Introduction by Ron Worthy
We are pleased to announce the launch of Paisley Diaries™, a multi-volume exploration of Prince‘s legendary label, Paisley Park Records. Over the next several months, we will be presenting in-depth analysis by critically acclaimed author and pop culture critic, Miles Marshall Lewis.
The series of essays, divided into weekly installments, will highlight many of the label’s most notable releases. Each piece will provide a window into Miles’s conversations with related artists and, as always, his keen insights about the context and impact of the music involved.
Miles has created a wonderful prologue into the world of Paisley Park below. The overview includes direct first-person quotes from Prince and provides the necessary background for new devotees and a fun primer for the most committed members of the Purple Army.
This, along with my brief interview with Miles that follows, should whet your appetite for the magic that is to come.
“Paisley Park is an academy any which way you look at it,” Prince told me in 2015. “Musicians have gone through here. We’ve jammed, we’ve shared with one another. And ultimately, there’s now a storehouse of great music to learn from, productions and arrangements you can study.” His comment brought to mind a recent trip to Memphis where I’d toured the Stax Museum—a onetime recording studio where singers Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding and others on the Stax record label once recorded classic Southern soul music. Behind the venerable building stands the Stax Music Academy, a performing arts school for Tennessee teenagers. Right away my mental association matched Paisley Park and Stax together as music studios. But in a moment, I parsed an alternate meaning: between Stax as a record label and Prince’s own Paisley Park Records.
Part of his overall brilliance as a strategician, Prince built a musical empire by replicating his sound through other artists, arguably blanketing the radio from 1981 to 1993. Prince was rumored to have written a song per day; he lived in the studio and found it overly restrictive even to release albums at the breakneck pace of once a year. He devised a solution early in his career to put out extra music through a lengthy string of protégé acts that stretches from The Time (who debuted in ’81) to, 34 years later, Judith Hill (whose Back in Time appeared in 2015). In 1985 Warner Bros. Records gifted Prince with Paisley Park Records, where those ancillary acts could all be grouped together under one umbrella instead of benefitting the profit margins of rival record companies.
“At the onset, Paisley Park was an imprint,” explains Alan Leeds, tour manager to Prince from 1983 to 1990 and onetime president of Paisley Park Records. “In this case, the imprint was really a producer’s credit. Instead of just saying ‘produced by Prince,’ it’s like okay, we’re going to give you a logo, we’re going to let you have your own label design and so on. It said, ‘Paisley Park Records,’ but these artists—Sheila E. and The Time, for example—were signed to Warner Bros. They were never signed to Paisley Park Records. Paisley Park Records didn’t exist yet. It existed only as this imprint.”
Whether or not fans knew or cared that Paisley Park Records wasn’t its own independent enterprise in the fashion of Stax or Motown, but instead merely an imprint, a “record label” in appearance only, they still bought the albums. The Family, Jill Jones, Sheila E.’s Romance 1600, Madhouse’s 8 and 16 contain some of the most beloved and commercially successful music of Prince’s career. Hits like Sheila E.’s “A Love Bizarre” and The Family’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” both written and produced by Prince, might never have been heard without his business intelligence to groom protégé acts as outlets for his protean creativity. Profits also funneled back to the source; production and songwriting royalties all flowed to Prince through numerous publishing companies (Girlsongs, Tionna Music, Parisongs) in addition to Controversy Music, where songs from his own albums were copyrighted. By example, Prince effectively released six albums of music in 1987: his own two-record set Sign o’ the Times, two albums by Madhouse, one by Jill Jones and another by Sheila E.
A serious look into Paisley Park Records seems overdue, for what its variegated artists reveal about Prince as an art businessman and what their commercial prospects say about him as a business artist. In April 1985 Prince’s seventh studio album, Around the World in a Day, marked the first release with the Paisley Park logo, a squiggly little spermatozoid design spelling out PAISLEY PARK in the shape of a twisted teardrop (see below).
By October 1993 funk godfather George Clinton’s Hey Man…Smell My Finger became the label’s final album. During its eight years, the Warner Bros.-distributed imprint dropped 21 albums from 17 different acts before folding. The roll call—The Family, Sheila E., Mazarati, Madhouse, Jill Jones, Taja Sevelle, Dale Bozzio, the Three O’Clock, Good Question, Tony LeMans, George Clinton, Mavis Staples, The Time, Eric Leeds, T. C. Ellis, Ingrid Chavez, Carmen Electra—was as quirky and eclectic as the founder of the label. R&B Prince clone Georgio wanted in. So did the Polynesian-American teen-pop octet called the Jets, and Tony! Toni! Toné!, who belonged to Sheila E.’s touring band before eventually signing to Mercury Records. Albums were planned for New Power Generation singer Rosie Gaines, R&B singer Tyler Collins and the dancehall band Belize. But the sourness between Prince and Warner Bros. turned too acrid by ’93; the label died as a direct result.
“Paisley Park is in your heart,” Prince once sang on Around the World in a Day. For a brief, shining moment Paisley Park was also on the charts.
