[9 June 2009]
In March 2009, Prince launched his new website in conjunction with a limited release 3CD set. The physical package bundled two new Prince Cds, LotusFlow3r and MPLSound, along with a third CD (Elixer), by protégée Bria Valente. I thought, “It’s been a long time since Prince went the mentor route.” There was a glimpse of it in 2006 with Tamar, but it was short lived.
This prompted me to compile a list of albums by Prince Associates. Here were the ground rules.
First, albums that were clearly “Prince side projects” were excluded. Albums by the N.P.G. and the jazz fusion ensemble Madhouse wouldn’t work, although I think there might be a case to be made for the first N.P.G. record. But—oh, well.
Second, the albums had to be from artists who weren’t famous independently of Prince. So, take the Prince-produced Chaka Khan album Come 2 My House. That album’s not going to fly on this list because Chaka Khan was already a megastar before she got into the studio with Prince. Actually, she was already a big deal when she remade Prince’s “I Feel for You” in the ‘80s. The idea is that the artists in this lists are known because of their association with Prince. This put me in a tough spot with one artist that I did include (you’ll see), as well as a band I didn’t include (The Bangles, since they scored a hit with Prince’s “Manic Monday”). I concluded that having a song written for you by Prince wasn’t enough. You have to be purified in the waters of Lake Menatanka, or at least know what that means.
Third, the accomplishments of the artist could sway the position of the album on the overall list. That is, the artist’s album might not be all that great, but the impact of the album, or a song on the album, could make the whole thing noteworthy.
Here we go:
1. The Time: Ice Cream Castle (1984)
The top honor in the pantheon of Prince associates goes to The Time. Their lineup was action packed with freakishly funky musicians: Morris Day, Jellybean Johnson, Monte Moir, Jesse Johnson, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and Jerome Benton. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis ended up leaving the group, although you’ll hear the people who aren’t obsessed with Prince saying they “got fired” on Prince’s recommendation. Mark Cardenas, St. Paul Peterson, and Jerry Hubbard joined later. With and without Jam and Lewis, The Time remains the funkiest and tightest of the purple bunch, and nothing showcases this better than Ice Cream Castle.
Ice Cream Castle is to The Time what Purple Rain is to Prince: a streamlined, consciously commercial version of the band’s Minneapolis flow. It seems calculated to fit the themes of the Purple Rain movie, where The Time’s all-the-way-bold attitude and slick presentation would contrast the Revolution’s icier slice of Baroque pop. The Time dressed in suits and acted like “playas”. The Revolution dressed like extras from the movie Amadeus and acted the way “serious musicians” are supposed to. The song “Chili Sauce”, a conversation between Morris and his love interest, echoes the scene in Purple Rain when Morris is doing his best to impress the lovely Apollonia.
In the film, Morris’s version of himself is loud, boisterous, and ambitious, although he does have a compassionate side, compared to Prince’s quiet, brooding, and pouting character known simply as “Kid”. Morris is a playboy, a cad, and sometimes a clown—a true foil to the Kid’s maelstrom of possessiveness, seclusion, and violence at the hands of a tormented father. Onstage and in the film, Jerome Benton plays the foil to the foil (Morris), a sidekick and companion, happy to dance, do background vocals, and fetch mirrors so Morris can check himself out and what not.
Prince’s music with Revolution ain’t really that funky. Sorry. It’s really damn good, yes, but not as funk-filled as The Time’s output. Before Ice Cream Castle, the band’s debut gave us powerhouse jams like “Get It Up”, “Cool”, and “The Stick”. The follow-up, What Time Is It?, featured “777-9311” and “The Walk”. Ice Cream Castle didn’t stretch the jams out as long as “Cool” or “The Walk”. Its longest jam is the “brand new dance” song called “The Bird” (seven minutes, 40 seconds). Also, unlike the Time’s first two efforts, Ice Cream Castle hasn’t been reduced to a Prince (under the moniker “Jamie Starr”) production, with The Time mouthing his words and playing his chords. The Time had more input on this record.
As fun and carefree as The Time can be, there’s no denying the title track’s depth and potent imagery (“We’re all ice cream castles in the summer time”) in its take on interracial romance and the fleeting nature of life as a whole. The Time also specializes in the risqué (“My Drawers”, “If the Kid Can’t Make You Come”).
