Singer-songwriter Prince

We look back at memorable appearances by the musician described by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a “force of nature.”

Prince is among the most talented musicians of his generation. He's created a rich and varied music catalog and was partying "like it's 1999" back in 1982. That album, "1999," made him a star, and "Purple Rain" took him to another level. He's one of very few musicians who writes and produces all of his music and, on most of his albums, plays most all the instruments. The son of a jazz pianist, he's won seven Grammys, a Golden Globe and an Oscar and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004—the first year he was eligible. Prince isn't known for giving interviews, but he's visited our show several times, including during season one when he performed live and in 2009, when he talked about his childhood epilepsy for the first time ever.


Tavis: When we launched this show back in January of 2004, one of our goals was to become a destination for the biggest names in music – not only as a place to perform in a late-night setting, but also a comfortable setting for conversation.

We always found it a bit strange that on most late-night shows musician perform but then seldom ever speak. So just a few weeks after we launched this show 10 years ago we were paid a visit by one of the biggest artists on the planet – Prince. When we realized that this was actually Prince’s first time ever appearing on PBS, we decided to start this show a little differently before jumping into a terrific conversation.

[Begin previously recorded interview]

Tavis: Good evening. From Los Angeles, I’m Tavis Smiley. Tonight, Prince on PBS.

[Musical segment]

Tavis: Speaking of being a fan, as you well know, and I can’t even hide it, I’m a fan of your stuff, and I guess a couple of weeks ago I went to Vegas to see you not in one show but two shows, and you’ve got to stop doing these things at 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning, (laughter) because I can’t stay up two days in a row –

Prince: But see, that’s how I tell who’s real and who ain’t. (Laughter)

Tavis: Am I authentic now?

Prince: Yeah, you’re authentic.

Tavis: Am I real now?

Prince: That’s why I’m here.

Tavis: I’m glad to hear that, then. All right. So if I can stay up until 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning to see – not to see you go offstage, I mean coming on at 2:00 a.m., coming on at 3:00 a.m. and playing until 5:00, 6:00 in the morning.

But I stood and watched that audience in Vegas, Prince, and there are two or three things that stand out to me about your audience in particular.

One, you have the absolute most diverse audience of any artist – no pun intended – that I’ve ever hung out with or experienced in concert consistently. What is it about you or about your music? I’ve seen the Black thing and the white thing, and the Motown thing had the Black folk and the white folk listening. But you have the most ethnically, culturally, racially diverse audience, I think, of any artist on the scene. Why you?

Prince: Well, I think from the beginning, as I was coming into my own persona and understanding of who I was, I never talked down to my audience. When you don’t talk down to your audience, then they can grow with you. I give them a lot of credit to be able to hang with me this long, because I’ve gone through a lot of changes, but they’ve allowed me to grow, and thus we can tackle some serious subjects and try to just be better human beings, all of us.

Tavis: The other thing that strikes me about your audience that’s uniquely different is that your audience is very musically sophisticated. It’s one thing to love music; it’s another thing to have an audience of fans that is really very sophisticated about music.

Prince: Yeah, a lot of the people that come see us now, their parents listened to real music, real songwriting, real musicianship, and they respect somebody who takes their craft seriously.

I grew up that way, so when we do our shows I try to have the best musicians I can find with me at that particular time, and like I said, we don’t play down to them. We’re just not – it’s just not about a party. That’s going to be anyway, if it’s good music. But you have to challenge them, and I think that’s lacking in music today.

Tavis: You have changed, as you said a moment ago, and evolved in so many ways, and have gone through so many stages in your own career development. You said a moment ago that because of that, you like to do different things. It’s very difficult, oftentimes, for a performer, for an artist, to hang on to his or her audience when they’re not doing the stuff that you know they want to hear.

You have a certain – and I say this with all respect – there’s a certain arrogance about you that will come out on stage, and you know these folk done paid they money, and you know they want to hear “Little Red Corvette,” you know they want to hear “Delirious,” you know they want to hear “Purple Rain,” “1999,” everything else.

