Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Music of Prince and Paisley Park (Warner Bros. Records, 1985 - 1993)

Like many other pop music fans worldwide, I’ve been listening to the songs of Prince a lot since his sudden death earlier this month. From some of my earliest childhood memories onward, I have so many strong associations with the music that he tirelessly recorded and produced throughout the 1980s. Among my first memories of having fun on my own as a kid are my totally vivid recollections of skating to “1999,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Raspberry Beret,” and “When Doves Cry” at a roller rink in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, the same roller rink where I’d later land my first job as a DJ at age 16. The DJ booth at the far corner of the skating rink was completely covered in royal blue shag carpet. Because I was younger than the other DJs, I worked just the Saturday afternoon shift, and I always included Prince’s hits in my mix, while projecting his music videos on the opposite wall. Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” remains one of my favorite songs of all time to this day, the only song that I ever sing at karaoke.

Prince’s own albums, an awesome trove of music that people will be studying for many decades to come, are easiest to focus on, but I’ve long been more interested in his side projects and the more obscure songs that he wrote and produced for other artists on his Paisley Park label over roughly eight years, beginning in 1985 and continuing through 1993, just prior to the label’s closure due to disputes with Warner Bros. Records. Although some of the songs recorded by those other Paisley Park artists were second-tier numbers that Prince had recorded as rough demos himself in his younger years (or failed to shop out to big-name acts like Michael Jackson and Madonna), they provide an important key to understanding his overall aesthetic, both from a musical and business standpoint.

The self-titled album by The Family, one of the first releases on Paisley Park in 1985, was Prince’s early experiment in jazz/funk fusion, the musical style to which he’d return in earnest on the Madhouse 8 and Madhouse 16 albums a couple of years later. The Family was led by Paul Peterson, who closely approximated Prince’s vocals and later released solo albums as St. Paul, and Susannah Melvoin, the twin sister of Wendy Melvoin of the duo Wendy & Lisa, Prince’s longtime backup singers. Other members of The Family included frequent Prince collaborators Jellybean Johnson on drums and Eric Leeds on saxophone and flute. With the exception of the fantastically moody track “River Run Dry,” which was written by drummer Bobby Z of Prince’s band The Revolution, Prince composed all of the other songs on the album.

The Family’s biggest claim to fame, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” would go on to become an international phenomenon for SinĂ©ad O’Connor in 1990. As sung by St. Paul Peterson, the song is a soulful New Wave-influenced ballad, a synthpop hymn to independence in the wake of heartbreak. Several other cuts on The Family are equally notable, especially the outstandingly funky opener “High Fashion” and the pulsating ode to eroticism “Screams of Passion.” The album and its two singles failed to attract much commercial attention at the time of their release, but The Family is now a highly sought-after rarity for collectors of Prince’s catalog.

Another highly sought-after Paisley Park rarity is Jill Jones’ self-titled 1987 debut album, which Prince wrote and produced nearly in its entirety. Jones got her start in the music business as a backup vocalist for the late Teena Marie, who was her cousin, and whose career also happened to be managed by Jones’ mother. Jones later appeared in the music videos for “1999” and “Little Red Corvette,” as well as Prince’s feature-length films Purple Rain and Graffiti Bridge. Her debut album is endowed with a spiky funk edge that’s as convincing as anything else Prince recorded, with lyrics and a vocal delivery as sensual as later Prince hits like “Diamonds and Pearls” and “Pink Cashmere.”

None of the three singles released from Jill Jones, the driving “Mia Bocca,” clever “G-Spot,” or jazzy “For Love,” gained any sort of foothold on the charts, the kind of expenditure without profit that began to cause a rift to develop in Warner Bros. Records’ relationship with Prince and Paisley Park. Tellingly, the songs all still sound amazing today, regardless of their lack of mainstream success in the late 1980s, when the volume of records being released worldwide was far too high for anybody to keep up with. Interestingly, the songwriting on two of the album’s best tracks — the pensive “Violet Blue” (dedicated to Elizabeth Taylor and titled for the color of her eyes) and the uptempo “My Man,” both intended to be sung from a woman’s perspective — is credited solely to Jill Jones in the liner notes, although Prince wrote all eight of the album’s songs himself.

