Prince Proteges the Family Return as fDeluxe, Talk Purple One's Peculiarities
Nov 18th 2011 5:00PM by Kenneth Partridge
In the mid-'80s, Prince was unstoppable. The songs were coming so fast and furious that he couldn't record and release them all himself, and he needed proxy bands to disseminate his poppy punk-funk brilliance. After the breakup of one such outfit, Morris Day and the Time -- the group he and the Revolution square off against in the film 'Purple Rain' -- Prince tapped keyboardist Paul Peterson and then-fiancee Susannah Melvoin to front a new group. Dubbed the Family, the band recorded only one album -- a 1985 self-titled gem best remembered for containing the original version of 'Nothing Compares 2 U,' later a smash for Sinead O'Connor.
After a pair of '00s reunion shows, the group is back with a new album, 'Gaslight,' and a new name, fDeluxe, the latter a result of the Purple One threatening legal action. Despite the ugliness of a potential lawsuit, Peterson, Melvoin, saxophonist Eric Leeds and drummer Jellybean Johnson have made a record of jazzy, funky pop, revisiting the Minneapolis sound of the '80s while also moving forward. In an interview with Spinner, three-fourths of fDeluxe discussed their days with Prince -- a control-freak genius with mad b-ball skills -- and groovy new album.
It's been said the Family was a testing ground for Prince's songs. Is that a fair assessment of what you were?
Paul Peterson: He wanted to create something that would be funky but get into some of that Duran Duran money at the same time.
Eric Leeds: Prince wanted a vehicle that was not something that was going to be branded as Prince but would still be a musical forum for him to do more overtly R&B-influenced music. You had an R&B-influenced band that was going to be fronted by a white guy and a white girl. That was something that was a bit out of the ordinary for that time. Prince said, "We can be funky, and we can be R&B, but let's go get some of that Duran Duran money."
You hear so many stories about Prince's crazy behavior. Are they true? Was he somewhat normal?
Peterson: We've known and worked with many, many geniuses in our lifetime, and usually, geniuses are a couple of tacos shy of a fiesta platter. There will be signs of normalcy, but not a whole lot of them. And I mean that with all due respect. He didn't necessarily deal with me on a day-to-day basis. It was strictly business with me. I can literally say we played pool three or four times. We shot baskets three or four times.
Jellybean Johnson: As kids, it was a little better. We played basketball. We jammed from time to time and stuff like that. If you call that normalcy, than yeah. The other stuff came later, as he got big.
fDeluxe Perform in Minneapolis
People must ask you all the time about the 'Chappelle's Show' sketch in which Charlie Murphy talks about getting schooled by Prince on the basketball court. Did he ever make you pancakes after playing?
Johnson: He never made me pancakes, but I'm sure there's some truth to that.
Peterson: The dude can shoot with some high heels on!
Johnson: He can play basketball. I'll give him that, too. He's short, but he can play basketball.
When you started working with him, what were your first thoughts?
Leeds: I was the ringer. Being the saxophone player, I was playing an instrument he didn't play. This was the first project I was aware of where he wanted to have a saxophone involved. I came from a somewhat different background. I was, as a player, more jazz, and the funk and R&B I listened to was straight-up James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic. For me, Prince didn't really fit into that, so I didn't come in being a starry-eyed fan. Basically, I shook hands with Prince, and five minutes later, we were recording. My respect and my relationship with Prince grew from that.
Peterson: My brother-in-law's first cousin is [former Revolution drummer] Bobby Z. I got a call from my brother-in-law saying, "I got you an audition as the keyboard player with the Time." I said, "When is it?" "He said, "In two days -- get your ass home."
The first day, Prince was not there, but he was there the second day. I was a little intimidated by him because, number one, I'm green. Number two, I'm from the suburbs. I knew more about bebop and Stevie Wonder and that kind of stuff. Black music wasn't a totally foreign thing for me, but his brand of black music was a foreign thing.
He was trying to calm my nerves. He did the whole thing where he makes you write down "wreck a stow." "What is it?" he said. "Say it." And I said, "Wreck a stow." And he said, "Say it fast." And he said, "Where do you buy your records?" Ha-ha-ha. He broke the ice. He's actually very cool. He proceeded to pick out clothes with me for the 'Purple Rain movie.' He had swatches of clothing. I went for the straight, normal black pinstriped suit, and he picked out the orange suit for me, so that was a tale of things to come, shall we say.
Johnson: I've known him since I was 12 years old. We were in rival bands. As kids, it was easier to be friends with him, versus when he became a big star. He turned into a big star and became the boss. I have a few friends like that -- it changes. I guess that's normal. I don't think it should be that way, but it is.
The original Family album is notable for including the first version of 'Nothing Compares 2 U.' Could you tell it had potential to be a giant hit?
Peterson: What was special about not only 'Nothing Compares 2 U,' but the whole record -- first of all, it was some of the greatest songs of all time. 'Nothing Compares 2 U is this heartfelt, haunting, beautiful piece of poetry and music -- but made more beautiful by what [orchestral arranger] Clare Fischer had done to it. I strive to be like him because of his harmonic sense. I thought he brought such an element of class, an element of bebop over the top of these two-chord funk wonders.
Paul, when you and Susannah wrote this new record, how did you go about referencing the past but also looking forward?
Peterson: We didn't sit down in a room and think, "Oh, we've got to try to beat the Family record," or, "We've got to copy the Family record." It was literally seeing what would come out. We had no idea. We'd never written with each other before. We would just be in a vulnerable spot, as all writers are when you get into a room.
Our background come from the same spot. We have that common bond. We knew that was going to be a presence, because it's part of our history. It's not only Prince's history. It's our history. We were characters in his play, but we lived there. We were in the house.
Prince blocked you guys from using the name the Family. Did it surprise you or hurt your feelings, or was it just Prince being Prince?
Johnson: It was Prince being Prince. It's all about control with him, man.
Peterson: My stock answer is: "The name was no longer available, thank you very much." Honestly, the Family is a great name. It's a brand. Was it his name that he came up with? Yeah. But we were the Family. However, legally, my wife likes her house...
The bottom line is, in the modern day, the way we were going to market this was grassroots online. If you Google "the Family," you might get Family Planning first, before you find the Family. To change it was not such a horrible thing.