Albums from the Lost and Found: The Family

by Jeff Fiedler

Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.

For all the countless protégés Prince mentored over his many decades as a performer, few actually amounted to much crossover commercial success. The Time certainly broke through the pop mainstream with the Ice Cream Castle sides “Jungle Love” and “The Bird” (although it’s oft-overlooked that the band actually didn’t have its biggest pop hit until briefly reuniting in 1990 and reaching the Top Ten with the impossibly catchy “Jerk-Out”) , and Sheila E. made a name for herself with the Top Ten smash “The Glamorous Life” and the #11-peaking “A Love Bizarre” (featured in, though sadly not included on the soundtrack to, Krush Groove), the latter of which became such a phenomenon that even new-age guitarist Michael Hedges covered it (and mighty well, at that!). But few others – from early proteges Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6 to later discoveries like Tamar and Bria Valente – ever amounted to much, and The Family was no different – not only did The Family only ever release one album, they only ever played one concert! But though the group was short-lived and had little commercial success, their sole album, a 1985 self-titled affair issued through Prince’s own Paisley Park imprint, is truly one of the great hidden gems of the ‘80s – its second side alone more than justifies the price of admission (remarkable indeed for a disc boasting just eight cuts, two of them instrumentals) – and is a must-own for any enthusiasts of Minneapolis funk.

Technically, the Family was a splinter group from The Time. When Morris Day left that band for a solo career (which would later result in the fabulous crossover hit “Fishnet,” but sadly little else in the way of commercial success), the group more or less split into two parts:  guitarist Jesse Johnson and latter-day members Mark Cardenas and Gerry Hubbard would go off to form Jesse Johnson’s Revue, while  keyboardist Paul Peterson (going under the moniker “St. Paul”), drummer Jellybean Johnson, and percussionist/backing vocalist Jerome Benton – at the instigation of Prince – would regroup as part of The Family alongside Prince’s then-fiancee Susannah Melvoin (the twin sister of Revolution member Wendy Melvoin) and saxophonist Eric Leeds.

Assuming you believe the writing credits, Prince is responsible for penning just one song here, but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise since this material would fit in effortlessly on nearly any actual Prince album from the same time period, particularly Parade, which can’t be said about the Time and Sheila E. albums that had preceded it. The Family’s brand of funk is both more experimental and psychedelic than that of most of their Paisley Park peers – more “Raspberry Beret” than “The Glamorous Life” –yet it still packs plenty enough pop appeal for those less familiar with the Minneapolis funk scene of the time.

Just as remarkably, nearly every last non-instrumental song here has a hook that will lodge itself into your head for hours – even days – on end and sounds as if it should have been a sizable pop hit (even the jazzy funk instrumental “Susannah’s Pajamas,” showing off the great sax work of Leeds, warrants repeated listens itself), and it’s a safe bet that this disc could have been a fairly big crossover success had the band simply lasted long enough to promote it. “River Run Dry,” given to the band by The Revolution drummer Bobby Z, sounds like a more danceable spin on “When Doves Cry,” both every bit as infectious and nearly every bit as raw in its production, boasting little in the way of instrumentation beyond drums and a string section straight out of “Take Me with U.” The hypnotic closing ballad “Desire” plinks along in sultry fashion before giving way to a clever fake ending that employs the sound of crashing ocean waves. 

The utterly brilliant “The Screams of Passion,” both penned by and sung as a duet between St. Paul and Melvoin, sounds like a pastiche of several later Prince-penned hits, fusing the slinky groove of “Mountains” with the lite psychedelia of “Raspberry Beret” and the minimalist melody of “A Love Bizarre.” The song did deservedly reach the Hot 100 (and make the Top Ten on the R&B charts), but it sadly stalled at #63, well below what it should have based on quality alone. “Mutiny,” credited to Benton, and “High Fashion,” meanwhile, sounds as if they could have fit effortlessly onto any prior Time album, and if the latter cut ends up paling in comparison to the other tracks here, it’s not because of the songwriting but, rather, the absence of Morris Day, whose trademark vocal sass might have made a better fit for the lite novelty of the cut than St. Paul, whose own style is more dramatic than it is playful.

Speaking of St. Paul, you might never guess from looking at the cover of this disc that Peterson could project much as a vocalist, but that he does on the most famous song here, a Prince-penned ballad entitled “Nothing Compares 2 U” that would be rescued from complete obscurity five years later by, surprisingly enough, Irish alt-rocker Sinead O’Connor and top the American and U.K. charts alike. [Prince would subsequently take to performing the song himself at shows, a live version of which would be included on the best-of package The Hits 1, while his own studio version would not be released until 2018.] The version presented here wasn’t released as a single, and it’s not hard to see why – it’s less noticeably commercial than O’Connor’s version, lacking any sort of drum track. [In fact, there appears to be no other instrumentation here beyond a string section, some very unobtrusive synthesizer, and a deliciously warped sax solo from Leeds.] But while the arrangement may have been a tad too avant-garde to have caught fire on the airwaves, it’s both arguably superior to – and certainly more intensely passionate than – O’Connor’s icy take, and Peterson’s performance on the ballad will surely make your jaw drop. It’s not as electric as his mentor’s vocal on “Purple Rain,” perhaps, but it’s certainly much closer to that same level of power and passion than you might expect. Simply, the guy can sing, and it’s surely a shame he’s not better-known.

Following the group’s sudden breakup, Peterson would pursue a solo career (retaining the “St. Paul” moniker) to modest success before joining The Steve Miller Band in the late ‘80s (he’d later serve as a sideman to Kenny Loggins and co-produce Oleta Adams’ album Let’s Stay Here) and Johnson would go on to work extensively with his former Time bandmates Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ production outfit Flyte Time, even co-producing Janet Jacksons’s chart-topping “Black Cat.” Melvoin and Leeds would remain within Prince’s immediate musical family and be absorbed into The Revolution, Melvoin even co-writing the Sign ‘o the Times highlight “Starfish and Coffee.” The band members all remained friends, though, and they’d reunite – as a quartet, minus Benton – under the new moniker fDeluxe in 2011 and have issued two additional full-lengths (as well as a live package and a remix disc) since then, 2011’s Gaslight and 2014’s AM Static.