Although Prince has shown his sense of humor, the dude can be a bit dramatic and intense. Grab Ice Cream Castle for relief. Since their last album, 1990’s Pandemonium there’s been talk to a reunion. We’ll see about that.
Wendy & Lisa with Prince
2. Wendy & Lisa: Wendy & Lisa (1987)
It’s just so tempting to put Wendy & Lisa (Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman) at the top of this list. I absolutely adore them, and want so badly to nudge them ahead of The Time in terms of their skills as composers and arrangers, and in consideration for their post-Prince longevity in the industry. You might know them from the Purple Rain movie, where they were always looking for a way to play something else…like, their own music. Otherwise, you might recognize them from the opening lines of the Purple Rain track “Computer Blue”: “Wendy?” / “Yes, Lisa.” / “Is the water warm enough?” / “Yes, Lisa.”
One of the things they do extremely well—and this facet of their abilities doesn’t garner much press—is write simply. Sacrificing flashiness in favor of wistful arrangements, these ladies aren’t big on ornamentation, grandiose themes, or power anthems. Instead, they work with, around, and through the silences.
Wendy & Lisa left Prince’s employ in 1987 (I suppose y’all haters would say Prince “fired” them, just because he asked them not to come back to work), but they didn’t leave the music biz. They’ve built a formidable reputation as collaborative musicians (working with the likes of Seal, Me’shell Ndegeocello, Eric Clapton, and others) and as composers for television and film scores. You were listening to Wendy & Lisa when you watched TV shows such as Heroes, Crossing Jordan, or if you were one of the handful who watched Bionic Woman. Their films scores include Soul Food, Dangerous Minds. Showtime’s Nurse Jackie is also joining their list of TV show credits.
In the meantime, they’ve released albums as “Wendy & Lisa” and as “Girl Bros.” Their self-titled debut, is my favorite, largely because it still has a Revolution-style feel to it, which might have something to do with them releasing it fresh after coming off the Prince parade (pun intended, as Parade: Music from the Motion Picture Under the Cherry Moon was the last “Prince & the Revolution” release). Also, Revolution member Bobby Z. helped on the production tip. I’m still diggin’ this beguiling set of pop, soft rock, and jazz fusion, led mainly by the rhythms and the choruses more so than by the melodies. They aren’t slouches in the lyrical department either, despite their tendency toward melancholy. Notwithstanding my appreciation for The Time—and India.Arie for that matter—I don’t like my musicians to be too happy.
Their latest album to date, White Flags of White Chimneys, became available for download via their official website in December 2008, and was shipped to consumers in physical CD form in March 2009. There is also a vinyl option. The title references a lyric from the title track of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira. The music is mellow, except for the rowdiness of “Salt & Cherries”, and the lyrics are concise but artful. The digital configuration offers bonus demos of “Waiting for Coffee”, “Niagra Falls” [sic], “The Dream” and “Viste”, which are special treats for collectors.
Just to put things in perspective, and because all the critics love you in a list, let’s rank Wendy & Lisa’s albums from best to least-best: (1) Wendy & Lisa; (2) Girl Bros.; (3) White Flags of White Chimneys; (4) Eroica; and (5) Fruit at the Bottom.
By the way, I keep hearing people say that it’s Wendy & Lisa together in the video for Prince’s song “1999”. Well, it’s not. One of them is Lisa, yes. But the other one ain’t Wendy. I’ll tell you who it is later in this list.
3. Sheila E.: Romance 1600 (1985)
Extraordinary percussionist Sheila E. (“E” is for Escovedo) hit the rode with producer and funkateer George Duke when she was in her teens, so I can’t say Prince “discovered” her. However, the promotion that fueled 1984’s The Glamorous Life and 1985’s Romance 1600 presented Sheila as something of a Prince protégée, with hints of romantic interest in the air. Sheila leaned into the intrigue too, singing lyrics like the ones in Romance 1600‘s “Sister Fate”: “They insisted that we’re more / more than just friends / So I’m gonna stick around / until this movie ends”.
