With the disbanding of The Time and Apollonia 6 after the whirlwind promotional monster that was Purple Rain, Prince needed another funk outfit to re-direct his creative energies. Poaching members of the Purple Rain-era version of The Time (Paul Peterson, Jellybean Johnson, Jerome Benton), adding then girlfriend Susannah Melvoin and touring saxophonist Eric Leeds, he created The Family.
Where The Time was known for their funk and dance material, The Family would become recognized for their funk as well, but also their horn and string arrangements. The latter having been orchestrated by the legendary Clare Fischer, whom Prince would go on to work with again immediately for the Parade LP the following year in addition to periodically over the next couple of decades.
Prince selected The Time keyboardist Paul “St. Paul” Peterson to be the group’s lead singer with Susannah Melvoin acting as backing vocalist. Both Peterson and Melvoin’s faces grace the album cover, the “faces” of the band so to speak. Johnson would be the band’s drummer, Leeds on the saxophone and Benton listed as “percussion”. Benton was always more of a dancer/personality than a musician during his tenure with The Time and his strong screen presence in Purple Rain alongside Morris Day, would lead him to a large role in Prince’s next film, Under the Cherry Moon.
I imagine that in late 1984, early 1985, Prince had big plans for The Family. They were multi-ethnic, multi-gender and their variable skill sets allowed them up to be a literal tour de force on stage. However, that wasn’t meant to be. The Family played only one live show, at First Ave in August of 1985, before Peterson left the band to focus on a solo career. As the story goes according to Peterson, he sensed that Prince could not give The Family the proper focus it needed to thrive while he was off in France starring and directing Under the Cherry Moon. A solo offer from another record company was presented to him and he took it. Prince held a grudge towards Peterson for quite some time, referring to him as “just another sucker in the dream factory” on the then unreleased “Dream Factory” song mean for the Crystal Ball project.
One album, one live performance as The Family (there have been other performances by the reunited members this past decade as fDeluxe) and a legacy that includes a modest hit (“The Screams of Passion”) and a non-hit that became a worldwide smash for Sinead O’Connor five years later (“Nothing Compares 2 U”). 35 years after the self titled release of The Family, fans of the record lament it never received a follow up or the band as an opening act on Prince’s Parade tour. So what were we left with? 8 tracks of horn and string based funk with a plethora of musical ideas that Prince would eventually feed into the jazz-funk fusion side project, Madhouse as well as on his own next album, Parade.
High Fashion – The album kicks off with an odd sounding, slightly off kilter, flute based tune that sounds like its coming from a child’s toy, not unlike the opening track to The Time’s Ice Cream Castles. After those interesting opening notes, the funk guitar and upbeat drum beat bring the listener back to earth. Peterson sings about a “spoiled rich girl” and how he has to spend all of his money to keep up with his girl’s lifestyle. At one point he affects a humorous Jamie Starr/Morris Day accent (“Honey, I’m ridin’ in back of a Rolls Royce limo custom-painted plaid!”) that sounds a little odd coming from him. Nevertheless, Peterson remains the star of this particular track, his vocals shining throughout. It’s clear that besides his multi-instrumental talents (keyboards, bass guitar), Peterson has a voice designed for the Minneapolis funk that Prince was making in the ’80s. Additionally, Melvoin’s backing voice fits nicely with the song. 4/5
Mutiny – The album’s next track blends in perfectly with the opener, with a seamless transition. “Mutiny” isn’t the most lyrically in depth song throughout the verses, but the chorus, “Mutiny! I said I’m takin’ over!”, is memorable and catchy. Eric Leed’s horns accentuate the chorus and the earworm hook elevates the song despite the lackluster lyrics. Top notch chorus, funky horns and keyboards plus a relentless drum beat remain keys to this great funk song. Peterson’s vocals again shine. 4/5
The Screams of Passion – The album’s standout song and first released single is next on the album’s track listing. Melvoin’s vocals are highlighted more in this track than any other on the album. She has a strong voice, so I am unsure why she never received an opportunity to sing lead vocals on any song from this album. I envisioned The Family as more of a Fleetwood Mac style band, with male and female leads switching back and forth, but it’s really not. At least for this song, Peterson and Melvoin sing the lines on top of each other, layered perfectly to suggest they are singing the song about each other.
“The Screams of Passion” remains one of Prince’s most famous compositions that was earmarked for another artist or group. Prince’s rehearsal version of this track is a personal favorite of mine. While the “scream” towards the middle of the song as well as the music video are a bit cheesy 35 years later, the song remains an important example of Prince’s synth pop-funk at his peak mid-’80s superpowers. The song’s overall sound deviates from the horn based funk we’d heard on the first two tracks, but it certainly doesn’t suffer for it. It’s hypnotic synths, woozy sound effects percolating in the background, pounding drum machine beat and perfectly utilized Clare Fischer strings make this one a stone cold classic. 5/5
Yes – The first of two instrumentals, precursors to the Madhouse projects, is an excuse for Prince to mash up funk bass and synths with Eric Leed’s saxophone stylings. No complaints here and it’s a nice ending to the album’s first side. 3.5/5
River Runs Dry – A mid-tempo track that effectively utilizes Peterson and Melvoin’s intertwined vocals again to create the necessary melodrama that a break-up song such as this requires. Claire Fischer’s strings are again showcased throughout this song as well as one of the best drum beats (electronic as well live, presumably performed by Prince) on the album. This track is notable for being the only song not written by Prince, instead written by Revolution drummer, Bobby Z. This possibly explains why drums make such a prominent appearance on this song, sounding higher in the mix than on others thus far. 3/5
Nothing Compares 2 U – While “Screams of Passion” was the biggest hit off the album, this is the song that many people know The Family for after 1990. The original released version (of course, Prince’s guide version that was released in 2019, is technically the first) of this heartbreaking track, is filled with tearfully emoted lyrics sung spectacularly by Peterson. It’s hard to say without a shadow of the doubt that this version is the definitive version. There’s the original Prince version, the Prince and Rosie Gaines version that was released on the Hits collection from ’93, the mega popular Sinead O’Connor version…I mean, what’s a fan of this song to think? Regardless of which version you prefer, you cannot deny this version for its impact as THE FIRST.
Peterson & Melvoin shine over a bare bones synth line with string arrangement for more melodramatic effect. Leed’s sax is essentially the song’s guitar solo two-thirds of the way through the song. The album’s only true ballad is wonderfully executed by everyone involved. Kudos. 4.5/5
Susannah’s Pajamas – The second instrumental on the album shares the same name as the band’s co-lead vocalist but there’s still no Susannah Melvoin lead vocal! On a song that bears her name! Weird. Anyway, this is another sax, synth and drumbeat song that’s upbeat but without much danceability behind it. No matter, it’s pleasant enough to listen to and doesn’t overstay its welcome. 3/5
Desire – The album finale, a mid-tempo number about the effects of desire on two people that barely know each other, and one happens to be dating a solider(?!?!) is one of the strongest tracks in my opinion. It truly feels like a (nearly) full band track with Peterson and Melvoin on vocals, Leeds on sax, a slow, steady drum beat from Prince. There’s also the distinct sound of maracas (I think?) and Clare Fischer, an unofficial member of the band based on input for this record, add his orchestral strings for extra weight. The song fades out, then back in amidst a swell of water/waves in order to bring more xylophone, strings, maracas, drums and that gorgeous melody it all creates. A beautiful song. 5/5