But you come out and play what you want to play at that particular stage in your life, and for your true core fans, they don’t ever leave disappointed.

Prince: Yeah. Well, first of all, I don’t know who was the one that came up with the notion that you have to play the same songs every concert.

Tavis: Probably fans.

Prince: Yeah, well (laughter), most of the people that come see us know. They’ve been to see me umpteen times, and the only pity is when they bring their kids and they’re trying to show their kids the experience they had. But I don’t know how any of us grow if we just tread water.

The idea is that we keep growing, and like we were saying before, the fan base I have now, they’re so sophisticated they almost expect me to do the unexpected, and that gives me a lot of room to challenge myself as well as them.

Tavis: Who’s running the business now? There’s a big debate now with what just happened to L.A. Reed at Arista. Had more Grammy nominations on Grammy nominations on Grammy night than any other record label, and they kicked him out of the building in New York with the quickness –

Prince: Right. Can I at least go to the Grammys? (Laughter) Can I just –

Tavis: Yeah. Well, it was nice that Al Katz brought him up on stage, that was nice. They gave him some love. But the question is who’s running the business now? Are the creatives running it, are the suits running it? What’s the state of the business these days?

Prince: Well, that changed a long time ago, when it became merely bottom line. You’ll see, if you go back and you look at music, you’ll see a big change when MTV came into the business. Now that’s not to say that they’re running it. But that sort of mentality is what is king now.

It’s not about content and substance. Hip-hop is very diverse, but if you only focus on one aspect of it, then what you get is this image of Black America that is completely contrary to what actually goes on. I’ve never seen you in a jogging suit. You’re fit and trim, but look at how you’re dressed.

The gatekeepers, they know who they are. We don’t need to name names. But rest assured, they aren’t musicians. They don’t have anything to do with music. If you sent one of them in the room and you ask them what is it that you do, how did you get this job, a lot of them came from law, a lot of them came from accounting and things like that.

They’re merchants, basically, and it’s not to disrespect them or demean their role in any way, but at the same time, you can’t expect them to know who they’re signing and sort of gatekeep the music.

Tavis: I don’t know if this even matters to you, but let me ask anyway – what’s your sense of how the public has viewed you as a personality over the years, and how that has changed. Do you concern yourself with that, are you conscious of how you have been viewed over the course of your career? Does it matter to you? What do you think about what people think of you, if you think about that at all?

Prince: That’s kind of a deep question.

Tavis: I get one every now and then.

Prince: Yeah. I’m sort of like a – because of some of the stances that I take, people are going to have different viewpoints of me depending upon which side of the fence they’re sitting on. Like we were talking about the music industry. A merchant would have trouble being called a bean-counter when in fact they know that’s true.

They’d be hard pressed, though, to try to sing a song with me. So I don’t really care so much what people say about me because it usually is a reflection of who they are. For example, if people wish I would sound like I used to sound, then it says more about them than it does me.

If I change the lyrics to a song, then it begs the question why do you want me to curse? Why do you want me to talk like other people? See, cursing was cool when nobody was doing it, or just a couple people. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah.

Prince: Yeah, like if everybody wears the same clothes –

Tavis: Right.

Prince: – then it ain’t cool no more. You’re trying to be different. One can’t be different by being racy today. It’s not interesting anymore. See, sexiness was in the mind, it was in your imagination. When you lose that, then like I said, it’s just old skin.

Tavis: We’ve had any number of conversations over the years off-camera, obviously, and you are a very, very politically astute, very much politically aware, a news junkie, and I’ve often wondered why it is that as interested as you are in the world that we live, and with all this happening in the world, what your thoughts are specifically in this election year, economically, politically, socially.

I’m asking a broad question to give you room to play with here, but tell me something about your political views in this particular and all-important election year.

Prince: Well first of all, I think just the word “political” and “politics” and all that is just semantics. An equal share of economic wherewithal is desirable by all. Namely, we all just want to take care of our families and do it to the best of our abilities and see the world.

