Murphy’s Law

Prince Was Always A Guitar Hero, No Matter When White Folks Realized It

Posthumous praise from the music establishment is too little, too late

Prince performs along with Tom Petty at the 19th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in New York City, 2004. Photo: Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images

As a Prince stan, I’ve gotten used to people questioning his pedigree. There’s a certain kind of social-media rock critic — usually White — who can go on and on about how Prince is overrated. It’s a flawed opinion, but an opinion nonetheless, so I let it go. Most of the time.

But after going back and forth with one guy, he went too far. He said that songs like “Raspberry Beret” and “When Doves Cry” couldn’t compete with songs from Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, The Beatles — and Elvis.

Elvis?!

But my man couldn’t let it rest there. He followed up with a take that, even on a platform riddled with MAGA bots and a president who’s too stupid to know he’s stupid, has to be one of the most ill-informed statements I’ve ever seen: “EVERYONE thinks Pearl Jam has more memorable hits than Prince. EVERYONE.”

These kinds of conversations happened over and over, for years and years.

Then Prince died.

April 21st marks the fourth anniversary of the gut-punching death of Prince. During his nearly 40-year career, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and performer was regarded as the most gifted and prolific artist of his generation (sorry, MJ) — and sold over 100 million albums, including such genre-hopping statements as Dirty Mind, 1999, Purple Rain, Parade, Sign O’ The Times, and Diamonds and Pearls.

Ultimately, though, he was a guitarist, brilliant as both a funky in-the-pocket rhythm guitarist (“Controversy”) and a neck-grabbing soloist (“Joy In Repetition”).

But he was also completely dismissed as a guitarist by mainstream critics while he was he was alive.

In 2004, Rolling Stone published its 100 Greatest Guitarists List. The usual suspects were there: Chuck Berry came in at number 6 and Carlos Santana at number 15. Jimi Hendrix was at the top.

So now we know his greatness? Now we know he’s a guitar hero? It’s a curious turn of events for an artist who had a complicated, if cordial relationship with the White rock community.

But Prince didn’t earn a place on the list at all. Out of 100 hundred guitarists, the one who was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few days later somehow did not make the list.

A few days after the list dropped, it was time for Prince’s first-ballot induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As part of the ceremony, he performed with Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynn, and other rock luminaries for an all-star jam session of George Harrison’s Beatles classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Music history was being made — but Prince had a score to settle. He wasn’t one of the 100 best guitarists of all time? Fine. He unleashed a guitar solo for the ages. To put it in around-the-way terms, Prince showed his entire black ass.

In front of a packed A-List crowd, Prince crept from the sides of the stage to front-and-center. He delivered a three-minute explosion of ferocity, dexterity, taste, joy, and pure bluesman showboating.

Every show-stealing lick, phrasing, and elevating lead run from his MadCat Telecaster duplicate with leopard-print pickguard (the OG guitar he had used since the early ’80s) was glorious.

At the end, he threw his guitar up in the air and walked away without bothering to wait for it to land, as if he was giving the instrument back to God.

Prince’s follow-this-mufuckers clap-back was well warranted. Reportedly, he was miffed by Rolling Stone’s assertion that he couldn’t hold his own against the likes of rock stalwarts Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Eddie Van Halen, Jerry Garcia, Kirk Hammett, Randy Rhoads, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Or that musicians like Kurt Cobain, The Edge, Johnny Ramone, Robbie Robertson, and Thurston Moore were all better than him. It was utter fuckery and they all knew it.

Seven years later, Wenner and crew eventually rectified its glaring error and placed Prince at no. 33 in a revamped list.

But as far as I’m concerned, it’s too little, too late.

Since that revision, and especially since his death, the accolades have flowed. Last January, Google announced that Prince topped the charts as its most U.S. searched guitar soloist. There is no shortage of hardcore fans and newbies going nuts over social media clips of Prince effortlessly shredding on “Purple Rain” in the rain at the Super Bowl XLI halftime show, covering a Temptations soul classic, playing his own obscure gems, and even a mouth-dropping 2008 live cover of Radiohead’s ’90s Brit rock anthem “Creep.”

So now we know his greatness? Now we know he’s a guitar hero? It’s a curious turn of events for an artist who had a complicated, if cordial relationship with the White rock community. “I always wanted to be thought of as a guitarist,” Prince once said in a1994 Guitar World interview. “But you have a hit and you know what happens…”

So what took so long for them to come around? You could point to his one-man-band persona; Prince’s synth keyboard and Linn drum machine innovations often overshadowed his singular guitar sound. Then there’s the image: He had a dress code that at different points in his career evolved from rocking a flasher’s coat and drawers to ruffled blouses and high heels to yellow butt-less pants.

But that was all surface stuff. The truth is, Prince was just too young, gifted, and Black — and he didn’t give a fuck.

White rock critics simply couldn’t deal with a skinny, androgynous, 5'3 African American cat wearing a see-through jacket, black bikini briefs, and leg warmers rocking out to “Bambi.”

Prince also scoffed at lazy comparisons to GOAT guitar god Jimi Hendrix, a game-changing virtuoso he admired. “It’s only because he’s black,” he countered during a 1985 Rolling Stone write-up. “That’s really the only thing we have in common. He plays different guitar than I do. If they really listened to my stuff, they’d hear more of a [Carlos] Santana influence than Jimi Hendrix.”

That’s why it’s so fitting that tonight, a cross-section of artists including Usher, H.E.R., Common, Gary Clark Jr., Beck, and the Foo Fighters will be paying tribute to Mr. Nelson on “Let’s Go Crazy: The Grammy Salute to Prince” on CBS.

In 1981, Prince opened for the Rolling Stones at the LA Coliseum. He and his band were pelted with food, beer bottles, and racist and homophobic slurs. He invoked fear in those who didn’t understand him — then and now.

To flip a phrase from Public Enemy’s Chuck D, it wasn’t just fear of a Black planet. It was fear of a Black genius, one who could jump from the sparse funk of “Kiss” to a gorgeous slow jam like “Adore” and then melt your face off with a guitar just for shits and giggles.

Keith Richards could never.

Mr. Murphy’s work has appeared in such publications and online sites as VIBE, The New York Post, Billboard, ESPN’s The Undefeated, OZY, and Esquire.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store