On April 21, 2016, the world lost one of its most creative, innovative and prolific talents: Prince Rogers Nelson. Over the course of his almost forty year career, the artist formerly and forever known as Prince released thirty-nine studio albums, four live albums, five compilation albums, seventeen video albums and twelve extended plays. His versatile musical style, an integration of funk, rock, R&B, new wave, soul, psychedelia and pop, would go on to influence both his contemporaries as well as countless current artists, such as Beyonce, D’Angelo, Maxwell, The Weeknd, Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga.
His legacy is truly one-of-a-kind and will continue to live on for generations to come. After his tragic and untimely death, his album sales and YouTube views (at least, on the videos that were available) spiked to an almost unbelievable degree, with new listeners discovering what it was that made Prince special and unique. In the process, they are learning that his musical genius is exemplified by more than just his Top 40 hits; there are also numerous deep cuts as well as covers that are worthy of attention and praise. Without further ado, here are five songs that Prince blessed with an unforgettable purple makeover:
1) “Motherless Child” (original writer unknown)
Dating back to the era of slavery in the United States, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” (more commonly known as “Motherless Child”) has been recorded widely and has experienced a plethora of changes over the years. The earliest known recording of the song is credited to the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1870s. Since then, countless artists have put their own creative spin on it, most notably Louis Armstrong, Odetta, Richie Havens, Ike and Tina Turner, Van Morrison, Hootie and the Blowfish, John Legend and Eric Clapton. Nevertheless, Prince’s version, which he performed live in 1999, 2002, 2004, 2013 and 2016, is particularly intriguing. Let me explain.
From the first pounding bass note, you knew that this was going to be something special. With a tight beat as a backdrop, Prince embarks on a monologue that feels almost prophetic given what’s currently happening with his Estate: “You know, there was never any reason to argue. There was never any reason to fight. From the first time Adam made love to Eve, there was never any reason. Clap your hands!” Then he says, “Oh mama, mama…why’d you put me on the street? I was only twelve years old.” From there, he launches into a soulful, bluesy rendition of “Motherless Child,” punctuated by several soaring guitar solos that demonstrate his virtuosity and flexibility. In addition, you see him engage with the crowd in ways that few artists are able to do. Plus, his outfit is absolutely fabulous!
2) “A Case of You” (Written by Joni Mitchell)
Any self-respecting Prince fan knows about his love for Joni Mitchell. She was one of his predominant influences, so it’s no surprise that a cover of her 1971 track began to creep into his repertoire from as early as 1983. This particular version was released in 2007 as part of the compilation album A Tribute to Joni Mitchell. It features Prince singing in his trademark falsetto while playing the piano. Besides that, there is little instrumental accompaniment, forcing the listener to pay attention to the lyrics and the manner in which they are sung. It’s tender and sparse, demonstrating his unique ability to capture and convey emotion. In every respect, this rendition both pays homage to the brilliant songstress who penned it as well as validates Prince’s artistic prowess. You can purchase the song through iTunes using the link below:
3) “Crimson and Clover” (Written by Tommy James and Peter Lucia Jr.)
I have a confession to make: this is the only version of this song that has ever caught my attention. Featured on the album Lotusflow3r, this rendering incorporates snippets of “Wild Thing” by The Wild Ones into the chorus, making it one of the most unforgettable tracks on the LP. The brilliance of Prince’s interpretation was accentuated by live performances of the song, such as this one on The Ellen Show in 2009.
4) “Creep” (Written by Thom Yorke)
Prince’s cover of this song at Coachella in 2008 created quite a bit of controversy. Soon after video of the performance began to circulate on the Internet, Prince had it taken down. This, in turn, sparked Radiohead to challenge Prince’s right to do that. In the end, the video was re-uploaded to YouTube—and we are all better for it.
As much as this is a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep,” it’s also not. Prince reinvents the song, putting his distinctive stamp on it through the ethereal backing instrumentals, the sudden, gritty guitar solos and the reinterpretation of the lyrics. Unlike Radiohead’s version, which is often described as snide and self-loathing, Prince’s version implies recognition of shared sexual shamelessness. In other words, this rendition is more about seeking connection with and seducing a prospective partner than it is isolating oneself from him/her. More so, it’s also a stunning example of Prince’s mastery as a stage performer.
5) “Honky Tonk Women” (Written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards)
Last but not least, we have Prince’s cover of The Rolling Stone’s classic “Honky Tonk Women.” This cover was originally intended for release on the album The Undertaker, which was recorded live in one take in a rehearsal session in 1993. Prince planned on releasing it in 1994 as a free CD to be included with the new issue of Guitar World magazine. However, Warner Bros blocked the release and had all copies virtually destroyed. As the album’s recording was filmed, Prince was able to put out a live performance video of The Undertaker in 1995, but it has since gone out of print.
That hasn’t stopped it from circulating among his most ardent fans, however, and that’s a good thing. Why? Because The Undertaker, and his cover of “Honky Tonk Women” especially, features some of Prince’s most searing guitar work. It’s raw, gritty blues mixed with just the right amount of rock. Altogether, it’s breathtaking. Even Mick Jagger shared a link to Prince’s performance of the song in the days after his death in order to demonstrate Prince’s otherworldly take on the song, so it’s only fitting that I do the same here.