“Dearly beloved,” Maya Rudolph announced, “we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”
When she uttered that 1984 Prince lyric in late January to kick off the taping of “Let’s Go Crazy: The Grammy Salute to Prince,” she had no idea how prophetic those words would be when the show airs on Tuesday. No one knew how profound and penetrating the COVID-19 pandemic would become.
“Everything that we’ve been singing of his has been prophetic,” actress/comedian Rudolph said in an interview last week. “All these songs about gun control, ‘am I black or white, straight or gay,’ he’s been telling us this stuff for a long time. It takes people a long time to catch up.”
The two-hour special is studded with stars — from Earth Wind & Fire to Beck — performing Prince songs from the 1980s.
There’s a significant Minnesota connection. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Minneapolis-launched producer-songwriters, were co-musical directors along with Prince pal Sheila E. Two of Minneapolis’ greatest Prince-spawned acts — Morris Day & the Time and the Revolution — perform.
Revolution drummer Bobby Z thinks the timing of this TV special is so quintessentially Prince-like. In an era of low-budget Zoom television performances from stars’ living rooms, leave it to Prince to bring a fully staged spectacle into America’s living rooms.
“It’s the right artists, it’s the right time and the right medium. People need this at this moment. This music can help get you through this day,” said Bobby Z. “Leave it to Prince to have an old-fashioned big-time TV show when it’s going to be hard to do these kind of things for a long time. He pulled it off again: Being the biggest thing on national television when nobody else can get on. I’ve been watching him do that my whole life.”
And Prince does it on the fourth anniversary of his death.
Prince’s magical stage style is evident in video clips — including the 2007 Super Bowl halftime show — in Tuesday’s special. The program also features childhood photos and a career overview, with narration by Jimmy Jam, adding authenticity and credibility.
Jam, who met Prince in junior high, finds this a perfect bookend to his life.
“There was something poetic being a part of a salute to him,” said Jam, a keyboardist in the Time. “There is no way that is ever going to be accurate enough or good enough to salute him and his reach and his influence. We had like 14 or 16 acts and if you put all them together, it would be hard to make up the greatness that Prince was in one person. His thing was just on a whole other level. Prince does music better than anybody.”
Performers have combined 70 Grammys
For the past several years, CBS has been taping these all-star specials two days after the Grammys for later broadcast. Organized by the Recording Academy, previous shows saluted the Beatles, the Bee Gees, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Motown and Stevie Wonder.
This Prince tribute has been discussed for two years, according to Jam, a veteran member of the Recording Academy’s TV committee. After an OK from Prince’s estate, plans began in earnest in September when Ken Ehrlich, longtime Grammys producer, tapped Jam, Lewis and Sheila E. to helm the music.
Those principals and CBS officials determined the Grammy-grabbing lineup — stars who have collected a combined 70 Grammys. The only ones who’ve never earned a trophy are the Time, Sheila E. and the Bangles.
Bangles lead singer Susanna Hoffs turns in arguably the night’s most striking performance, a dreamy duet of “Manic Monday” with Coldplay’s Chris Martin on grand piano. Curiously, each independently requested to perform that Bangles’ 1986 Prince-penned smash, so Hoffs called Martin and suggested that they sing it together.
Day and the Time sparkle as usual, with a funky and cool medley of hits that Prince crafted for them. And Sheila E. is all over the show, not only leading the house band and taking drum solos, but offering her hit “The Glamorous Life,” which Prince wrote.
While her performance is consistently spirited, she clearly isn’t overwhelmed by emotion the way she was during her Prince tribute at the BET Awards in June 2016, a mere two months after he died, or her own concert at Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall in October that year. Those events had palpable elements of grieving. The Grammy salute does not. It’s a joyous celebration of all things Prince.
For the occasion, Sheila E. dresses the part, in a sequined purple suit and later a gold outfit with purple trim. Beck nods to Princely fashion with a ruffled blouse and so, too, Miguel with his white lace gloves and St. Vincent with her lavender frills.
While some performers favor fairly faithful readings of Prince tunes, a few summon Purple-inspired spirit and originality. H.E.R. owns “The Beautiful Ones” on a piano with a sleek space-age design, and Gary Clark Jr. tears it up on guitar on “Let’s Go Crazy” and the gospelly “The Cross.” The Foo Fighters define roaring fun with “Darling Nikki,” and John Legend finds a new gear proclaiming “Nothing Compares 2 U,” while Common updates “Sign o’ the Times” with a rap about opioids and other current ills.
When Philip Bailey’s falsetto soars on “Adore,” viewers realize what an influence Earth, Wind & Fire was on Prince. Throughout the show, Prince’s influence on others — in terms of music, showmanship, movement, fashion, attitude, courage, you name it — is evident.
Usher mimics Prince’s dancing style during a medley that includes “Kiss.” Actually, this is a clip from this year’s Grammy Awards because some scheduled tribute performers, including Alicia Keys, dropped out at the last minute.
“Saturday Night Live” alum Rudolph, the daughter of Prince-loved singer Minnie (“Lovin’ You”) Riperton, even sings, doing “Delirious” with Prince’s heyday band.
“My true actual childhood dream came true — we played live with the Revolution minus one integral member,” said Rudolph, a Prince follower forever.
The Revolution provides the perfect capper for the show: the inevitable “Purple Rain” with Rock Hall of Famer Mavis Staples, a favorite of Prince’s.
“ ‘Purple Rain’ is kind of this sacred prayer,” Bobby Z said. “Prince created this infinity loop with this healing song that makes it still alive. Hopefully it will give people some hope and some peace for a moment as that melody washes over them. Mavis took it took church, gave it a religious feel. Prince would be thrilled to hear her hit those notes with us.”
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719