants was he standing in his custom-made, high-heel Andre No. 1 boots?
Sly and the Family Stone
Born Sylvester Stewart, Sly Stone could do it all and do it young—guitar, keyboard, vocals, bass, and drums before he was a teen. He listened to black and white radio growing up. He not only led his own band, the Family Stone, but also wrote for others and tried to cultivate a stable of artists on his own label: Stone Flower. He self-produced his debut album. His band was purposefully mixed by race and gender. He dressed to make a woman stare. Larry Graham was his bassist.
Musically, Sly helped not only to invent funk but also to wed it with catchy pop hooks, placing multiple singles in the top 100 and landing three at the top of the charts; a song like “Mountains” would fit in on any late 1960s Sly album. He mastered the art of blending multiple voices and harmonies on songs like “You Can Make It If You Try,” a mixture that Prince used on many songs, such as “Daddy Pop.” According to the Crystal Ball liner notes, Prince recorded “Make Your Mama Happy” after listening to Fresh. Further, Sly was a technological pioneer, with There’s a Riot Going On the first major album and “Family Affair” the first number one single to feature Prince’s early go-to studio instrument: the drum machine. Lyrically, Sly’s early career was marked by an almost naive self-help optimism that, like Prince, turned later to a more race-aware resolve. And Larry Graham was his bassist.
Prince dug deeper and more often into the Sly and the Family Stone catalog than any other artist’s, due in part due to his friendship with Graham. Prince most frequently covered the number one hit “Everyday People.” It appeared on 1998’s New Power Soul tour and was played about 100 times over the next two decades, occasionally with Family Stone members Jerry Martini (saxophone) and Cynthia Robinson (trumpet). “If You Want Me to Stay” was released in a medley with “Just Friends (Sunny)” on the One Nite Alone ... The Aftershow LP.
Carlos Santana is a solo artist and leader of the ever-enduring band Santana. The Mexican-born guitarist is best known for fusing rock music and Latin American rhythms in the late 1960s, typified by the FM classic “Black Magic Woman.” He became a household name in 1969 with the release of the band’s double-platinum self-titled debut LP and a star-making appearance at Woodstock. Featuring a revolving door of lead singers, most notably Journey founder Greg Rolie, Santana released thirteen consecutive top forty albums through 1982’s Shangó. The band enjoyed a revival—seven straight top ten LPs—starting with 1999’s Supernatural, which has outsold Purple Rain by a cool 2 million copies.
Santana is known for his sweet, soaring guitar solos, and that’s his primary influence on Prince. His style is inviting and pleasant, challenging but never disrupting the listener. A line can be drawn from Santana to some of Prince’s most anthemic solos, such as “Empty Room,” “Gold,” and, of course, “Purple Rain.” The guitar-fueled Lotusflow3r is a more Hendrix in sound but echoes the title of the 1974 live album Lotus. Santana IV, released less than a week before Prince’s death, was one of six albums he purchased at Electric Fetus in Minneapolis on April 16, Record Store Day 2016.
Prince often played the “Santana Medley,” known to Santana followers as “Santana Sandwich,” a union of “Jungle Strut,” “Batuka," “Soul Sacrifice,” and “Toussaint L’Overture.” On June 20, 1999, Prince and Larry Graham joined Santana onstage in Minneapolis on the number one smash “The Calling,” and Santana repaid the favor on February 21, 2011, at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California, Santana taking the lead on “Santana Medley.”
Joni Mitchell is a Canadian singer-songwriter with big U.S. hits in 1974 with the number one LP Court and Spark and the Grammy Award–winning single “Help Me.” Her influence on Prince’s career and music is not readily apparent, and she often seems more of a muse or an unattainable high school crush. Mitchell almost says as much, recalling Prince as a doe-eyed fan at a mid-1970s Minneapolis show, one whose fan mail was deemed “lunatic fringe” by her management. She now claims him as the artist she’s influenced whose work she most appreciates.
That being said, there are references and traces. Controversy includes her name as a star-bordered newspaper headline on the back cover; 1975’s experimental The Hissing of Summer Lawns album is said to have inspired Prince’s eclectic departures on Around the World in a Day. “Help Me” is name checked in “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” and other lyrics and titles are influenced by Mitchell, such as “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” from a “Coyote” lyric and “Ice Cream Castles” from “Both Sides Now.”
