Curtis Mayfield founded his own Curtom Records in 1968. The Beatles founded Apple Records the same year, when Steve Jobs was just 13. Sly Stone started Stone Flower in 1970, etc., etc. So on April 22, 1985, when Prince and the Revolution’s Around the World in a Day ushered in the Warner Bros. Records-distributed vanity label Paisley Park Records, there was an air of inevitability about it. Consider too that albums by The Time, Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6 all came stamped as products of The Starr Company (the nonexistent enterprise of the nonexistent Jamie Starr, Prince’s early ’80s pseudonym) and the certainty of Prince’s own official imprint was written in the Starrs.
Roll call: The Family. Madhouse. Jill Jones. Sheila E. Good Question. The Three O’Clock. T.C. Ellis. Dale Bozzio. Eric Leeds. The Time. Ingrid Chavez. Carmen Elektra. Mavis Staples. George Clinton. Taja Sevelle. Mazarati. Tony LeMans. Japan even got two Kahoru Kohiruimaki albums (our loss). From 1985 to 1993, not one of these artists’ albums even went platinum. But unlike Michael Jackson’s MJJ Music label or even Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ Flyte Tyme Records, the Paisley Park stable was interesting.
The late Tony LeMans’ “Higher Than High,” Ingrid Chavez’s “Hippy Blood,” Taja Sevelle’s “Love Is Contagious,” George Clinton with Public Enemy on “Tweakin’”—there were many gems, even when things weren’t secretly produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince (the overwhelming majority of it wasn’t.) Excepting the founder’s own albums, the following is a top-five breakdown of the best long players of Paisley Park Records. Rhino Entertainment, are you listening?
Jill Jones – Jill Jones
Barring her teenage background singing for Teena Marie, the world’s first real taste of Jill Jones came courtesy of the music video for “1999.” Hugged up against keyboardist Lisa Coleman, she came off like a full-fledged member of the Revolution. Black sailor cap cocked ace-deuce atop platinum curls; ruby red lips; garter stockings and lingerie. Sans Prince, she was the sexiest thing about the clip, a new wave, sultry blonde bombshell. On 1999 the album, this 20-year-old Ohio native’s background vocals brightened “Automatic,” “Free,” “Lady Cab Driver” and the title track. But she’s most famously known as the jilted First Avenue waitress—named, of course, Jill—in the film Purple Rain. (“Wednesday,” her own solo turn in the film, was cut.)
The long-delayed debut LP Jill Jones finally dropped in 1987, with the Jean-Baptiste Mondino-directed “Mia Bocca” as the leadoff video. Jones’ dad was an Italian jazz drummer, hence the “my mouth” Italian title. Jones’s mom was African American, though the biracial wonderland of Paisley Park held no qualms if record buyers presumed she was all white. The dreamy multi-tracked vocal intro to “Violet Blue,” her bluesy pleading on “Baby, You’re a Trip” and the melancholy ballad “With You” (covered from Prince’s 1979 Prince) make the whole album worth a listen.
And even Prince protégés carried stellar original B-sides to their singles. Track down Jones’ “77 Bleeker Street” and “Baby Cries (Ay Yah)” (co-written by Angie Stone!) to up your Prince fanatic points. Then dig even deeper for the original Vanity 6 version of “G-Spot,” or the unreleased Prince versions of “All Day, All Night” and “For Love.”
The Family – The Family
“To this day, they’re the only band I’ve ever been afraid of,” Prince said to Rolling Stone in 1990—talking, of course, about The Time. That funk facet of his schizophrenic musical personality split in 1984. The replacement band he put together was as much an attempt to chase “some of that Duran Duran money” as it was to get revenge on deserters like Morris Day and Jesse Johnson. Cinematic strings from the late Clare Fischer, sax by Paisley Park newcomer Eric Leeds and blue-eyed soul courtesy of Paul Peterson formed the crucible of The Family. Their sole summertime 1985 album The Family is the transitional missing link between the psychedelic sounds of Around the World in a Day and the horn-infused funk of Parade.
Before Parade’s plaintive piano piece “Venus de Milo,” there were Family instrumentals like “Yes” and “Susannah’s Pajamas.” Drama-filled orchestral sweeps on tracks like “The Screams of Passion” and “River Run Dry” preceded the strings on Prince and the Revolution’s “I Wonder U” from that Under the Cherry Moon soundtrack. Fischer’s orchestration lent more to The Family feel than anything full-fledged member Jerome Benton did. And “Girls & Boys” wouldn’t have its horns without Leeds breaking ground on “Mutiny.”
