Shfl Guide: Paisley Park

From Prince and 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 synthpop, funk and new wave pioneered by Prince in the 1980s) characteristic to 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 Top 20: Sheila E.’s “A Love Bizarre” (# 11), The Time’s “Jerk Out” (# 11) and “Round and Round” (# 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). 

The precursor to Paisley Park was Prince’s pseudonymous production vehicle The Starr Company (or Jamie Starr). After four years under contract with Warner Bros., Prince brought The Time to the label—the funky R&B outfit fronted by his former high school bandmate, drummer Morris Day. In ’81, the group’s self-titled debut album was released, with production accredited to Starr. By August ’82, both The Time’s What Time Is It? and the self-titled debut of Vanity 6 (led by Prince’s girlfriend, Denise Matthews/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.

Paisley Park Records started out much the same way, with 1985 albums by Sheila E. (the gold-selling Romance 1600, featuring the hit Prince duet “A Love Bizarre”) and The Family. The label was named for “Paisley Park,” a psychedelic funk track from Around the World in a Day that also serves as the namesake of Prince’s newly constructed $10 million studio in suburban Chanhassen, Minnesota.

Early Paisley Park albums by protégé acts The Family, Sheila E. and Jill Jones were all 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 Morris Day left to pursue a solo career, 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 March 1986, Paisley Park dropped Mazarati—its first release not secretly produced, written and performed mostly by Prince himself. Though Prince gifted the funk-rock septet “100 MPH” (a Top 20 R&B hit) and rewrote lyrics to two of the album’s eight songs (“Strawberry Lover,” “I Guess It’s All Over”), the rest of the record showcased the writing and production skills of Prince’s bassist from the Revolution, Brown Mark

Lead singer Casey Terry and the whole Mazarati outfit resembled an R&B twist on the glam-metal group Cinderella: heavy makeup, costume pearls and colorful floral-print pantsuits—a look designed by Prince himself. Prince presented only three songs for the album: “100 MPH,” “Jerk Out” (rejected, it later became a hit for The Time) and “Kiss,” which was ultimately pulled. In its original form, “Kiss” had more of a folk-blues feeling, far from the funk tune it became. Brown Mark and engineer David Z radically changed its arrangement, adding the Mazarati background vocals that remained on the final version and turning it into such a great song that Prince kept it for his own album, Parade. “Kiss” became a Grammy winner for Prince and the Revolution, climbing to number one on the pop chart. The Mazarati album never rose beyond #133.

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 1988 solo album Riot in English, but “Simon Simon” was the Top 40 dance hit from the album.

Also 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. The underground rock quartet failed to build any traction on the charts though, despite the Prince-penned single “Neon Telephone.” Milli Vanilli-esque sibling duo Good Question released a washout self-titled album without any Prince tunes that year as well, though the since forgotten single “Got a New Love” worked its way to number one on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart. 

The more promising singer-songwriter Tony LeMans, whose musical aesthetic was most similar to Prince’s out of everyone on the label, dropped a self-titled debut full of funk, pop and soul in 1989. LeMans’s short-lived career ended in a fatal motorcycle accident in 1992. His wedding with Vanity’s sister, DeBorah Matthews, had been planned for the following day. (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 Chavez had 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 of the hardest of the hardcore Prince fans.

Sign ‘O’ the Times cover

Not since 1999 (released in 1982) had Prince gone it alone without The Revolution, the bandmates intimately familiar to everyone who’d seen his mega-successful Purple Rain magnum opus on the silver screen. In his first strictly solo album in five years, Prince proved his mastery over rock (“I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”), funk (“Housequake”), R&B (“Adore”), patented purple musicality (“The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”) and all points in between beyond the shadow of any doubt. Sign o’ the Times is a double-album masterpiece in a career that can claim at least five of them.

The Family cover

The Family—formed to replace Prince’s previous protégé funk band, The Time—distinguished itself with string arrangements by Clare Fischer and the saxophone of Eric Leeds. Prince positioned 19-year-old St. Paul Peterson as the matinee idol lead singer and installed his girlfriend, Susannah Melvoin, as Peterson’s co-lead. Instrumentals “Susannah’s Pajamas” and “Yes” padded out The Family’s eight tracks, Prince playing every instrument on the whole album except sax. Peterson abandoned the group by the time “The Screams of Passion” became The Family’s only hit. But “Nothing Compares 2 U” arguably outshines both the Prince and Sinéad O’Connor versions.

