Nobody remembers the game. They remember the rain—the Purple Rain.
It was 2007 and, as Head of Programming for the NFL, I was in my third year of overseeing the highly visible Super Bowl halftime show. This meant that it was my responsibility to select, negotiate, and execute a show that was watched on television by over 150 million people worldwide and by 70,000 inside a stadium, many of whom were part of the 1 percent. The prior two years we’d gone with British icons Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones. In 2007, Prince was an obvious choice.
On the world’s biggest stage in front of an increasingly social media-obsessed populace, it was hard to find fault with this selection even among the polarized twitterverse. Prince appealed to both black and white. The players respected him, women loved him, and he could bring it. He was James Brown fused with Jimi Hendrix, with the hits to get everyone on their feet singing and dancing.
The first step was to get him to agree.
The year before, the Stones had been promoting a new album. With the slow decline of FM radio and new technology creating ever-increasing niche distribution channels, the Super Bowl gave a performer with an album to promote unprecedented reach. As far as we knew, Prince had nothing new to promote. What was in it for him?
There was also the question of what he would perform. The 12-minute-long set list is up to the artist but the NFL likes to opine. We wanted hits. Prince had a reputation as difficult and somewhat reclusive. Would he acquiesce or would he be difficult about this and everything else? We were still recovering from working with the Stones, who had proven a challenge to collaborate with. The set list kept changing and we didn’t learn of it until the week of the show. It had been an uninspiring choice (a new single, the oft-played “Start Me Up” and an extended “Satisfaction”).
We were thrilled when Prince agreed. That November, two months before the show, we got a call that the artist wanted to meet in Los Angeles. He wished to play a recording he had put together specifically for the event. Joining myself would be Paul Gongaware, who was Prince’s representative, director Don Mischer, and one of my colleagues. As we gathered in the lobby of the plush Beverly Wilshire waiting to be called upstairs, I recalled flying to London in 2003 to meet with Paul McCartney and sitting in his waiting room on a cold December day trying to keep it together and not act like the obsessed fan that I was. On that day he sang “Hey Jude” to us and it was all I could do to sit there and stop myself from singing along, telling him how much he meant to my life, or breaking out my camera.
There he was… Prince! Petite and adorned in a canary-colored suit and full makeup. When he opened the hotel room door, it was as if he was backlit—he was luminous, phosphorescent, literally glowing. He opened the door and greeted us with a warm smile. As he led us into his suite you couldn’t help notice he was wearing wheelie sneakers with blinking lights on the back, in vogue for kids at the time. He asked us to sit down and began to explain his thought process behind what we were about to hear.
“I’ve watched prior shows and I realize we have to create a global, spiritual moment,” he said. We sat there politely listening. Again I had to ignore the voices in my head. The fan who wanted a photo and the executive who had my choices from his vast repertoire: “Kiss,” “1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” “When Doves Cry,” and “Raspberry Beret.” He spoke in that mischievous yet sincere voice that was so familiar from watching Purple Rain so many times. After a few sentences he broke off his thought and said, “Rather than me continuing to talk why don’t we experience what I am referring to in the fifth dimension.” When we noticed a mixing board and concert-sized speakers at one end of the room we knew the fifth dimension was going to be loud.
We were not wrong. He pressed a button and off we went. There were two cracks of thunder followed by clapping and girls’ voices singing, “We will rock you.” We sat there for the next eleven minutes and fifty seconds taking it all in. Audio only. While we were listening, he wheeled around the suite doing this or that. Towards the end—when “Purple Rain” was playing—he wheeled back in carrying a box of tissues and, without a word or explanation, gave each of us one from the box. Taking our cues from him we all held our tissues aloft in our hands wondering what exactly was coming next.
The music ended and there was an awkward silence as no one was sure what to say. We looked at him and he stared back at us holding his own tissue, with a penetrating expression on his face. He placed the tissue up to his eye and it appeared he was starting to cry. Just as things couldn’t get more uncomfortable, he broke out in a very big smile and started to laugh. “It brings a tear to your eye,” he said.
Relieved, we thanked him, shook his hand, and told him we would see him several months later in Miami.
Unlike other artists who played the Super Bowl, Prince had devised an original soundtrack for one specific show with a complete understanding of what the moment called for. He created a piece that, if executed properly, would leverage his many talents and meld genres and beats laid out in a musical arc that would overwhelm fans both in the stadium and at home. How he came up with the covers of Credence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix, and the Foo Fighters to this day is still a mystery.
The Super Bowl halftime is not only a show of sound but also of spectacle. Like the music, there would be a stage that was constructed for one night only. The stage was designed to incorporate his iconic glyph logo. He approved a suggestion to have college marching bands wearing neon glow strips on their uniforms to fill the gaps on the field—giving the show greater illumination and scale, and calling back the original roots of the halftime shows from the first few Super Bowls.
For two days he rehearsed non-stop in a tent outside the stadium, running the choreography with the dancers he referred to as “the twins” over and over again. He worked with the producers on every detail, set change, and movement. He was about the work. We felt great and everything was ready.
But no one was prepared for the rain.
As of Saturday night, everyone became a meteorologist. We all had experience with rain: we had done a show in Gillette Stadium to celebrate the New England Patriots in 2004 where, by the time Lenny Kravitz took the field, it was pouring—but this was different. There are roughly six minutes to get the stage on and off and in no way can the field be damaged or the game delayed by the performance. This was South Florida in February so it was unlikely the game would be marred by weather.
But this was not the case. When the game started we were concerned that because it kept on raining, he might decline to go on. We had no plan B. The weather was unprecedented. By halftime it was a torrential downpour.
To do my job I always felt I should sit in the back row of the production truck during the actual show so I could see what it was like for the people watching at home. Never before had I had any emotional reaction in those moments—instead watching from a more clinical perspective—but when Prince broke into the guitar solo for “Purple Rain” with the monitors bathed in purple light refracting off a rain-soaked sheet, it took my breath away.
Many acts have played on the world’s biggest stage since 2007 and most of those shows have been spectacular, but it has been argued that on that particular night, Prince and the elements created the template. This was his genius.
Oh, and by the way: the Colts beat the Bears.