The Family’s self-titled Paisley Park album debuted in August 1985, and was the first and only collection from the group on the label. Thanks to the Purple Avengers, a motley group of Prince music enthusiasts and historians assembled by Deejay UMB on Twitter, who, along with Edgar Cruize, created the #PrinceTwitterThread series, we’re showing this album all the love beginning this week. To celebrate, here’s a piece I penned for my #BohèmeRockstar blog in 2015 on the occasion of the album’s 30th anniversary.
1985 reigns as one of the most pivotal years in my upbringing: I entered the world of double-digits (something my eldest sister, Dawn, did her best to freak me out about on the eve of my 10th birthday), my parents divorced, and my transition from dreamy-eyed Michael Jackson fangirl to not-quite-sure-what-he’s-talking-about-but-I-dig-this-song Prince devotée continued, much to my parents’ chagrin. Between waiting anxiously to see the not-yet-christened King of Pop’s latest videos on MTV and making up cheeky routines to New Edition’s “Cool it Now” record with my friend Alethea—not to mention trying to convince whatever adult had a wallet to pleeeeeease buy me one of those floofy petticoats Madonna had made famous writhing around in the “Like a Virgin” video—Prince’s music had taken firm root in my soul; I could still gleefully sing along to 5 Star’s “Let Me Be the One” and even Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money,” but those songs and artists were permanently displaced when Prince and his cavalcade of related artists became the center of my musical world.
And so it would be that, in a beautifully strange way, I found home when I discovered The Family’s self-titled Paisley Park debut album in my dad’s stereo case.
Now, how and why my dad came to buy this album remains a mystery. I’d already gotten a first glimpse of The Family via BET’s Video Soul, thanks to their video “The Screams of Passion,” so I knew they were the latest issue from Paisley Park’s roster. I also knew my dad had a major crush on Sheila E., whom he’d declared could possibly be my new stepmother, and he’d purchased her Romance 1600 LP (and taken me to see Krush Groove) in reverence to his girlfriend in his head (dad still rides for Ms. Escovedo to this day). But Sheila E. wasn’t a member of The Family, so I couldn’t quite make out why he’d picked up their record. When I finally asked him about it, his response was something along the lines of, “It looked interesting.” At the end of that weekend, I slid the album into my bag and took it back home with me to my mom’s house. I never returned it, and now that I think about it, it’s highly possible that my dad has never heard the album. Ah. Well.
Founded on the heels of The Time’s dissolution, The Family was comprised of former Time members St. Paul Peterson, Jellybean Johnson, and Jerome Benton, and introduced us to sax man Eric Leeds and vocalist Susannah Melvoin (twin sister to Revolution member Wendy Melvoin), who by that point had been a longtime Prince collaborator. Where The Time delivered a more assertive, undeniably masculine sexuality as an extension of Prince’s own musical persona, The Family added a sweet measure of sensuality to the mix without losing the funk. The Time balanced Prince’s often on the nose sexual lyrical content with humor, evoking a vibe wedged somewhere between the Playboy Mansion and a frat house; with The Family, the emphasis seemed to not be so much on the payoff, but everything leading up to it. The band members clad in silk pajamas and lounging around an ornately decorated house in the album’s cover art (Steve Parke) gave the impression that, behind each door of the house, something magical awaited. Granted, I probably didn’t interpret the artwork as such at age 10; at age 40, however, I am pretty sure there was plenty of incense and candles, and probably a silver tray bearing olives and hummus and toast points and caviar, and champagne to sip from Waterford Crystal flutes.
