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A Death In The Family: St. Paul Of The Family Remembers Prince, The Teacher
A Death In The Family: St. Paul Of The Family Remembers Prince, The Teacher

A Death In The Family: St. Paul Of The Family Remembers Prince, The Teacher

A Death In The Family: St. Paul Of The Family Remembers Prince, The Teacher

Photos courtesy of Steven Parke.

Because we enjoy Prince's records almost as much as we enjoy a good Prince story, it's sometimes easy to get caught up in reminiscing about Prince, the Idea; Prince, the mysterious force for musical good...and forget to honor Prince Rogers Nelson, the individual, the very talented, fragile yet powerful human being. Which is why it seems appropriate to end our series of #PrinceDay interviews on what may be the most moving, the most personal and insightful.

In addition to being a member of The Time, St. Paul Peterson was the face of The Family, the Prince group who originally recorded the classic "Nothing Compares 2 U" before Sinead O'Conner (and then Prince's own) version made it a touchstone of pop music for a generation. As we shared with you all, 7 hours and 13 days after Prince's transition The Family reunited to perform the song in Prince's honor, making a profoundly moving little bit of musical history. But St. Paul spoke with Okayplayer by phone, from Minneapolis, just days after the news shocked the world...and he had yet to achieve that catharsis, or closure that art can help us achieve when confronted with unacceptable loss. In this extremely intimate interview, he shared with Okayplayer his struggle to come to terms with the news, his relationship with his musical mentor and the true meaning of the word, Family. The Prince he chooses to remember, is one we hope you all carry with you as well:

St. Paul: For some reason, this incredible weight has been on my shoulders. I've had people staying in my house. Susannah's been here and, you know, Wendy and Lisa have been over here. Matt Blisten and Eric Leeds and, you know, we've just been holding up and I, (deep sigh) I've been really, personally processing this. The thing that I'm feeling, which is weird, is just this terrible weight, man, that's been kinda covering all of us I guess.

I even took a ... I took a drive out to Paisley yesterday. Just to witness it as a fan, I wasn't trying to get in. Karen didn't want any of that stuff. I just wanted to go out and see what this man meant to his fans and how beloved he was and to witness it from that point of view, read the signs, look at all the balloons that are ... there must be 20,000 balloons or something crazy like that, hanging for about a quarter to half a mile of the fence surrounding the complex...where I used to work, where I used to have an office with my brother, and pointing out, reminiscing about my time there, my, my room up there. It's the most surreal, out of body, weird experience in my life. Not till, I started to shed a tear yesterday while I was there, but of course I got interrupted by (chuckles) by someone, so I couldn't really follow through on it and I'm just kind of waiting organically for that to happen. Think it just did, watching these. It's good. (breathes heavily)

I guess that's what I was gonna, I was trying, um, to put into words. For me as a, as a fan that D'Angelo performance and even just listening to the old recordings that you guys made, again is something so pure about it...

St. Paul: Pure. That's a good word.

OKP: be able to enjoy it as a fan from from a distance. I just wonder, are you able to?  Having been as you say, been inside the factory. Inside the nuts and bolts of that dream factory, making those things. Are you able to have that, sort of pure connection with it? I,t must be a bit like watching yourself in a movie, as you said...

St. Paul: You know, I don't really know how to describe it. I wish I could give you a more accurate description of where my heart is at and where, uh, where my emotions are at, but I'm having a really difficult time pinpointing how to feel. Of course, I feel a great loss and, and, uh, as a fan and a former employee and as a mentee, of someone who, you know, uh, really jumpstarted my career, oh so long ago. (chuckles) There's a lot of feelings and raw emotions to it.

To really deal with and I think most important man, is just, you know, part of my childhood and, and part of music history is gone and that's, that is, uh, a lot to deal with. So you know what I'm doing, man, is I'm just, I'm praying and...I know he's cool, it's the rest of us fools who are [laughs] who are left to deal with, uh, the aftermath of that.

