Taja Sevelle: Contagious Love
by Miles Marshall Lewis
1987 saw the release of two Madhouse albums, the greatest Prince album of all time, the greatest protégé record of Paisley Park Records’ brief history, and a third Sheila E. album. The last of Prince’s earliest signings (circa 1984) also finally made her debut in September 1987: 25-year-old Taja Sevelle.
As a teenager, Sevelle (born Nancy Richardson) sang in Manhattan Transfer-like jazz bands around Minneapolis and deejayed at local volunteer radio station KMOJ. Aware of her reputation, Prince approached her at First Avenue and asked for a demo; he initially wanted her to front another girl group. Soon she was cast as an extra in Purple Rain and signed to the soon-to-be-launched Paisley Park Records as a solo act. Recorded in Hollywood as a close collaboration with her eventual fiancé, newbie producer Chico Bennett, Taja Sevelle aimed squarely at a pop crossover audience. Like Jill Jones a season earlier, the album commercially missed the target, never cracking the Billboard albums chart. (Both found one-hit-wonder success in Europe with their lead singles though—“Mia Bocca” and “Love Is Contagious.”)
Though no one could have known at the time, 1984 and the Purple Rain phenomenon were Prince’s never-to-be-repeated commercial peak. Warner Bros. bankrolled Paisley Park because of his lengthy stretch of mid-’80s hits. Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl,” Stevie Nicks’s “Stand Back,” The Time’s “Jungle Love,” André Cymone’s “The Dance Electric,” Sheila E.’s “The Glamorous Life” and “A Love Bizarre,” Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You,” Sheena Easton’s “Sugar Walls,” Meli’sa Morgan’s “Do Me, Baby,” The Bangles’ “Manic Monday”—they all represent an unbelievable hot streak. Others were nearly as successful: The Time’s “The Bird,” The Family’s “The Screams of Passion,” Mazarati’s “100 MPH,” Madhouse’s “Six.” That streak lasted from 1981 to 1986 and never fully reheated again. Those 14 songs (Check out our “Written by Prince 1980’s Hot Streak” Playlist) —never mind his own hits—helped foster the notion that Prince could musically mint money anytime he wanted. The first Prince song to truly fail after this hot streak belonged to Taja Sevelle. Michael Jackson rejected “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me,” an unreleased Prince track from 1976, for his Bad album and the song eventually followed “Love Is Contagious” as a Taja Sevelle single. Wrong move.
“Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me” stalled at number 61 on the Billboard Black singles chart, kind of an incredible failure for a Prince song. (That year, his Nona Hendryx contribution “Baby Go-Go” also petered out at number sixty, and Sheena Easton’s Prince-penned “Eternity” failed to chart at all.) Prince’s well never ever ran dry, but that sweet spot where everything he touched turned to gold (or platinum) was over by 1987.
“Latest Paisley protégé, like predecessor Jill Jones, is one sweet package: hot look, a limber voice, and plenty of sass,” Billboard trumpeted. “Debut single ‘Love Is Contagious’ continues its chart move; obligatory Prince contribution ‘Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?’ sounds like an easy follow-up shot.” The album deserved to sell. Taja Sevelle wasn’t any less worthy of attention than some of 1987’s other pop confections—Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven on Earth, for instance. In the end, the strictures of American radio programming segregation doomed both Jill Jones and Taja Sevelle, with pop and urban markets too confused over which audience should claim the two singers as their own.
On 1980s radio, often only the safest or most diluted African-American acts received spins on pop stations, a practice that bled to other areas of the music industry: Purple Rain lost Album of the Year to Lionel Richie’s saccharine Can’t Slow Down at the 1985 Grammy Awards. By ’87, rock-tinged Prince singles like “U Got the Look” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” targeted crossover radio; R&B radio favorites from Sign o’ the Times like “Housequake” and “Adore” were either buried on B-sides or not released on their own at all, giving the impression that Prince’s Black audience wasn’t as important to him anymore. Prince even recorded The Black Album—a funky rejoinder to those who felt his music had started to lean too heavily on the white side—for a December ’87 release before its abrupt cancellation.