Prince contributed only two songs to Taja Sevelle’s self-titled 1987 debut album on Paisley Park, which was distributed by Warner Bros. imprint Reprise Records. A more pop-oriented affair than much of Prince’s other output for Paisley Park, Taja Sevelle was also a departure commercially, competing with the likes of Madonna and Stacey Q during the year of its release. The singer whom Taja Sevelle (born Nancy Richardson) most resembled and carved out a path for was Mariah Carey, perhaps, though without the towering vocal prowess that Carey displayed on her first two albums.

The two tracks that Prince offered to Taja’s debut project (otherwise produced by Chico Bennett) were “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” and “If I Could Get Your Attention,” both of which he’d recorded earlier versions of himself; each Prince demo is easy enough to find with a quick search online. If Taja Sevelle and its four singles yet again failed to find a widespread audience either on radio or on dance floors of the era, the album nonetheless meshes well with the rest of Paisley Park’s diverse roster, striking an appealing balance between R&B, funk, and mainstream crossover pop.

For a fairly radical departure in 1988, Paisley Park released Los Angeles-based band The Three O’Clock’s Vermillion, featuring just one song penned by Prince, the whimsically catchy “Neon Telephone.” No doubt, Prince had caught wind of the band because of their pivotal role in founding L.A.’s punk-lite music scene that was known as the Paisley Underground. This similar naming was only a coincidence, but I can imagine that Prince didn’t want anybody else infringing on his trademark, so he sent his entourage out to investigate. Fortunately, he liked what he heard and then signed the band for one album. I would also guess that another Paisley Underground-related act, The Bangles, scored their massive hit “Manic Monday” due to this coincidence; Prince wrote that song for The Bangles under the pseudonym Christopher. (His birth name was Prince Rogers Nelson.)

Fronted by singer Michael Quercio and guitarist Jason Falkner, The Three O’Clock made for an unusual but not entirely unexpected fit in the Paisley Park oeuvre. The songs’ instrumentation is playful and grandiose at once, suggesting an alternative to most of the plinking ’80s keyboard fare that was on heavy rotation back in those days. The album’s diverse styles traverse all eras of music in which Prince himself was interested. “When She Becomes My Girl” harkens back to ’50s doo-wop groups; “Love Explosion” sounds like an updated version of a ’60s surfing beach bash; “Through the Sleepy Town” floats through a ’70s hallucination-induced haze; and “Ways of Magic” is still waiting to be the soundtrack centerpiece of an ’80s John Hughes movie revival.

Prince decided on a perfectly sensible return to R&B form in 1989 when he wrote and produced the majority of the songs on gospel legend Mavis Staples’ Paisley Park debut, Time Waits for No One, as well as on her 1993 Paisley Park follow-up, The Voice. Staples’ vocal texture and range gave Prince an entirely different palette to work with, and her inspirational reputation also liberated him to write about subject matter that was noticeably distinct from his previous records. Time Waits for No One maintains a clear sonic through-line from his earlier work, with songs crafted from electronically derived funk and sly dance-club beats. The themes are alternately dark (as on the title track and “20th Century Express”) and light (“Interesting,” “Jaguar,” and “The Old Songs”); there's a contemporaneous quiet-storm groove bestowed on the album’s ballads. The Voice, while more gospel-inflected overall, also integrates elements of New Jack Swing, a style popular on R&B songs in the early ’90s, notably on a cut like the upbeat “Melody Cool.”

The most astonishing aspect of all this: the albums that I’ve written about here represent only a small fraction of the total amount of music that Prince created for Paisley Park, and he created all of it within the span of a single decade. That must mean his life was nothing but wall-to-wall music, all day long, every single day, for the whole duration of that period in time, the same way that the most highly revered classical musicians like Mozart must have lived.

Prince’s prolific body of work for Paisley Park also doesn’t include the many songs that he wrote for artists on other labels during the same timeframe. One particular Prince song that comes poignantly to mind at this sad point in time is “With This Tear,” a moving ballad that Celine Dion recorded for her self-titled 1992 sophomore album, with a passionate vocal crescendo that’s ripped straight out of the stratosphere.