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A guide to Prince's musical inspiration

Black and white photograph of Prince taken by Robert Whitman near the "Music Wall" mural on the side of the Schmitt Music building in downtown Minneapolis, late '70s.
Black and white photograph of Prince taken by Robert Whitman near the "Music Wall" mural on the side of the Schmitt Music building in downtown Minneapolis, late '70s.Robert Whitman

by Andrea Swensson and Lou Papineau

April 21, 2017

At Prince's Paisley Park, there's a six-foot-mural — known as the Influence Wall — outside of Studio A. It was made by creative designer Sam Jennings in 2007; he wrote a piece about the painting for Medium: "[Prince] gave me a specific list of names he wanted to use and I went about searching for images that would work. We weren't too concerned about making everything really obvious. We wanted more of a feeling in the mural than a dry document listing names. The bright colors and explosive visuals created a vibrant backdrop to put the artist images on top in high-contrast black. We worked together on moving images around, adding and dropping people to make it flow, and we were happy with the result."

As part of our celebration of Prince's life and legacy, we've assembled an annotated playlist featuring the musical heroes depicted on the Influence Wall. It's important to note, however, that the mural also includes musicians that he influenced and inspired, like Sheila E., the Revolution and more. This playlist focuses on his inspirations.

Jimi Hendrix, "Purple Haze"

In 1985, Rolling Stone asked Prince: "What do you think about the comparisons between you and Jimi Hendrix?" His reply: "It's only because he's black. That's really the only thing we have in common. He plays different guitar than I do. If they really listened to my stuff, they'd hear more of a Santana influence than Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix played more blues; Santana played prettier. You can't compare people, you really can't, unless someone is blatantly trying to rip somebody off. And you can't really tell that unless you play the songs." Later that year, he told MTV, "Hendrix is very good. Fact. There will never be another one like him, and it would be a pity to try. I strive for originality in my work, and hopefully, it'll be perceived that way."

Miles Davis, "Black Satin"

Alan Leeds, who was Prince's tour manager for 10 years and head of Paisley Park Records, told, "[Saxophonist] Eric [Leeds, Alan's brother] joined the band in the middle of the Purple Rain tour and quickly became friends with [guitarist] Wendy Melvoin and [keyboardist] Lisa Coleman, who were familiar with jazz. Gradually they began turning Prince into this kind of music — he had little firsthand knowledge of jazz. This was during 1984/85. They made it their own project of turning Prince onto different kinds of music. Eric would give him jazz records and turned Prince on to [Miles Davis'] Sketches of Spain and Kind of Blue and other stuff. Gradually the three of them had an impact on Prince and he felt that he needed to know this music and figure out what he liked and didn't like. He had a very genuine interest in expanding his musical curiosity. Young black guys were attracted to Miles because of his politics — he was an icon. I think as Prince learnt more about Miles, he started to see some of himself in Miles. He was fascinated with Miles and used to ask Eric about stories about Miles and he'd share recordings with him. He'd show him video recordings and Prince would be fascinated and say, 'Look at the way Miles is standing' — he was just studying his moves or his posture. There was a real fascination with the iconic aspect of Miles."

In his 1989 book, Miles: The Autobiography, Davis cited 1999 as "the most exciting music I was hearing in 1982" and praised Prince as "someone who was doing something different" and worth "keep[ing] and eye on."n "[He can be] the new Duke Ellington of our time if he just keeps at it. I learn things from Prince. [His] music is pointing toward the future." The pair had a few failed attempts at a collaboration in the mid-'80s; Davis performed Madhouse's "Six" at a show at Paisley Park on December 31, 1987.

Stevie Wonder, "Higher Ground"

In a 2004 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Prince said of Wonder, "His insight is priceless." EW noted, "It's easy to see why he would connect with Wonder. Both are undisputed musical geniuses who fought for — and got — total creative control over their music. Prince Rogers Nelson was just 19 when he signed a multimillion-dollar, three-album deal with Warner Bros. in 1977." In A Thief In the Temple, author Brian Morton cites "Prince's attempts to clear his head of other sounds" during the recording of his debut LP, For You, "even allegedly banning Stevie Wonder records from the studio speakers during breaks."

