Fans all over the world are mourning the sudden death of Prince Rogers Nelson on April 21, 2016, the singular musical genius who masterfully blended rock, R&B, jazz, funk and pop. But did you know that Washington, D.C. played host to one of his most unique and inspiring performances? At the very pinnacle of his fame during the massively popular "Purple Rain" tour in 1984, Prince stopped to play a free concert for 1,900 students at Gallaudet University — the world-renowned school for the deaf — and 600 special needs students from D.C.-area schools.
By the time Prince's tour rolled into D.C. in November 1984, he had already scored two number 1 hits on the Billboard pop singles charts ("When Doves Cry" and "Let's Go Crazy"), and "Purple Rain" was also climbing the charts (landing eventually at #2). The album Purple Rain had also reached #1 and sold over 13 million copies by the end of the year. Prince (and The Revolution) were filling large arenas around the country, and he was scheduled to play an amazing seven consecutive sold out shows at the Capital Centre in Landover, MD. But before he left the Washington area, Prince had something very special in mind.
Working with legendary D.C.-area concert promoters Darryll Brooks and Carol Kirkendall, Prince arranged a surprise, free concert on the campus of Gallaudet University for November 29, 1984. According to the Washington Post, Prince requested to do the show for disabled students who would not otherwise be able to see or hear him perform. The performance was actually Prince's second charitable endeavor of the week — he also made a guest appearance at a fundraising event for Big Brothers of America.
In a post on the Facebook page of the Gallaudet Library, the University claimed that the performance was kept secret until the last minute to avoid gatecrashers — so many of the students had no idea until earlier that day that they would witness one of the most historic shows in Prince's storied career.
Although, according to the Washington Post, some of Prince's more risqué lyrics were "toned down" for this unique audience, Prince put on a full-length show including hits like "1999," "Little Red Corvette," and "When Doves Cry" in the tiny Gallaudet Field House. American Sign Language interpreters were on hand to help the deaf crowd get into the music, but the loud pounding vibrations provided their own universal language. As one of the Gallaudet students told The Post through an interpreter: "I had a lot of fun. I felt his music," said Angela Maxey, 18. "I couldn’t hear the words, but I could feel the vibrations. Deaf people really appreciate and love loud music."
Towards the end of the show Joan Lee, the wife of the president of Gallaudet College, and several students presented gifts to the 26-year-old performer. Then Prince returned to the stage for a rousing encore of the anthemic "Purple Rain." Speaking to the Washington Post concert promoter Darryll Brooks later recalled of the show: "I never seen so many hardcore road [crew] guys start crying ... I think even Prince broke a tear. It was one of those moments that those kids would never forget. And Prince wrote the check for the whole thing."