Prince Confronts the Jimi Hendrix Comparisons on ‘Purple House': 365 Prince Songs in a Year
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To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.
Was Prince the heir to Jimi Hendrix? He was known to bristle at the analogy, but then – in keeping with his famously quirky persona – ended up re-doing (and renaming) “Red House” from 1967’s Are You Experienced anyway.
He also sampled the fan favorite “Machine Gun,” and was even reportedly considering an all-Hendrix tribute show in the months before his April 2016 death. Prince quickly shot that idea down, but it would have made perfect sense to all of the armchair musicologists who so consistently tried to connect the two.
Prince wasn’t one of them. “It’s only because he’s black. That’s really the only thing we have in common,” Prince told Rolling Stone in 1985. “He plays different guitar than I do. If they really listened to my stuff, they’d hear more of a [Carlos] Santana influence than Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix played more blues; Santana played prettier. You can’t compare people, you really can’t – unless someone is blatantly trying to rip somebody off.”
Certainly, Prince doesn’t do that on this brilliantly reworked version of “Red House,” which was dubbed “Purple House” for a 2004 compilation titled Power of Soul: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix. Apparently recorded with Sly Stone bassist Larry Graham during sessions conducted in 1999 at Paisley Park Studios, the track unfolds with agile gumption. First, Prince offers a funky gospel feel, then he uncorks a simply house-leveling guitar solo before shifting into a nervy closing blues vibe.
It’s that nifty combination of flamboyance and remarkable musicianship which binds Prince to Hendrix, more than anything else. Like Hendrix before him, Prince was often more celebrated for the first than the second. Hendrix’s flame-kissed Monterey take on “Wild Thing” and his Woodstock quotation of “Taps” were matched stride for scene-stealing stride by Prince’s turn on “While My Guitar Gentle Weeps” at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony and his unforgettable 2007 performance during a storm-soaked Super Bowl half time.
Both had a flair for the dramatic – asked if he needed anything before taking the stage at that NFL championship game, Prince famously quipped, “Can you make it rain harder?” – but that wasn’t the sum of their talents. In each case, true greatness was secured through sheer musical dexterity.
And so you had both the exquisite cascades of “Purple Rain” but also the deceptively intricate rhythm work of 1981’s “Controversy,” the melodic heights of “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” and string-melting wonder of “Let’s Go Crazy” but also his snarky flourishes on the title track from Sign O’ the Times. With “Purple House,” you got a bit of both.
Prince tended to down play any talk of guitar greatness. (“You’ve got to understand that there’s only so much you can do on an electric guitar,” he told Rolling Stone. “Lord knows I’ve tried to make a guitar sound like something new to myself.”) But the record is clear: If Prince was, in fact, a successor to Hendrix, it’s because he too could do it all.
Either way, Hendrix continued to loom large. In April 2001, Prince offered a track called “Habibi” which made specific references to “Machine Gun” from 1970’s Band of Gypsys as part of a NPG Music Club download. He apparently thought better of it, however, and re-edited the song to remove the Hendrix elements a few days later.
In February 2016, the U.K.-based Loaded reported that Isle of Wight organizer John Giddings was in talks with Prince about doing a complete set of Hendrix covers – but Prince called that “completely false” on the same day.
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