Interview with Miles Marshall Lewis
In anticipation of the launch of Paisley Diaries, soulhead Founder and Editor-in-Chief Ron Worthy sat down with Miles to chat a bit about the project:
Ron Worthy: What motivated you to do this much in-depth research into the artists who recorded on Paisley Park?
Miles Marshall Lewis: A month or two after I interviewed Prince in August 2015, I met with my lit agent to talk about putting a new book together. The idea that excited me the most was a history of Paisley Park Records, researched like Ashley Kahn’s The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. I talked with George Clinton backstage at the old B.B. King Blues Club, and former president Alan Leeds. After setting up more interviews and starting on a chapter, Prince passed away. A year passed before I could interview anyone without the subject being too sensitive, for everyone involved. But my motivation was always to shine light on the unsung artists on his label, to show readers what Prince himself might have loved about them and turn them on to some great music.
RW: What do you think were the highs and lows of the label?
MML: The highs of the label happened at the very beginning. From The Family’s “The Screams of Passion” up to about The Time’s “Jerk Out,” the label was actually kind of a success. Paisley Park put out bona fide hits from Sheila E., Madhouse, The Family, The Time and Mazarati. Lesser successful stuff like the Jill Jones album and certain singles—Taja Sevelle’s “Love Is Contagious,” Dale Bozzio’s “Simon Simon”—were also completely worth digging into. The lows came about when Prince stopped being as involved in the albums. Two brothers from Philly got signed by his management called Good Question, and they were a bad fit. Towards the very end, Prince invested a lot of time and money turning a white Barbizon model from Ohio into a rapper and really shouldn’t have bothered. That was, of course, Carmen Electra.
RW: You are a well-renowned journalist particularly as it relates to Prince. What was one of the most interesting things you learned while working on this project?
MML: Backstage at Webster Hall, I interviewed Susannah Melvoin, who told me that Prince offered her the option of continuing The Family after St. Paul Peterson left the band in 1985. She also told me that the second album Prince planned for The Family would have featured her more as the lead singer, which could have been really interesting. Her voice is similar to her twin sister Wendy’s, so I started imagining songs fronted with the voice from those Wendy & Lisa albums.
RW: Given there are so many artist-owned labels now, do you think they were influenced by Prince’s efforts with Paisley Park?
MML: I don’t think the artist-owned labels that followed were directly influenced by Paisley Park, no. Even prior to Prince’s label, artists like Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield and The Beatles had their own labels. I do think Paisley Park might have made his peers kind of jealous and antsy for labels of their own though, specifically Madonna and Michael Jackson.
RW: Paisley had several successful releases. Most notably, Prince’s major releases from ’85 to ’92 along with amazing projects by Jill Jones, Madhouse, Sheila E. and more. Based on your discussions with artists, what do you think the label could have done better to rank among some of the other great labels like Motown, Atlantic, etc.?
MML: Looking back, I think Prince should have extended some olive branches to his estranged purple army and signed André Cymone, Jesse Johnson, Morris Day and Vanity to Paisley Park. Given the circumstances, they all wanted to branch out and be successful in their own rights at the time. But [given the fact that] Tony! Toni! Toné! started as backing musicians for Sheila E., they could have been scooped up. Paisley Park turned down Georgio, who’s forgotten now, but had some R&B hits with an almost copycat vibe. Prince was a genre unto himself. His label could have reflected that easily and should have.
RW: You spoke with a LOT of artists associated with the label. Besides working with Prince, did you find there were common threads?
MML: Besides working with him and also sleeping with him, no, I don’t really see many common threads. Though I would say both Sheila E. and Ingrid Chavez briefly seemed like muses for him at different points.
RW: Is there anything else you would like to share about this project?
MML: My overall goal with the Paisley Diaries™ in the beginning was to champion Prince in a beautiful, intelligent, respectful way, helping readers to understand his art and legacy a bit better through the Paisley Park artists he worked with during one of the most interesting periods of his career, 1985 to 1993. It could have been a book, it may still become a book, but it never had to be in order to get all that across. I definitely send my respect and thanks to all the Paisley Park artists who shared their time and stories with me, as well as folks like André Cymone, David Z, Brownmark, Alan Leeds and Shayne Soentpiet.
Check out each part of Paisley Diaries Vol. 1: “Silly Rappers Talking Silly”below:
To celebrate the launch of the inaugural essay, soulhead.com in conjunction with The Metaphor Club in Los Angeles will be hosting a live event, “Prince VS. Hip-Hop: A Discussion of The Artist’s Complicated Relationship with Rap” this weekend on November 11, 2018. For more information, please check out The Metaphor Club’s Facebook Page.
Miles Marshall Lewis has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Ebony, Essence 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 of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises. Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram. Check out some of his work for soulhead.
Ron Worthy is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of soulhead.com. A passionate audiophile who has been a DJ for over 25 years, Ron studied classical music and plays 4 instruments. He loves discussing all things Prince, Hip-Hop, and Funk. When he is able, he shoots a mean game of pool, digs comedy, loves eating fried fish sandwiches, making crab cakes and drinking micro-brews from all over the World. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and cat. Check out some of his work for soulhead.