Taken from Dallas Morning News (April 21, 2016)
Prince was Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, James Brown and Duke Ellington, all rolled into one
by CHRISTOPHER J. SMITH
Smith is professor and chair of musicology and director of the Vernacular Music Center at the Texas Tech University School of Music. He provided his thoughts on Prince’s role in American music history for The Dallas Morning News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As someone who is a specialist in American music and African-American popular music, I can say that Prince Rogers Nelson was one of the most influential musicians of the last part of the 20th and first part of the 21st century.
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How great was he?
I would put him in the same league as James Brown and Miles Davis, both of whom are profound influences on his music and both of whom admired Prince’s music exceptionally. I would rank him with George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic as someone who transformed the sound of African-American and popular music, and as a result the sound of global pop music.
As a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist — as a guitarist, drummer, bassist and singer — and a wizard in the recording studio, I would put him in the same league as Jimi Hendrix. He played the recording studio like another musical instrument, and with equal virtuosity. Often, he recorded all the parts for a song from his own playing.
He was someone who knew from a very early age exactly how he wanted his music to sound. Consistently, intentionally and in a highly disciplined fashion, he acquired the skills, resources and the business independence to to make his music sound exactly as he wished it to sound. He was endlessly creative, endlessly inventive and always sounded exactly like himself.
He was also one of the great performers in the history of American popular music. Certainly, I would describe him to be as great a live performer and frontman as Michael Jackson or James Brown or Hendrix, the people to whom he is most often compared. But I think it is possible we could say that Prince’s musical virtuosity and the consistency of his musical vision was even more far-reaching than someone like Michael Jackson.
Prince also transformed the idea of being a band leader in American music, I would describe him to be as important as Duke Ellington or Muddy Waters. He was one of the great band leaders in an American musical history full of great band leaders, all the way from John Philip Sousa to Bill Monroe to Art Blakey to Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, James Brown and George Clinton.
And like the other great band leaders, Prince simultaneously maintained an absolutely distinctive band sound and also served as a virtuoso, post-graduate education for generations of musicians who went on to become influential recording artists and band leaders in their own right. Duke Ellington did that, James Brown did that, and Prince Rogers Nelson did that.
He also is possibly the most influential musician since Clinton or Hendrix to understand how African-American popular music and Anglo-American popular music — most notably funk and hard rock — could be married together to create a truly global and a true hybrid musical idiom.
And he maintained a tremendous level of artistic creativity and productivity, generally of exceptionally high quality, for a 40-year career, very often operating outside the strictures of the music business and sometimes rejecting or dismantling the strictures of the business in order to maintain creative control of his art.
Like Duke Ellington and James Brown, Prince understood that if he was going to be able to put out his music in the form he wanted, then he had to control the business as well. And he took very patient, disciplined steps to fight to recover and then retain the rights to his own music.
Simply put, Prince Rogers Nelson is one of the great avatars of American popular music.