Deconstructing Prince, Part 1: His Musical Influences
Prince‘s music is burned into the collective consciousness of fans and musicians worldwide; which is why his sudden death on April 21, 2017 at the age of 57 came as such a shock to so many. His songs and albums were innovative and important, helping to form a generation’s soundtrack via hits like “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Diamonds and Pearls;” and they showcased his remarkable artistry on fan favorites like “Joy In Repetition” and “Jam of the Year.”
But Prince was also a musical student; he had an endless well of knowledge from which to draw from and he was constantly citing the artists who’d helped him find his groove. So in the first part of our series “Deconstructing Prince,” we’re taking a look at 10 artists that form the foundations for what would become Prince’s sound. Some of these are acts he spoke of often and some are musicians who you can hear echoes of in his music; but they are all varying influences on one of the most significant artists of all time.
Prince complained about constantly being compared to Jimi Hendrix when he felt that he was much more indebted to Carlos Santana. The guitar virtuoso has been wowing audiences with his gorgeous playing since the 1960s (pictured above with Santana bassist David Brown at Woodstock)–and you can hear his knack for beautiful leads (that almost sound sung) in Prince’s most melodic solos; from “Purple Rain” to “Why U Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”
Prince adored Joni Mitchell. Another mainstay who emerged in the late 60s, the Canadian singer-songwriter is one of the greatest in any genre, and Prince studied her gift for storytelling and her distinctive acoustic guitar style. You can hear Joni-esque narrative lyricism in “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” and you can spot traces of her elegant strumming in tracks like “Pink Cashmere.”
Tony Maiden of Rufus
Rufus was versatile as a unit and impossibly funky, and with vocalist Chaka Khan, they charted hit after hit in the 1970s. But the backbone, heartbeat and soul of the band’s heyday was the brilliant rhythm guitar work and melodic leads of guitarist Tony Maiden. You can hear where Prince got his funky rhythm from on Rufus cuts like “Somebody’s Watching You” and even ballads like “Your Smile.” And Prince learned well: check out “Just As Long As We’re Together” from his debut album, For You.
The P-Funk traces in Prince’s early work aren’t always obvious; his approach to funk was minimalist, whereas P-Funk was ornate. But it’s there.Check out those loopy synths punctuating and forming the backdrop of “Automatic.”
His guitar solos could get as blistering as Eddie Hazel’s most psychedelic turns, and his basslines are as rubbery as Bootsy’s. And the way he used synths could sometimes get subtly Bernie Worrell-esque.
Michael Henderson is one of the most accomplished bassists of the fusion era, and his knack for melodic-but-funky basslines led to his playing alongside legends like Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis. Starting in the mid-70s, he would release his own albums, highlighting his smooth vocals on everything from funk workouts to airy ballads; and his always-enviable bass skills on cuts like “Solid” and “Whip It.” You can hear traces of Henderson’s bass style and production on early Prince classics like “Uptown.”
David Gilmour of Pink Floyd
Now, Prince never really talked much about David Gilmour as an influence; but if there is a third 70s guitarist who sounds like a forerunner to the Purple One (alongside Santana and Hazel) it’s Pink Floyd’s legendary axman. Gilmour was a “pretty” player in an era when psychedelic blues was still the standard, and as such, his playing sounds closer to what Prince would do later than it does to his peers. Check out “Comfortably Numb” alongside “Purple Rain” and see if you don’t hear a similar flair.
Quite possibly the funkiest bassist of all time, Larry Graham pioneered the slap ‘n pop technique that would become a hallmark of funk bass. And Graham’s distinctive style (first showcased on Sly & the Family Stone classics like the indelible “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and his own Graham Central Station workouts like “The Water”) was filtered through Prince’s own unique approach on cuts like “Lady Cab Driver” and The Time’s “777-9311.”
“James Brown played a big influence in my style. When I was about 10 years old, my stepdad put me on stage with him, and I danced a little bit until the bodyguard took me off,” Prince once told MTV. His best grooves are JB-esque, reinterpreted for the digital age. And on “Musicology,” he delivered a funk song so stripped and stank, that you could’ve sworn the Godfather of Soul was in the room, smiling like a proud papa.
Sly and the Family Stone
Again–Prince’s approach to funk music was decidedly minimal. And as such, it echoed so much of 70s-era Sly Stone. Stripped down to it’s barest essence and unafraid to get a little dark, Prince’s funk tapped into the sort of groove that Sly delivered on classics “Just Like A Baby” and “If You Want Me To Stay.” Sly was also one of the first artists to use drum machines consistently. His love of Larry Graham’s bass playing is well-documented, but you can also hear overall sonic influence coming directly from Sly himself.
Prince clearly loved Stax. The legendary Memphis label had a distinctive sonic template that Prince would interpolate into his own “Minneapolis Sound” in the 1980s; channeling the aggressive grooves, but removing the Memphis Horns and replacing them with punchy synthesizers. He would go on to work with former label star Mavis Staples in the 80s and 90s; and later in his career, Prince would often open shows with the blaring, familiar horn intro of Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man.” He embraced everything from the heavy soul of the Bar Kays to the gritty funk of Booker T. and the MGs (pictured above.)