When Prince tribute artist Jason Tenner first met The Purple One, the iconic performer’s physical appearance struck him the most.
“It was such a strange thing, to sit and see him face to face and to realize just how small in stature of a guy he was. Such a trip,” says Tenner, a funk-music artist who regularly portrays the late Grammy Award-winning musician, songwriter, guitarist, record producer, filmmaker, and overall virtuoso, in the tribute show “Purple Reign.”
The group, dancers and all, has been bringing Prince’s Minneapolis sound to the Las Vegas strip since 1997. Tenner says he and the band were deeply affected by Prince’s death in April 2016. But as they revamped their stage show in response, Purple Reign began to experience a resurgence as longtime fans mourned Prince’s loss.
“Purple Reign” will roll into the Capitol Center for the Arts at 7:30 p.m. Sunday in Concord, bringing with it some of that Minneapolis magic. Tenner spoke with NHWeekend about his encounters with Prince, how he first became a fan, and wearing those 3-inch heels on stage.
Do you have to listen to Prince to really get into the groove of being him?
I put on the makeup. I put on my hairpiece, put on the clothes, do a couple of stretches, put on the high heels and look in the mirror, and then all of a sudden I feel like Prince. It really is tied to the costumes. If I don’t have the Prince stuff on, I can’t even feel like the character.
It’s an acting job. When it comes off, it comes off. When it’s on, I feel like I am Prince.
And what does that feel like?
His musical and stage prowess was second to none, right? He was one heck of an entertainer, performer. I play everything — I play drums, I play bass, keys. Record all my own music too, play guitar, of course sing, dance.
So he did all that. I do all that as myself, but to step up there and do it with the high heels on, now it adds a different dimension. I feel like Prince because of the clothes.
How do you portray Prince’s music?
I have my own interpretation of what the songs mean. I sing the songs as if they were my songs. So I don’t know what Prince meant. But I know what it means to me to translate it. And it seems to work. People seem to think it’s either a reasonable facsimile or something, even though I’m 165 pounds and 5-foot-8 and muscular. (Prince stood 5 feet 2 inches). You can’t really tell that unless you see me with my shirt off, and I don’t take it off during the show.
When I have my heels on — they’re 3 inches tall — I’m 5-foot-11. I’m almost 6 feet tall. You can’t tell from the stage, cause I have tall dancers. When I do meet-and-greets in Vegas after (the show), people always say, “Man, I didn’t think you would be so big.” (I’m) not that little.
How did you train your voice to sound like Prince?
I would listen so closely to his voice, in a studio environment, so that I could hear and record myself and change the voice just so I could catch the correct inflections. I would videotape myself so much that my son at the time, (who) was like a year and a half, he started doing the choreography to “Darling Nikki.”
How did you meet Prince?
It was because of the show. This was (1998), a year after I’d started the show (in Las Vegas). Prince was in town. I went and saw him. I think it was Studio 54; he did an afterparty after one of his shows.
After our show that night, at 3 a.m., I get a call from the bouncer at my club. He’s like, “Hey, come down. Prince and those guys are waiting on you.” I’m like, “Whatever.” (He’s) like, “Seriously.” So I come down there, and yes, he was there.
Prince has always been kind of curious. As I sat and talked with him there, which was a trip, to be always on some very ethereal-type conversation … definitely not the type of conversation you have with complete strangers upon first meeting.
What did you think when you first met him?
He was a little guy. The very first time I met him, that was the first thing that came to mind is: “God, you are really a diminutive human being, you’re a tiny little man.” His legs were so small. They were like the size of my arm.
What about the others around Prince?
The other times I saw him, he kind of just poked at me and everything. I know (Minneapolis-based guitarist, drummer) Jelly Bean Johnson and all the guys from The Time; they come to the show when they’re here.
I know (Prince’s) first wife, Mayte (Garcia). I’ve spent a lot of time talking with her. So if he didn’t approve, I’d have been a non-existent thing. He could be standing right next to you in a room. It could be right next to him. And if he didn’t like you, or didn’t care for you … you just didn’t exist. I’m like, “Wow.”
What did Prince think of “Purple Reign?”
The first time we met, he didn’t mention (Purple Reign) at all, and I didn’t bring it up. I think they just … everyone knew. It was kind of a strange, strange conversation. I don’t want to talk about it on record, but he was definitely a different individual for sure.
It sounds like he must have approved of you and “Purple Reign” on some level.
I don’t know if he liked the show or not. I don’t know if he saw it. I think that he just appreciated the fact that we play 100 percent live. Maybe? I know the guys that come around from his band appreciate it.
How did Prince’s death affect you and the band?
We were just completely in shock. I thought he’d be like James Brown, up there still doing splits and still rippin’ up the stage. When I first started, I didn’t know anything about Prince. I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, Metallica. That’s how I learned how to play guitar. Prince was like a non-thing in my universe.
I got to really learn and know (Prince). He was really raw and really open. I don’t think he put a filter on what he expressed from himself. (I) was like, “Wow, man,” this dude’s deep and wide and far and gone. His brain, his mentality, it just stretched out musically and, oh, my God, I became such a big fan. When he died … it really hurt me and my heart as if it was someone that I knew and that I was close to after 20-some years (was gone).
How did the show change?
We went back to the drawing board. We dug up all the old videos, records. We revamped all the sounds. We triggered all of our drums to have the LinnDrum sound, updated all the costumes. We knew that people were going to be even more scrutinizing than they had been.
How did people respond to the new show?
For about a year there, the demand for the show was through the roof. People really, really wanted to see what we were doing here. We cleaned up everything that we were doing choreography-wise — just wanted to make it the best presentation. For some people it takes them back. It’s a great part of their life. And for some people now it’s cathartic. It’s like a religious thing — the type of emotion that we saw after that.
What do you mean?
Some people were like, “Die. No one can ever do Prince or be Prince.” (But) I’m not trying to be Prince. This is a tribute show. This is what we do.
It’s a tribute to a great musician that started out as a Halloween costume and then eventually, for me at least, evolved into a really serious tribute, a real heartfelt thing. It’s like, “Hey, man, I want to make sure I do this the best.”
Is “impersonator” the correct term for what you do?
Tribute artist. This is a tribute show. We mock up and assimilate and assume the vibe and the energy of the Minneapolis sound of Prince. We were recently out on the road and someone said, “Hey, the guy has the ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ haircut and ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ clothes.” It’s not that for me.
My band is top-notch, and we destroy everything we see.