These questions of black and white, urban and pop, starkly impacted Paisley Park Records in 1987. Both Jill Jones and Taja Sevelle released two of the strongest debuts on the label. Both scored success in Europe, where the crossover radio phenomenon didn’t exist in quite the same way. Both were thought to be white artists (though Jill Jones’s mother is African-American) signed to the label of a Black man who’d graduated into the supposedly colorblind market of a crossover audience. Neither Black radio nor white radio knew what to do with either of them and their projects languished, during the same year Prince (through The Black Album) considered his own shrinking Black audience.
soulhead met Taja Sevelle, who recently published From The Root: A Memoir and A Philosophy for Balance in Our World, in the lounge of Manhattan’s famous Plaza Hotel to speak all about those early years. Meanwhile, Prince’s own “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” has finally found an audience on Warner Bros. Records’ latest posthumous collection, Originals.
MML: How did your DJ career come about?
Taja Sevelle: I was a DJ at KMOJ radio in Minneapolis. KMOJ broadcasted out of the northside. It was the only R&B station in the city at the time. It started broadcasting at a 10- or 20-block area, and then by the time I got there, it was the whole city. It was really fun to be a DJ there. I deejayed at another radio station at a certain point, so I was at two stations. Can’t remember the call letters of that one. That was like an easy listening jazz station.
I had graduated ahead of my class, and then I started managing a health food store, working at the radio station, and also working in several jazz bands. I started out sort of being mentored by a local saxophonist by the name of Morris Wilson. He was a fabulous player. So he started to show me the ropes. At first he had me learning how to set the equipment up, things like that. Slowly he had me doing backgrounds and then lead. He had five different bands: four jazz bands and one R&B band. I was in all of those bands. Two of the bands were like straight-ahead jazz. One of ’em was like Manhattan Transfer/Eddie Jefferson. And the other one was like more easy listening. The R&B was more like a straight-up funk band.
How’d you meet Morris Wilson?
I met him at a community park. I think it was Loring Park. They were having a jazz workshop in the park. So it was free and I was fresh outta high school. He said, “Can you scat?” and I did not know what scatting was. [laughter] But I said, “Sure! What is it?” Probably like you and French, learning on the fly. I just started going for it. “Yeah, I could do that.” He heard that I had a good ear and a lot of guts, a good sense of melody and things like that. He sort of took me under his wing and mentored me.
I did that and then I also put my own band together, Nobody. We recorded a little single on Nowhere Records. “I Saw You” was on the day side, and on the night side was… I can’t remember the name of it. [laughter]
So how is it that KMOJ took you on as a DJ so young?
That particular station was all volunteer. They needed help, so I dove right in. I started with reading the news, then I started playing music. Then I started doing the community calendar for the station. I learned very quickly. And so shortly I was a drive-time DJ. And if they need a DJ in the middle of the night, I would do that. Anytime they needed, I would do it. Obviously they had a great library of music, so during the graveyard shift, that’s when I could really access that music and become acquainted with a lot of old music that I had never heard before. For me it was awesome, because I was all about music.
Did you have the Nobody single out yet?
I did, yeah, and I would play it. [laughter] As a DJ, I would say, “KMOJ 89.9, this is a new group: Nobody!” I definitely played our song. I interviewed George Clinton, André Cymone. At one point, I also produced a show called F.O.O.D., all about food and nutrition.
Brownmark told me Mazarati was the first band signed to Paisley Park Records, though they didn’t come out first. Were you the second? My research turned that up.
I’m not sure about the line-up. Vanity 6 was already out, Sheila E. was already out. Purple Rain had already come out. Or no, had it? I’m not sure. I can’t remember. Apollonia was already in the mix. It had to be around the time of the shooting of Purple Rain, so maybe Purple Rain hadn’t yet come out when he offered me the deal.