You can get me to agree that the sultry horn-laced “The Glamorous Life” is Sheila’s most famous song (7th and 8th grade band students in my area still play it sometimes, along with “Hello” by Lionel Richie). But the album, The Glamorous Life, while good, especially by so-called “Prince associate” standards, isn’t as strong as Romance 1600, and I’d be hard pressed to rate it higher than Sheila E’s self-titled album of 1987. Tracks like “The Belle of St. Mark” and the crooning “Noon Rendezvous” are enjoyable, but the song “The Glamorous Life” is so far ahead of its cohorts that the album feels unbalanced.
My beloved Romance 1600, by contrast, feels like more of a complete work, with a loosely constructed fairytale in the boy-meets-girl tradition as its narrative. Plus, there’s more emphasis on Sheila’s lightning speed percussion. She plays like she doesn’t have arms but tentacles like an octopus—and each one wields a drumstick. I’ve heard that Romance 1600 suffers from too much “filler”, but I could never relate to that assessment. I get the complaint that the love fest duet between Prince and Sheila (“A Love Bizarre”) is too darn long. A little more than 12 minutes! I love the song and all, but good grief, that’s at least seven minutes too long!
But the rest of the album is quite charming, with its tales of longing for Renaissance artists (“Dear Michelangelo”), songs and lyrics with the quintessentially Prince-style double meanings (“Toy Box”), some hyperactive jazz (“Merci for the Speed of a Mad Clown in Summer”), a weird blast from the doo-wop past (“Yellow”), and a straight up ballad (“Bedtime Story”).
Her post-Prince work (Sex Cymbal, Writes of Passage, Heaven) doesn’t quite have the weight of her With-Prince output, but her last couple of albums featured a cleaner and less layered contemporary jazz vibe, with a touch of spirituality in the mix for good measure. In 2009, Sheila won CMT’s reality show Gone Country. Does that mean she’ll record a country album? I’m curious, but also a little worried. Country isn’t the easiest thing to pull off.
Oh, yeah, before I forget. Two bits of trivia.
First, Sheila E. appeared in the hip-hop flick Krush Groove back when hip-hop wasn’t that cool with the mainstream (or “kool”, as everybody used to spell it) and she dropped the faux-rap song “Hollyrock” on the soundtrack. I wonder if a young, impressionable Lil Kim heard her use the b-word in that song.
Second, elements of the song “Faded Photographs” from Sheila’s self-titled album remind me so much of Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” (Yeah, I like Pat Benatar, wanna make somethin’ of it?). I don’t know, it just seems like more than a coincidence. Then again, I hear the beginning of “Maneater” by Hall & Oates and mistake it for Stevie Wonder’s “Part Time Lover”, so what do I know?
Prince & Rosie
4. Rosie Gaines: Closer Than Close (1995)
Speaking of artists who were active before hooking up with Prince, Rosie Gaines is a sensational vocalist. R&B and reggae flavor hit the spot on Closer Than Close, Rosie’s release after her stint as a member of Prince’s multi-roster band The New Power Generation (The NPG). While I have never liked the name “The New Power Generation”, or even felt comfortable saying the band name within earshot of others, Rose’s presence soothed the dramatic change in the dynamics of Prince’s musical approach in the early ‘90s. Basically, he started to get wild with rap, which usually isn’t his best look.
Rosie’s hefty vocals made Prince’s Diamonds & Pearls a bit more interesting. Hey, if Prince’s only concern was counterbalancing the clunky rhymes of NPG rapper Tony M., then using Rosie’s vocal ability was an awesome strategy for achieving that end. Rosie, on “Push”, showed she could rap batter than Tony M. and Prince combined, and she added a little spice to the title track and the single “Gett Off”. I haven’t been able to wrap my head around the fact that a guy like Prince, who normally displays so much rhythm and such a keen sense of timing, can end up “rapping” without a clue as to where the beat is. Truly bizarre.
As released, Closer Than Close features two Prince co-writes—“I Want U” and “My Tender Heart”. The first would make a pretty bold pickup line, despite what the lyrics say about being afraid that the object of the singer’s desire will leave the singer blue. There are two permutations of “I Want U”, an “Earth Mama Version” that samples music and vocals from Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues”, and then a “Purple Version”, heralded by Prince’s patented “1999”-sounding synthesizers.
