Adam Levine Pays Homage to Bill Withers and Reveals How Prince Reacted to His Now-Iconic ‘Purple Rain’ Cover

Singer, songwriter, and Maroon 5 frontman also opens up about his musical influences and recalls running into James Brown at the drive thru

September 15, 2020

Adam Levine led Howard and his listeners on a journey through his musical influences on Tuesday, opening up during his Stern Show return about how artists ranging from Marvin Gaye and Bob Dylan to Pearl Jam and Metallica helped mold him into the singer, songwriter, and Maroon 5 frontman the world has come to know. He also put on quite the show from home, shredding Led Zeppelin riffs on his Jimmy Page Les Paul Gibson guitar and paying homage to the late Bill Withers with a soulful cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

“I cried when he passed. I had this incredible connection with him,” Adam said of Withers, who died earlier this year at the age of 81.

Adam told Howard he became obsessed with Withers’ music in his late teens and was delighted in 2006 when Maroon 5 collaborated with him on a revamped version of his classic ‘70s tune “Lovely Day.”

“I sat in the studio for just hours and hours and hours and talked [with him] … We just talked forever and he gave me great advice at a time when I felt like I really needed it,” Adam recounted. “He was just a special person. He really just got to me. He was such a wonderful guy—just a salt of the Earth human being.”

“This dude was so grounded and I was not, at the time,” he added.

Adam then dusted off his guitar and performed his take on “Ain’t No Sunshine,” blowing Howard and co-host Robin Quivers away. “The reason why I love Bill Withers is because every single thing he did is honest and pure. Music doesn’t get more pure than a Bill Withers song,” he said after finishing the song.

As Stern Show fans will recall, Adam has a rich history of delivering great covers for Howard and listeners. In March, he nailed a quarantine version of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” A few years earlier, he and Train’s Pat Monahan wowed everyone at Howard’s 2014 Birthday Bash with a riveting performance of Prince’s “Purple Rain.”

Over 63 million viewers have enjoyed their “Purple Rain” cover since it hit YouTube. On Tuesday, Adam told Howard he was extremely nervous before performing but realized he’d won the crowd over soon after taking the stage. “Of my professional career, I think it was probably the closest thing I’ve ever had to that out-of-body [experience]. Like, I knew I had the room and I knew I was winning the moment,” he said.

“It was like you possessed the room,” Howard agreed.

“It was a combination of so many things. It was wanting to impress and put on a show for you … and then it was also not wanting to let Prince down because people just don’t cover ‘Purple Rain.’” Adam explained. “You don’t just go out there and sing and play like that. You don’t. You don’t do it. It’s kind of against the law.”

His Royal Badness was famously critical of attempts to cover his songs and, sure enough, the Maroon 5 frontman received some less-than-ideal “Purple Rain” feedback through a mutual friend. “I was like, ‘What did he say?’” Adam recalled. “She was like, ‘He took a long pause and then he said, “He’s learning.’”

Adam didn’t debut any new Prince covers on Tuesday, but he did put on quite the guitar clinic. He credited his guitar teacher with helping him to fall in love with the instrument at a young age by teaching him to play his favorite rock songs, like Led Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away,” which Adam demonstrated for Howard. “That’s not that easy to do, but it makes playing guitar easier when you do what you love and you play it over and over again,” he said. “If you learn what you love you’ll get good at it because you’ll do it all the time.”

Adam also worked his way through the intro to Guns N’ Roses “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” a guitar part which he said stills gives him fits, and sang high praises of the band’s iconic guitarist, Slash. “He’s my favorite ever to play. He was one of the best writers ever on guitar,” he said. “The way that he would play you can’t just mimic—you’d sound like a dick—because he has so much feel.”

“He was virtuosic in a lot of ways, but he’s also really soulful and really good,” Adam continued. “He had everything going for him.”

“Not many guys can pull off a top hat and not be a douche,” Howard agreed.

Adam laughed. “He could wear a top hat over to my house, with no shirt, and I’d be like totally okay with it,” he said. “It wouldn’t bother me.”

