MML: Take me through how you joined The Family.
Susannah Melvoin: Well, it’s layered. We were all working together in all different forms to begin with. So when The Time broke up, Jellybean who was the drummer and Paul Peterson who was the keyboard player, these were amazing players. And Jerome Benton, very close to all of us. I had been doing backup vocals for him on various projects to begin with, and then he just said, y’know, “Let’s do something,” right? “We’ve got all these players, you wanna do something?” And we were just like, “Yeah, sure, that would be great!”
Within a couple of months, he went into the studio in Chanhassen, and he did these demos. And then I was in Los Angeles, he hired Bobby’s brother [David Z]. He said, “I’m gonna give this to you guys. Go and do it.” So everything got tracked, David would do the vocals with Paul in Minneapolis, and then he’d come out to L.A. and he’d do vocals with me in L.A.
It was interesting, because we were really the first of his projects that he allowed [autonomy]: “Take it. Go take it, put your thing on it, let’s see how this comes out. Let’s just go for it. Do your thing.” So there was a period there where we had put vocals down, and I went… Prince and I had been very close at this particular time—
MML: So I’ve heard.
Susannah Melvoin: [laughter] I was playing a lot of Rufus. I was playing tons of Rufus, and he loved Rufus, but I was playing Rufusized all the time. And Clare Fischer, who’s the string arranger on that, was somebody who I felt could do great things to this record. I said to him, “What do you think of Clare Fischer? Why don’t we put strings on this record?” And he was like, “Great.” “I happen to know him, my father’s worked with him.” And literally, he just sent 24 tracks to him. We were in the studio with a 35-piece orchestra. It was me and Eric and Paul and we were—Rufus & Chaka Khan – Rufusized Full Album
MML: At Sunset Sound, or?
Susannah Melvoin: No. It was a weird studio in Quebec, or Pasadena. I can’t remember the studio it was. But it was just tracking the strings, and in fact, I think Clare had worked there before. The record was done. It happened so fast. And then within a year, Paul got an offer from MCA. It was like, they offered him a substantial amount of money. A 19-year-old kid. And we weren’t rollin’ in it. He wasn’t paying. It was just, that was not what it was. [Paul]’s got a family, and he was like, “I’m 19 and sure, I’ll do that.” And he did it right before this record started to do something; he was gone. And, y’know, we were all stunned.
MML: Were you upset with him?
Susannah Melvoin: No. I wasn’t upset with him, and neither was Prince. He pretended to be that way, but he really wasn’t. He was just like: we’re onto the next. And I said to him: onto the next. And none of us really knew the impact of this, that The Family record was gonna be what it was. Even to this day. A moment in his musical history, and in ours. We came of age with that record, so.
MML: Tell me what you can about “Miss Understood,” which didn’t make the album.
Susannah Melvoin: To be honest, I recorded “Miss Understood” and I hated it. [laughter] I couldn’t stand the track and I hated my performance, I hated my vocal on it. He said to me: “I kinda wantcha to go do this vocal and, y’know, imagine you’re Marilyn Monroe and Elvis all at the same time. Give me this vocal.” “Are you sure? That’s not really my thing, but I’ll give it a shot.” And take after take… I can’t stand it.The Family – Miss Understood
So he came to the studio and I was like, “I gotta talk to you.” We went outside Sunset Sound, sat on the park bench, and I said, “I hate it. I can’t have my vocal on this. I can’t do this.” And he said, “I understand.” He goes: “The next record we’re gonna do anyway, I want you to sing more of the vocals. So Paul’s got more vocals on this first record, the second record’s gonna be you.” And Paul had done “Feline,” and that didn’t get on the record for various reasons. Prince said, “Let’s… Gonna wait for that for the second record.” So, those two tracks are in the—Prince – Feline (Vocal)
MML: In the ether.
Susannah Melvoin: And “Miss Understood” is terrible. It’s horrible, it’s just horrible. There was nobody that was gonna make that sound any… Well, it was in tune but it still sucked.
MML: Was it intimidating to you at all to sing lead on The Family?
Susannah Melvoin: No. Because, it’s what I do. Even as a kid, my twin sister Wendy and I came from a family of session players.
MML: The Waldorf Salad band.
