In news that had Prince fans everywhere FOMOing, Paisley Park Records’ old “alternative funk” band The Family – now the supergroup fDeluxe – announced an exclusive five-night residency at swish Melbourne jazz club Bird’s Basement in early October. It was billed as a “tribute” to their mentor Prince, who died in April. We bopped along.
“Obviously we have a long legacy with Prince,” says “St” Paul Peterson, lead vocalist and bassist, his voice husky off-stage. “He wrote an entire record for us in The Family, so that’s really the tribute right there – and the fact that we’re still together as a band is a tribute to him.”
The Minnesotan is in town with other core fDeluxe members Garry “Jellybean” Johnson (guitar) and Eric Leeds (horns) – plus industry veteran Oliver Leiber (guitar), Brian Ziemniak (keys) and, alluringly for ’90s R&B freaks, Stokley Williams (drums). Williams usually fronts the neo-soul group Mint Condition. Alas, absent is Peterson’s co-singer Susannah Melvoin. “She is unable to perform most of the time with us because she’s a mom first – and we respect that,” Peterson explains. “It’s too bad, because we miss her, but it is what it is.” The Californian found herself a single parent when her marriage to rocker Doyle Bramhall II ended, unfortunately attracting UK tabloid attention…
In Melbourne, fDeluxe fulfil 10 shows over the five days – some Prince devotees attending multiple times. Rocking up on the final evening, amid Melbourne’s wild weather, is REMI’s Sensible J.
So prolific was Prince that in the ’80s he sought new outlets for his music, becoming a supreme ghostwriter. He introduced The Time, a funk force, Vanity 6 (later Apollonia 6), a girl group, and pop percussionist Sheila E. In this way, Prince put Minneapolis (‘MPLS’) on the soul, R&B and funk map.
The Purple One worked with artists from diverse backgrounds, his vision post-racial – and utopian. While these many Prince ‘associates’ didn’t always experience significant commercial success, they acquired cult followings. (Trust us, Carmen Electra’s hip-hop album was actually CrazySexyCool.) Ironically, in The Time, centred around charismatic frontman Morris Day and his comedic foil Jerome Benton, Prince created a Godzilla. The rivalry between them and his own band The Revolution wasn’t restricted to Purple Rain, Prince’s quasi-bio-pic. There was drama early. Prince infamously fired The Time’s founding members James “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis, who were moonlighting as producers, after they missed a show due to a snowstorm. Not that the pair regretted it – the song they’d been recording was The SOS Band’s enduring Just Be Good To Me. Jam & Lewis subsequently guided Janet Jackson’s Control. By the ’90s, they were urban super-producers. They took keyboardist Monte Moir with ’em.
Prince reformulated The Time, adding Peterson on keys. The blonde Scandinavian kid came from a respected clan of musicians – and, at 17, was already gigging locally. This incarnation of The Time cameoed in Purple Rain. It didn’t last – Day quit to follow his star(dom). Prince then conceived a new group with The Time’s residual members – drummer Jellybean Johnson, Benton and Peterson. Joining them was the mysterious horns player Eric Leeds, brother of Prince’s tour manager Alan. And Prince determined that Peterson should share vocals with Susannah Melvoin, the twin sister of The Revolution’s guitarist, Wendy. Susannah was Prince’s great love – and muse.
The Family launched with 1985’s eponymous album of funk noir on Paisley Park Records – which Prince had instituted with Warner’s backing post-Purple Rain. Admiring the luxe-soul of Chicago’s Rufus, Susannah suggested that Prince commission Clare Fischer to arrange strings for the LP – and Prince continued to liaise with him. The Family’s first single was The Screams Of Passion. Still, the outfit was to be transitory. They played the one (sold-out) show at Minneapolis’ fabled First Avenue. Before album two, Peterson went solo.