People want to travel and things like that. A lot of people that I know haven’t even been out of the United States, so I consider myself more of a spiritual person than I do political. I’m more concerned with the truth, more concerned with why people won’t adhere to it and why they see themselves as us against them.

I used to think that we were the ones that came up with that, but see, we didn’t start a lot of these wars, and we certainly don’t want to go to them.

[End previously recorded interview]

Tavis: In 2009, the always-prolific Prince had just released not one, not two, but three new projects all at the same time. We spent two nights with Prince during that visit – a visit that would make news around the world. For the first time ever, Prince spoke publicly about his childhood bouts with epilepsy and how that battle shaped his adult life.

[Begin previously recorded interview]

Prince: I’m in sort of celebration mode right now. I’m just thankful to be alive, I’m thankful to have the friends that I do and the teachers that I do, and I’ve spent the last year just playing when I feel like it. I really look forward to this time in my life.

I happened to come across that show, “Unforgivable Blackness,” and the story of Jack Johnson just moved me no end. One of the reasons is that he had to deal with seemingly insurmountable odds all the time. If he would knock somebody down, people from the audience would get into the ring and pick him back up (laughter) so they could continue fighting.

I just related to it in a lot of different ways. I’ve never spoken about this before, but I was born epileptic and I used to have seizures when I was young. My mother and father didn’t know what to do or how to handle it, but they did the best they could with what little they had.

My mother told me one day, I walked in to her and said, “Mom, I’m not going to be sick anymore,” and she said, “Why?” I said, “Because an angel told me so.” Now, I don’t remember saying it, that’s just what she told me. From that point on, I’ve been having to deal with a lot of things – getting teased a lot in school – and early in my career I tried to compensate for that by being as flashy as I could and as noisy as I could.

I just looked, again, I look forward to this time in my life when I could reflect back on it and talk to people like yourself, Dr. Cornel West. When you all come over to the house and we sit and just talk about heavy things, I just become thankful. I don’t know what else to say other than that.

Tavis: How did you get beyond – because I know you have so many fans of all ages, and I think there are, no doubt, some young people watching who might – who I know, in fact, not might – will be helped by your answer to this question.

As a kid being teased so much – and kids get teased for all variety of reasons, as we know – how did you grow out of that not just into confidence but indeed into excellence? Or maybe I put it in the wrong order; excellence and confidence. But how did you grow out of that? How did you navigate yourself past that?

Prince: That’s a good question. The first thing I did is of course I went into self and I taught myself music. My father left his piano at the house when he left, and I wasn’t allowed to play it when he was there because I wasn’t as good as him. So when he left I was determined to get as good as him, and I taught myself how to play music and I just stuck with it and I did it all the time.

Sooner or later, people in the neighborhood heard about me and then they started to talk about me. It wasn’t in a teasing fashion; it was more like wow, look what he can do.

There’s something about having people around you giving you support that is – it’s motivating, and once I got that support from people then I believed I could do anything.

I had a lot of really good teachers. My best friend, Andre Cymone, his brother, Eddie, I’m entirely indebted to in this regard. He used to tell me, “Man, your songs are better than anybody’s on the radio. You can do whatever you want to do.” I just kept rolling with it, kept rolling with it.

Eventually I went out to New York and I got turned down my first time, but I just wasn’t – I felt like Jack Johnson then, too. I just wasn’t going to be put down.

Tavis: Back to this excellence thing, though. Talk to me about excellence. It’s clear that you are head and shoulders above pretty much everybody else in the world of music.

Prince: Oh –

Tavis: That’s my assessment, and a whole lot of fans agree. We all say amen? Amen. (Laughter) See that? So it’s pretty clear you’re head and shoulders above everybody else. But talk to me about how we who are not Prince can aspire to the level of excellence that you portray in what we do every day?

Prince: Well, everybody’s talented at something.

Tavis: Right.

Prince: That’s what makes the world go around. We all need each other, and again, it’s about good mentoring and good teachers. I had a lot of good people around.

The other thing I have to point out, though, is that – how can I put this – my father was so hard on me, I was never good enough. There was something about that – it was almost like the army when it came to music. It’s like, that’s not even close to – he’d say, “It’s not even close to what I’m doing,” and he’d play again, and I could hear it.

