Prince's Golden ‘Purple' Reign

The music great, who died Thursday at 57, melded genres while forging a pure sound all his own

Moments before what turned out to be Prince's last major performance before a mass TV audience – a monumental eight-minute performance on "Saturday Night Live" in November 2014 – host Chris Rock told the audience: "You are so lucky tonight!"

Rock, for once, wasn't joking: Decked out in tri-lensed psychedelic sunglasses, Prince delivered three songs from two new albums, gliding from keyboard to guitar without dropping a beat. It marked a vintage Prince jam, driven by the same rocket fuel concoction that powered nearly 40 studio discs and countless concerts over four decades: sweet-and-dirty, rocking funk guaranteed to make the pulse pound.

Prince, whose death at age 57 caused the hearts of fans around the world to skip a beat Thursday, left a legacy as one of the purest creative musical forces in pop history – forging an eclectic artistic honesty that drew admirers spanning generations.

The only thing more astounding than Prince's output was his versatile virtuosity.

He bent genres – rock, funk, soul and R&B – like he did guitar strings on fiery solos – "Purple Rain" and "Let's Go Crazy" – to create a sound all his own.

He infused his music with a raw sexual energy ("Darling Nikki"), while turning out earwig melodies ("Raspberry Beret"). He often both hit both marks ("I Would Die 4U;" "Kiss"), making him a pop superstar who helped inspire parental warning stickers on album covers.

He melded influences, everyone from James Brown to George Clinton to Jimi Hendrix to the Beatles (his stunning solo on the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rendition of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" rivaled Eric Clapton's original). That melange of sounds not only helped shape Prince's many, varied albums, but his electrifying concerts. Those of us lucky enough to have seen him play live can attest to being blasted by an explosion of sound, delivered with both precision and unfiltered energy.

Prince's life, when he chose to share it with his public, always played as a grand performance. The movie "Purple Rain" told his story, as well as searing songs like "When Doves Cry."

Yet Prince also could confound: His forays into the odd, like his obsession with purple, changing his name at one point to an unpronounceable symbol or cloistering himself in his Paisley Park estate, could lead some to dismiss him as an eccentric.

But his every action appeared aimed at maintaining his identity, on his own terms. Prince proved prescient in releasing music on his own, determined to control his art.

The music and memories -- including his epic final "SNL" gig -- represent Prince's gift to us, topped with a purple bow. Sadly, until Thursday, we didn't appreciate how lucky we were to have him.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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