Grammys’ Prince tribute took months of planning

BY JON BREAM
STAR TRIBUNE/TNS

LOS ANGELES – Bruno Mars couldn’t decide which song to perform for the Feb. 12 Grammy Awards tribute to Prince.

Bruno Mars performs in a tribute to Prince during the 59th Annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Feb. 12.
(ROBERT GAUTHIER/LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS)

“He agonized over this for two weeks,” Grammy Awards executive producer Ken Ehrlich told the Star Tribune.

“‘When Doves Cry,’ ‘1999,’ ‘I Would Die 4 U,’ ‘Kiss’ – I said some of those songs shouldn’t be done by anyone but Prince,” Ehrlich continued.

Mars settled on “Let’s Go Crazy” from Prince’s breakthrough movie “Purple Rain.”

But the tribute wasn’t limited to Mars going crazy with his band; it started with the Time, the hit-making Minneapolis band Prince put together around singer Morris Day in 1981, doing an abbreviated medley of two of their hits from “Purple Rain.”

‘Ripped it up’
Grammys host James Corden set the table by asking the audience to imagine a purple sky over First Avenue, the Minneapolis club where the movie’s musical scenes were shot. The Time whipped through “Jungle Love” and “The Bird” with Grammy-goers dancing the same steps Day was doing onstage.

Then Prince’s voice was heard talking the intro to “Let’s Go Crazy” while his symbol flashed on the screen. Mars, resplendent in a purple sequined jacket and ruffled shirt, commanded the stage on vocals and guitar.

“Bruno ripped it up,” Day said backstage afterward. “I don’t think there’s another artist who could pull it off as perfectly with us.”

Estate issues
There was no question that the Grammys were going to honor Prince.  There were months of planning, complicated by the uncertainty of Prince’s estate and just how to salute Prince on music’s biggest night.

After Prince died on April 21, Recording Academy president and CEO Neil Portnow began plotting.

He considered a full-on all-star TV special, like the ones the Grammys have been taping a day or two after the awards the last few years honoring Stevie Wonder, the Beatles and Frank Sinatra.

Portnow soon realized that Prince’s affairs were not in order and dealing with his estate would not be easy. So he refocused his sights on a tribute segment on the Grammy Awards. In December, he consulted with producer Jimmy Jam, a longtime member of the Grammys TV committee and an ex-Prince associate.

“I gave Neil a broad stroke answer and said I think it needs to include people who were associated with Prince. Whether it was the Revolution, New Power Generation or whoever,” Jam, a keyboardist in the original Time, told the Star Tribune before the Grammys.

Request for Time
Mars told Jam that he would not do it without the original members of the Time, who last worked together in 2011 and performed on the Grammys in 2009 with Rihanna. So the producer put Mars on the phone with Day for a “mutual admiration talk.”

At Mars’ suggestion, a concept was hatched for a vibe recreating the early 1980s, when the Time opened for Prince in concert. The Time would play, then Mars would do his 2015 hit “Uptown Funk,” which evokes a Time groove, and finally some other stars would sing Prince material with him and the Time.

But plans for the Grammy show are fluid, and the Prince tribute was trimmed to a 3-minute Time medley followed by a few minutes of Mars with his band.

The Star Tribune is based in Minneapolis.

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