When Prince Met Tom Petty for ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’
George Harrison remains one of the more widely acclaimed guitarists of the rock era, so it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to use one's own axe-wielding skills to pay tribute to the former Beatle in a public forum — and when the stage in question also includes multiple Rock and Roll Hall of Famers and Harrison's own son, few musicians would be bold enough to step into the spotlight.
Prince, of course, was no ordinary artist — as he powerfully demonstrated during the Rock Hall induction ceremony on March 15, 2004, when he strode to the front of the stage during an all-star performance of Harrison's signature song, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and delivered a blistering closing solo people are still talking about more than a decade later.
The idea for the all-star jam came from ceremony producer and director Joel Gallen, who later told the New York Times that he "wrote basically a personal letter to Prince, care of his lawyer" in order to try and bring his dream to fruition. Gallen had a unique array of artists at his disposal during that year's ceremony — in addition to Prince, scheduled to be on hand for his own induction, he could count on Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, who were acting as co-inducters for Harrison, their friend and fellow former Traveling Wilbury. Other inductees and presenters included Jackson Browne (inducted by Bruce Springsteen) and Traffic. In other words, there was no shortage of fuel for a jam, and in "Gently Weeps," whoever ended up in the band was being handed a song with plenty of room to lay out.
Petty, who had an obvious personal stake in Harrison's induction, later recalled being excited by the idea of playing the song alongside Prince. In fact, as he told the Times, he anticipated leaving extra room for him to display his guitar prowess.
"Look, we got Prince here willing to play lead guitar. Why should we give him an eight-bar solo?" Petty pointed out. "Over a solo [originally played on record by Eric Clapton] that — the Beatles solo, everyone knows it by heart and would be disappointed if you didn’t play that particular solo there. And Prince was a great fan of George’s, and the Beatles in general, but I think he particularly admired George. I think George would have liked it a lot."
Contrary to Petty's claim, Prince was admittedly less than familiar with the Beatles' catalog; in fact, when he accepted Gallen's invitation, he reportedly said he hadn't even heard "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and would need to spend some time with the song before rehearsals started. It was an unorthodox beginning to a performance that could have gone wrong in any number of ways, but as Prince pointed out during his acceptance speech at the induction ceremony, he'd spent his career testing boundaries wherever he found them.
"When I first started out in this music industry, I was most concerned with freedom," he told the crowd. "Freedom to produce, freedom to play all the instruments on my records, freedom to say anything I wanted to. I embarked on a journey more fascinating than I could have ever imagined."
And while he may not have been a strict Beatles disciple, Prince was drawn to the idea of the Rock Hall Harrison jam for other reasons — chief among them the opportunity to share the stage with Petty. "It was an honor to play with him," Rolling Stone quoted Prince as saying. "'Free Fallin" is one of my favorite songs."
Prince's eagerness to play with Petty didn't translate to an aggressive attempt to hog the spotlight once rehearsals started. In fact, as Gallen told the Times, Prince didn't even take any solos during the band's first run-through — much to Gallen's own shock and consternation.
"When we get to the middle solo, where Prince is supposed to do it, Jeff Lynne’s guitar player just starts playing the solo. Note for note, like Clapton," Gallen recalled. "And Prince just stops and lets him do it and plays the rhythm, strums along. And we get to the big end solo, and Prince again steps forward to go into the solo, and this guy starts playing that solo too! Prince doesn’t say anything, just starts strumming, plays a few leads here and there, but for the most part, nothing memorable."
As it turned out, there was plenty of memorable playing in reserve for the night of the ceremony. After Gallen intervened to make it known he wanted Prince to have room for a solo, Prince shrugged off his concerns, assuring the producer it'd all work out during the show — and then left having, in Gallen's words, "never rehearsed it, really."
Not that the final performance betrayed any lack of preparation. According to Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone, Petty went out of his way to let Prince know he could feel free to indulge his muse during his solo, telling him to "just cut loose and don’t feel sort of inhibited to copy anything that we have, just play your thing, just have a good time." Starting roughly three minutes and 30 seconds into the performance, Prince did exactly that.
Reams have already been written about his solo during that performance, and to truly delve into — or understand — what Prince pulled off over the last few minutes of the song, it would require a fairly comfortable knowledge of theory, with some added background in technique. But you don't have to be a guitarist to appreciate the dazzling array of musical weapons he brought to bear on his piece of the song, or to feel the combination of cocky confidence and pure joy radiating from him while he plays — or to appreciate the visible surprise and appreciation displayed by Petty and Dhani Harrison.
Prince was nothing if not determinedly inscrutable, and there's every chance that he already knew "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" inside and out — and that he'd rehearsed every second of that solo for hours before taking the stage at the Rock Hall induction ceremony. But while the lack of band rehearsal adds an extra element of cool danger to the story, it doesn't really have any bearing on what you see and hear in the footage from the performance. However it came together, it's ultimately a master class in the unique spark that can only be thrown during live collaboration between artists — it's as much a tribute to Harrison as it is to the act of making music with other people in general. When Prince throws his instrument up in the air at the end of the song and walks off stage — and the guitar never comes back down — it's simultaneously an amazing finish to an incredible performance and its only logical conclusion.
For Petty, the moment lingered. After Prince's death in 2016, he told the Times he'd been thinking of him just days before the news broke, and offered a few words of wisdom that take on an added poignancy in the wake of Petty's own passing the following year. "I almost told myself I was going to call him and just see how he was," he mused. "I’m starting to think you should just act on those things all the time."
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