‘The Family’ Revisited: Leeds, Peterson and Jellybean Look Back
On Aug. 19, 1985, Prince released one of the best albums of his career — but it didn’t have his name on it. The Family LP was attributed to percussionist Jerome Benton, drummer Jellybean Johnson, saxophonist Eric Leeds, co-lead vocalist Susannah Melvoin and keyboardist and co-lead vocalist "St." Paul Peterson.
The Family was a real band, comprised of outstanding musicians. They rehearsed for months in intense nine-hour sessions. But, as was the case with the Time, Prince wrote, produced and performed most of the album himself.
“Musically it was a Prince album,” Leeds told UltimatePrince.com. “That’s what it really was. The only significant difference was that rather than Prince being the lead performer in the band, Paul and Susannah played the roles of lead vocalist.”
Hear the Family Perform "High Fashion"
The Family was so much a Prince album that when the star hired Leeds to come and overdub saxophone parts, a significant chunk of the songs were already finished, with Prince’s guide vocals in place. Leeds recorded sax parts for "High Fashion," "Mutiny," "Desire" and "Susannah’s Pajamas" on his first-ever session with Prince. And for all he knew, that might have been his last.
It took Leeds’ brother, Alan — Prince’s tour manager at the time — over a week to convince Eric to play with Prince. “I was not particularly a fan of Prince’s music,” Eric explains. “Never have been. I’m not now.” He says this jovially, making it clear that he has heard some Prince songs he liked, and others that he “didn’t care for." After working with him for years, it’s clear he gained massive respect for Prince as a musician, calling him “remarkable and brilliant.”
It started differently for Jellybean Johnson. When Prince pitched the Family to him, he was keen to join. Johnson was already a member of the Prince “organization” (a term both Leeds and Johnson used), having been the Time's drummer since 1981. But things hadn’t gone smoothly with that band.
“When the Time split up, man, I was devastated, I’m not gonna lie,” Johnson confesses. First Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis left, followed by Monte Moir and then Jellybean himself. Johnson rejoined, and a new lineup of the band kept going for 1984's Ice Cream Castles before dissolving for decades when lead singer Morris Day left after Purple Rain.
The Family was an opportunity for Johnson, who’d become a father a few years earlier, to keep playing music. And he, like Prince, saw something in new Time keyboard player Paul Peterson. “I think he was trying to turn Paul into — he wanted like a white Morris [Day],” said Johnson. But also “a young David Bowie.”
Peterson, whom Prince christened ‘St Paul’, did not see this coming. “I was in shock,” he told UltimatePrince.com. “At that point I was only the keyboard player, basically a sideman in the Time. And then all of a sudden I become the co-lead singer in this band… My life changed dramatically that day.”
Peterson's fellow vocalist, Susannah Melvoin also had a history with Prince. She was romantically involved with him at the time after they met via her twin sister, Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin. Susannah told The Beautiful Nights Blog in 2013: “When the Time disbanded, we all felt bad, because they were a bad-ass band. But, everybody wanted to play and Prince wanted to hear people play.”
While Prince had succeeded in bringing all this talent together as the Family— with help from his secret weapon Clare Fisher, who added string overdubs to many of the album’s tracks — he failed to keep them together.
The band’s self-titled debut was the only LP they would release before they broke up. And although they had spent hundreds of hours rehearsing, often with Prince present, they would only play one show together — an album launch gig at Minneapolis club First Avenue.
Jellybean Johnson saw some footage of a Family rehearsal from that era recently. “It was phenomenal, man. I couldn’t believe how tight we were.” And for Johnson, it was hugely disappointing to once again see a Prince-related project dissolve. “We didn’t get the chance to enjoy it… We didn’t get a chance to really use the full potential of that band.”
Watch the Family Perform "Mutiny"
The Family publicly disbanded when Peterson quit, but the process was far slower and agonizing. Despite containing a hit single with “Screams of Passion”, and what we now know to be one of Prince’s most enduring compositions in “Nothing Compares 2 U," The Family LP received little promotion.
When Prince took Melvoin and Benton to France to shoot the motion picture Under the Cherry Moon, the rest of the Family were just left hanging. They were meant to open for Prince on tour later in the year, but as Johnson says, this was based on a “handshake agreement.” On top of that, they were not getting paid much.