You know, when you have a shocking death like that, I mean really, I equate it to someone like Princess Di. I've never seen anything like the television coverage, the memorials, that kind of thing. I remember when Princess Di died, [coughs] that vigil and the, and the, uh, outpouring of love in the form of flowers and notes and things like that. That's the only thing that I can equate this to is. He really was royalty. And sometimes because you work with him, you forget that stuff.

OKP:  I was struck that you guys [members of The Family/fDeluxe] kind of all came together. People staying at your house...we need people around us in these times, and loss does bring us closer together. What has been the group or the communal conversation that you guys are having there?

St. Paul:  Mostly, a lot of unspoken things. I think just being in the presence of each other, helps us deal with the shock of it. You know, lots of funny stories and things like that,  we are memorializing him with those kinds of things, you know. It's just like you do with anybody else in the family; through each other you kind of get through these kinds of things. One thing I will say about my encounter with him so long ago is that he put me in touch with and introduced me to people who have been my lifelong friends.

I mean, Eric Leeds and I are like best friends. We make music together. We have made music together for over 30 years. Susannah is part of our family. She's stays here, I've stayed at her house. It goes with everybody else. Wendy, Lisa, Sheila, so many of these friendships have outlasted I think anything what anybody would ever have imagined and that's, that's what I think impacts us the most. He was not only was he an incredible person, Prince was able to put, you know, pick talent out. Through those relationships, or through those bands, we became really lifelong friends because there's a specific bond [chuckles] that we all share, an experience that you can't explain to anybody. No matter how hard you try. Being through the, uh, the Prince camp, it is a, it's a very exclusive club, you know, not a lot of people had the opportunity to go through. And those of us that did, I think it really bonded us for life.

OKP: Obviously Eric and Susannah and you are, are sort of actively working together with fDeluxe and making music...but has this moment, caused you to reconnect with anybody from that camp so to speak, that you've just been out of touch with or estranged from?

St. Paul:  We've never really been estranged from, from anyone, it's just life happens. I reached out to, people like Jerome and Andre, who I was in a band with, and we've been in contact. Yeah. You know, we're just checking in, seeing how everybody's doing. ... It is really cool to watch this community come together and just lift each other up.

OKP: I have to ask, I think in some ways, the main question that's been on my mind this ... You know, it's impossible to get away from this word, Family. This was a man who obviously in some ways, uh, not to assume or to speak ill of him, but he obviously in some ways struggled with the idea of family. And yet, he brought all these people together and he named his band, The Family. and in some ways, you know, creating community, not just picking talent...

St. Paul:  (laughs) Yeah.

OKP: Do you see that in him, that he was trying to surround himself with a family?

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St. Paul:  You know, that's a tough question for me to answer on his behalf, because we weren't as tight as you might imagine and it was so long ago. But from my limited access, and from my recollection, I really believe that people were put together for a specific purpose and that was to offset each other and complement each other in bands, whether it be with talent and/or look and maybe...maybe he had something else in mind that we never thought he did and maybe you are correct. It's hard for me to say. I can tell you what organically happened and who wouldn't think that's a beautiful thing.

I think it probably surprise, it certainly surprised me and I bet you it surprised him, in a very good way. And maybe, you know, a friend of mine said, you know, he did name it The Family, maybe he, because he didn't have a wonderful relationship with his own, maybe this is way of, of, uh, creating one, exactly what you were saying. I'm like, Wow, that's really deep. Maybe that was the whole reason behind that name...but I don't know the answer to that, man.

I wish that for him, that's one thing I really wish for him is that he would be surrounded by family, surrounded by love like I am, you know. I don't take that for granted. I come from a very, incredibly strong, passionate, musical family. We've adopted pretty much everybody who walked in our front door, that's just how we are. I don't think that Prince had that. I don't know what I would do without that kind of feeling. So I always wished that for him, you know.