Carlos Santana, "Oye Como Va"

In 1997, Prince waxed to Minnesota Monthly about listening to KQRS in the early '70s: "The old KQ after midnight, that was the bomb station. I'd stay up all night listening to it. That's where I discovered Carlos Santana, Maria Muldaur, and Joni Mitchell. Was I influenced by that? Sure I was. Back then I always tried to play like Carlos, or Boz Scaggs." In 1999, Prince told Larry King, "I grew up with Santana and Larry Graham and Fleetwood Mac, all kinds of different things."

Prince's first manager, Owen Husney, shared an anecdote with the Minneapolis Star Tribune: "Prince and Andre were jamming at a music store in San Francisco, and members of Santana's band invited them to meet Carlos. We open the door: It's an all-white house with all-white carpeting. Carlos says, 'Come in, please. Please take off your shoes.' I said, 'Prince, you gotta remove your boots.' He said, 'I don't remove my boots for anyone.' He walks across the carpeting and I see this trail of mud, and I'm cleaning up the mud while they're in there talking. "

George Clinton, "We Can Funk"

Clinton's funky explorations influenced Prince's grooves and the lineups of his post-Revolution touring bands. In ann interview with Rolling Stone in 1985, Prince said, "George [Clinton] told me how much he liked Around the World In a Day. You know how much his words meant than those from some mamma-jamma wearing glasses and an alligator shirt behind a typewriter?" Clinton's The Cinderella Theory was released on Paisley Park Records in 1989.

Grand Funk Railroad, "Some Kind of Wonderful"

In Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks, Roninn Ro says that "Initially, [Prince's first] band was named Phoenix...after Grand Funk Railroad's 1972 album Phoenix"; in Prince: Purple Reign, Mick Wall notes that "Rock & Roll Soul," the single from Phoenix, "was a big favorite of Prince's."

Earth, Wind & Fire, "Let's Groove"

EWF was one of the bands that was covered by Prince's first band, Grand Central (aka Phoenix and Soul Explosion), alongside songs by War, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, the Four Tops, Chicago, and Steely Dan. And Prince namechecks EWF in the second verse of the title cut from his 2004 release, Musicology: "Wish eye had a dollar / For every time you say / Don't you miss the feeling / Music gave you / Back in the day? / 'Let's Groove' / 'September' / Earth Wind and Fire."

Larry Graham, "Movin'"

From an early age Prince knew of the work of Larry Graham, who was a founding member of Sly and the Family Stone. The origin of the name of Prince's first band, Grand Central, is often credited as a nod to Grand Funk Railroad, but it's also mentioned as a tribute to the bassist's post-Sly band, Graham Central Station. Larry toured with Prince from 1997-2000 and is widely credited with introducing Prince to the Jehovah's Witness faith. "A lot of people will remember Prince for his music," Graham said. "But he'd also want people to know what he learned from the Bible. We lost a really good friend and a spiritual brother."

James Brown, "Say it Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)"

Quoth Questlove: "Think about James Brown. Prince certainly did, as did every funk and soul artist of his generation. But Prince was brilliantly perverse in the way he absorbed him. If Brown was about a tight crack snare and percussive horns as an extended rhythmic arm, Prince went in the opposite direction — he made undeniable funk from a dud of a dead snare sound and the artificial horns of the Oberheim synthesizer....[Prince] was perhaps Brown's truest heir."

In a 1985 interview with MTV, Prince said, "James Brown played a big influence in my style. When I was about 10 years old, my stepdad put me on stage with him, and I danced a little bit until the bodyguard took me off. The reason I liked James Brown so much is that, on my way out, I saw some of the finest dancing girls I ever seen in my life. And I think, in that respect, he influenced me by his control over his group." (In 1983, Prince and Michael Jackson performed with Brown at a concert in Los Angeles.) Brown's saxophonist, Maceo Parker, toured and recorded with Prince from 2002-'09.