Susannah Melvoin: Waldorf Salad! [laughter] We were the young ones, the little teeny ones. We were singing commercials and stuff in the early days, like dog food commercials and things like that. So getting behind a microphone was like: “Give it to us!” At 13 years old, we were singing on movie soundtracks, like all grown up. So it wasn’t so intimidating to go and sing. Although it was weird to be asked to do something so foreign. “Go sing like Elvis and Marilyn Monroe at the same time.” I tried, but I was terrible at it.Waldorf Salad – Look At The Children
MML: Tell me about the imagery of The Family: the silk pajamas, the black-and-white pics, the Life magazine in the video.
Susannah Melvoin: The conversations were solely around the family. And what does a family do when they’re hanging out? A lot of time they’re in their pajamas, they’re just hanging around. But with a little spin of: let’s make it a classy family, let’s make it silk pajama family, right? And it’s gonna be all different races and all different colors, and all different backgrounds, and we’re all hanging out and living the life together. So it was really based around the family unit, and how we all can be together in the most relaxed environment. So what is that? Being in your pajamas hanging out in the house, right?
But we wanted to glam it up, like ’30s Hollywood. And so at the time, I had had this art book of Horst. This was really the last shot he did, he was like 79 years old. We had his assistant come. We rented out this house in Pasadena. And Horst set up these shots. We wanted to do that sort of ’30s glam. He was famous for that. It was kind of an honor. I wouldn’t say that they were the greatest pictures in the world, but it was an honor having Horst do it. And Prince, again, was really trusting of myself, Eric and Jerome, this group of people, we were loaded full of his trust. It was a nice collaborative, historical thing for all of us.
MML: When you fold out the gatefold, it’s like a family photo album.
Susannah Melvoin: There’s a lot going on. Here’s Susannah, who’s in The Family, here’s Paul, and everybody had their parts. And a lot of them were very much based on our personalities. At the time I wouldn’t say I was a sex kitten, but I certainly had that look. So there was that: let’s do her this way, let’s do him this way. And we did a lot of photo shoots. We did a photo shoot at his house. Matter of fact, a lot of the inner sleeve stuff of me on the bed or Jerome in the tub, we were shooting those pictures while The Time was shooting “Ice Cream Castles,” the video. No, it was Mazarati. Mazarati was doing their video and we were doing a photo shoot, it was all in the same house, weirdly enough. It was just a hustle and a bustle.
MML: In Cali?
Susannah Melvoin: Cali.
MML: You still paint?
Susannah Melvoin: I do. I paint a lot. And as a matter of fact—
MML: I saw your original cover to Dream Factory.
Susannah Melvoin: You saw it! It’s extraordinary that I had it. When Prince and I lived in his house in Chanhassen—we called it the Galpin house, it’s near Paisley Park. And during the time that we were recording the Dream Factory, The Flesh, Camille, The Black Album, there were tracks, I wrote “Starfish and Coffee” with him, Sign o’ the Times record. This was all in this period of time. He had just built this studio in the house, so it was incredibly fertile for him. There was no stopping him from recording 24/7. So while he was tracking, I was in this room that was right off the tracking room, that was sort of our game room. There were some video games. Defender! Pac-Man, okay? Pinball. It was just the best. But there was this enormous wall that I was painting a mural on.
And so this mural was referenced in “Crystal Ball,” when he says, “My baby draws pictures of sex all over in graphic detail.” That’s me doing this beautiful [painting], very much like the album cover of Dream Factory. And while I was doing that, he said, “Can you do the album cover? Let’s just do the art for that.” So I stopped doing that and we did this. There were three versions, but this one happened to make it. This was the one where he was like, “That’s the one we wanna use.”Prince – Crystal Ball
But then when the house was destroyed years later, it was like, “Did anyone get any pictures of that mural? Did anyone ever take a picture?” I called Mayte, I called Manuela [Testolini]: “Did anyone see any of it?” Now it was gone, and I felt like, “Alright. Gone.” Then I got a call from my friend Karen Krattinger, who was his assistant for many years and who built Paisley. She had in her file three Polaroids of the mural. And it’s sort of like in a strange… You know, those old sort of fuzzy Polaroids that’s kind of fading a bit? But it’s there. So it’s a great reference. If anybody says, like, “What is your art like?” or “What is it? How did that come from that?” I have this. So I wanted to show the album cover first, and then I’m gonna show the mural. Shitty images, but it’s there. It was a great exhale. It’s there.