OKP: And speaking for myself, I certainly associate you first with The Family. You know, you were the face of The Family so to speak, but you were obviously involved in The Time and other records before that...

St. Paul:  Yes.

OKP: Can you tell me a little bit in your own words, kind a like, the one line bio is that Prince discovered you. What was that first meeting or how did you kinda come into The Time and the other projects you were involved with?

St. Paul : Well, when I was in high school, I was already working six nights a week in bar bands and whatever. As you may or may not know, my family's...they're all musicians and I'm the youngest. So I guess the Peterson family had some sort of reputation [in Minneapolis], people knew that I was out playing and singing and doing all that kind of thing. So when I graduated from high school, my brother-in-law, who is Stewart Pastor, Stewart's first cousin is Bobby Vee. When, when Jimmy Jam and Monte and Gerry were excused, there was an opening in the band. I was in Stewart's band at that time, my brother-in-law's band. He called me when I was on vacation after I graduated from high school and said, Dude: You have an audition with The Time.

I was like, what? He said, Get your butt back down here and learn these songs, which I did! To make a very long story short, that's already been reported on, I went in the first day. Prince was not there. Jesse was running the show at that point and I played the songs, did what I needed to do, and then I got a callback. The next day, the infamous first meeting with Prince and we started picking out swatches of clothes for the Purple Rain movie and that's how the whole relationship began.

Actually, he also pulled the "Wreck Uh Stow" thing on me, just to break the ice. I don't know whether I was the first person or whatever, but I'll never forget it. He wrote down the words, Wreck. Uh. Stow. and he asked me to say that out loud. I was scared to death and I said, "Wreck Uh Stow."

He said, what is it. I don't know. Say it again. Wreck Uh Stow. What is it? I don't know. Where do you buy your records? Record store. Oh, ha, ha ha. So that was his breaking the ice with me. That was my first encounter with him. I guess after that point, you know, that the college of of Prince began. It wasn't necessarily him running the show, because Jesse was really in charge at that time, but between Jesse and Prince they really took this green Norwegian from the suburbs and molded me into what they needed to have for The Time. Fascinating, as I look back on it now.

OKP: There's an interesting difference between The Family and The Time. It feels like with The Family, for whatever reason, he maybe felt more safe to experiment? If that's the right word or the right guess. There are these certain things about the sound of that Family album which became part of the later Prince sound that maybe he felt self-conscious about trying out under his own name and the fact that he wasn't the front man sort of freed him to do things like playing with orchestration and different things that came in later on Around The World In A Day and other albums. From the inside, did you get that kind of sense that he was trying out new things with this project?

St. Paul:  Well, I mean, in hindsight, yes. While it was happening in the moment, I was just, you know, thrilled to be there in front of that band and learning as much as I could and doing the best job that I could. As far as the orchestrations..the way that that was mixed and the way it was originally, before the orchestration was on, it was a funky record with a David Bowie/Duran Duran little kid up front singing some funky music, right.  The minute he took a chance on Clare Fischer, I think it was a calculated risk. I believe, and you'd have to ask Susannah this, she was hanging with him then, and suggested Clare because of the records he did with Rufus & Chaka Khan. Once those arrangements were done, they were so far out of the box, because Clare--I don't know if you're familiar with Clare's writing other than Prince stuff, but--he was an incredible genius. Harmonically. He would take these one chord wonders and he turned them into the most complex beautiful things that were so cinematic and so emotional.

I mean, I don't know whether Prince himself had that plan. Maybe he did, but Clare really put a different spin on it. What was brilliant about it, was that when they started exercising the mute button and taking things out and featuring those new elements, that was the risk that he took. I think Prince's palette was open to the possibilities of this incredible re-harmonizations that Clare brought to the table and that's when he started using them on his own stuff. He's like, Oh, man.

My brother who was, you know, my older brother Billy [Peterson] who was super close to playing with people like Bill Evans, an incredible upright jazz player, heard this stuff for the first time and he he lost his mind. He said, that's the most brilliant, new, funky, pop, jazz...he couldn't even put a label on it.

