Everyone's seen the video. Many have watched it multiple times. But the thrill never, ever fades.
There's something celestial about the way Prince dominates the performance of The Beatles' While My Guitar Gently Weeps at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Dinner. A cast of stars – Tom Petty, Steve Winwood and Jeff Lynne amongst them – have assembled onstage at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel to pay tribute to the song's writer, George Harrison. But everyone comes away talking about Prince.
The song has two solos. The first is played is by Marc Mann, guitarist with Jeff Lynne’s band, and it's a note-perfect if unspectacular facsimile of Eric Clapton's original. And then, at the three-and-a-half-minute mark, Prince steps forward. And he burns.
It's a surprise to everyone involved, as it hasn't been rehearsed. In the wake of Prince's death in 2016, show producer Joel Gallen told the New York Times (opens in new tab) that Prince had taken a back seat when the band assembled to run through the song the previous evening.
"When we get to the middle solo, where Prince is supposed to do it, Jeff Lynne’s guitar player just starts playing the solo," said Gallen. "Note for note, like Clapton. And Prince just stops and lets him do it and plays the rhythm, strums along. And we get to the big end solo, and Prince again steps forward to go into the solo, and this guy starts playing that solo too! Prince doesn’t say anything, just starts strumming, plays a few leads here and there, but for the most part, nothing memorable.
"So I talk to Prince about it, I sort of pull him aside and had a private conversation with him, 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."
The solo is an almost other-worldly example of sustained brilliance, as if, for the best part of three minutes, Prince is determined to show everyone involved exactly how good he is. He's putting on a show for the other musicians as much as he is for the audience. And yet there are still highlights. The playing, of course, as Prince finger taps and conjures up harmonics and rips around the neck of his guitar, producing a masterclass in control that's little short of astonishing.
There's the moment when Prince turns his back to the audience and trust falls into the arms of his security detail as George's son Dhani Harrison looks on, his face giddy with delight. And there's the moment, at the end of the song, when Prince tosses his guitar into the air, turns his back on the rest of the band, and nonchalantly strolls off the stage. Job done. Thanks, you're welcome.
"He just burned it up," said Petty. "You could feel the electricity of 'something really big’s going down here.'"
In 2021, producer Gallen re-edited the clip and uploaded it to YouTube. "17 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 said. "I got rid of all the dissolves and made them all cuts, and added lots more close-ups of Prince during his solo. I think it’s better now."
Gallen's new edit also answered a lingering question: what happened to the guitar? In the original clip, Prince tosses the instrument into the air but you don't see it land, as if the heavens had opened up and called it home. Indeed, at least one of the musicians involved is still waiting for its return.
“I just saw it go up, and I was astonished that it didn’t come back down again," said Petty's drummer, Steve Ferrone. "Everybody wonders where that guitar went, and I gotta tell you, I was on the stage, and I wonder where it went, too."
Gallen's new version of the performance reveals a somewhat less magical truth: instead of lingering on the soloist, the edit cuts to the back of the room, from where you can see the guitar fall, presumably to be rescued by the same person who caught Prince earlier in the song.
This revelation may have removed a little mystery from the performance, but fans will continue to watch the clip, again and again and again. Because it's a magical, near-transcendent performance, during which Prince took his H.S. Anderson Mad Cat Telecaster and showed the world he was king.