The two spoke at length about a litany of his other musical influences. At one point, while listening to a clip from James Brown’s “Payback,” Adam got so into the music he forced Howard to start the track over again. “It makes you want to smile and laugh and come all at the same time,” he joked.

Levine also shared a story about encountering the Godfather of Soul when he was about 5 years old in the most improbable of places: the McDonald’s drive thru. He and his mom were stuck behind a stretch limo for quite some time before a man got out of the limo and apologized to her for the hold up. “He’s like, ‘I’m sorry, little lady. It’s just going to be another minute. We’ve got a lot of people to feed in here,’” Adam recalled. “It’s James Brown, ordering a bunch of Big Macs for his boys in the limo. He must’ve ordered a hundred.”

Adam then raved about Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” and Howard wondered if the Maroon 5 frontman ever considered forming a heavy metal band.

“I could’ve been in another band and done it another way, but … what are you going to do, be Metallica? All these bands I idolized and worshipped, you couldn’t do better than they did,” he said.

“I don’t need to try to be like them. In fact, I really got off on the idea that I could try and be something like they couldn’t sound like,” he continued. “That excited me more.”

Another of Adam’s influences was Jamiroquai and their song “Virtual Insanity.” After playing a clip from the song, Howard noted the similarities between his guest and the band’s singer Jay Kay. “When I hear ‘Virtual Insanity,’ I hear you,” he said.

“Yeah, well, so does he. We fucking ripped him off,” Adam said. “I don’t even want to tell you how bad.”

He told Howard the Maroon 5’s song “Sunday Morning” borrowed quite a bit from “Virtual Insanity,” right down to the beat. “I put this song on [my list of influences] because I felt like it would be dishonest for me not to,” Adam said, adding, “That was me hearing a guy do Stevie Wonder … who wasn’t really allowed. He’s an oddball, Jay Kay. He’s cool, man. He stuck out to me because he’s kind of a rock ‘n’ roller that was doing something really different and I really was inspired by that.”

Adam felt bad about borrowing so heavily from “Virtual Insanity” but at the same time thought that’s just the nature of music. “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal,” he said.

Another artist Adam always admired is the one and only Stevie Wonder. At one point during the interview, he and Howard listened to a clip from “If It’s Magic,” a stripped-down ballad off Wonder’s celebrated album “Songs in the Key of Life.”

“I got to do this song for him in front of him for a benefit,” Adam said.

“Oh man, is that intimidating?” Howard wondered. “What is that like to sing a guy’s song for him?”

“That shit was crazy. I was a kid,” he responded. “That’s a quiet song … it was the scariest moment of my entire [life]. Scarier than ‘Purple Rain.’”

Adam still vividly recalled performing the Stevie Wonder song. “You could hear a pin drop. I’ll never forget that moment. Vivica A. Fox introduced me and it was quiet,” he said. “To break the silence as I start to sing, this woman just goes, ‘You go, boy!’”

Adam also shared stories from the sets of several of Maroon 5’s most enduring music videos, including last year’s rendition of “Girls Like You,” featuring fellow Stern Show veteran Cardi B.

“That video was one of the most rewarding but also like most difficult things to plan ever,” Adam said of shooting the cameo-filled clip.

“I will always be eternally thankful to Cardi B because she was pregnant and she flew in to do the video, which was a huge deal,” he continued. “She was so dedicated to it, and so into it, and honestly [her] verse was so out-of-control sick. We were blown away.”

It’s difficult for bands to shoot new music videos and tour in the age of coronavirus, but Adam assured Howard he and the rest of Maroon 5 are still writing and recording new music during quarantine despite being spread across the country.

“Everyone just gets the songs and puts what they need to put on them. It’s all kind of flowing now and we’re almost done with the [new] record,” he explained of the digitally distanced process. “It’s been nice. It’s pretty cool to be left alone with zero distractions … It’s all I think about right now.”

Adam Levine is teaming up with Ferrari to auction off a Ferrari Roma to benefit Save the Children. Get more information on the charitable collaboration here.

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