John Blackwell, my drummer, he’s the same way. His father taught him the same way. We learn like that. We learn from being shown. It doesn’t come from books and just reading it, we need to be shown. So just having really good teachers and a bar that’s so high – you know, Tiger Woods, and we can go on and on and on.

Tavis: You’ve talked a couple of times about your father, which you don’t do in public and I appreciate your opening up in that way. Help me understand how – I’m trying to juxtapose, knowing you as I do – everything about you is love. You create love in the space that you occupy. When folk come into your world, they feel the love.

Love is in your lyrical content; your whole life is about a love of humanity. I’m trying to juxtapose how you got to this place of being love when you had this relationship with your father that obviously didn’t always exhibit love. You could have been – you could be a very mean person now. Why not?

Prince: Well, I have a mean side, yeah.

Tavis: Let me back up, then. (Laughter)

Prince: I can go there. I’m a fighter, I’m very competitive. I think from him being so hard on me that – the one thing I got out of it is I understood that in his harshness he wanted me to excel. He used to say things like, “Don’t ever get a girl pregnant. Don’t ever get married.” Don’t this, don’t that.

When he’d say these things, I didn’t know what to take from it so I would create my own universe. My sister’s like that, a lot of my friends are like that – the ones that I still have – early musicians and things like that. Creating your own universe is the key to it, I believe, and letting all the people that you need occupy your universe.

Tavis: We’re got a Black president now.

Prince: Well, I don’t vote. I don’t have nothing to do with it. I got no dog in that race.

Tavis: And for those who would cuss me out and slap me in person if I didn’t ask you why?

Prince: Well, the reason why is because I’m one of Jehovah’s witnesses and we’ve never voted. That’s not to say that I don’t think Barack Obama — President Obama — is a very smart individual, and he seems like he means well. Prophecy is what we all have to go by now.

It’s very interesting. I did a sold-out concert in London and we played 21 nights in a row, and all the concerts were sold out. When I would watch television over there and you’d see the United Nations feed, the direct feed from the United Nations, you’d hear them talk a lot about religion. You’d hear the Bible mentioned constantly.

This is not what we’re used to in the United States. It’s almost as though there’s no need for God and no need for religion and justice in politics. So there’s supposed to be a separation of church and state over here.

We can’t have a separation of state and morality, though, and songs like “Dreamer” and even “Feel Good,” it’s the same thing.

[End previously recorded interview]

Tavis: It is indeed rare to hear Prince open up on so many subjects, as he did over those two nights back in 2009, and we have been grateful for his visits here over the years.

Tonight we’ll leave you with another memorable Prince moment. During that first appearance back in 2004, Prince wanted to reunite with former Revolution band member Wendy Melvoin for a special performance. For so many Prince fans, this reunion with Wendy of Wendy and Lisa fame was an unexpected surprise.

As we closed out that show, we will tonight with a performance by Prince and Wendy Melvoin – an acoustic version of the song “Reflection.”

Enjoy. Good night from Los Angeles, and as always, keep the faith.

[Begin musical performance]

Prince: (Singing) Two sevens together like time, indefinite. Trying to catch the glass before it falls. Without a frown, can you turn up the stereo? I wanna play you this old song, it’s about love. Can I do that? Did we remember to water the plants today? I forgot to look up at the moon because I was too busy. Yes, I was too busy, too busy looking at you, oh, babe.

Still it’s nice to know that when bodies wear out we can get another. What does that one thing have to do with the other one? I don’t know. I was just thinking about my mother.

You know what? Turn the stereo back down. Ain’t nothing worse than an old, worn-out love song. Do you like my hair this way? Remember all the way back in the day when we would compare whose afro was the roundest?

Mirrored tiles above the bed. Fishing nets and posters all over the walls, oh yeah. Sometimes I just wanna go out, you know me, play my guitar, and just watch all the cars go by.

[End musical performance] (Applause)

Prince: Thank you.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

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Last modified: February 4, 2013 at 1:47 pm