In honor of the 2017 American Music Awards, Billboard is counting down the best performances from the awards show’s history. Here is No. 1.
On Jan. 28, 1985, Prince became Prince.
Yes, The Purple One released his universally acclaimed Purple Rain seven months prior, but on the night of the 12th annual American Music Awards, Prince Rogers Nelson snatched three awards and delivered the most iconic performance in the show’s 45-year history. His performance embodied every quality for which the 5-foot-2 fireball became known: stratospheric vocals, incendiary guitar solos, mesmerizing stage presence and the ability to make every member of the audience feel a part of something bigger than themselves.
Standing atop a circular platform dressed in a magnificent blue and green suit, Prince uttered the song’s first line — “I never meant to cause you any sorrow” — to rapturous applause. His white cloud guitar hung tantalizingly at his side as he delivered the remainder of the first verse and chorus, piercing the audience with his seductive gaze.
He continued with spiritual fervor, wrenching massive power chords out of his guitar as he writhed behind the microphone stand. Then it happened: “Honey, I know, I know, I know times are changing!” he howled, giving his greatest James Brown shriek. In that moment, Prince had arrived.
The camera panned to a wide shot of the audience waving their arms back and forth as Prince ripped into a volcanic guitar solo, his warm tone slicing through the gospel-tinged tempest of his backing band. He spun and staggered across the stage as if led by his ax, absorbed in his own ecstasy, before returning to the microphone to lead the crowd in a transcendent sing-along.
Any other performer could’ve reasonably ended the song a handful of times by this point. But Prince wasn’t finished. He needed to play guitar, and he could not — would not — be impeded by such frivolities as a microphone stand. He kicked it to the side and raised his guitar skyward, cutting a quintessential rock god pose before retreating to the back of the stage.
His band vamped behind him, and Prince jumped — not once, twice — before dropping to his knees in utter rapture. He rose once more, ascended a platform in the middle of the stage, turned his back to the crowd and lowered his arms to his sides as the lights dimmed.
Prince once said “Purple Rain” is about “the end of the world and being with the one you love and letting your faith/god guide you through the purple rain.” On Jan. 28, 1985, Prince became the storm and the guide. He rescued his audience from a night of mediocrity — and he redefined what an AMAs performance could be.
Watch the performance below.
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The 2017 American Music Awards will broadcast live from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday, Nov. 19 at 8 p.m. EST on ABC.