Elsewhere, Rosie pays tribute to Bob Marley (“Concrete Jungle”, “Turn Your Lights Down Low”) and also gets political (“December 25th”). Mainly, though, she’s into her significant other, gauging their readiness for love, searching for intimacy, and occasionally fearing the worst. When it comes to the fear of the latter, Rosie goes for the part of the throat that makes you feel like you’re on the verge of tears. On “I Almost Lost You”, she dreams the unthinkable and drags her lines out until there’s nothing left but a chilling, goose pimple-inducing solitude. Warm or chilling, however, Rosie Gaines’s voice makes you want to cuddle up with somebody in front of a fireplace.
Since I mentioned her voice next to Prince’s, I’d be crazy not to say something about their best collaborative effort—their live version of the Prince-penned “Nothing Compares 2 U” which was previously a hit for Sinead O’Connor but recorded prior to that by The Family.
5. The Family: The Family (1985)
Speaking of The Family, their 1985 self-titled LP is really good. On a good day, it might jump ahead of Sheila and Rosie to sit comfortably at number three behind my darlings Wendy & Lisa.
The Family was formed in the aftermath of The Time’s breakup and Morris Day’s decision to go solo. The group consisted of St. Paul Peterson, Wendy Melvoin’s twin sister Susannah, Jellybean Johnson, Eric Leeds, and Jerome Benton. The album itself is, as a whole, quite a cohesive effort, with Peterson actually sounding kind of Princely at times, and a little like Robbie Nevil (of “C’est La Vie” fame) at others. Susannah took the sweet side of the vocal seesaw.
I honestly never cared much for “Nothing Compares 2 U” until Prince reclaimed it with Rosie Gaines, but The Family’s version is a neat surprise if you haven’t already heard it and still associate the song with Sinead. The rest of the album, in my opinion, is better. Songs like “Screams of Passion”, “High Fashion”, and “Mutiny” rank pretty high on my funk-o-meter.
As a matter of fact, The Family’s album would make a decent Prince album. If you could heard Prince’s version of these songs (and I’m not admitting that I’ve heard them or that they even exist, okay?), then you might imagine the result being like a neat bridge between Prince’s Around the World in a Day and Parade albums. If you listen closely, you can hear Prince’s vocals in the background of these songs.
The Family has a reunion album in the works. Now that might end up being one of the biggest musical comebacks of all time.
From the cover of Shockadelica
6. Jill Jones: Jill Jones (1987)
Jill Jones is a vocal knockout, definitely one of the best to ever come through the Prince camp. Oh, but wait. Who’s Jill Jones? Well, she was a backup singer and songwriter for Teena Marie. Remember the woman with the hat playing the keyboards with Lisa in the “1999” video? That’s Jill Jones. Remember the blonde waitress at the club in Purple Rain. That’s Jill Jones. The woman doing all the moaning in Prince’s “Lady Cab Driver” when Prince seems to be doing something naughty with her (”This is for the cab you used to drive for no money at all / This is why I wasn’t born like my brother, handsome and tall”)? The moaning belonged to Jill Jones. The only person in the Prince camp putting in more behind-the-scenes work than Jill Jones was probably Prince.
Her self-titled long player has Prince’s signature moves all over it, from the suggestive lyrics (“G-Spot”, which asks, “Where, oh where, can you be?”), to the quirky synth and bass lines that propel the Minneapolis sound: “Violet Blue” reminds me of Prince’s “Pop Life”, “Baby You’re a Trip” is a mix of “Do Me Baby” and “Purple Rain” (in sound, not in words), “With You” is a cover of the Prince ballad from his own self-titled album, and “All Day, All Night” and “For Love” are hot dance tracks. “Mia Bocca” was a mild hit. Yet, beyond the impression that Prince is in the background dictating all the plays, Jill’s execution seems original. It’s the way she sings that sells it. Her voice quivers and quakes, whispers and wallows, squeals and screams, and occasionally goes deep. You know how people relate real estate value to “location, location, location”? Well, Jill Jones makes her debut all about “delivery, delivery, delivery”.