“A Case of You” is the first cover song Prince performed live after signing a contract, at the landmark August 3, 1983, First Avenue show. A studio version of the appears on One Nite Alone . . . as “A Case of U” and an edited version on 2007’s A Tribute to Joni Mitchell LP, while 2018 saw the release of his piano rehearsal version on Piano & a Microphone 1983. He performed the song regularly, with the last performance at the Atlanta, Georgia, early show on April 14, 2016. He performed the Mitchell-associated song “Twisted” during a few 2002 shows and recorded an unreleased studio version; he also paraphrases the song’s Annie Ross–written lyrics in the unreleased “Lust U Always.” He covered Mitchell’s “Blue Motel Room,” with lead vocals by Elisa Fiorillo (Dease), at the epic July 23, 2010, Paris New Morning aftershow.
Jimi Hendrix was a charismatic stage performer, an effortless songwriter, and a distinctive singer. And the greatest guitarist of all time. Except Prince.
Comparing Prince to Hendrix was a knee-jerk reaction once Prince got popular and the media needed quick copy. And the comps are obvious. Early on, Hendrix wrote tight rock songs infused with blues and soul that had pop appeal. In person, he was shy with a good sense of humor but live was an extrovert. A wizard onstage, he was also at home in the studio creating deep sonic landscapes using the latest technology. In both places, he could do things that no one else had even dreamed about. And he oozed sexuality, a sexuality that made him exotic and dangerous.
Prince bristled at the comparisons, saying his guitar style was more Santana than Jimi. He was right, but the comparison wasn’t musical, simply what clicked in a lot of heads when they saw a black guy in flamboyant clothes tearing up a guitar on “Let’s Go Crazy.” And maybe it’s easy to confuse “Purple Haze” and “Purple Rain” if you’re in a rush.
The closest Prince got to a Hendrix phase was in 2009 with Lotusflow3r’s turned-to-eleven guitar attack. Hendrix is most obvious on “Dreamer,” which would be at home on Are You Experienced, and the 1960s cover “Crimson & Clover.” The latter includes the classic garage-band riff from “Wild Thing,” which Hendrix claimed as his own at 1967’s Monterey International Pop Music Festival by scorching the song and then torching his guitar.
Prince covered about ten Hendrix songs. Among the highlights are “Who Knows,” from Band of Gypsys, with a “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” quote, from a 2002 Copenhagen aftershow, and multiple performances of “Villanova Junction,” Hendrix’s Woodstock set closer.
Prince released two studio Hendrix covers. The renamed “Red House” appeared as “Purple House” on the LP Power of Soul: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix, and the reworked “Machine Gun” was an NPG Music Club Download in 2001 as “Habibi” (later edited to eliminate Hendrix references). Prince also recorded “Fire” with Margie Cox for the unfinished Flash/MC Flash album project in 1989. And some claim to hear the Experience’s “Third Stone from the Sun” mixed in with “Take Me with U” on “Rocknroll Loveaffair.”
P-Funk is a half-century-long party united under one hellacious groove by ringleader George Clinton. Anchored by the (nominally) more vocally oriented Parliament and more instrumentally inclined Funkadelic, the P-Funk collective is at turns doo-wop, hard rock, stand-up comedy, pure funk, frat party, political activism, and circus act. And that’s just during the first song of their three-plus-hour set.
Perhaps the biggest influence Clinton had on Prince is showing that it’s okay to have fun and even be goofy, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be taken seriously. For Parliament, that meant there’s no shame starting an LP side with the tongue-in-cheek (and other places) “I Call My Baby Pussycat” and ending it with “Oh Lord, Why Lord/Prayer.” And there’s no shame if one of your members appears onstage in diapers.
Parliament taught Prince, everyone really, the importance of stagecraft. The well-staged storytelling of Lovesexy live and the mammoth (if flawed) ambition of the "Endorphinmachine" don’t happen without P-Funk landing the Mothership onstage back in 1976. And it’s in the Lovesexy/Black Album period that the P-Funk influence mainly shows up in the grooves. In terms of song titles, it’s impossible not to see the influence of Parliament songs such as “Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop)” in “Superfunkycalifragisexy” and the unreleased “Soulpsychodelicide.” And the same P-Funk song, among others, leads a direct path in terms of electronically altered vocals to tunes such as “Lovesexy” and “Bob George,” not to mention 2007’s “F.U.N.K.,” which was originally streamed with the title “PFUnk."