OKP: Another thing that struck me was that, The Family might be the first Prince project with just pure instrumentals on it, and more of a jazz feel on some of the tracks...which I guess is more Eric's role, where he got to step in. Were you sort of part of the conversation abut including those?

St. Paul:  Not at all, man. [laughs]  I'm not going to bullshit you at all. No that, that was him just being prolific. I mean, when you listen to songs like "Susannah's Pajamas" you can hear elements of Herbie, it sounds a lot like a Headhunters record.

OKP: Right.

St. Paul:  You know and then Eric comes in and puts that... Eric was such an incredible addition to everything that had that Family record had to offer. That's got to be one of the first records, if not the first record, to utilize saxophones in a Prince band. I could be wrong, but I think that changed a lot, having Eric Leeds come to the party. He's one of the finest saxophonists I ever heard. I think that opened Prince's eyes as much as Clare Fischer's arrangements in what the possibilities were, because he couldn't play that instrument. He allowed Eric to have free reign, same with Clare Fischer. Prince wasn't necessarily a string arranger in that sense of the word. I mean, Prince would put Oberheim [synthesized] strings on things, a la Rick James or things like that, but not as complex as someone like a Clare Fischer.

OKP: So it sounds like you guys are working in stuff now, as fDeluxe. We've also heard in the last day or two that The Revolution might reunite in some form. What's sort of next for the camp, for the band, so to speak? Are you going to be involved in the a Revolution reunion? What's your perspective on that?

St. Paul: You know, I'm not certain. I'm not certain exactly what to do. I'm kind of sitting back and just letting everybody do their thing and let the chips fall where they will. I've rather be super respectful to honor Prince's passing and not seem opportunistic because that would be wrong. I'm not saying anyone is doing that, but I don't believe it's my place to come out and go, hey everybody, we're going to start doing things. I'm just not that guy. I don't think that would be right of me to do that. I'm all for having a Revolution show and if we can play a part in that. You know, if that's something that they'd like to do, they know how to contact me and we would be honored to, be a part of that to honor Prince's memories.

So what I, so what I would say, is that we would love to be involved. I think it's a beautiful opportunity to get together and play that great music and, uh, I guess we'll just see. In the weeks to come, I may have a different, more definite answer for you, but at this point, again I'm just sitting back, trying to deal with this great loss and not seem opportunistic in any way at all.

OKP: If you don't mind commenting, you know, for those of us who are sort of on the outside, there are these questions about what is the right way to honor his legacy. He was so prolific and so private in some ways. There's this suggestion that Paisley Park should be a museum or should be open, which seems like an awesome idea to me. I'd love to go there, but other people have said, you know, maybe that's not in the spirit of the way he did things.

St. Paul:  What else are they going to do with the building? That's what I ask myself, what else would they do? Sell it? Bulldoze it? God, I hope not.

I think that Paisley could be, you know, our modern day Graceland for, especially after seeing the impact that this guy had. I walked out to Paisley yesterday and it was 40 degrees and there were still 200 people out there, streaming in and you know, I guess I didn't ... I knew that Prince had an impact worldwide, but I didn't know it was like that. So it seems natural to me that that would happen. We've got a lot, a long way to go before any of that happens with sorting through all the legalities, I'm sure for the family and his heirs and all that. All I hope is that, you know, it's done tastefully, it's done in a way that he would have dug. More importantly to me, that music in that vault is treated with great respect. Things that shouldn't come out, don't come out. You know?

OKP: Yes.

St. Paul:  And, that's going to be a difficult one, because there's so many people that touched his life and are deserving to be able to dive into the vault, who could dive into the vault, but who's gonna, who's going to be giving direction on that? And again, there are many, many, many qualified people. So there's no lack of talent, that's for sure. I just hope everybody plays nice in the sandbox.

