When Prince Got Booed Off the Rolling Stones’ Stage
In the fall of 1981, Prince wasn’t a rock star. This was before 1999 and Purple Rain, “Little Red Corvette” and “Let’s Go Crazy.” He was merely a quirky upstart with one falsetto-sung pop-funk hit (“I Wanna Be Your Lover”) under his thong strap. But Mick Jagger was a fan of Prince’s early stuff and he invited the young performer to open a pair of Rolling Stones concerts in Los Angeles. It didn't go well.
The Stones’ 1981 tour was a massive undertaking that saw the band break attendance records while filling America’s most gargantuan stadiums. The L.A. Coliseum was no exception, loaded with an estimated 94,000 music fans. Make that Stones fans. This crowd wasn’t too thrilled with the music that Prince was playing.
At the first L.A. concert on Oct. 9, Prince and his band (soon to be called the Revolution) took the stage before fellow openers George Thorogood and the Destroyers and the J. Geils Band. Before he even played a note, it was clear that the androgynous musician might not have been the best fit for this macho, blues-rock audience. Prince came to the microphone in his typical stage attire from that era – see-through jacket, thigh-high boots, black bikini briefs. Perhaps he was trying to bridge a gap with his setlist, playing rock-ier material such as “Bambi” and “When You Were Mine,” singing falsetto parts in his natural voice and turning the guitars way up.
It didn’t matter, the afternoon crowd began hurling racist and homophobic slurs at the band, and when that didn’t work, bottles, cans and anything else they could find.
“Next thing I noticed was food starting to fly through the air like a dark thunder cloud. Imagine 94,000 people throwing food at each other; it was the craziest thing I had ever seen in my life,” remembered bassist Brown Mark, who had just joined Prince’s band. “I got hit in the shoulder with a bag of fried chicken; then my guitar got knocked out of tune by a large grapefruit that hit the tuning keys…”
After Prince played “Jack U Off,” one fan remembers promoter Bill Graham coming on stage in an attempt to calm the field-level hordes, to little avail. Prince and pals stopped the set partway through their fourth song, “Uptown,” amidst a stadium’s worth of boos. Stones fans had successfully turned Prince away.
A frustrated and upset Prince was reportedly crying backstage, vowing to skip the second show two days later. He flew home to Minnesota without the band. A round of calls from his manager, his guitarist Dez Dickerson and Jagger encouraged Prince to try again on Oct. 11.
“I talked to Prince on the phone once after he got two cans thrown at him in L.A. He said he didn’t want to do any more shows,” Mick recalled in 1983. “God, I got thousands of bottles and cans thrown at me! Every kind of debris. I told him, if you get to be a really big headliner, you have to be prepared for people to throw bottles at you in the night. [Laughs.] Prepared to Die!”
Watch Prince Perform 'Honky Tonk Women'
Prince flew back out west and led the Revolution through another opening slot. Although they got about the same treatment – a bootleg recording reveals rampant booing and insults along with comments about the amount of trash thrown on stage – the band finished their five-song set on this occasion. In a shot surely directed at the audience, Prince closed with “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” It was rumored that the performer later described the crowd as “tasteless in music and mentally retarded.”
The show continued with Thorogood and J. Geils before the Stones delivered the hits, plus new stuff from Tattoo You. In an article called "Food Fight: Real Life Rock Top 10 1981," Greil Marcus reprinted an anonymous letter Ken Tucker of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner received after writing a review of the concert: "You obviously are a fan of that f----- n----- group or you wouldn’t of lied about it," it read. "I just wanted you to know that us W.A.S.P. rock n rollers pay to see white performers and not n-----s, f-----s or tawdry critics like yourself President Reagan has proven once and for all that liberals, n-----s, f--s and minorities are out. Thank god for that. I can sure bet your ass on one thing, prince wont open up for the stones next time around.”
Prince would never open for the Stones again. Following the Stones’ tour, Keith Richards was asked about the Prince incidents. “Prince has to find out what it means to be a prince. That’s the trouble with conferring a title on yourself before you’ve proved it,” Richards said, apparently unaware that Prince was his birth name. “That was his attitude when he opened for us on the tour, and it was insulting to our audience. You don’t try to knock off the headline like that when you’re playing a Stones [concert]. You’d be much better off just being yourself and protecting that. He’s a prince who thinks he’s a king already. Good luck to him.”
Lucky or not, in a few years Prince would become one of the most famous and respected musicians in the world, headlining arena shows of his own. Through a variety of musical shifts (and name changes), Prince would remain one of music’s biggest stars until his 2016 death. After his death, the Stones remembered their former opener fondly. “Prince was a revolutionary artist, a wonderful musician and composer,” Jagger wrote in a statement. Richards called Prince “a true original” as well a “great guitar player.”
But back in 1981, the Stones – and their fans – weren’t so sure.