Prince played more than a dozen Parliament and Funkadelic songs live but often just played snippets or grooves interpolated into other songs or as parts of medleys. “Flash Light” from 1977’s Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome was played most often and given the most care. A live version from Amsterdam on July 26, 2011, was streamed the same day on Andy Allo’s Facebook page. In addition, Prince occasionally performed “Bootzilla” and “PsychoticBumpSchool” by P-Funk bassist extraordinaire Bootsy Collins (who also played with James Brown) and recorded “Cookie Jar,” written and recorded by original Parliament vocalist Fuzzy Haskins, and also released by P-Funk’s girl-group blueprint for Vanity 6: Parlet.
The Rolling Stones
In a genre almost defined by white appropriation of black music and culture, the Rolling Stones stand out as the rock act that has benefited the most by repackaging black music for white audiences (Elvis Presley included). This is not to belie their accomplishments or to attribute malicious intent but rather to give some context for Dez Dickerson’s claim that Prince wanted to be the “black version” of the Rolling Stones, with Dez’s Keith Richards to Prince’s Mick Jagger. What exactly is the black version of a white band that wants to be a black band? Maybe that’s the explanation of Prince that makes the most sense.
What about the Rolling Stones inspired Prince? Musically, they’re cut from the same cloth: their best songs are R&B-based pop songs with a rock edge, danceable, but more than just dance music. Lyrically, especially in the 1970s, Jagger pushed the boundaries of innuendo and appropriate language (e.g., “Star Star” aka “Star Fucker” and “Short and Curlies”), boundaries that Prince would push even further. Onstage, Prince copped many of Jagger’s moves (moves Jagger had copped from James Brown and others) and embraced the role of the hypersexualized singing/dancing front man. There’s also the sustained financial success helped in part by astute business acumen, from the genius branding of the tongue logo to pioneering sponsorship deals to the creation of the money-generating Mobile Studio. And the anger with management and record labels played out in song in ways that Prince could only dream about, on both the filthy unreleased “Andrew’s Blues,” about their manager Andrew Loog Oldham, and “Schoolboy Blues” (aka “Cocksucker Blues”), a barely released bit of obscenity created as a middle finger to Decca Records, which required one more single to fulfill the band’s 1970s contract.
The Stones were early Prince fans, inviting him to open two ill-fated Los Angeles shows in October 1981. Jagger learned “Little Red Corvette” on guitar for the band’s October 2016 appearances at Coachella’s Desert Trip (aka Oldchella), but the band didn’t follow suit and instead debuted a frequent Prince cover: the Beatles’ “Come Together.”
Prince played a few Rolling Stones song live. “Miss You” debuted at an August 13, 1986, aftershow at Busby’s in London, accompanied by Stones guitarist Ron Wood. “Honky Tonk Women” made numerous aftershow appearances and was recorded live in studio on June 14, 1993, for The Undertaker video.
The Beatles are the most important popular band ever—so important that they have two books in this series. Among their many influential achievements, they insisted on performing their own material, were as comfortable on the screen as onstage, established the LP as a work of art rather than a few singles with some added filler, made studio creation as valuable as live performance, and started their own (still successful) record company. These successes (and many more) had both direct and indirect effects on Prince (and everyone else in the music industry).
There’s debate about Prince’s early feelings about the Beatles. Wendy claims he hated them or at least what they seemed to stand for in his mind. Matt Fink, a big Beatles fan, never heard Prince disparage them. This minor controversy arose from the media reception for Around the World in a Day, which compared the LP to the 1967–1968 Beatles for its trippy cover, diverse musicality, and psychedelic feel. The fact that Prince’s LP, like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was intended as a stand-alone release with no singles did nothing to discourage the comparisons. Prince bristled at the association and said the album wasn’t influenced by the Beatles and further questioned if they could “hang” in 1985.
It can be difficult to hear a direct Beatles musical influence on Prince. There are always “Beatlesesque” references to “When You Were Mine,” but I hear more of the Beatles’ love of Motown in the song. Mitch Ryder gave a Detroit spin to the song in 1983, but the tune was tailor-made for late-period Supremes. Alternately, it’s hard not to hear the Beatles directly in “Raspberry Beret” or especially “Take Me with U,” and I’d love to have heard John and Yoko record the latter.
Prince’s earliest live work with a Beatles song was the 2004 solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He started playing a handful of Fab Four tunes in 2006. “Come Together” was played most often through 2011, typically as a medley with “7.” In 1989, Prince recorded a dance version of “Day Tripper” with Margie Cox on lead vocals for the unreleased Flash album. The same session included a cover of Hendrix’s “Fire,” which leads one to believe that Prince was listening to the 1988 Hendrix release Radio One, which included both songs.