He was even the right size.
While a Prince tribute might seem ideally suited to one of his more obvious musical progeny, like D’Angelo or Maxwell — both of whom have performed dazzling covers of his songs — Bruno Mars is a less obvious, but equally suitable fit. Where the other two are more likely to channel Prince’s moodier and more experimental muses, Mars is the show-stopping showman, the firecracker bandleader, the one who performs the synchronized dances that were a hallmark of the Minneapolis wonder’s early years.
And while Mars’ music certainly bears a strong Purple influence, it’s easily possible to see and hear as much there from The Time, co-stars of Purple Rain and Prince’s first and best side-project (he wrote or co-wrote, produced and performed nearly all of their recorded work). So it might be more fitting that members of that group would join Mars on Sunday (Feb. 12) for the Grammy tribute to the artist who was such a big influence on all of them, and who died of an accidental overdose not 10 months earlier.
Sources close to the situation tell Billboard that the Grammys faced considerable challenges organizing this year’s Prince tribute. This was due not only to the tangled state of his business affairs — reflected in the months-long drama around getting his music back onto major streaming services, which didn’t happen until this morning — but also because of the sheer pressure and potentially thankless task of trying to live up to such a tribute. (Reports circulated that both Beyonce and Rihanna had declined offers to perform in the tribute, although Grammy sources denied this.)
Also, some of the most likely — and best — tributes had already been done. D’Angelo performed a majestic version of “Sometimes It Snows in April” on Fallon shortly after Prince’s death, but backed out of his leading role in the tribute at the BET Awards in June. Instead, Sheila E. — the rare Prince acolyte who was already an established musician before they began working together — moved center stage and brought the house down. And Maxwell performed his cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” — which he performed on tour for months — at the Clive Davis party the night before the Grammys.
So with a tough act to follow — A Tribe Called Quest’s #Resist-rousing performance — and even a chronological slip by host James Corden (who said “Take yourselves back to Minneapolis in 1985”; The Time split up the previous year), The Time still managed to raise the roof. Led, as in days of yore, by singer Morris Day and sidekick Jerome Benton, the group tore through the Purple Rain hits “Jungle Love” and “The Bird,” inspiring audience members Ricky Minor (American Idol musical director) and BET exec Stephen Hill to do the dance immortalized by the group in the film.
This led into Bruno Mars leading possibly the most visually reverent tribute the Grammys had ever seen: They had the Purple Rain glam suits, they had the lace, they had the spotlight in the bass drum, they had the synchronized moves, and Mars even had the lyre-shaped guitar (which may have been one of Prince’s) with the leopard-patterned strap. They let Prince recite the spoken-word intro — that’s hallowed ground — before ripping into a note-perfect rendition of “Let’s Go Crazy,” showing off their bona fides by adding arrangement flourishes from 1980s-era live versions of the song.
At the end, Mars wisely didn’t try to re-create Prince’s guitar solo (not many can), but he did shred, throwing in just a touch of Prince’s trademark guitar-humping before leading the band to a close: Short, sweet, tight and and reverent.
The Time spoke briefly in the press room shortly after their performance. It was actually the original lineup of the group — Day, Benton, guitarist Jesse Johnson, drummer Jellybean Johnson and keyboardist Monte Moir, along with keyboardist Jimmy Jam and bassist Terry Lewis, who had left the group by the time Purple Rain was filmed to pursue a quickly lucrative career as hitmakers for Janet Jackson and others.
When asked the last time they saw Prince, Day said they “didn’t hang out like we did back in the old days,” but noted that they performed a set for him in Minneapolis shortly before he died. And when asked their opinion of Mars’ performance, they applauded and said he “killed it” — but Benton quickly, (maybe) jokingly added: “We still kicked his ass!”