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When Prince Launched His Guitar Into Space

On March 15, 2004, George Harrison was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As part of the ceremony, an all-star band performed “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Mr. Harrison’s well-known Beatles song. The group featured Tom Petty and two other members of the Heartbreakers, as well as Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, Dhani Harrison (George’s son) and Prince, himself an inductee that year. Marc Mann, a guitarist with Mr. Lynne’s band, played Eric Clapton’s memorable solo from the album version of the song. But Prince, who essentially stood in the dark for most of the performance, burned the stage to the ground at the song’s end.

His three-minute guitar solo is a Prince milestone, a chance to see him outside of the purple-tinted (for once, he is dressed in red) context of his own meticulous studio craft. This was Prince the Lead Guitarist — those chops apparent on songs like “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?,” “Electric Chair” and “When Doves Cry” were given free range to roam. And when he tossed his instrument into the air at the very end of the song, it never appeared to land; it was almost as if Mr. Harrison had grabbed it himself in midair to signal, “That’s enough of that.” Several people who were onstage or at the ceremony that night recalled Prince’s involvement and performance. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

JOEL GALLEN (producer and director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony) 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. I wrote basically a personal letter to Prince, care of his lawyer.

I got a call from one of Prince’s guys, a week or two later, saying that Prince was in L.A. and he wanted to have a meeting with me. He said, “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.”

A couple weeks later his security guy called me again, and said, “Prince would like to meet with you again.” He said he definitely wants to do the song, he’s definitely going to do it. Both in the initial meeting and the second meeting, he did talk a lot about what we’re going to do with the music, who’s going to own the music — he was concerned like, if he does this, who’s going to own the performance? He wanted to make sure that his performance was not exploited without his knowledge.

TOM PETTY (shared lead vocals with Jeff Lynne on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”) Olivia Harrison [George’s widow] asked me if I would come along and induct George. I was told, “Well, Prince is going to play too,” and I was like, “Wow, that’s fantastic.” Look, we got Prince here willing to play lead guitar. Why should we give him an eight-bar solo? Over a solo that — the Beatles solo, everyone knows it by heart and would be disappointed if you didn’t play that particular solo there. And Prince was a great fan of George’s, and the Beatles in general, but I think he particularly admired George. I think George would have liked it a lot. Editors’ Picks A Daughter Tries to Make Sense of Her Mother’s Suicide In ‘Deaf Utopia,’ Nyle DiMarco Dreams of Integrating the Deaf and Hearing Worlds Why Those Moments of Care for Liza Minnelli and Joni Mitchell Felt Different

CRAIG INCIARDI (Curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum) I’ve seen every induction performance from ’92 to the present, so that’s like 24 shows. On a purely musical level, a technical level as far as musicianship, that performance seems like the most impressive one. GALLEN We get to the rehearsal the night before the show at the Waldorf Astoria. Prince’s rehearsal was actually earlier — he rehearsed his big 10-, 12-minute medley that opened the show. He was having all kinds of audio problems, I remember he had his own monitor engineer that his camp had hired, and I think Prince fired him during the rehearsal because he couldn’t get the sound right. After that he went back to his hotel, and I said, “You’re going to come back at 10 o’clock tonight, that’s when we’re going to rehearse the finale,” and he says, “I’ll see.” [Laughs.] He didn’t give me any guarantees, he just said, “I’ll see.” The Petty rehearsal was later that night. And at the time I’d asked him to come back, there was Prince; he’d shown up on the side of the stage with his guitar. He says hello to Tom and Jeff and the band. 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. 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.

STEVE FERRONE (drummer for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who played at the 2004 ceremony) I had no idea that Prince was going to be there. Steve Winwood said, “Hey, Prince is over there.” And I said, “I guess he’s playing with us?” So I said to Winwood, “I’m going to go over and say hello to him.” I wandered across the stage and I went up to him and I said, “Hi, Prince, it’s nice to meet you — Steve Ferrone.” And he said, “Oh, I know who you are!” Maybe because I’d played on Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You,” which is a song that he wrote. I went back over and I sat down behind the drum kit, and Winwood was like: “What’s he like? What’d he say?” Then I was sitting there, and I heard somebody playing a guitar riff from a song that I wrote with Average White Band. And I looked over and Prince was looking right at me and playing that song. And I thought, “Yeah, you actually do know who I am!”

GALLEN They finish, and I go up to Jeff and Tom, and I sort of huddle up with these guys, and I’m like: “This cannot be happening. I don’t even know if we’re going to get another rehearsal with him. [Prince]. But this guy cannot be playing the solos throughout the song.” 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. They never rehearsed it, really. Never really showed us what he was going to do, and he left, basically telling me, the producer of the show, not to worry. And the rest is history. It became one of the most satisfying musical moments in my history of watching and producing live music.

INCIARDI You hear all this sort of harmonics and finger-tapping, sort of like what you’d hear Eddie Van Halen do. He runs through all these different sort of guitar techniques that are sort of astonishing. You hear what sounds like someone cocking a shotgun. There’s all these strumming power chords that really, really connected. Then he plays his version of the Eric Clapton solo. He evokes Eric’s solo in a very sort of truncated fashion. As he ends the song, he plays this flourishing thing that sort of ends up sounding a little bit like Spinal Tap, but in a good way.

PETTY You see me nodding at him, to say, “Go on, go on.” I remember I leaned out at him at one point and gave him a “This is going great!” kind of look. He just burned it up. You could feel the electricity of “something really big’s going down here.”

FERRONE Tom sort of went over to him and said, “Just cut loose and don’t feel sort of inhibited to copy anything that we have, just play your thing, just have a good time.” It was a hell of a guitar solo, and a hell of a show he actually put on for the band. When he fell back into the audience, everybody in the band freaked out, like, “Oh my God, he’s falling off the stage!” And then that whole thing with the guitar going up in the air. I didn’t even see who caught it. I just saw it go up, and I was astonished that it didn’t come back down again. Everybody wonders where that guitar went, and I gotta tell you, I was on the stage, and I wonder where it went, too.

GALLEN I still feel like people don’t realize what an amazing guitar player he was. As a rock guitar player, he can go toe to toe with anybody.

PETTY It’s funny because just a few days ago, he was in mind all afternoon, I was thinking about him. And I had just been talking with Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles — he wrote their “Manic Monday” song. She was telling me the story of that, of how she came to have that song and meet Prince. And I was thinking about him a lot that day, and I almost told myself I was going to call him and just see how he was. I’m starting to think you should just act on those things all the time.

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