A multi-instrumentalist, Peterson established himself as an elite sessionist (this year providing bass for Peter Frampton). Johnson switched to Jam & Lewis’ Flyte Tyme fold, producing Mint Condition’s classic debut Meant To Be Mint – “they’re like my musical sons to this day,” the lowkey legend says – and Janet’s metal ‘n’ B smash Black Cat. Leeds committed to Prince’s stable, emerging as an integral cog in the instrumental jazz-fusion project Madhouse – feted by Chicago house and Detroit techno stalwarts. Susannah, too, stuck around as in-house singer. She co-wrote Prince’s Starfish And Coffee on Sign O’ The Times. (Later, Susannah appeared in the credits of Madonna’s Ray Of Light.)
However, The Family weren’t forgotten. In 1990 Sinéad O’Connor randomly blew up globally with her epic, orchestrated cover of their deep cut Nothing Compares 2 U (NC2U), which Prince had written for Susannah during a lovers tiff. Prince reclaimed NC2U for himself – his live duet with soul diva Rosie Gaines surfacing on ‘hits’ comps. But O’Connor’s ballad, helmed by Massive Attack affiliate Nellee Hooper, remains influential – Madonna emulating it at the Billboard Music Awards.
Peterson remembers feeling “shock” when he first heard O’Connor’s version on pop radio. “At the time I did not care for it – I really didn’t,” he admits. “It was different – and I think the sentiment of the song was not conveyed like it was in the original. With the strings, it was really more emotional I think in the delivery that we had – even the crying video of Sinéad… But who am I to judge what’s emotional and what’s not? I think that she did a beautiful job for what she does on that song.” Nonetheless, Peterson considers his rendition “the best treatment”. The group recently recut NC2U, with the Minneapolis ensemble STRINGenius, to mark “seven hours and 13 days” since Prince’s passing.
The Family initially reformed in the noughties at Sheila E’s prompting for a charity event in Los Angeles – then again at a Grammy afterparty hosted by superfan Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots. Inspired, Peterson and Susannah prepped fresh material, working in the latter’s garage – and, crucially, convinced Leeds. Yet, when Prince discovered their plans, he insisted on a name change – hence the fDeluxe rebrand. The album Gaslight aired in 2011 to strong reviews. Did Prince scope it out? “I’m certain he did,” Peterson laughs. “He didn’t call me on the phone and go, ‘Wow, I really loved the Gaslight record,’ no. But he had a unique way of supporting people who he loved and who he had history with. I think he was proud of us.” Indeed, in September 2015 Prince invited Peterson and Leeds to perform with their jazz combo LP Music at Paisley Park.
For the grieving associates, revisiting Prince’s songs has been therapeutic. Says Johnson, “I knew him since I was 11-years-old, so it really hit home for me.” In Minneapolis, the seasoned muso enjoys playing material from Prince’s very first album For You – coincidentally the era adored by Moodymann – in cover bands.
The fDeluxe Melbourne set spans songs new and old. They open with High Fashion – taut MPLS funk – from their Prince-composed debut. The gracefully wiry Leeds showcases his sax on Leeds Line – a Gaslight groove. Following Screams…, fDeluxe turns Prince’s own America (off Around The World In A Day), a band fave, into an extended jam. Peterson sings a phenomenal NC2U – bluesier, and more gospeldelic, than even Prince’s, his voice soulfully pliable. They close with Mutiny, another Prince number.
Fans and industry types have speculated about the unreleased music that lies in Prince’s mythic vaults at Paisley Park – and whether it should be heard or not. Sighs Johnson, “I’m torn between that because I know there are some amazing songs in there. I also know there’s albums from The Time and there’s probably some more Family tunes and our stuff that never saw light of day. It would be great for the public to hear that. But, then, I know for a fact that [Prince] was a private person. I actually was one of the few privileged people to go down with him in that vault… I’m torn. I’ma sit back and see if the powers that be do the right thing by it and hopefully nothing comes out that makes me feel bad.”