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Prince’s genius was underrated, yet he still stood out among giants

Jenee Osterheldt on Prince: 'The ability to be black and free and unapologetically yourself died today'

Kansas City Star columnist Jenee Osterheldt remembers musician Prince on his death today at age 57.
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Kansas City Star columnist Jenee Osterheldt remembers musician Prince on his death today at age 57.

Prince was the greatest pop musician of the past 30-plus years and always the most gifted guy in the room.

His unexpected death Thursday morning at his home in Chanhassen, Minn., less than two months before his 58th birthday, has clobbered a music world already reeling from the deaths of several music legends in the past four months, including Lemmy, David Bowie and Merle Haggard.

Even among that esteemed crowd, Prince was eminent. He was boundlessly talented and relentlessly creative, and he lived up to the uncompromisingly high standards he set for himself and those around him.

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I first saw him live at Kemper Arena in 1998. I was in the first 10 rows, center stage, close enough to see his facial expressions and watch him direct his impressive band. More than once he appeared to fire a stink eye at someone for something he wasn’t pleased about.

I was also close enough to get a real idea of how small he was, even in heels, which only made his extravagant persona and his grandiose talents seem larger than life.

Prince’s live shows were exercises in professionalism and polish, an exciting mix of precision and spontaneity and expressions of his keen candor, humility and wit. And they were always big-tent affairs, where races mixed and celebrated his music.

He was a one-man orchestra, a master of many instruments, especially the guitar, for which his virtuosity was vastly underappreciated (he rarely made the upper end of “greatest guitar player” lists). He was a skilled, prolific songwriter fluent in several genres: pop, funk, R&B, rock. Lyrically, he was as sexual and seductive as he was spiritual and socially conscious.

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And, for the way he fought the music industry, even to the detriment of his own career, Prince was heroic. He probably could have made a lucrative career regurgitating weaker and uninspired variations of “Purple Rain”; instead, he chose to explore other avenues and terrains and to do so — or not do it — exclusively under his own terms. “’Cause in this life / Things are much harder than in the after world,” he sings in “Let’s Go Crazy.” “In this life / You are on your own.”

On Thursday, the local sheriff said deputies found Prince unresponsive in an elevator after being summoned to his home, but first-responders couldn’t revive him.

No details about what may have caused his death have been released. Prince postponed a concert in Atlanta on April 7 after falling ill with the flu, and he apologized during a makeup concert last week. An autopsy is scheduled for Friday.

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Last summer, Prince withdrew his music from the Web. Some songs are available on Tidal, but there’s nothing on Spotify or Apple Music, and only a smattering of performances on YouTube. The action was perhaps an extension of a view he expressed to the U.K.’s The Guardian in 2011: “Nobody’s making money (on music) now except phone companies, Apple and Google. It’s like the gold rush out there. Or a carjacking.”

A few videos still can be found, including his 2007 performance of “Purple Rain,” in a torrential rain, during the greatest Super Bowl halftime show ever.

There’s also the video from the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions. Prince is again on stage with a horde of stars — including Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Steve Winwood — playing the George Harrison song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” About midway through, Prince takes over on electric guitar and unleashes a memorable solo that totally eclipses everything and everyone onstage.

If you search YouTube for “James Brown, Michael Jackson, Prince,” you’ll find a five-minute snippet from 1983.

It was the year after the release of “Thriller,” Jackson’s biggest album, and the year before “Purple Rain,” the album that made Prince a superstar. Brown summons Jackson from the crowd first and, after some dazzling dance moves, Jackson whispers something to Brown, who then summons Prince.

He arrives on the shoulders of a guy who looks like Santa in a tank top, then shows off some guitar licks and dance moves and skills with the microphone stand, bedazzling the room and owning the moment. Even on a star-studded stage loaded with music giants, Prince stood out.

In a 1997 interview with Chris Rock, in which the two address a fabricated rivalry with Jackson, Prince dismisses celebrity media and lays out what is most important to him.

“I’m a musician,” he said. “I live for that. I live for playing and creating songs.”

And he did it like no other, on his own, like his life depended on it.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

‘Purple Rain’ screening

7 and 9:55 p.m. Monday. $10. Alamo Drafthouse, 1400 Main St. All ticket proceeds benefit the Midwest Music Foundation, which offers health programs and resources to area musicians through outreach, support, education and health care opportunities in Kansas City; www.drafthouse.com.

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