When Minneapolis singer and multi-instrumentalist Marshall Charloff first met Prince in 1985, he was shocked to discover that one of the biggest pop stars on the planet was, at just 5 foot 3 inches, smaller than him.
“I’m a short, skinny guy,” says Charloff, who, at the time, was an 18-year-old budding guitar player. “To be so confident in everything he did, that resonated with me, and I started carrying myself differently—taller, if you will, just because I was cool with who I was.” Charloff also discovered Prince had played nearly every instrument on his recordings and promptly stepped up his own game to master keyboards, bass and drums, as well as the intricacies of album recording and production.
That self-confidence will be on full display when Charloff joins the Houston Symphony Saturday night to sing The Music of Prince. Composer and guest conductor Brent Havens, who arranged all of the music on the program for full orchestra, invited Charloff to take on the role after seeing his popular tribute band, The Purple Xperience.
Saturday’s symphonic tribute will of course be heavy on the hits, but it will also include two ballads sure to satisfy the most rabid Prince fans in attendance: "Diamonds and Pearls" and ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," the latter providing the men in the audience the chance to get in touch with their inner falsetto. “Even Prince rarely performed those songs live,” says Charloff. “I was delighted to learn Brent had written scores for two songs which I adore.”
In performance, Charloff’s voice is startlingly similar to that of Prince, to the point where if you shut your eyes, you might be forgiven for thinking his purple highness has deigned to walk the Earth again. (Sadly, Prince died in April 2016 after an accidental overdose of painkillers.)
“I’m still peeling back the layers to Prince’s music,” says Charloff, “and what I’ve discovered is you just can’t put him in a box. There’s a deep jazz influence, which is what I’m drawn to, but you also hear the influence of classical music, which is why his songs adapt so well to the symphony.” Charloff also cites the orchestrations by jazz arranger Clare Fischer on the 1986 album Parade as further evidence of Prince’s expansive musical vision; when Miles Davis compared Prince favorably to James Brown, Little Richard and Duke Ellington, he wasn’t just blowing smoke.
“And what a beautiful, interesting-looking person!” says Charloff, who, it must be said, is a pretty good-looking dude himself. Onstage with The Purple Xperience, Charloff is wont to wear purple jackets and ruffled tops open at the chest like it was 1999. For the concert hall, he tones down the wardrobe (a little) but not the music.
So how does this all go down with audiences perhaps more used to a Beethoven symphony than “Let’s Go Crazy”? Charloff says by the end of the show usually reserved audiences are standing up and dancing in the aisles. In that way, the tribute provides longtime Prince fans a way to grieve. “There is a definite sense of community,” says Charloff, “because we’re bonding over the power of this music and this artist. There’s a healing element to the show I can’t even explain.”
“When you think about the lyrics of the songs,” he continues, “the message is we are here to live. Not tomorrow, but today, because tomorrow is not promised to us. So while we’re here, let’s party.”