Tower of Power, "What Is Hip?"

Chuck Zwicky, who was an engineer at Paisley Park from 1987-'89, cited many of Prince's musical inspirations in an interview in Toure's I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon — including Tower of Power, the horn-driven R&B band which formed in Oakland, CA in 1968: "When he sits down at the drums, he hears Dave Garibaldi (Tower of Power). When he plays his guitar parts, he's thinking about James Brown's guitarists (Jimmy Nolen and Catfish Collins); those guys had the definitive funk chord approach to the guitar. When he plays the bass, he's thinking like Larry Graham (Sly and the Family Stone). When he's at the keyboards, he's either thinking like a horn section or like Gary Numan...So, like, he's got this band in his head of all these unique individual musicians. But the sum of it is Prince music. It doesn't sound like obviously influenced."

Sly & The Family Stone, "Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again)"

Alan Leeds, Prince's former tour manager and president of Paisley Park Records, said, "[Prince] understood the segregation of the industry. He said, 'I have to have white people in the band and girls in the band. Sly had the right idea. I'm gonna do what Sly did and they're gonna cross me over, otherwise I'll forever be the Black artist.' "

Chaka Khan & Rufus, "Tell Me Something Good" reports that Prince fell hard for Rufus and their lead vocalist, Chaka Khan: "Prince and Chaka go way back. In his teen years, he'd been 'a fan and a fanatic, too, because I used to run home and see everything she was on,' he told the Philadelphia Daily News. According to biographer Jon Bream, the apartment where Prince lived around the time of his signing to Warner Bros. had '45 rpm records nailed to the wall next to a poster of Chaka Khan.' During the recording of his 1978 debut album For You, he would listen to records by Chaka and Rufus to get in the right mood for his vocal sessions. 'He absolutely loved that girl,' assistant engineer Steve Fontano recalled to biographer Per Nilsen."

Prince did a home recording of Rufus' "Sweet Thing" in 1976; Khan's cover of Prince's "I Feel For You" hit No. 3 in 1979, and her 1998 disc, Come 2 My House, was released on NPG Records. In an interview with Guitar World in 1998, Prince enthused about collaborating with Khan: "One of the pleasures of my life is being able to work some of my musical heroes, and in doing so pay back some dues and have a great time."

Joni Mitchell, "A Case of You"

"She taught me a lot about color and sound, and to her, I'm very grateful," Prince said in a 1985 sitdown with MTV, in reference to his vocal and instrumental approach. In 2015 he told Entertainment Weekly, "She's genius, the way she tells a story, paints a picture with just a few chords — she puts so much in there."

Mitchell noted that "Prince has assimilated some of my harmonies, which because they come out of my guitar tunings, is unusual. A lot of the time by chords depict complex emotions." And in a 2005 interview in New York magazine, Mitchell was asked, "Of all the musicians and rappers who have cited you as an influence, whose work do you appreciate most?" Her response: "Prince. Prince attended one of my concerts in Minnesota. I remember seeing him sitting in the front row when he was very young. He must have been about 15. He was in an aisle seat and he had unusually big eyes. He watched the whole show with his collar up, looking side to side. You couldn't miss him — he was a little Prince-ling. [Laughs.] Prince used to write me fan mail with all of the U's and hearts that way that he writes. And the office took it as mail from the lunatic fringe and just tossed it! [Laughs.]"

One of the newspaper headlines on the back cover of Controversy has one word — "Joni," a sign of Prince's admiration of Mitchell. Prince covered "A Case of You" throughout his career: it was part of the set that was recorded in 1983 at First Avenue for Purple Rain; he did a studio take on the 2007 Tribute to Joni Mitchell; and performed it at his the first show of his final concerts in Atlanta on April 14, 2016.

Tune in on Friday, April 21 at 6 a.m. for an hour of Prince's musical inspirations, hosted by Andrea Swensson. The program will repeat Saturday morning, April 22 at midnight.