Even if there are Prince versions of these tracks (and, again, I’m not admitting that there are or that I’ve heard them), it’s tough to imagine even his versions being able to keep up with Jones’s (they don’t, except maybe “Baby, You’re a Trip”—er, hypothetically speaking). That says a lot.
You know what else says a lot? Jill was finally able to release a second album (“Two” in 2001), and it sounds absolutely nothing like anything from the Paisley Park camp. In your face, P! Your music makes sense to no one (just kidding, Prince, and I’m still available to help you with your album covers).
7. Jesse Johnson: Shockadelica (1986)
Jesse Johnson ought to be mad as hell. When there’s talk of The Time, his name doesn’t come up nearly as often as it should, and definitely not more than Morris Day (and when Morris gets mentioned, Jerome Benton usually gets a nod too). Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, went on to become intergalactic super-producers, working with everyone from the Human League to Janet Jackson, so they are understandably given their due.
But what about Jesse Johnson? He co-wrote “Jungle Love”, for goodness sake! That alone ought to earn him some of the limelight. Jellybean Johnson became a heck of a producer in his own right, so he should be as mad as Jesse, but that’s a different story. This story is about the dopeness of Jesse Johnson’s guitar work, how he stepped up his songwriting and lyrical game from his Jesse Johnson’s Revue LP and made a great album in Shockadelica, setting a standard he didn’t meet on later albums.
Prince fans know the story that followed the album title “Shockadelica”. Basically, Prince used the title for a song of his own (which turned out to be a tremendously great b-side) in order to show Johnson that an album with a great title should have a similarly titled song on it. Johnson’s Shockadelica didn’t have a title track called “Shockadelica”, get it? Get it? Actually, I don’t either. Maybe the album title was just inspiration.
Anyway, Jesse Johnson’s Revue boasted tightly-wound bass grooves in “Be Your Man” (check out that genius cutesy bridge), “Can You Help Me”, and “She’s a Doll”. The first two are hard to beat, but Shockadelica‘s consistency is the point of departure, even as Johnson goes into Parliament territory (“Crazay”, featuring the legendary Sly Stone), swings to a Minneapolis-flavored take on the lost love track “Walk on By” (“Do Yourself a Favor”), reworks some of The Time’s slickness and style (“She (I Can’t Resist)”, “Addiction”, “Burn You Up”), and gets downright gospel-y on “A Better Way”.
Everybody who mentions this record says something about the album closer, “Black in America”, so I probably should too. Personally, I think this song inspired the album title “Shockadelica”. Not only does its social and political concern work in sharp contrast to the rest of the album’s guy-on-girl come-ons, but its stark acoustic sense also shakes up the usual synergy of bass, frenetic percussion, and upbeat synthesizer. A total shock.
From Apollonia 6 cover
8. Andre Cymone: AC (1985)
Speaking of people who hung out with Prince and should be mad as hell, let’s not forget Andre Cymone. Andre knew Prince before there ever was an Apollonia. Before there was a such thing as a New Power Generation, there was Andre. Before Prince starred in Under the Cherry Moon (and that says what?). Before Prince wore the ass-less pants. Before Prince changed his name to a symbol and then changed it back to Prince again, there was Andre, a good friend, a superb bass player, a great producer.
Andre Cymone’s AC only had one great song, which was the snapping, apocalyptic “Dance Electric”, and that one was written by Prince. He was, however, very successful as a producer, particularly for dance diva Jody “Looking for a New Love” Watley. Her “Still a Thrill” joint has got to be one of the funkiest things since George Clinton boarded the Mothership.
9. Vanity 6 (1982) / Apollonia 6 (1984)
The Apollonia 6 and Vanity 6 albums can be fun if you take them for what they are: a pretty good time with a lot of flirtation over new wave pop. Prince didn’t reinvent the wheel as far as girl groups go, but he did make good use of what was already out there.
Patricia “Apollonia” Kotero gets high marks on the recognition meter, having co-starred with Prince as his fame-seeking bombshell love interest in Purple Rain. On the album and in the film, “Sex Shooter” is completely untouchable. Wait. What? What did you say? The Pussycat Dolls? Please.
