“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” That is exactly what Prince was about. I remember during the Super Bowl this question between my brother and myself first came up, though it is a bit of a silly question. “Prince or James Brown?” That’s kind of like asking if AC/DC was better with Bon or Brian. They were both awesome in their time.
If you read his article yesterday, you know why my brother believes James Brown was greater than Prince. He is older than me (a lot older, heh heh) so he sometimes thinks that makes him wiser. It only means he's had more chances to be wrong about things. So, with that out of the way let me tell you why Prince overshadows the “Godfather” of soul. (How many times did Jesse obsess over that nickname?)
Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli
In the film The Godfather, after Paulie was shot (because he was not handling business) Clemenza says “leave the gun, take the cannoli,” which meant hey, don’t take the things we don’t need and bring what is good. Prince didn’t need Warner Brothers or MTV or any other music companies telling him what he could or could not create. He was a genius with vision who didn’t need outsiders putting blinders on what he saw. It’s a struggle that many artists had to deal with back then, but I know only one who quit and changed his name in the name of his creative independence. As a kid I didn’t understand why he did the things he did, but as a man I know you have to stick to your ideals. If it means being who you really are, you must abandon the monikers that are given to you and proclaim who you really are.
Good. ‘Cause a Man Who Doesn’t Spend Time with His Family Can Never Be a Real Man
This is the phrase that Don Vito Corleone drops on his godson, Johnny Fontane right before he starts crying uncontrollably at the beginning of The Godfather. Fontane, who many think was a character based on Frank Sinatra, is visiting his Godfather in the hopes he can get some help in the movie industry. They start off with small talk and then get to what is important. Family, and what it means to us all.
Perhaps one of the biggest personal reasons I think Prince is better than James Brown is because of a memory I had of one of his concerts. I never had the chance to see James Brown in concert, but I did see Prince, on the Lovesexy tour…with my mother. Most people I know could not or would not say they have ever been to a concert with only their mother, much less a sexually-charged Prince show. (He opened with “Erotic City,” and played “Jack U Off,” “Do Me, Baby” and “Head” — I was 11!) What I can say is that my mother showed me how to embrace the concert experience. She even went as far as using bleach to dye the words “Purple Rain” into some purple jeans she had. Not once did we sit down during the concert and my mom yelled and laughed and danced from beginning to end. I learned that day to always back your family even if in public others may stare at them. I think my mom appreciated that about Prince, a person I am sure who didn’t worry what others thought even when yelling and laughing and dancing in public.
Go to the Mattresses
Going to the mattresses means believing in something so much that it might make your life suck for a while. You’re going to take some bullets. Most men take the easy way and conform to a life of quiet desperation, but not James Brown, who in a time of racial division proclaimed, “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” But, Prince pushed the envelope even further. He questioned whether people could even proclaim if they were black or white, male or female. He made us think about what it meant to be straight or gay, of if people believed in God or “me.” And that was all in just one funked out song, “Controversy.” He went even further by getting us to talk openly about sex in the Reagan and AIDS eras and his take on androgyny was a “godfather” to modern ideas about gender. His critics shot at him for these beliefs but he just came back at them with tracks like “Sign O’ The Times,” “7” and 2015’s “Baltimore.”
I’ll Make You an Offer You Can’t Refuse
Perhaps the biggest reason Prince overshadows JB is because he was a master of several instruments. From the piano on “Condition of the Heart,” to the iconic drum machine of “When Doves Cry” to a guitar in the rain at Super Bowl 41, Prince could do it all. Okay, so he had some guidance because his old man played music and composed, but dad was abusive. We got the message in the movie Purple Rain. Maybe Prince escaped by mastering all the instruments he could find? This is such an important part of his legacy that if you start typing “How many instruments,…” your Google search bar completes the question with “did Prince play?” (Go ahead and try it, I'll wait, as Jesse said). According to Google, the answer is 27. Most of us couldn’t name 27 instruments. Prince could play at least that many. The only instrument JB played was vocals. You could include dance moves if you wanted, but if you do then you have to agree Prince was a better singer, going smoothly into falsetto and soprano ranges. If you ever saw him live you know his dance moves rivaled Brown’s.
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You Would Be the One to Hold the Strings
If you don’t know this Godfather reference, I’ll fill you in. It occurs during the literal transition of power from Vito Corleone to Michael, much to Don Vito’s chagrin. There is no doubt that James Brown started something powerful, but we all have to realize Prince picked it up and took it to the next level.
Over the last few years, there’s been a YouTube video going around that shows JB, Prince and Michael Jackson all sharing the stage at a James Brown concert. Some people believed Mike was the logical conclusion to what JB started. The video proves that Brown thought the same thing. He doesn’t seem to really know who Prince is. He was great friends with Jackson and believed he was going to succeed him. I am a child of the '80s, so I’ll always be a fan of the King of Pop. In this conversation, he’s Sonny Corleone. He went down in a hail of bullets. Prince is Michael. His songwriting, musical ability and importance to the cultural changes in America at his peak were all weapons he used to slay like Michael Corleone taking care of the family business.
When their paths crossed, Prince was giving fans the courage to be who they were. The change wasn’t just about race, it was about gender, religion and how to independently own your creative expression. James Brown was “Living in America,” but Prince was redefining it for the next generation.