by Miles Marshall Lewis
“Prince, we knew, was a great producer,” recounts former Paisley Park Records president Alan Leeds. “Warner [Bros. Records] was interested in doing a joint venture with him, which became Paisley Park Records, because he had already proven himself as a producer.”
With the phenomenal success of Purple Rain and albums by The Time, Vanity 6, Apollonia 6 and Sheila E.—in addition to singles like Sheena Easton’s “Sugar Walls,” André Cymone’s “The Dance Electric” and Stevie Nicks’s “Stand Back,” all blessed by Prince’s Midas touch—Warner Bros. decided to turn the Starr Company 2.0 into something a little more official. “They felt pretty confident, like: ‘Hey, this is a guy that we could really bankroll a label and see what happens.’ ”
The Family, released in August 1985, absolutely would’ve received a Starr Company imprimatur if released one year earlier. The group itself was a phoenix risen from the ashes of The Time, which dissolved in the aftermath of Purple Rain. Nineteen-year-old Time keyboardist St. Paul Peterson stemmed from a family line of locally famous Minneapolis musicians; Prince positioned him as The Family’s matinee idol lead singer, the Simon Le Bon of his ascendant purple empire. (“We’ve got to go after some of that Duran Duran money,” he’d said in reference to The Family at the time.) Prince installed his girlfriend Susannah Melvoin—twin sister of the newly famous Revolution guitarist Wendy—as Peterson’s co-lead. She’d also grown up singing in a musical family in Los Angeles, lending background vocals on Around the World in a Day (“Raspberry Beret,” “The Ladder” and the title track). Sax player Eric Leeds, younger brother of tour manager Alan Leeds, rounded out the group’s distinctive sound; horns were a new addition to Prince music in general. Drummer Jellybean Johnson and outsize personality Jerome Benton also moved over from The Time to The Family. But the unofficial sixth member of the group (seventh if you include Prince) was famed composer-arranger Clare Fischer, whose string orchestration is as integral to The Family as anything else.
Of the 21 albums put out by Paisley Park Records, The Family remains one of the most significant. Questlove, lifelong Princephile, once told me it’s his favorite of the whole label’s stable. “Here is brilliant ensemble playing: bass, drums, guitar and inspired Maceo Parker-style sax straight out of the J.B.s, exquisitely recorded, augmented by quirky countermelodies played on marimba, calliope and panpipe. Around it all are Clare Fischer’s ingenious string arrangements,” Rolling Stone praised. “Side one is a four-song, 18-minute funk workout that ranks with the best of the Ohio Players and the Jeffrey Bowen-period Temptations. If Prince and Sheila E.’s ‘Erotic City’ was the taster for an album they never made, then this would be it.”
For Paisley Park’s year one, Warner Bros.’ faith was at its highest level. Prince reigned with the astronomical sales and radio dominance of Purple Rain; covering his music were singers Cyndi Lauper (“When You Were Mine”), Chaka Khan (the Grammy-winning “I Feel for You”) and Meli’sa Morgan (the R&B chart-topping “Do Me, Baby”); Prince-penned hits by Stevie Nicks, Sheila E., Sheena Easton and André Cymone percolated on radio; and his Minneapolis sound pierced the zeitgeist, from soundalikes like Ready for the World (“Oh Sheila”) to those who’d defected from his camp (Morris Day and “The Oak Tree,” Vanity and “Pretty Mess,” Jesse Johnson and “Be Your Man”). With so much attention from fans and the music industry focused on his next moves, Prince made The Family the first release of his fledgling record label.
“If Prince and Sheila E.’s ‘Erotic City’ was the taster for an album they never made, then this would be it.”Rolling Stone
Consider that, in its earliest years, Paisley Park can be looked at as a skunkworks for his own albums. Clare Fischer first composed orchestral arrangements for Prince on The Family, a relationship that impacted the sound of his very next album—1986’s strings-laden Parade—and lasted for 28 years. The first Prince-related project to feature horns via saxophonist Eric Leeds, The Family’s sound directly influenced forthcoming Prince singles like “Girls & Boys” and “Hot Thing.” Instrumentals entitled “Susannah’s Pajamas” and “Yes” padded out The Family’s eight tracks, Prince playing every instrument except saxophone. Two years later Prince went undercover on the Paisley Park jazz project Madhouse, playing every instrument except saxophone by Leeds. And during The Family’s one and only live performance, at First Avenue in Minneapolis, a trio of dancers flanked the group like James Brown’s Famous Flames. Touring for Parade and Sign o’ the Times, Prince used the same dancers onstage at his own shows: Greg Brooks, Wally Safford, and The Family’s Jerome Benton. More than any other side project, The Family represented a harbinger of things to come in Prince’s oeuvre.
And why a family? A preexisting funk band in Minneapolis that Prince respected went by the name of The Family, and there was of course the multiracial Family Stone of Prince’s hero Sly Stone. Susannah Melvoin doesn’t recall precisely why. But in terms of marketing, Prince knew the group’s name and image went hand-in-hand. To wit, he hired legendary photographer Horst to shoot the cover of The Family: Susannah and St. Paul in silk pajamas hugged up in black-and-white, staring pensively in different directions.
Paul Peterson abandoned the group by the time “The Screams of Passion” became The Family’s only hit, reaching number nine on Billboard’s R&B chart. Following their sole performance at First Avenue, Prince jetted off to France laying groundwork for Under the Cherry Moon—his second feature film set to co-star Jerome Benton and, potentially, Susannah Melvoin in the romantic lead. (Prince awarded the role to English actress Kristin Scott Thomas instead, breaking the news to Melvoin right before proposing marriage in almost the same breath.) But Peterson, sensing a lack of commitment to the group on Prince’s part, accepted a lucrative solo deal from MCA Records and left the band.
Prince quickly absorbed Eric Leeds, Melvoin and Benton into The Revolution, along with The Family touring band guitarist Miko Weaver and their dancers, Greg Brooks and Wally Safford. This final legacy of The Family, Prince dealing with their dissolution, swelled his band to 12 members. Go YouTube “Girls & Boys” or “Anotherloverholenyohead,” you’ll see the dozen of them. Leeds privately nicknamed the group The Counter-Revolution. Guitarist Wendy Melvoin, for one, felt resentful that their self-contained, increasingly collaborative, Beatlesque little pop-rock band transmogrified into a sprawling R&B-funk revue overnight without Prince consulting anyone but his own conscience. This was the final iteration of the group before he disbanded them all in late ’86, an expansion that never would’ve happened without The Family and its failure.
Postscript: At Sheila E.’s request, the Family reformed 18 years later for the first time, raising money for a child abuse foundation. Former Paisley Park acts Jill Jones, Madhouse and Carmen Electra also appeared onstage at the Forum in Los Angeles, as well as Apollonia.
Susannah Melvoin shares The Family’s story from the balcony of New York City’s Webster Hall, where the reunited Revolution would perform a sold-out show.