Remember When: 15 Years Ago Prince’s Super Bowl Performance Blew Everyone’s Mind

Music critics and music lovers alike agree that Prince’s performance during the Super Bowl XLI was one of the best, if not the best, half-time shows of all time. What made the performance so special? Three things come to mind: incredible musicianship, Prince’s magnetic stage presence, and an epic downpour.

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Prince, whose full name is Prince Rogers Nelson, rose to mega-stardom with a handful of wildly popular albums in the ’80s. Among them was 1999, released in 1982. It was his first Top 10 album on the Billboard 200. The Minneapolis native followed it up with the movie soundtrack Purple Rain in 1984, which did even better, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Prince continued to record and release music until he passed away in 2016 from an accidental overdose of fentanyl. He was known for his voluminous musical output, mixing an array of genres like funk, R&B, soul, rock, and more, and his seemingly never-ceasing flow of creative ideas. 

In the years leading up to his Super Bowl performance in 2007, he most notably released the albums Musicology and 3121. While he wasn’t the new, young talent that burst onto the scene in the ’80s anymore, Prince had achieved global icon status, was a beloved artist, and continued to wow music fans as an indisputably masterful performer.

How Prince came to perform at the Super Bowl

When Prince invited a group of Super Bowl executives to Los Angeles to discuss the possibility of a performance, the team around David Saltz, who worked with the NFL, was excited but somewhat wary. The event’s producers had been cautious about booking family-friendly acts after Justin Timberlake’s and Janet Jackson’s performance in 2004 had resulted in half a million complaints and an investigation by the FCC because of a costume reveal gone wrong.

Prince’s long-time keyboard player, Morris Hayes, remembers how well the first showcase a few months before the Super Bowl went. He shared his memories of Prince’s private show in the musician’s house in an interview with Billboard, saying: “We played most of the set — and we completely smoked it.” Hayes quoted members of the committee who reacted by saying: “This is incredible—just four people are making this wall of sound?” 

At that point, the committee had only heard a stripped-down lineup. Prince himself, Hayes on keys, Josh Dunham on bass, and Cora Coleman-Dunham on drums nailed the trial run. The actual performance also featured Renato Neto on keys, vocalist Shelby J., and “The Twinz” (dancers Maya and Nandy McClean).

Before the Chicago Bears and the Indianapolis Colts faced off at the Dolphin Stadium in Miami at the beginning of 2007, Prince and his band had played just shy of 20 shows in Las Vegas. The musicians were fulfilling a residency at the Rio Hotel & Casino and as a result, they functioned like a well-oiled machine and were at the top of their game on February 4. 

“Purple Rain” in the most literal sense

Two days before the Super Bowl, the weather forecast wasn’t looking very promising, so the producers decided to film Prince’s set in case inclement weather would make a live performance impossible. As the game and then the half-time show approached, it became clear that rain was inevitable and the producers started to get nervous. They worried that Prince and his dancers, all of them in high heels, would slip during the performance. 

In the end, the show went on as planned and the downpour turned into a dazzling effect. Electric gear and water obviously didn’t go well together and posed a risk but all instruments were functioning perfectly during the performance. Alas, once turned off, the equipment was dead and a lot of the defunct gear was auctioned off later.

Prince’s Super Bowl setlist

Prince had a vision for the show that went beyond his own music, according to the singer  Shelby J, who performed alongside the singer that night. In an interview with The Ringer, she quoted the words of her boss: “It’s not about me. It’s about the music, it’s about this moment.”

And so the first notes the audience heard that night came from a snippet of “We Will Rock You” written by the band Queen. The 12-minute long extravaganza was off to a good start and after a short intro, Prince and his band appeared on stage to play “Let’s Go Crazy,” the No. 1 Billboard hit from his 1984 album, Purple Rain.

As the stage in the shape of Prince’s so-called love symbol lights up, the artist addresses the 75,000 people in the stadium and roughly 140 million viewers with the first lines of the song: Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. Prince and the band then launch into the energetic part of the song while the rain slowly starts to collect on the TV camera screens. Less than two minutes in, Prince plays the first guitar solo and involves the audience in a quick back and forth of shouting “Go crazy!”.

Every musician on stage is on their toes because they know Prince is always good for surprises and might just spontaneously launch into any song. He ended up leading his crew through a medley of “1999”/“Baby, I’m Star” alongside the Florida A&M University Marching 100 Band, a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” and the Foo Fighters’ “Best Of You,” before ending his historic set with “Purple Rain.” Prince’s personal assistant, Ruth Arzate, later shared her memories of the night with The Ringer magazine. She said: “You could tell he was very happy with his performance. I was like, ‘You made history.’ And he was like, ‘I always make history.’”

Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

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