One single, one live performance, and this band was done. But The Family is one of the greatest albums Paisley Park Records ever had to offer. A special shout goes out to the quintet’s silk pajamas, and ex-Revolution guitarist Wendy’s glamour-girl twin sister, singer Susannah Melvoin. Paul Peterson, Melvoin and drummer Jellybean Johnson (formerly of The Time) came back together in 2009 as fDeluxe.
Madhouse – 8
In Under the Cherry Moon, there’s a famous scene (famous for Prince obsessives anyway) with gigolo Christopher Tracy on the telephone in the French Riviera, Miles Davis’ You’re Under Arrest posed conspicuously on his nightstand. Arguably at the height of his creative powers in the mid-1980s, Prince decided to record a one-man-band contemporary jazz album under the Madhouse moniker—which turned out to be as interesting as anything Davis put together with bassist Marcus Miller that decade, really. But despite supposedly playing 27 instruments, Prince didn’t know his way around a sax.
So saxophonist Eric Leeds (of The Family and the expanded Revolution) collaborated with Prince on 8, a mysterious album of instrumentals. No musicians were credited. Busty cover girl Maneca Lightner posed on the cover in a polka-dotted skirt and midriff with a Yorkshire terrier, certainly one of the strongest Paisley Park Records sleeves ever. 8 features some of the snappiest Prince drumming of all time on “Two” and “Seven.” The moodier ballads “Three” and “Eight” beg to be covered by the likes of Robert Glasper or Esperanza Spalding. “Six” shot to number five on Billboard’s Black Singles Chart in early 1987—not as well known today as the Beverly Hills Cop anthem “Axel F” or Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-winning “Rockit,” but something nevertheless.
Sheila E. – Romance 1600
“A Love Bizarre” became an instant omnipresent radio staple—both R&B and pop—from its November 1985 debut onward, a bookend to Prince and Sheila E.’s other duet “Erotic City” the previous year. But first came “Sister Fate” and its video, where the drummer slash Prince paramour played coy with her relationship status to His Purple Majesty. She also took the occasion to debut an Amadeus-inspired, French Renaissance look full of lace and ruffles. Romance 1600 came in August, followed by Sheila E.’s role in hip-hop’s cinematic classic Krush Groove that October (one of her small handful of Hollywood turns), then “A Love Bizarre.”
Sheila’s first album, 1984’s The Glamorous Life, is a Starr Company classic in its own right. But where Paisley Park Records is concerned, Romance 1600 proves the value of Prince’s whole label venture. Had Warner Bros. been braver, “Dear Michaelangelo” and “Toy Box” could have been singles. “Bedtime Story” is a ballad on par with The Glamorous Life’s “Next Time Wipe the Lipstick Off Your Collar,” a bluesy slow jam that might make you believe Sheila E. can actually sing.
Prince wrote, produced and played on nearly everything on here, save the rapid-fire instrumental “Merci for the Speed of a Mad Clown in Summer.” In an ’80s era when even Prince throwaway material was fodder for top 10 hits (“A Love Bizarre” reached number two on the Billboard R&B chart), Romance 1600 was among the best of the best.
The Time – Pandemonium
For a very, very brief moment in 1990, it looked like Graffiti Bridge might turn out to be a Purple Rain sequel to contend with. While hardly “When Doves Cry” worthy, Prince had a moment with his experimental, inventive lead single, “Thieves in the Temple” (has he had a harmonica solo since?) And unbelievably, The Time was back, original line-up and all. “Jerk Out” was an exciting throwback funk number plopped squarely in the middle of the reigning new jack swing and gangsta MCs of the era. We all wondered what was next.
Well, Graffiti Bridge disappointed (to be kind) and Pandemonium went gold and then fizzled. Dusted off from the Prince vaults, the second single “Chocolate” could have scored big even five years earlier, but not so much when Babyface productions ruled BET and Yo! MTV Raps was dominant. “Donald Trump (Black Version)” doesn’t quite measure up to The Time’s greatest ballads (“Oh, Baby,” “Girl,” “Gigolos Get Lonely Too”), but guitarist Jesse Johnson lights into “Blondie” like it’s the group’s very own “Bambi.” Many parts of Pandemonium lived up to the legacy of The Time and What Time Is It?, a last hurrah for one of the tightest funk outfits of all time. And if you’ve heard Condensate, The Time’s 2011 “The Original 7ven” album, yes, Pandemonium is indeed the last hurrah.
About the author:
Miles Marshall Lewis has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. His work has appeared in Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, Hip-Hop: A Cultural Odyssey, The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, and elsewhere. He’s also the author of There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Scars… Lewis currently lives in Manhattan as Arts & Culture Editor of Ebony.com. Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram @furthermucker.