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June 24, 2021

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Prince and his breathtaking run at the Rio Las Vegas


John Shearer / Invision / AP

In this Feb. 8, 2015, photo, Prince presents the award for album of the year at the 57th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.

Updated Thursday, April 21, 2016 | 2:20 p.m.

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Prince headlines at the Rio in Las Vegas in 2006.

Click to enlarge photo

Prince headlines at the Rio in Las Vegas in 2006.

Click to enlarge photo

Prince headlines at the Rio in Las Vegas in 2006.

The night Prince opened as a Las Vegas headliner was actually the morning, past midnight in a retrofitted showroom at the Rio. It was dubbed Club 3121 for this series of shows, which began in November 2006 and ended the following April.

The schedule was loose, the shows rowdy and freewheeling. What Prince produced in that rounded room for less than 1,000 fans was mind blowing.

The superstar took the stage with no announcement and ripped into an unbroken, 2 1/2 hour jam. Segments of “Purple Rain” roared into a nondescript musical foray lasting several minutes, then landing at “When Doves Cry.” There were segments of “Cream” moving effortlessly toward “Black Sweat” and the cover of Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music.”

He ran the track encircling that theater-in-the-round, playing an orange Fender — at least on this night — as the spotlight struggled to keep up. He spoke to the audience sparingly, shouting, “We want to see you here every weekend.”

At one point, the star of the evening bravely waded into the standing crowd near the main stage, vanishing in a wave of revelers.

That show was finished before he was. Afterward, Prince took to the smaller nightspot next door, 3121 Jazz Cuisine. As folks left that second jam session, the sun was rising over the hotel. Everyone was exhausted, save Prince, who seemed as if he could play forever.

So once more, in this year of terrible news of the deaths of legendary artists, we are numb to know that Prince has died at age 57. Reports surfaced this morning that he was found at his Paisley Park home in Minnesota. No cause of death has been announced.

Prince’s hit-making heyday was the 1980s, as he dominated the charts with “Purple Rain,” the soundtrack to the film of the same name. Earlier, he’d broken through with “1999” and stormed through a remarkably artistically rewarding and prolific period where he also soared as a video star on MTV and earned an Academy Award for Best Original Score for “Purple Rain.”

He remained creatively profound throughout his career, beyond changing his name to that unpronounceable androgynous symbol, which he carried to Las Vegas as the brand of 3121 (which was the title of Prince’s 31st studio album, released the spring before he started his run in Las Vegas).

The Prince ride at the Rio was just those six months, weekends mostly, but he made an indelible impression. When it came time for our sister pub Las Vegas Weekly to take on the task of listing the Top 25 headliners, ever, in Las Vegas, Prince was on that list at No. 12. This is for all time; every star that ever fronted a headline residency in Las Vegas was in play for that list.

It can be argued, and will be here, that Prince was nothing short of the greatest artist of his generation. He was a fantastic dancer (copping freely the spins and splits of James Brown), vocalist and showman (Little Richard was an early and constant influence).

He was an expert songwriter who penned career-making hits for other artists (“U Got the Look” for Sheena Easton, “Manic Monday” for The Bangles, “Nothing Compares 2 U” for Sinead O’Connor and even “The Bird” for Morris Day and The Time were such instances).

Prince’s musicianship was unquestioned. His backing musicians were known to stop playing their own instruments during rehearsals when he cut loose on the guitar. Before a performance by the Prince lineup 3rdEyeGirl at the Joint in April 2013, his backing guitarist Donna Grantis rolled through all of Prince’s artistic attributes.

“He really has it all. He’s a phenomenal guitarist, bassist, drummer, singer, producer, bandleader, entertainer,” Grantis said. “Did I throw songwriter in there? Songwriter, too. Oh, wow, and a dancer. ... Even if he was just a guitarist, he’d be known as one of the greatest guitarists, ever.”

What remains is this long stretch of brilliance, all that great outpouring of art that covered 35 years. We have a Prince tribute at Westgate Las Vegas, “Purple Reign,” that is far more entertaining than skeptics might believe. For those who want to reminisce, start there.

As for the real man, we’ll always have that fleeting period of brilliance, at once weird and wonderful, when Prince ruled Las Vegas. It lasted not long enough, ending abruptly and before we were ready, same as the life of the artist himself.

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