A few songs run a little long: “Blue Limousine” (I could see Rick James’s Mary Jane Girls doing this one), the somewhat pleading “A Million Miles”, and album opener “Happy Birthday, Mister Christian”, although I appreciate the wordplay of the latter when the lyrics go, “Happy Birthday, Mr. Christian / Why can’t you live up to your name?” The talk rap “Ooh She She Wa Wa” is a guilty pleasure, which I guess is the point of it all.
Vanity 6’s self-titled has essentially the same concept as Apollonia 6’s, and the same personnel (Susan Moonsie and Brenda Bennett were always the “the other two”) so I’ve bundled them together. Aside from “Nasty Girl”, a sheer classic, there’s some funny and catchy stuff in “Wet Dream”. Meanwhile “If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)” is a telephone conversational rap that could be the prequel to R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” saga. “Bite the Beat” has that staccato piano rhythm like Prince’s “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” and, most recently, “No More Candy 4 U”.
For some reason, I think it’s impressive that Vanity’s “Nasty Girl” was background music for Axl Foley (Eddie Murphy) thwarting an armed robbery in a risqué nightclub in Beverly Hills Cop. Like Apples, Vanity (Denise Matthews) earns points for starring in movies such as Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon and Action Jackson, co-starring Carl Weathers (“Apollo Creed”!).
All things considered, the contest between Apples and Vanity is too close to call. And I’d hate to see it come down to which one was the hottest (Apollonia! No…Vanity! Wait, let me see the scene where Apples jumps into the lake again!). Therefore, I call it a tie.
From Mazarati cover
10. Mazarati: Mazarati (1986)
A tie between Apollonia and Vanity ought to conclude the top ten, but I’m going to cheat and sneak the group Mazarati in here. The group’s claim to fame, it seems, has been the song they didn’t record: “Kiss”. According to Alan Leeds’s liner notes to Prince’s Hits collection, as well as a bunch of other sources (and rumors), Prince recorded the “Kiss” demo and offered it to Revolution members David Z. and Brown Mark the group they were producing—Mazarati. When the demo didn’t inspire anyone, Prince took it back, added it to his Parade album, and scored a number one hit. I’m actually listening to Mazarati’s version of “Kiss” on their MySpace page as I edit this column.
What of the self-titled Mazarati album? Not bad, considering the speaker thumping, and kind of cleverly titled “100 MPH”, which is dope, and “Player’s Ball”. “Suzy”, a song about a “woman” who is really a man, is totally bizarre. I can never figure out the tone. Are they mad? Are they surprised? Are they in awe? Outside of “100 MPH”, the slow jams, “Lonely Girl on Bourbon Street” and “I Guess It’s All Over”, are the songs that show the most promise.
What, no Dr. Fink? No Bobby Z.? Dez Dickerson? Elisa Fiorillo? Ingrid Chavez? No, none of them made the top ten cut, but here are a few bonus albums and personalities, just because there’s something about them that appeals to me:
1. Eric Leeds: Times Squared (1991)
Tight jazz compositions, but maybe too tight. Rather simple and straightforward, really. If you like Prince’s Madhouse projects, you’ll love this. If you hate Prince’s Madhouse projects…yikes.
2. Mayte: Child of the Sun (1996)
Prince helped then-wife Mayte Garcia with an album of her own. She got a chance to sing “If I Love U 2nite”, which was once done by the great Mica Paris. This album’s got a lot of guts, what with going industrial techno in spots and covering “Brick House” (stop laughing!). But “Love’s No Fun” and the duet with Prince on “However Much U Want” are pretty good.
3. Martika: Martika’s Kitchen (1991)
Not really a Prince-associated artist, but Martika sings four Prince-penned songs: “Spirit”, “Love…Thy Will Be Done”, the title track, and my favorite “Don’t Say You Love Me”. They’re better when Prince does them (even the title song—or so I’ve heard!), but these are nicely (re)done.
4. Three O’Clock: Three O’Clock (1988)
A slice of indie rock on Prince’s Paisley Park label, and a cool reworking of non-album Prince track “Neon Telephone”.
5. Carmen Electra: Carmen Electra (1991)
Prince discovered Carmen Electra. Did you know that? With her Paisley Park self-titled album, I think he almost destroyed the goodwill he had built up with humanity from 1979-1988. Her album would not even make a good coaster. But that’s how big a Prince fan I am. I bought this CD.