May 19, 1992 cover

Speak-singing breathy vocals over atmospheric dance beats, 26-year-old Mexican-American poet Ingrid Chavez could have inspired an entire movement of slam poets with May 19, 1992. She’d already appeared on Lovesexy, written Madonna a number-one hit (“Justify My Love”) by way of producer Lenny Kravitz, and co-starred in Prince’s commercially ill-fated Purple Rain sequel, Graffiti Bridge. Her album boasts Prince-produced singles like “Heaven Must Be Near” and “Elephant Box,” as well as the Michael Koppelman-produced “Hippy Blood,” an underrated standout. Nothing charted. Chavez rode her disillusionment with the recording industry away from the music business for almost 20 years.

Parade [Music From the Motion Picture Under the Cherry Moon] cover

Parade (Prince’s eighth album, his third and final with backing band The Revolution) casts a broad influence — its eclectic funk, jazz and pop-rock fusion affecting numerous neo-soul albums over a decade later. “Kiss” and “Girls & Boys” shine here, but the true secret weapon is the string arrangements of Clare Fischer, which give Parade a uniquely European feel (“I Wonder U,” “Venus de Milo”). Even brighter moments flared from the 12-inch releases: the majestic, unedited "Mountains,” plus “Alexa de Paris” and “Love or Money” on the B-sides. Peak Prince happens here.

Romance 1600 cover

The Amadeus biopic of 1984 influenced the look of Sheila E.’s sophomore album, but the true Mozart of Romance 1600 was Prince, who wrote, produced and played almost the entire thing. Prince’s estate released his rendition of “Dear Michaelangelo” on 2019’s Originals; Sheila’s version is a standout here, along with the closing ballad “Bedtime Story” and their 12-minute duet, “A Love Bizarre.” Sax by Eddie Mininfield and Sheila’s own Latin percussion provide Romance 1600 a distinctive sound compared to all the other platters Prince had his hand in at the time.

Around the World in a Day cover

Around the World in a Day served as the opening salvo of Prince’s Paisley Park Records imprint, a magical mystery tour of funk that followed up Purple Rain in the best possible way: by going completely left. He’d never been as emotionally mature or Joni Mitchell moody as on “Condition of the Heart.” The album also heralded a sonic expansion with Middle Eastern instruments (oud, darbuka, finger cymbals on the title track), orchestral strings (“Raspberry Beret”) and saxophone (“Temptation,” “The Ladder”). Often underappreciated, it’s still Prince’s second-biggest-selling album of the ’80s.

16 cover

Recorded mainly by Prince and saxophonist Eric Leeds in one week, 16 dropped a mere 10 months after Madhouse’s 8. More of an instrumental funk album than a jazz record, 16 included Sheila E. and bassist Levi Seacer Jr. (“Ten,” “Eleven,” and “Fifteen”) as well as Matt Fink (“Sixteen”). Jazz-funky snatches of “Chopsticks” and “The Sound of Music” crop up on the opening track; the album on a whole coheres around samples of dialogue from The Godfather. Never again would Prince go to such absurd lengths to pretend he had nothing to do with an act he wrote and played almost everything for.

Lovesexy cover

In ’88, Prince’s naked cover pose on Lovesexy made it controversial. Since then, many fans have marked Lovesexy as the last Prince album in the lineage of his 1980s genius streak, which is its own controversy. “Alphabet St.” features a funky guitar jangle (an answer to George Michael’s “Faith”?) and rapping by backup dancer Cat Glover, Prince’s first real wrangling with hip-hop. The heart of the album lies in its spiritual center (“Anna Stesia,” “Positivity”), which is the main reason why he recorded and released Lovesexy instead of the down-and-dirty Black Album it replaced.

Jill Jones cover

Among Prince’s 1980s side projects, Jill Jones sounded like an extension of The Family/Parade sound — most identifiable by the addition of horn instruments and orchestral strings to his music, with Jill’s soulful vocals layered over his pop tracks. The feel of Jill Jones recalls purple music filtered through Europe: see the Italian hook of lead single “Mia Bocca” and its Jean-Baptiste Mondino-directed video, or the French accordion interlude on the lovely “Violet Blue.” Aside from Sheila E., Jill Jones remains the most multifaceted, layered persona of all the so-called Prince protégés. This album is why.

8 cover

Eight instrumental tunes — entitled “One,” “Two,” “Three,” etc. — make up the 38-minute album, 8. Jazzman Prince layering his piano and keyboards on top of his own bass, on top of his own drums, continuously reacting to himself as a stranger from a musician’s point of view, is Prince earning his musical genius reputation. Saxophone and flute came courtesy of Eric Leeds (of Prince’s backing band, The Revolution); sax and keyboard variations of a sinuous musical riff center “Six” (a top 10 single) in a funky, rhythmic groove. The best part? No one knew Madhouse was Prince. (Translation: everybody knew Madhouse was Prince.)