Jason Tenner never set out to be Prince.
But when you see him on stage with his Purple Reign Prince tribute show at Desert Diamond Casino Saturday, decked out in purple with ruffles and a curly wig, you will understand that playing the role of Prince is in many ways his musical destiny.
“It’s bittersweet because I have my own music and I want to do my own album,” Tenner said from his home in Las Vegas, where he and his band perform four nights a week at the Sin City Theatre in Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino. “But I’m successful. I produce my own show here in Vegas, where tickets are $47.50 and $68.50. So things are good.”
Tenner took on the role as Prince almost by accident. The Indianapolis native, who was 11 when he started singing with the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, started his professional career with a rock band when he was fresh out of high school. The band landed in Vegas in 1991 and got a weekly opening gig at a club across from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. When the headlining band moved on, his band slipped into the top spot. The band changed its name and focus, covering disco and 1980s funk that included some of Prince’s biggest “Purple Rain” era hits.
“I was a classic rock guy. I listened to Zeppelin. And I was a Bob Marley fan. I wasn’t a huge Prince fan; it was a little before my time,” he said, declining to give his age except to say he was “really young in the ’80s.”
On Halloween a few years later, Tenner dressed up as Prince and his friends and everyone who saw him said he was a dead ringer.
He didn’t see it, but he knew he could imitate Prince’s voice; Tenner has a knack for impressions. So he started studying Prince’s music and videos, perfecting the vocal inflections — the way Prince’s voice goes to those really high reaches then drops really low from deep in his chest. In time, Tenner had Prince’s stage personality down.
In 2000, Tenner became a full-time Prince tribute artist. He landed gigs at venues on and off the Vegas strip; he’s been at Planet Hollywood since September, playing Thursdays through Sundays. In 2008 he was the first tribute act to perform on the “Late Show with David Letterman.”
Along the way, he met Prince under what he described as “kind of strange circumstances. I’m going to keep that under my hat,” he said of the private meeting.
“He’s an interesting guy. He’s everything that you think Prince would be,” Tenner said. “He’s eccentric. He’s a rock star and he wears it everywhere he is. He’s an interesting individual.”
Tenner said the trick to Prince is finding the balance of those eccentricities, from his soft speaking voice and sometimes feminine mannerisms to the quiet, introverted side.
At the core of the Purple Reign show, which features backup dancers and singers and a tribute to Prince protégé Morris Day and the Time, is the music.
The show will hit Prince’s highlights including hits from “Purple Rain,” “Sign ‘O’ the Times” and “1999.”
Some day Tenner hopes to release his own music, which many people may conclude sounds a lot like Prince’s.
“I’m so known for Prince now the comparisons are always made even though I don’t think my music sounds like Prince,” he said. “It’s rock, funky and neo-soul-type of music. But I don’t think I sound like Prince.”