Peterson says he didn’t set out to quit when he first flew out to L.A. But John McClain, an A&R man from A&M Records, invited him there to discuss a collaboration with Janet Jackson. It turned out that the Jackson collaboration was a ruse, and that really A&M wanted to buy him out from under Prince. This is something Peterson had “never considered in a million years,” but McClain was convincing, especially since Peterson was born into a family of prominent Minneapolis musicians, and they had groomed him to be a solo star.
Peterson did decide to leave Prince, but he didn’t sign to A&M. A bidding war broke out and he signed with MCA. He’s proud of his solo work, even if it never took off quite in the way he, and his label, thought it would.
As for the other members of the band, Benton, Leeds and Melvoin joined an expanded lineup of the Revolution (Leeds calls it “the Counterrevolution”) and went on tour. Prince called Johnson and asked him if he’d like to join. As Johnson explains, “I said, ‘Cool, Prince but what are we gonna do about the Family?’ He hung the phone up. And I never heard from him again.” (The two would reunite years later to make the Time’s Pandemonium.)
So the Family didn’t tour together before they broke up. What they did do, though, was contribute to what remains one of the most stunningly realized projects in Prince’s catalogue.
St. Paul Peterson was thrilled with the material he had to work with. “I thought it was brilliant," he said. "I thought it was super-unbelievably funky. For me, it mixed jazz with funk. When he put those two together, it really didn’t sound like anything else that he’d ever done before. Very cinematic, very pop, but still very funky.”
Jellybean Johnson agrees. “I think it’s phenomenal that that album’s still relevant today,” he said. “It’s like a rarity, you know? Some places I’ve seen it as much as $200, man, on vinyl... The CD in Japan was selling for $50, $60.”
Hear the Family Perform "Nothing Compares 2 U"
There’s a reason the album’s in demand. First, like many releases on Prince’s Paisley Park label, it’s not widely available on streaming services. And second, it is truly phenomenal music.
Prince and the band managed to infuse the funk of early Time records with the ethereal dreaminess of Wendy and Lisa-heavy Revolution tracks. The album has a sophisticated air to it, aided by Fisher’s strings and the timeless black-and-white artwork, without losing the edge it needs for its funkier moments.
As with many of his side projects, it seems Prince had a clear vision of what he wanted the Family to be, from the way they looked and performed right down to how they sounded. “Before I went into the studio, he’d send a messenger with a cassette tape to my house,” said Peterson.
What did Prince think of Peterson’s vocals? “I think he liked them because he kept them. He wasn’t necessarily gonna come over and give me a big hug and slap me five. That wasn’t how he rolled. Sometimes no news was good news.”
While he may have produced other singers before, working with Eric Leeds was new territory for Prince. “Because I played an instrument that Prince didn’t play,” says Leeds, “it afforded me an awful lot of opportunity to be working with him in the studio that other members of the band didn’t have.”
Since Prince didn’t play horns himself, he didn’t have an understanding of how they were conventionally used. “There were times when he was looking for things that were not necessarily idiomatic to the instrument. And I had to kind of explain to him that those are things that are not what saxophone or horn would necessarily do.” This ended up as a hugely positive experience for Leeds. “Sometimes his insistence on trying to find something beyond that would kinda put me in a position to think outside of the box.”
Another benefit of working with Prince, for Leeds and every member of the Family that we spoke to, was the opportunity to work with and form lasting relationships with so many excellent musicians.
Jellybean Johnson has played with the Time (and Morris Day and the Time, as they’re sometimes billed) for 30 years now. Eric Leeds and Paul Peterson have a jazz project together called LP Music. And the Family’s original lineup reformed under the new name fDeluxe in 2009. They have since toured the world and released four albums under that name.
So the Family might have broken up not long after releasing The Family. But their love and appreciation for each other as musicians brought them back together.
Jellybean Johnson’s latest single is "Put Some Jelly On It." St. Paul Peterson released "Minne Forget Me Not," a tribute to his hometown, in July, and has a new album in the works. You can keep up to date with the Family’s current incarnation at fDeluxe.com, and with Leeds and Peterson’s project at the LP Music website.