Prince Lets the Good Times Roll One Last Time: 365 Prince Songs in a Year
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.
Right up until the final days of his life, Prince continued to find new ways to express his love for the musicians that inspired him. On March 12, 2016 – just five weeks before his death – that meant dropping by the local dinner theater for a Ray Charles tribute concert.
Naturally, instead of just sitting in the crowd, Prince surprised both the audience and the band by contributing an impromptu guitar solo to the evening's performance of the Louis Jordan song "Let the Good Times Roll," which Charles helped popularize by covering it in 1959.
It would be the last time Prince ever played in front of a live crowd with a band.
Secretly battling an opioid addiction brought on by debilitating hip pain, Prince was in the midst of a sporadic series of dates that found him performing alone using only his voice and a piano. To prepare for this stripped-down tour, he had reportedly been watching Charles' videos, according to personal chef Ray Roberts.
"This last year he was always working. Almost always playing piano," Roberts told City Pages. "He was destined to be the next Ray Charles on tour."
So, when Prince got wind of the Charles tribute show happening at his hometown Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, it made sense that he'd show up. Mick Sterling, the producer of the show (which was named Hallelujah We Love Him So), recalled the event in the recent BBC documentary Prince: Last Year of a Legend. "The staff said, 'Prince is interested in seeing this show,' and I said, 'Really? THIS show?'"
Nick Haug, marketing manager for the theater, explained the extraordinary steps the venue took on short notice to prepare for their guest: "We had our maintenance guy rip out a section of an old dining room that overlooks that concert venue. We ripped out a chunk of the windows, so that it would be open-air and he could look down into the concert, and that way we could sneak him up the back staircase and he wasn’t seen by anybody," he told The Current. "We tried to stash the broken wall in a closet. It was quite a big production. ... I had to lie through my teeth to all of the employees, they were asking, 'Why are you shutting down one of our dining rooms for no reason? We need that space,' and I said, 'You’re going to have to figure it out. It’s closed.'"
All that hard work was rewarded a few songs into the set. "We're playing, and the piano player Scottie Miller is doing a great solo," Sterling told the BBC. "All of a sudden I hear a guitar, and I'm thinking it's our guitar player Steve Morgan, but it's not. Then I look ... and there's Prince, playing the solo. You know, Prince can play any style, but he played this beautiful, lots of space blues, and it was perfect. He just kept playing the solo, so as the bandleader I'm saying 'keep going, keep going ... you know, as long as you wanna go, Prince.'"
Again speaking to the Current, Miller later explained the humorous if slightly intimidating manner in which Prince obtained his bandmate's guitar. "Steve said he couldn’t even see Prince behind the bodyguard. The bodyguard asked him for a set list and his pick, and then ultimately the guitar. He says, 'Let me see a set list,' then, 'Give me your guitar pick,' and then, 'Give me your guitar.'"
When they learned of Prince's passing the following month, Haug says the venue staff quickly decided to create their own lasting tribute to this special night. "Our Vice President, Tam, was like, 'I think we should put a star on the stage. Just a little purple star where he played.' Our maintenance guy found a star shape in one of our offices and got some purple paint and went and put it on there, as a little subtle nod. You can’t really see it from sitting in the audience; you kind of have to be on top of it – but it’s there."