OKP: Most of the people that we've spoken to, everyone has that Prince story. Some have many! But that moment that just kind of sums up what a badass he was, how mysterious he could be sometimes. I wonder do you have, what's your best Prince story? What's the one that kind of stands out in your mind as summing up his presence?

St. Paul: Hmm. Golly, that's a tough one. I'll give you one that you may not know and it has nothing to do with musicality. My mom was an incredible driving force in jazz music here in Minneapolis/St. Paul. After Prince and I, had an interesting relationship the last 30 years. Right? Well, my mom passed away and I got a huge bouquet of flowers from him on the passing of my mom. The guy had heart. Maybe he did look at our family and go, Is that something I wish I had? You never know. I mean I don't know what his motivation was except for I accepted that great kindness. That's the story I want to give you. It's going to be different than everybody else.

OKP: Which leads me to what I wanted to ask you, as a final question, which is: How do you choose to remember him? Usually when we lose somebody there's sort of a phase or a moment that is the one we want to cherish and hold on to and you know. I'm curious to know what you would want people to know about Prince that maybe they don't know, what side of him is the one you kind of internalized and want to hold onto?

St. Paul: The one I like, man, is, is, uh, our last lengthy conversation was a few years back. I had invited him to go down and see a mutual friend of ours, Victor Wooten down at the Dakota. We sat together and we talked for a good long period. I caught him on a really good day.

He asked me, Why do you play bass, and sing at the same time? I'm like, What are you talking about? There are only a few people that can pull that out. He said, Larry Graham, who else did he say? Sting or something like that. He says, You want to know what I think? I'm like, Sure Coach, what do you think? He said, I think you should go back to playing keyboards and singing. I'm like, Uh-huh, okay.

Of course I was like hesitant because I fancy myself as a pretty good bass player. So I tried not to take offense at that, but he said, Do you have a coach? You have someone who you look up to and will talk to you and tell you about this stuff? I said, yeah, my big brothers and sisters kick my butt all the time. He said, Even I need a coach. I have Larry Graham. I'm like, that's good, man. You can be my coach, if you want to.

So I started calling him that, you know, we didn't get too many opportunities to bond after that, but what's really funny about that is, as I thought about it. I went, Hmm, he could be right. In fact, the last concert we did to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Family record, I hired a bass player and I played keys instead. It was great. It was freeing. I was able to concentrate more on being a frontman. So again, he was right. I guess I hold those moments where he would be a mentor, because that's what I really considered him. Besides my own family, the Peterson family, he was probably my strongest musical influence.

When you're 17 years old, you're pretty mold-able by then, right. He really was a huge influence. I think he influenced the way I put together bands, influenced the way I approached parts, production, vocals. How he played the bass, how he approached the technique and theory, meaning why do you play certain notes, why do you go with other notes. It was the school of funk and it was a school of showbiz--it was a school of so many different things!--I think, exactly when I needed it. So, to revisit my mentor 30 years later or 28 years later, was kind of a good bookend for me. I cherish that meeting.

OKP: That's beautiful.


A Note On The Photos: Longtime Prince Photographer Steven Parke shared this unpublished photo of Prince onset of a video shoot at Paisley Park with Okayplayer, as well as the candid shot of Prince outdoors in the Minneapolis fall. Stay tuned for details on his forthcoming book of rare Prince photos and enjoy this behind the scenes, making-of anecdote:

"Watching Prince film his "Greatest Romance Ever Sold" video was to witness a true professional moving through his craft. "GRES" was the last track he recorded for the album and he was super excited the first time he played it for me. He would move his hand like a conductor, as if he were orchestrating the song, and let out head shaking, satisfied, “whoooo!” when it ended.

The video was filmed on series of small sets built on the Paisley Park soundstage and he moved through them and his costume changes, repeating takes and nailing the scenes, with slight variances each time.

It was the sheer force of his persona that visually sold everything he did. I was  privileged to know him outside of that projection of himself as a performer, and as a man who worked harder at his craft than most people would ever realize."