What I do know for sure, though, is that The Family and The Family changed my life: Hours wiled away sitting in front of my stereo, poring over the album art and learning all of Susannah’s parts so that I could expertly execute them in the mirror in my bedroom; lush instrumentation that took me in myriad directions and tapped into a previously unexplored area of my imagination; and later, I would realize, a deeper appreciation for subtle and poetic word play in my own lyrics. When I had the opportunity to interview the band in 2011 for my Artist to Artist column on the [now defunct] SoulTrain.com, I remember this fantastical moment when, in the middle of the interview, I had the realization that I was on the phone with four of my musical idols. These are some of the people to whom I point as a reason I pursued my musical inclinations beyond hobby status; in fact, it is because of Eric Leeds that I opted to try playing alto sax in my school bands from 6th-8th grades. When I saw the band perform for the first time at the Prince tribute at Carnegie Hall in 2013, I could barely contain my exuberance from the moment St. Paul, Susannah, and Eric took the stage (accompanied by Wendy, Booker T. Jones, and The Roots, hot damn). Later that evening, at the after party, I nervously approached the band to introduce myself and tried with every ounce of my pride not to gush. It was awesome and surreal. When I journeyed to Minneapolis last summer to catch fDeluxe in a rare live performance at the Dakota, I could hardly finish my wings and fries (which were quite tasty) for jamming so damn hard. It was a bit disappointing that Susannah wasn’t with the band for that show, and I was more than a little jealous of Timotha Lanae, who filled in for her; after all, I’d been rehearsing Susannah’s parts since 1985! Still, my face was sufficiently rocked the hell off that night, and moreover, I walked away with an even greater reverence for each of the core musicians and their backing band.
To the dismay of a growing legion of fans, The Family was over almost as quickly as it began. After one album and only one live performance, the band broke up and its members dispersed into Prince’s other musical incarnations of that era; Eric Leeds became one of Prince’s main collaborators for his experimental jazz/funk fusion project, Madhouse, and was added to the newly-expanded Revolution; Susannah also joined The Revolution and continued her foray as a songwriter and collaborator with numerous artists; and Bean and Jerome effectively rejoined The Time a few years later when the band reunited. Despite the rather sudden dissolution of The Family, their followers kept the faith that someday they’d be together again. In 2009, with a little coaxing from Questlove and Sheila E., four of the remaining 5 members of The Family (sans Jerome) began toying with the idea of reforming and putting out new music. But, as best-laid plans go, there was a rather onerous sticking point: Prince refused to allow the band to resume use of the name “The Family” (they’d briefly christened themselves The Family 2.0 for a series of one-off gigs during that time). And so, from the proverbial ashes of The Family arose a mighty phoenix, fDeluxe. In 2011, 25 years after the release of the first album, fDeluxe gifted those of us who’d been (im)patiently waiting all our lives with their second album, Gaslight, which they quickly followed with a collection of remixes, Relit; a live record, Live and Tight as a Funk Fiend’s Fix; and an album of soul, funk, and R&B covers, AM Static. And all was right with my world.
Just weeks ago, The Family/fDeluxe celebrated the 30th anniversary of the album that rocked the house, which was released in August of 1985. What better time to revisit this R&B masterpiece?
The Family opens with the delectable “High Fashion,” whose pipe organ-esque introduction belies the funk that is to come as St. Paul weaves a tale about a “sexy little girl” who’s “all the way vogue.” Long before Kanye warned us about gold-diggers, The Family hipped us to a day in the life of a woman who dined at Le Dôme, scoffed at the mere notion of cheap liquor, and who desired and accepted only the finest things in life (her brandy was imported every week, ya understand?). And although this well-heeled lady initially offered the 1980s version of “as if!” when our lovelorn hero dared to invite her to dinner at his house, he eventually won her over by flashing his huge wad of cash (nineteen hundred dollars, of which one of his boys had to carry half. Say. What?) and his pimped out ride (a “Rolls Royce limo, custom-painted plaid!”). Boy staaaaaaaahp. What woman could resist all that swag? None. And by song’s end, lover boy and his rich girl purify themselves in the waters of his pool as St. Paul wails about being her “money man.”
“High Fashion” segues into the fresh to death “Mutiny.” With Eric Leeds’ sax front and center, the song is one of the album’s tightest grooves, with St. Paul warning his wayward lover that “no one does me wrong and gets away with it.” With a chorus proclaiming, “Mutiny! I’m taking over/you got to get off this ship/you got to take a little trip” and advising “you should’ve been a little more hip,” “Mutiny” stands as a perfectly crafted f- you tune where I imagine the narrator and his boo thang standing several feet apart in the living room, with him dismissing her for failure to do her part to keep their love alive, rather than lamenting the love gone wrong. St. Paul croons, “Baby, you treated me like some unwanted child.” Ouch. And, as though the offending party deigned to protest, “It’s all over now/I loved you all the while.” Awwww. Tant pis. But the heart and soul of this song is Eric Leeds’ solo at the end. Good. GAWD. While his intricate riffs punctuate the verses and chorus, it’s that tag at the end as a choir of male voices shouts “All the way vogue!” that makes me lose my mind, every single time.
The third track on the album, “The Screams of Passion,” was also The Family’s first single and a top ten smash. Languid and ridiculously sexy, St. Paul and Susannah’s seductive serenade is classic mid-‘80s Prince in every way—from the gorgeous Clare Fischer string arrangement to the Linn drum. St. Paul and Susannah sing in unison, describing a “gentle autumn breeze that blows whenever we be lyin’ in my bed,” and the scene unfolds in such a way that one almost wonders if it’s actually a vignette from a Disney film, what with curtains dancing a minuet and leaves falling and a robin singing “a masterpiece that lives and dies unheard.” But then, there are the screams, and we’re reminded that this room in the house is for grown folks only. A most (f)deluxe R&B tune, “The Screams of Passion” remains the band’s most notable hit.
Walk down the hall, rap on the next door. The door opens, and you hear “Yes,” the fourth track on the album. A funk-tastic instrumental featuring what could only be Prince issuing a deep howl in the background as Leeds’ sax squeals against a stank face-inducing bass line, the song could have easily appeared on any of the Madhouse albums. This is the jam that gets you right for a beautiful night, and closes out the first side of the album.
Opening up side two is “River Run Dry,” a melancholy tune depicting what remains at the end of a romance. As Paul and Susannah sing in unison, “How long I cry/til the river run dry,” a persistent bass drum supports the strings and vocals until the full beat drops in. The song foreshadows the mellow energy the rest of the album is set to deliver.
As we pass portraits of the beloved we arrive at the end of what seems like a never-ending corridor. To the left, a wall. To the right, a dark staircase, which we ascend to a balcony. It is here we find the song that epitomizes heartache: the original (and, in my opinion, the best) version of the Prince classic, “Nothing Compares 2 U.” With nothing but strings supporting their vocals, Paul and Susannah harmonize through the song that Sinéad may have made famous, but that The Family made iconic. The sparse instrumentation allows the vocalists to truly shine—especially Susannah, who, while featured prominently throughout the album, never has a solo moment on the entire record. “Nothing Compares 2 U” is the closest we get (thankfully, we get to hear more of her on the fDeluxe records). “Nothing Compares 2 U” is neck and neck with “The Screams of Passion” as a standout track on the album.
How best to mend a broken heart? Dance. Heading back into the house, we’re greeted with “Susannah’s Pajamas,” another Eric Leeds-forward instrumental that acts as an anchor after the emotional rollercoaster of the previous song. It also feels like something that would fit perfectly into one of Stewie Griffin’s “sexy dance party” mixtapes, or a groove my mom would’ve put on while we did various and sundry Saturday things around the house back in the day. “Susannah’s Pajamas” never strays too far from its R&B pocket, but it ends somewhat abruptly, as though someone bumped the record player, causing the LP to skip to the end of the song and right into the next.
The not-so-smooth segue leads to the final song on the album, “Desire,” an enchanting slow jam that succinctly closes out the album. A lilting call and response between the vocalists gives way to a light and airy chorus as the lyrics spin a tale of lovers declaring “ecstasy is ours.” As the last room in the house, this one is absolutely where love and legacies are made. The song fades with the sound of waves rumbling. Quaint.
A cult classic in all its glory, The Family reigns as a beloved favorite in many a Paisley Park aficionado’s coveted record collection. For those who missed it back in the day, the album is not available on streaming, but you may luck up on an LP or CD on Amazon. Of course, depending on demand it may cost you a small fortune, but if you’re truly curious and committed to the funk, you’ll go ahead and add it to your cart. And for those who jammed The Family in the ‘80s but had no idea they’d reformed and released new ear candy, you can get your entire life at fdeluxe.com.
Check out The Family’s first and only live performance at the infamous First Avenue in 1985.