A Look Back at Prince's Quirky, Idiosyncratic Paisley Park Records
Stax Records once delivered Southern soul music, horn sections and behind-the-beat grooves. Motown served up spirited R&B from spit-polished singers with a distinctive pop sheen as “the Sound of Young America.” From Prince & the Revolution’s Around the World in a Day (1985) to godfather of funk George Clinton’s Hey Man… Smell My Finger (1993), the Warner Bros.-distributed Paisley Park Records label wasn’t known for any unifying sound in particular during its eight years in operation. The Minneapolis Sound (that hybrid of synth-pop, funk and new wave pioneered by Prince in the 1980s) characteristic in much of Prince’s earlier music doesn’t typify the 23 albums eventually released on the label from its 22 artists. Paisley Park Records was as quirky, idiosyncratic and eclectic as its founder.
Yet there were still hits. Prince aside, the label scored seven top 20 hits on the Billboard R&B Chart, three of which cracked Billboard’s pop rop 20: Sheila E.’s “A Love Bizarre” (No. 11), The Time’s “Jerk Out” (No. 11) and “Round and Round” (No. 12) by Tevin Campbell. Prince himself was responsible for eight multiplatinum albums on the label, 17 top 40 pop singles and 24 R&B chart hits. That includes two number one singles (“Kiss,” “Cream”) and one number one album (Around the World in a Day).
“Prince was a great producer, and Warner was interested in doing a joint venture with him,” recalls former Prince road manager and Paisley Park Records president Alan Leeds. “He’d already proven himself as a producer. [The Bangles’] ‘Manic Monday’ was a huge hit. He had a behind-the-scenes role on Stevie Nicks’ ‘Stand Back’ that the industry was aware of, even if it was uncredited. And of course, the Time records and first Shelia E. record were very successful for Warner Bros. So they felt pretty confident, like, ‘This is a guy we could bankroll a label on and see what happens.’ And unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, [success] never really did happen.”
The precursor to Paisley Park was The Starr Company. Following four years under contract with Warner Bros., Prince brought The Time -- a funky R&B outfit fronted by his former high school bandmate, drummer Morris Day -- to the label. In 1981, the group’s self-titled debut album was released, with production credited to Jamie Starr (the first of Prince’s many pseudonyms). By August 1982, both The Time’s What Time Is It? and the self-titled debut of Vanity 6 (led by Prince’s girlfriend Denise Matthews, aka Vanity) arrived in record stores as produced by The Starr Company. Subsequent albums by The Time (Ice Cream Castle), Sheila E. (The Glamorous Life) and the self-titled debut of Apollonia 6 all bore the same imprimatur.
Naturally, there was no Starr Company. Paisley Park Records started out much the same way, with 1985 albums by Sheila E. and The Family (the gold-selling Romance 1600, featuring the hit Prince duet “A Love Bizarre”). The label was named for “Paisley Park,” a psychedelic funk track from Around the World in a Day also responsible for the namesake of Prince’s newly constructed $10 million studio in suburban Chanhassen, Minn.
“A lot people make the mistake of thinking that the Shelia E. and The Family records were actually Paisley Park records. They were not,” clarifies Alan Leeds. “At the onset, Paisley Park was an imprint. In this case, the imprint was really a producer’s credit. Instead of just saying ‘produced by Prince,’ it’s like: ‘OK, we’re going to give you a logo, we’re going to let you have your own label design’ and so on. [The albums] said Paisley Park Records, but these artists were signed to Warner Bros. They were never signed to Paisley Park Records. Paisley Park Records existed only as this imprint.
“Somewhere around 1986 or ’87, he made a deal with Warner Bros. to have a real label, a joint venture 50/50 owned by Prince’s company and Warner Bros. Records,” Leeds continues. “At that point, they began signing artists to the label that were officially, properly signed to Paisley Park Records, not Warner. Basically, the deal was that the Paisley Park projects would be distributed through Warner.”
Early Paisley Park albums by protégé acts The Family, Sheila E. and Jill Jones were produced, written and performed by Prince himself with minor exceptions. (Stellar percussionist Sheila E. played her own drums.) Madhouse -- a jazz project featuring saxophonist Eric Leeds and Prince on every other instrument -- also released two albums, yielding the top 10 R&B instrumental, “Six.” These were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the strongest of the label’s releases: The Family (with its top 10 R&B single, “The Screams of Passion”), Madhouse’s 8 and 16, Sheila E.’s Romance 1600 and Sheila E., and Jill Jones.
