Shelby J Remembers Prince’s ‘Magic’ Super Bowl Halftime Show: Exclusive Interview
“It was iconic,” Shelby Johnson tells us about the most memorable gig of her singing career.
Growing up a football fan in Greensboro, North Carolina, Johnson barely dared to dream about going to a Super Bowl, let alone performing at one with Prince. That the special gig on Feb. 4, 2007 would go on to be enshrined as the Super Bowl’s best-ever halftime show is nothing short of a miracle, she says, since so few people at the time thought that the show would go on at all.
Johnson, who performs under the moniker Shelby J, had joined Prince’s New Power Generation just in time to play a 2007 New Year’s show at 3121, Prince’s nightclub in Las Vegas. It wasn’t until Prince visited her dressing room after the gig that Johnson learned that her very next show would be Super Bowl XLI at Dolphin Stadium in Miami. The band flew to Florida, and for a full week, rehearsal conditions on the game field were ideal.
“Every day was sunny and beautiful,” Johnson remembers. Everyone had told her not to worry about the weather. They said that it never ever rains on Super Bowl. Then the singer woke on game day and looked out her hotel room window to see an unbroken wall of water. “It was like a monsoon,” Johnson recalls.
The TV crew at the stadium was concerned about the safety of the performers. Prince was due to play four separate electric guitars, and the stage, made of slick and shiny tiles, was growing even more slippery in the rain. Any mistakes or accidents would be going out on-air to over 100 million television viewers. Prince called a quick meeting where he told the band to not change a thing and do everything just like they rehearsed. To this day, Johnson credits Prince’s task-master approach to training for the success of the show. After rehearsing for 13 hours, everybody knew the show backwards and forwards.
“When we got on that stage we didn’t have to think about it,” Johnson says. Thanks to their preparation, players could rely on muscle memory and the energy of the moment. “Prince would always push you to a higher bar. He was going to elevate you. You were going to learn more about your strengths and [how to] work on your weaknesses.”
The torrential rains certainly didn’t dampen Prince’s spirits.
“The [television] people said, ‘Oh it’s raining,' and Prince said, ‘Can you make it rain harder?’” Johnson recalls. The show had to go on. “So we said a prayer and we got out there and did it."
Kicking off with an instrumental snippet of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” the band segued into “Let’s Go Crazy," and that’s when the party really started. Suddenly Prince’s love symbol lit up in the middle of the rain-sodden field.
“I [was] spinning in five-inch stiletto thigh-high white boots, running from one end of the stage to the other,” Johnson says. Prince played all four of his electric guitars as the band jammed on, oblivious to the leads, wires and pyrotechnics.
Prince was mesmerizing, Johnson says. “He said, ‘Use your hat,’ so I started using my hat to catch rain.” The 12-minute set ripped through a tease from “1999,” which morphed into a rendition of “Baby I’m a Star,” featuring the Florida A&M University Marching 100 Band. A cover of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” where Johnson joined Prince on the mic, followed. Prince’s shredding electric guitar grew even louder in the mix during a mash-up of another cover, Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” and Foo Fighters' “Best of You.” Then came the song essential to close this unparalleled set, a rendition of “Purple Rain” that puts all other live versions of the song in the shade. By now, Prince was using the relentless rain as theatre, an elemental force to bolster the performance rather than an obstacle to be overcome.
“In the end the rain was like God’s perfect special effect,” Johnson says. “We were playing ‘Purple Rain’ in the rain.”
“I was standing in this moment knowing that everybody I’d ever known in Greensboro was watching,” Johnson says. “My daddy bought a new TV just so he could see his baby girl on the Super Bowl stage with Prince,” she remembers. “It was magic.”