Prince was known the world around as a pop star, a funk artist, a bravura performer, a brilliant author of at least one other performer’s megahit.
Not as many people realized that Prince was also a virtuoso guitarist. But on March 15, 2004, Prince blew away the crowd — and a star-studded band — with an incandescent, thunderous, and show-stopping solo on the Beatles classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
The scene was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Prince was inducted, along with — posthumously — George Harrison. To celebrate the legendary Beatles guitarist, Prince joined a band that included performers who had worked with Harrison: Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne in the Traveling Wilburys , and Steve Winwood, who had played on Harrison’s eponymous 1979 studio album. Also onstage was George’s son, Dhani Harrison.
Harrison’s widow, Olivia, reportedly had to be convinced to let Prince, who wasn’t a close friend of Harrison, play. This wasn’t just any Beatles song: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” features one of the most memorable solos ever recorded on a Fab Four record, performed by Eric Clapton, whose isolated take can be heard here.
Check out the video: At about 3½ minutes into the 2004 performance, Prince takes that Clapton take and runs with it. Playing a butterscotch Telecaster-styled guitar, he builds off Clapton’s memorable bluesy wail into a soaring orgy of sustain and vibrato that soon releases into a frenetic workout. It recalls Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Hazel , and Jeff Beck. Dhani Harrison looks on in amazement, but the band, to its credit, sits back and lets the show be stolen.
At one point, Prince leans off the front of the stage far enough that a handler has to push him back on, a piece of James Brown showmanship trumped by the artist’s departure: He tosses the guitar somewhere — who even knows where it landed? — and struts off the stage. Thus George Harrison’s induction into Rock and Roll’s most august shrine was also the night Prince imprinted himself on it.
Performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.David Filipov can be reached at David.Filipov@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidfilipov.