Prince and the Story of Paisley Park Records

Alex Hahn
Alex Hahn
Oct 4, 2016 · 19 min read

By Alex Hahn

@alexhahnlaw

With good reason, Warner Bros. expected that Paisley Park Records, its joint venture with Prince, would be a cash cow.

In the early- and mid-1980s, Prince had created successful projects such as the Time, Vanity 6, and the Family out of whole cloth by writing and recording all of their music. He had been a one-man hit factory, churning out chart-topping songs like “When Doves Cry” and “Kiss” under his own name while crafting hit singles for the Bangles (“Manic Monday”), Sheena Easton (“Sugar Walls”), and others. By giving Prince the perk of his own label, Warners hoped to gather all of his future triumphs under its umbrella.

Prince’s own plans for Paisley Park Records were even grander. He envisioned the label as a contemporary successor to the legendary Motown Records, through which founder Berry Gordy placed a personal stamp on the careers of R&B giants like Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye. Gordy’s control was pervasive, to the point where artists were instructed how to dress onstage and what to say in interviews. Certainly, Prince’s conceptualization of side projects like the Family and the Time showed a similar obsession with detail. (Lost on Prince was that Gordy’s tyrannical and smothering management style alienated some of his most important artists, causing bitter clashes with Marvin Gaye and others, in some cases driving artists from the label.) And although Paisley was technically a partnership with Warner Bros., Prince expected free rein, and a blank check, to do what he wished with the label.

Another model of what Prince sought to achieve, at least in terms of commercial success, was no further away than the neighboring suburb of Edina, Minnesota, the home of Flyte Tyme Productions. This flourishing venture of former associates Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis — members of the Time until Prince fired them for branching out to produce other groups — was a mecca for Top 40 artists. Jam and Lewis were by the mid-1990s arguably the most successful production team in popular music, having created multi-platinum records with Janet Jackson (Control in 1986 and Rhythm Nation 1814 in 1989), Alexander O’Neal (Hearsay in 1994), and others; Prince considered them competitors and saw Paisley as a way to even the score.

There was, however, a fundamental difference between the primary aptitudes of Prince and those of the Flyte Tyme team. Jam and Lewis, while not nearly Prince’s equals as musicians or songwriters, were more adept at collaboration, an essential skill for a producer. Prince, by contrast, functioned as an auteur even when working on side projects with other musicians; his presence tended to stifle, rather than enhance the creativity of others. “Invariably, no matter who the artist was, he tried to force them into his thing,” noted Alan Leeds, who in 1989 surrendered his post as Prince’s tour manager to become president of Paisley Park Records. “He never displayed the ability to park his own agenda. When he produced Patti LaBelle, it sounded like a Prince record. It became his vision, not the artist’s.”

There was another basic problem: In the mid-1980s, with his songwriting powers at their peak, Prince generated enough strong music for a variety of spin-offs. But by the end of the decade, there wasn’t enough quality material to go around. Increasingly, recording and composing became a rushed exercise for Prince; with his attention diffused across as many as a dozen different projects at once, he lacked the focus that had animated his best work.

Recognizing the need to diversify the label, Prince did sign some artists from outside of his circle and gave them the freedom to develop their own albums. (In such instances, he typically contributed a song or two but would otherwise stay out of the way.) These signings, though, were not particularly astute. Two New Wave-oriented acts, the neo-psychedelic group the Three O’Clock and the chirpy singer Dale Bozzio (formerly of Missing Persons), released forgettable albums on Paisley Park in the late 1980s. Prince also signed two aging R&B veterans, George Clinton and Mavis Staples, whose best work was well behind them and whose Paisley releases (Clinton’s The Cinderella Theory and Hey Man . . . Smell M y Finger and Staples’ Time Waits For No One and The Voice) had little commercial or critical impact.

In fact, the Paisley Park label became not an incubator for new stars but rather a scrap yard for aborted projects. In the early 1990s, albums by Rosie Gaines, Jill Jones, Robin Power (a marginal rapper whom Prince met at an LA. nightclub), and Margie Cox (a singer who had previously worked with Prince’s drummer Michael Bland) were undertaken but ultimately dropped. Moreover, Prince paid little attention to the purely business aspects of the label and refused to operate with any sense of fiscal restraint. Believing that it was Warner Bros.’ responsibility to generate sales, he was nonplussed by what he perceived as a lack of promotional support. Indeed, Prince was skeptical about the parent company’s sincerity, as were some of his associates. “Paisley Park was not really a priority with Warner Bros.; I don’t know if their commitment was so real,” said studio engineer David Rivkin. “I believe it was kind of a carrot they held in front of him to keep him on Warner Bros.” A source who then worked at Warners concurs in this view: “Paisley was superficial, just a way to placate Prince.”

It is also true, however, that Prince gave Warners little to work with and did a poor job of running Paisley Park. Leeds, for one, believes that Prince could have done more to forge a harmonious relationship with the parent label. “He refused to accept the premise that once you take someone’s money, they’re a partner,” Leeds observed.

A project featuring Ingrid Chavez, Prince’s sometime spiritual muse and the costar of Graffiti Bridge, came to symbolize many of the problems with the label. The long road to Chavez’ solo debut began in December 1987, when Prince, aglow over the spiritual epiphany that inspired Lovesexy, began working with her. Initially, he seemed enthusiastic about the project, which featured Chavez reading her poetry over restrained, atmospheric grooves. Songs like “Elephant Box” and “Heaven Must Near” sounded like a mixture of Prince-style funk and New Age ambient music.

But when Prince was waylaid by the Lovesexy tour, the Batman soundtrack, and then Graffiti Bridge, the Chavez project fell into limbo. It may have remained there absent the intervention in 1990 of Michael Koppelman, the talented engineer who had worked on Diamonds And Pearls. After bumping into Chavez on several occasions at Paisley Park, he began collaborating with her on material that deviated somewhat from Prince’s initial template. The music retained a subdued, ethereal ambiance, but Koppelman made greater use of melody and dynamics. Most notably, Chavez actually began singing (as opposed to just speaking) on songs like the remarkably catchy and fully-realized “Hippy Blood.”

When the duo in 1991 finally completed the album — now about evenly split between the Chavez-Koppelman collaborations and the original Prince songs — the question was how to get it before the public. Prince had seemingly lost interest. Chavez, while hopeful that he might still release it on Paisley Park, feared that Warner Bros., after so many flops from the subsidiary label, would fail to get behind the project.

Both Chavez and Koppleman, happy with what they had created, took action. Seeing “Hippy Blood” as a potential hit single that could fuel the success of the entire album, Chavez met with Warners officials to play them cuts and, hopefully, to drum up support.

But Prince, upon learning of these activities, felt blindsided — partly by Chavez’ overtures to Warners, but also because work on the album had proceeded without him. He and Chavez had an angry confrontation in a Paisley Park control room as Koppelman watched from outside. In the course of this clash, the once-promising project was derailed. The album’s ultimate fate was just what Chavez feared: Prince agreed to release it but did nothing to make it succeed. Warners made nothing more than a perfunctory effort at promotion. Chavez’ oddly titled M ay 19, 1992 (released on September 24, 1991) was barely acknowledged by the music press and failed to enter the Billboard Pop Chart.

A few weeks after the Prince-Chavez row that consigned the Chavez’ album to oblivion, Koppelman found himself alone with Prince in the studio. Although he did not want to spark another disagreement, he couldn’t help but ask why Prince had been so upset about the project. “If it’s good music, what’s the big deal if the label hears it before you do?” Koppelman asked. “I mean, did you like it? Do you think ‘Hippy Blood’ is any good?”

Prince gave Koppelman a strange look. Without a tinge of sarcasm or anger, he said, “Yeah, it’s good. It’s so good it’s going to change music.”

Koppelman suddenly understood. For all of his swagger, Prince was in some ways vulnerable and insecure. Even though he had been too busy to complete the Chavez project, he was hurt that it went on without him. He also feared that he had been shown up. Prince’s insistence on control, it seemed, stemmed at least in part from deep-seated worries that others might outdo him.

The lack of attention that bedeviled the Chavez project impacted other Prince efforts in the early 1990s as well. Between December 1991, when he began recording Symbol, his follow-up to Diamonds And Pearls, and October 1992, when it was released, Prince labored on numerous other efforts, including an album featuring his backing band, the New Power Generation; a collection of songs for a film musical; and the planned solo debut by Carmen Electra. He also contributed songs to albums by Celine Dion (“With This Tear”), Joe Cocker (“Five Women”), Howard Hewitt (“Allegiance”), and other artists. And he found time to shoot a short film featuring his newest protégé, Mayte Garcia. Unfortunately, very little of note would emerge from all of this harried activity.

As on Diamonds And Pearls, The NPG remained an integral part of Prince’s composing process, often cutting songs live in the studio with him. But the feel of the band had changed. Although Diamonds And Pearls, recorded shortly after the NPG’s formation, captured some of the energy and rawness of a still-jelling unit, by late 1991 the group became ultra-polished. Three new songs recorded in December all gave the band a chance to show off its chops, with Michael Bland leading the way with his heavily accented drumming. “Sexy MF” blended rap and James Brown-style funk, “Love 2 The 9’s” veered toward jazz-fusion, and “The Morning Papers” was a slice of middle-of-the-road rock. But for all the stylistic ground covered, the often elaborate production could not conceal a sense of missing inspiration. A number like “Sexy MF,” for all its danceability, sounded more like an unfinished idea than a completed cut. Elsewhere, Prince became overly fascinated with structural complexity and instrumental embellishments, resulting in songs with all the life and spontaneity squeezed out of them. The sprawling, heavily orchestrated “3 Chains O’ Gold” meandered through its Byzantine arrangement and seemed to almost drown in overdubs. As the band members worked on the song during a long, tedious recording session, more than one was reminded of the Queen song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a highwater mark of rock ’n’ roll excess.

Even as they worked on Symbol, Prince and the NPG began developing an entire project called Gold Nigga around Tony Mosley’s rapping. The songs, penned by Prince but featuring heavy instrumental input from the band, were essentially funk jams and employed titles like “Black MF In The House” and “Goldnigga.” A direct response to the profanity-laced work of gangsta rappers like NWA, this project again found Prince struggling to achieve “street” credibility. But like the rap forays on Diamonds And Pearls, the results seemed strained and inauthentic.

The New Power Generation also emerged in the early 1990s as the center of Prince’s social life. With Rosie Gaines gone, the ambience surrounding the band became ever more like a boys’ club, as Prince reveled in the bawdy, Richard Pryor-like humor offered up by Levi Seacer and other members of the ensemble. When Seacer took to greeting colleagues in the halls at Paisley Park by bellowing “You sexy motherfucker!” Prince found this hilarious and built “Sexy MF” around this phrase. Whereas earlier in his career, friends found Prince to have a strong feminine presence, he was now quite consciously exploring his masculine energies. There remained few if any strong female confidants in his life (a role that Rosie Gaines briefly fulfilled), as young companions like Anna Garcia, Mayte Garcia, and Carmen Electra were discouraged from offering their opinions and served primarily as pretty muses.

Even as he worked with the NPG on Symbol and Gold Nigga, Prince pursued a variety of other projects on his own. During the Diamonds And Pearls tour, he jumped at a chance to re-enter the world of film when James Brooks, the director of Broadcast News and Terms Of Endearment, asked him to contribute a song for the movie musical I’ll Do Anything starring Nick Nolte and Albert Brooks. During a meeting with James Brooks in March 1992, Prince was so enthusiastic about the endeavor that he offered to write the entire soundtrack. The director agreed, and Prince began creating material to be sung by the actors in the film. Most of the numbers were hastily written and recorded at 301 Studios in Sydney, where Prince retreated between his Australian shows and even late on the evenings of the concert themselves. Songs like “Make Believe” and “Be My Mirror” had a sing-songy, whimsical feel appropriate to a musical, but offered little in the way of melodic or rhythmic appeal.

Brooks’ film quickly ran into trouble. Test screenings with the characters singing received scathing reviews from audiences, prompting the director to radically rework the project. He scrapped the notion of a musical and turned I’ll Do Anything into a standard romantic comedy. (The film opened to mediocre reviews in 1994.) There was no need for Prince’s compositions, and his involvement ended. Three of the songs, “The Rest Of My Life,” “There Is Lonely,” and “My Little Pill” later turned up on his album The Vault . . . Old Friends 4 Sale in 1999; the rest remain unreleased.

***

With Symbol ready and awaiting its late-1992 release, Prince and Warner Bros. had an important piece of business to take care of: signing a new agreement. Their existing pact was about to expire at a fortuitous time for Prince. The success of Diamonds And Pearls boosted his commercial status, and changes in the music industry strengthened his hand even further.

The 1980s, like any decade, had seen its share of one-hit wonders — marginally talented artists who managed to rise from obscurity to the top of the pop charts. But to the record labels that backed them, acts like Tiffany, Expose, the Escape Club, Michael Damian, and Mike and the Mechanics — all of whom scored Number One hits as the decade wound down, only to quickly disappear — were money-makers only in a very short-term sense. And they did nothing for the reputations of the companies they made music for. By 1990, when the saccharine group Milli Vanilli was exposed as a fraud (the members of the ensemble had neither sung nor played on their albums), the industry took a collective deep breath and re-examined its priorities.

In the early 1990s, executives at major companies like Warner Bros. made an important shift in their approach. Although continuous efforts were made to discover and develop new acts, the labels also tried to identify artists already on their rosters with the potential for longevity. Executives began to place even more of a premium on stars not only with proven hit-making ability, but who also enjoyed loyal fan support and artistic credibility. This rarified club included Aerosmith, which reinvented itself in the late 1980s after years of drug addiction and artistic dormancy; Michael Jackson, for years the hottest-selling artist in popular music; Janet Jackson, whose name had become a trademark every bit as powerful as her brother’s; Madonna, someone with an unfailing flare for creating publicity who had also begun to demonstrate genuine musical talent; and the alternative rock band REM, which built a large and committed following through a series of strong albums.

Beginning with a $40 million, three-album deal negotiated between Janet Jackson’s management and Virgin Records in March 1991, labels extended a series of dramatic long-term pacts to such artists. Financially, these were the most staggering packages the industry had ever seen. Sony signed Michael Jackson to a $60 million, six­ album deal and then Aerosmith to a $37 million, four-album agreement. Madonna brokered a complex $60 million deal with Time-Warner that included funding for her own record label, Maverick.

Prince in many respects fit the paradigm of the flagship artist. When his lawyer, Gary Stiffleman (who had negotiated blockbuster deals for the Rolling Stones, ZZ Top, and Aerosmith), sat down with Warner Bros.’ officials in summer 1992, he knew that they had little choice but to offer a lucrative long-term contract. The company was not likely to let one of the most successful artists in its history defect to a competitor. Still, Mo Ostin and the other Warners executives across the table from Stiffleman knew that Prince was far more mercurial, in terms of his artistic and personal temperament, than Madonna, Janet Jackson, or even Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith (who shed their party-boy images after entering drug rehab). Whether his next effort would be a well-crafted, commercially oriented work like Diamonds And Pearls or a self-indulgent quirk-fest like Graffiti Bridge was impossible to predict.

The agreement reached between Prince and Warner Bros. in late August was, like most large-scale entertainment industry pacts, extremely complex and not susceptible to easy interpretation. Nonetheless, his in-house publicists beat Warners to the media, and they trumpeted the deal in simple, dramatic terms: a six-record pact worth $100 million. On its face, this seemed to dwarf all of the recent deals that had altered the record industry’s economic landscape. Prince’s team claimed that the deal gave him an advance of $10 million per album in addition to new funding for Paisley Park Records and perks like an office suite in Los Angeles’ Century City.

At Warners, there was immediate shock over this characterization of the deal. The $100 million figure that appeared so prominently in media accounts had a profligate ring, making the company appear irresponsible. It seemed inconceivable that Prince had landed a better deal than Madonna, also part of the Time-Warner family. Since 1983, she had released eight albums, which sold a collective 76 million worldwide — an average of 9.5 million each. Prince’s sales during the same period averaged four million an album.

Follow-up media articles questioned whether Prince had indeed misled the press about the lavishness of the deal. The $10 million per-album advance, it was reported in Time, kicked in only if his previous album had sold five million copies or more; if sales fell below that number, a new figure would have to be negotiated. Since he rarely sold this many copies (Purple Rain and Diamonds And Pearls being rare exceptions), the

$10 million figure was inherently speculative. An article in Billboard quoted several entertainment industry insiders saying that Warners would never have agreed to the deal on the terms described by Prince.

Although these accounts gave Warner Bros. some cover, officials there continued to feel snookered by Prince’s hyperbolic portrayal of the deal. He, in turn, was distressed to read stories questioning whether he really was the highest-paid artist in pop music. With Prince and Warners at odds over what the contract meant, the latest chapter in their relationship began under a cloud of tension and mutual suspicion.

Adding to the tension was that there was no longer an effective, day-to-day intermediary between them. (Gary Stiffleman, who handled legal rather than managerial affairs for Prince, stepped back after the contract was inked.) For years, Steve Fargnoli had been effective in smoothing over cracks in the relationship. But with the firing of Cavallo, Ruffalo & Fargnoli, Prince abandoned the notion of placing his business affairs in the hands of a strong executive. After ending his brief relationship with Stiefel & Phillips, he installed as the nominal manager his longtime bodyguard, Gilbert Davison, who also became president of Paisley Park Enterprises, the umbrella corporation for Prince’s various activities. In practice, his authority was extremely limited. “Prince was becoming paranoid and less trusting of the people around him,” noted one Warners official.

With no buffer between himself and the label, Prince began to have a level of direct contact with Warners officials that was extremely unusual for a major star. Those who dealt frequently with Prince found him haughty and unrealistic in his expectations. Meetings over promotional issues became strange and unproductive exercises. Marylou Badeaux recalls a session where as many as thirty staffers and executives gathered at a huge conference table to talk strategy with Prince, who came alone. As is typical for such affairs, attendees piped up with enthusiastic predictions about record sales; Prince quickly became impatient and started rolling his eyes as he looked across the table at Badeaux. “He was like, “I can’t believe that these people are saying these things,’” she said.

Then he began interrupting with pointed questions, giving the meeting the air of an adversarial proceeding. When one attendee mentioned international sales projections, Prince interjected sarcastically, “So, what happened in Spain with the last record?” An uncomfortable silence followed.

“He was letting people know that he knew his business,” Badeaux recalled. “He was saying, ‘I’m not going to just be the docile artist sitting there, and you’re not going to put anything past me.’” But if Prince was skillful at cutting through blather, he was less effective as a business partner. Always quick to criticize Warners’ efforts, he recognized no responsibility on his part to help; once he delivered an album, he believed his work was done.

The promotional campaign for Symbol got off to a poor start over a dispute regarding the choice of a lead single. While Prince favored “My Name Is Prince” (an abrasive number that seemed to offer little chart potential), Warners’ pop music department argued for “7,” a melodic, acoustic-guitar driven song with soaring harmonies and Middle Eastern inflections. “‘7’ just blew me away,” recalled vice president Jeff Gold. But Prince, believing this dialogue was a sequel to his arguments with Warners over “When Doves Cry” and “Kiss,” insisted on having his way. Why he believed so strongly in “My Name ls Prince” is unclear, but he may have felt that the song’s hip-hop flavor would appeal to the same audience that had eagerly purchased Diamonds And Pearls. This time, however, he was wrong. “My Name ls Prince,” released on September 29, reached only №36 on the Pop Singles Chart and №25 on the R&B Singles Chart. It was an inauspicious beginning for Symbol, which hit the streets in mid-October 1992.

The album is in many respects a companion piece to Diamonds And Pearls, again featuring prominent contributions from the NPG and Tony Mosley. The most ambitious — and controversial — aspect of the album was Prince’s attempt to construct what he termed a “rock soap opera,” a musical story with segues spoken by a narrator (the actress Kirstie Ally). The narrative had initially been more coherent, but when Prince at the last minute added a song called “I Wanna Melt With U,” many of the explanatory segues were excised so the lengthy album could fit on a single compact disc. As far as could be discerned, the plot focused on Prince’s attempts to woo the teenage princess of a Middle Eastern country (played by Mayte Garcia). But the story made little sense, and the narration offered little more than a distraction from the music.

Like Diamonds And Pearls, Symbol divided fans and critics. Many were perturbed by the rapping, the orchestral production, and the confusing rock opera concept. Others admired the stylistic scope of the album, which included sentimental ballads, techno­pop, and dance-floor funk, amongst other styles. But the general consensus was that Symbol broke no new ground, and certainly did not stand among Prince’s best works.

Sales were reasonably strong at first, but the album was a commercial disappointment in comparison to Diamonds And Pearls. The album reached №5 on the Pop Chart and sold 2.8 million copies worldwide, a respectable showing but far short of the smash Prince expected. He became furious about the sales figures, which he blamed on slack promotion by Warner Bros.

If Prince’s questionable decisions about Symbol — the choice of a first single and the rock opera concept among them — were not enough to give label officials pause about the contract they had just signed, there were other disquieting signals as well. During 1992, he presented the label with various configurations of On Top, the planned solo debut by Carmen Electra. The consensus among label officials was that the material was not nearly ready for release. The backing tracks that Prince created were not especially effective, and Electra’s vocals were amateurish. As diplomatically as they could, executives voiced their misgivings. Undeterred, Prince kept writing songs and even had an expensive video shot for the song “Go Go Dancer.”

Finally, the album, now called Carmen Electra, was released in February 1993.

In many respects, like so many of his side projects before it, this was another Prince album. But despite the funky beats and other trademark touches, the most prominent element was the vocal work of the former Tara Patrick, and studio trickery could mask neither the weakness of her voice nor her lack of precision as a rapper. On fast-paced songs like “Step To The Mic” (and it seemed she was capable of doing little more than this) she seemed to be struggling simply to keep up.

The record sold very poorly and failed to even enter the Pop Chart. From the perspective of Warners, which had sunk $1 million into promoting Carmen Electra, the entire effort was nothing short of a boondoggle. For all of the work Prince invested in it, the album was unmistakably a slipshod effort and another sign that his creativity — to say nothing of his ability to judge talent — had gone missing.

***

In May 1992, Alan Leeds, one of the very last members of Prince’s inner circle with a truly independent voice, resigned his post as president of Paisley Park Records. This concluded an association with Prince that began nearly a decade earlier on the 1999 tour. For many years Leeds was a trusted friend and confidant, but he and Prince had drifted apart in the early 1990s. As he prepared to leave, Leeds felt a deep sense of disillusionment about an artist whose career had just recently seemed so promising. The rapping and other commercial capitulations, the pseudo-gangsta imagery, and the attention lavished on protégés like Electra, all seemed to Leeds unworthy of Prince’s astonishing potential. “I don’t think he took his gift seriously,” said Leeds, looking back at Prince’s work from this period.

***

At Warner Bros. and other labels, there was no retreat from the gigantic deals given to major artists in the early part of the decade. In 1996, a bidding war with Dreamworks Records prompted Warners to enter an $80 million, five-album pact with REM. This agreement (like some of the other mega deals before it) generated plenty of second-guessing, especially when the group’s subsequent album sold poorly.

For the industry as a whole, this new way of doing business ended up a hit-or-miss proposition. While REM failed to justify the millions spent on it, Janet Jackson scored one success after another. Her brother, by contrast, lost his commercial rhythm and became embroiled in various legal and public relations battles. Aerosmith, meanwhile, despite the advancing age of its members (which had prompted some industry insiders to question the group’s deal) continued to be a market leader for years to come.

But if some of the huge contracts proved more prescient than others, no deal would create more angst for any record label — and indeed, the entire industry — than the one given by Warner Bros. to Prince, as events would soon prove.

(Excerpted from “Possessed: the Rise and Fall of Prince,” by Alex Hahn, copyright 2003, 2005, and 2016.)

To be continued…..

For more writing on Prince, visit “Make the House Shake: the Life and Legacy of Prince at https://www.facebook.com/groups/myseven/

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