MML: What memories do you have of the one show you performed?
Susannah Melvoin: My memories of it were, we were prepared, and over-prepared quite frankly. We’d been rehearsing for nine months to go on that tour. Every day. So we were very prepared. But something weird. Because I sensed that Paul was moving away from it. I didn’t think that Paul was 100% there. He was coming in and out of town. And so I just felt a sort of disconnect. Like, “something’s up.” And then I had this long conversation with Prince before I went onstage. And that kind of threw me off. Because he had never, like, “here, let’s talk about this” five seconds before you’re going onstage. And it was direction that I felt, again, really uncomfortable and, like, “Are you sure you want me to be doing that?”
MML: Like what?
Susannah Melvoin: Like, he wanted me to be… I can’t remember the exact words, but he threw a teddy bear at me that was like this big. [She stretches her arms wide]. He said, “I want you to just play with this teddy bear like you’ve never played with anything before in your life. When you make a mistake, make the biggest mistake you could possibly make. Be overly animated.” He goes, “If you think you’re animated enough, more.” And I just felt like, “uhh… OK, I’ll see.” And he was like, “I want you to get up there, I want you to scream, I want you to writhe on the floor.” I’m like, we just spent nine months rehearsing and this is right before we’re going onstage. So I felt like… It was a little weird. But of course, the dutiful girl and worker bee that I am, I said, “OK, I’ll give it a try.”
MML: I haven’t seen it.
Susannah Melvoin: Oh, it’s awful. It’s fuckin’ awful. It’s out there. You can see it. It’s not great. But y’know, first show, you get that sense. It takes at least a good 10 shows before you can get a sense of what you’re doing and what the audience is reacting to. So we never got that opportunity. That was it.The Family – Nothing Compares 2 U (Live at First Avenue) The Family – Mutiny (Live at First Avenue)
MML: And The Family reunion as fDeluxe?
Susannah Melvoin: We were asked to do a show at the Forum in L.A. for Sheila E.’s foundation at the time. We had an hour of rehearsal, and got up, did the show. It was so unbelievable. We all looked at each other and went: “Wanna do somethin’?” And so we did. We went right in the studio. Paul and I wrote these songs, and Eric came in and arranged all his horn parts, and we felt that it was a great relation record to the first one. We specifically wanted it to be that. We didn’t want to alienate anybody. But we also wanted to say, like, this has incredibly hungry musicians that we are, we wanna just play. So the record was done, sent it to Prince, and he called me and said, “You can’t use the name.” “Why not?” And I knew what he was going to say. And he said, “Y’know…” In his own very abstract way, “these are my children, the name is my kid, you can’t go out there and use my kid, I’m not involved.” And I said, “Are you saying you wanna be involved? ’Cause, come on in! We would love to have you do this with us.” And he said, “No, no. I just want you to not use the name.” And we said okay.
MML: He did the same thing with The Time reunion record they recorded under The Original 7ven.
Susannah Melvoin: He did the same thing with The Time. Meanwhile, nobody owns “The Family.” It’s a brand that he was protecting, but the name we could have used. But we did not want to get into litigation. It’s just bad blood, didn’t want to go there. Donny Osmond owns “The Family!” How crazy is that? When we went looking for “who owns The Family?,” the name: Donny Osmond. My attorney calls me, he said, “Guess who owns the name?” I was like, “Nooo.” P. Diddy did it too, he had Puff Daddy and The Family. But the actual owner of “The Family”: Donny Osmond.fDeluxe – High Fashion (Live at B.B. Kings, New York City, 8-29-2012)
But here’s the thing. You know, my relationship with him is deep and connected and complicated, but sustained many, many years of love and affection and respect for one another. So I felt I wanted to respect him, didn’t wanna make him alienated. But at this time now with what we do, there’s really… I think that the fans have placated us and said, “Yeah, fDeluxe. Uh-huh. We’ll go with it.” But now they’re like, “Sooo, this is what we know you as: The Family.” So we’re struggling with that. But it could be that we change that.
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.