A replacement band pieced together to replace The Time after the success of Purple Rain, The Family consisted of singer Paul Peterson, sax player Eric Leeds, drummer Jellybean Johnson, singer Susannah Melvoin and the stalwart Time valet, Jerome Benton. As Paisley Park’s first non-Prince release, The Family is significant for three reasons. One, the record began Prince’s collaborations with the late arranger Clare Fischer, whose drama-filled, cinematic orchestral sweeps would go on to grace future Prince projects. Two, the album contains Prince’s original “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a number one Hot 100 hit for Sinéad O’Connor five years later. Lastly, the album introduced live horns into Prince’s work, courtesy of Eric Leeds.
In the label’s next phase, Paisley Park artists came complete with their own identities, with perhaps one album contribution from Prince. For her 1987 self-titled debut, singer Taja Sevelle received “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me,” an old 1978 Prince composition rejected for Michael Jackson’s Bad album. (Radio was much friendlier to Taja Sevelle’s lead single, “Love Is Contagious.”) Dale Bozzio, former lead singer of the new-wave rock band Missing Persons, recorded Prince’s “So Strong” on her solo album Riot in English, but scored a top 40 dance hit with “Simon Simon” in 1988.
Los Angeles “paisley underground” band The Three O'Clock -- contemporaries of The Dream Syndicate and The Bangles -- signed with Paisley Park for their fourth and final album, Vermillion. But the underground rock quartet (Michael Querico, Louis Gutierrez, Danny Benair and Adam Merrin) failed to build any traction on the charts, even with the Prince-penned single, “Neon Telephone.”
Milli Vanilli-esque sibling duo Good Question (Philadelphia natives Sean and Marc Douglas) released a washout self-titled album without any Prince tunes, though the since-forgotten single “Got a New Love” worked its way to No. 1 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart in 1988. “That’s an act that [late Prince manager] Steven Fargnoli found and thought had a chance,” Alan Leeds recalls. “Prince had nothing to do with that.”
The more promising singer-songwriter Tony LeMans dropped a self-titled debut full of funk, pop and soul in 1989. His musical aesthetic was most similar to Prince’s out of everyone on the label. “Tony had been part of a group that included Lenny Kravitz and the kid that came out of Shalamar, Micki Free,” says Leeds. “Micki, Lenny and Tony had some kind of group they were trying to get off the ground, which never really happened. The long and short of it is that Lenny quickly separated himself from it and went and got his own deal. Tony ended up coming with Steven [Fargnoli], who ended up putting him on Paisley Park.” LeMans’ short-lived career ended in a fatal motorcycle accident in 1992.
“All of those records were produced and released at a time when Paisley Park existed really only on paper,” Leeds clarifies. “If anybody was running the label, it was [Prince manager] Bob Cavallo. He would interact with Warner and try to encourage them to promote the records. But there was nobody full time working on the label’s projects. Once the records were made, they were delivered to Warner. And Paisley -- Prince, Cavallo and Fargnoli -- were completely dependent on whatever enthusiasm Warner might have for those projects which, quite honestly, wasn’t that great.” (LeMans gets co-songwriting credit on “Good Morning,” from Lenny Kravitz’s 2008 It Is Time for a Love Revolution.)
Paisley Park’s final phase involved the signing of veteran artists George Clinton and Mavis Staples in 1989. But their albums -- Clinton’s The Cinderella Theory and Staples’ Time Waits for No One -- failed to find an audience. A flirtation with Bonnie Raitt ended with her signing to Capitol Records instead, later earning an album of the year Grammy for Nick of Time. Out of touch hip-hop releases from Minneapolis rapper T.C. Ellis and Prince paramour Carmen Electra came and went in 1991 and 1993, respectively. Mexican-American poet Ingrid Chavez released May 19, 1992 with none of the success of Madonna’s “Justify My Love,” which she’d co-written with Lenny Kravitz.
The Artist Formerly Known as Prince phase of his career started in 1993, as Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol as a way out of his Warner Bros. contract. The parent label shuttered its distribution deal with Paisley Park Records in 1994, after two failed jazz efforts from saxophonist Eric Leeds and sophomore releases by George Clinton and Mavis Staples. From 1985 to 1993, none of the Paisley Park artists even went platinum. But in those eight years, the label’s currently out-of-print albums became beloved favorites to the hardest of the hardcore Prince fans.