Commentary: Prince, Michael Jackson and James Brown on stage together was a moment we didn’t deserve

Prince performs on Dec. 25, 1984, at the St. Paul Civic Center in Minnesota.

Prince performs on Dec. 25, 1984, at the St. Paul Civic Center in Minnesota.

(Genna Souffle / Minneapolis Star Tribune)

I ’m getting real sick of these phone calls.

When James Brown died, I went back to my apartment, took a deep breath, and called my father. I called him again when Michael Jackson died. And when Maurice White died. I did it again today when I heard about Prince. I left work to make the call.

Somehow, those phone calls have become a tradition. Maybe it’s morbid. But I feel like if my father is going to hear about a family member passing, it should be from me. We leaned on these great black artists, our extended family members, to fill in the gaps in education that I wasn’t getting in school. The history, the art, the soul that I wasn’t getting in the classroom, they gave me.

That’s not to say that I was the biggest Prince fan. In fact, the only Prince record I actually owned was the "Batman" soundtrack, even though I’d never seen the movie. But I knew he was a genius.

My favorite Prince memory actually came in college, when I found a grainy video of a 1983 James Brown concert where the Godfather of Soul invited Michael Jackson on stage, who then invited Prince. What results is a brief flash of black divinity, even if the people in the room didn’t realize it at the time.

James Brown clearly respected Michael Jackson as a musician and took no small amount of pride in being his musical mentor. So when Jackson goes up and whispers in James Brown’s ear, Brown trusts him. He addresses the crowd: “Give him a big round of applause, because he just insisted that I introduce Prince!”

James Brown doesn’t seem to know anything about Prince, but he takes Jackson’s word for it. Eventually, this “Prince” fellow makes his way through the crowd and gets on stage.

Brown offers him the center stage, after offering his blessing:

“Prince, you gotta do something.”

Prince does something. He takes a guitar from one of the band members, talks to the bass player. The horns drop out, the bass player gives him some room. Prince plays a few licks. He’s restrained. No melody, just rhythm.

Then, the music starts.

Prince gets down on the floor. Closes his eyes. Holds the guitar between his legs. The phallic intent is obvious. He only touches the strings one time after this, but that is because he didn’t get up there to play the guitar. He got up there to play the room.

This is why Jackson brought him on stage. He’s in a lane that Jackson doesn’t need to enter. They are both sons of James Brown, but Prince inherited the attitude. And a lot of the funk. They’ll be rivals later, but right now, I imagine that Michael is watching Prince like Serena watches Venus. Appreciating poetry at work, as only a fellow poet can.

Prince takes his shirt off. Women (and men) scream. He approaches the mic, like looking like he’s either going to punch it or make love to it. Maybe both. He flips the mic around. He’s obviously cribbing from James Brown, but there’s some Bruce Lee in there, too. He’s showboating. He shouldn’t be. He’s a young punk, acting like a rock star (he is one), crashing the Godfather’s concert. It’s disrespectful. It’s Prince.

Prince shrieks, wordlessly.

Everything that’s happening in those silent moments is music. Everything is rhythm. He tries to get the crowd to clap with him. You are the instrument, he’s telling them. Play with me. Make music. They don’t seem to understand. Prince looks frustrated, maybe embarrassed. Prince wants to leave.

And then, infamously, he does. Prince swings off the light post, knocking it over, toward the audience. Disappears back into the crowd. Not a word of thanks or appreciation to James Brown or Michael Jackson.

I’ve read a few accounts of this night. Among the best are a hilarious play-by-play by Rembert Browne, and a breakdown by someone on Reddit who apparently took a class on Prince, and says Brown didn’t like Prince’s performance, which I understand. His appearance is even edited out of a recording of the concert. Because by most standards, and maybe Prince’s own, it’s an absolute failure of a performance. But it’s still absolutely magical.

Make no mistake – James Brown was a weird dude. So was Michael Jackson. But Prince, especially on that stage, was positively otherworldly. And having those three on stage together, even for just a moment, was greatness that I’m not sure we deserved.

Watching it again, there’s something about James Brown’s words that stick with me.

“Prince, you gotta do something.”

Prince was one of the first to pick up the Linn drum machines. Those sounds on "1999"? That’s something nobody was doing yet, at least not like Prince. He looked at new technology as another instrument, not a threat.

“Prince, you gotta do something.”

Prince got annoyed with production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for getting caught in a snowstorm, and fired them from a tour. That story, along with those producers, then became legendary. Who can afford, artistically, to fire a pair of geniuses? Answer: a genius.

“Prince, you gotta do something.”

If anyone was going to control things, it was going to be him. Warner Brothers tried to control him, so he changed his name to a symbol. Then back again. Then, years later, he got annoyed with the music industry as a whole, and gave his album away with the newspaper.

“Prince, you gotta do something.”

He got on stage at the Grammys, and slyly put in a reference to Black Lives Matter.

“Prince, you gotta do something.”

He understood gender as a construct. For him it was fluid. An expression. Which too many of us still don’t get.

“Prince, you gotta do something.”

He turned the “this could be us but you playing” meme into an actual song. When he wanted to, Prince had jokes. That basketball story that Charlie Murphy told on "Chappelle’s Show"? He loved it, and confirmed that it was true.

Prince did a lot of things.

You can say a lot about Prince – about his music, his personality, his strained relationship with the media and the outside world. Maybe you didn’t like his recent music. I didn’t. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to say what a fellow musician says when they’ve just witnessed greatness on the stage, even if they don’t quite get it:

That man did something up there.