When he first offered the deal, he wanted me to be in a girl’s band and I turned that down. I’m a solo artist. So he thought about it for a couple of minutes and said OK. The conversation quickly shifted and turned into what we would do with my CD.
Explain how you first met Prince.
I met him at First Avenue. He was just hangin’ and I was hangin’. My hair was a big Angela Davis [size], it was pretty noticeable. He knew that I was a vocalist, and he said, “I know that you’re a singer and you have a really strong voice. I’d like to hear your demo.” I was working on a demo at the time, so I said, “I’m working on a demo. I’ll get it to you when I’m finished with it.” I think it was like a day or two later that his manager said, “Listen, he’s gonna be leaving the country in a few days, he wants to get your demo before he leaves.” So we spent 48 hours straight, literally, finishing one song. The first song, the only song I ever did on that demo. And so I got him the one song.
I gave that to Alan Leeds. And then Alan called me, I think the next day or something, and said, “He wants to see you.”
And the name of the song?
The name of the song was “Money Gun.” [laughter]
How did you first meet Chico Bennett, the producer of Taja Sevelle?
Chico was in a band from California called The Gentlemen. They had been travelling, but they sort of got stranded in Minneapolis ’cause they ran out of money. But they didn’t like the local set of Minneapolis at that time. The Gentlemen was considered, like, the best band. They were actually really good musicians. There were so many good musicians in Minneapolis. Chico played the bass and Greg Porter played the guitar, and he ended up marrying André Cymone’s sister. I was working on the demo for “Money Gun” with Chico and Greg when they were stranded. So we’d become friends. Chico and I ended up dating, and we were actually—later, working on my CD in Los Angeles—engaged to be married.
So we had become very good friends. The thing is that Prince really understood that I was my own artist and that I wanted to sort of have my own sound. He said, “I’m going to let you write four songs of your own on this CD.” So it sort of opened the gate up. Prince made a really good decision in that he connected me to Lenny Waronker at Warner Bros. [Records], who at the time I think was the president. Lenny Waronker had just produced Rickie Lee Jones. Lenny was really well respected as a producer and as a person, he was a great guy.
I flew to Los Angeles and met Lenny, and then Lenny connected me. I worked under Michael Ostin and Benny Medina. I felt free enough. ’Cause they knew I had freedom to have a vision and select [producers]. So I said, “Listen, I’ve been working with Chico, I’d like him to produce it.” And they all said yes. Chico ended up getting four songs he wrote on that CD as well. He had never produced before, that was his very first time.
Benny Medina is legendary. How did you first connect?
Lenny connected me to Michael, and then when we sat and talked, they didn’t know how to market me. ’Cause they didn’t know if I should just be R&B, or should I be pop, or should I be pop crossover. So finally they decided it should be pop crossover. ’Cause I didn’t fit in straight pop and I didn’t fit in straight R&B. So both of those two gentlemen A&R’d my record, which is unusual. Usually you only have one A&R person. I had Michael, who headed up the pop A&R, and I had Benny Medina, who headed up R&B A&R.
Benny was cool, man. And Michael was cool. I loved working with them. I have fond memories of that time, period.
Did it feel like a lot of time passed between when you were signed and the release of Taja Sevelle?
Well, I negotiated my deal for a year. So that took some time. I retained my publishing rights. And then I sat for a year. Basically, he wasn’t ready to launch me yet or to get me started yet. Maybe it was like a year and a half. So by the time I got out there… I had never recorded a record before, so I had no idea how to compare time wise. But Chico was a wonderful producer to work with because he’s very particular, he’s a perfectionist. It was good for me because I learned how to be on point with all my vocals. I did all my backgrounds, I did everything. It was a very good training for me.
“Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” and “If I Could Get Your Attention” were the two Prince-written contributions. Were you aware that he’d submitted “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?”—which goes way back to 1976—to Michael Jackson’s Bad album?
No. [laughter] He submitted four songs to me. I don’t remember the other two. I just remember letting him know that I connected to two of them. I retooled some of the lyrics on “If I Could Get Your Attention,” made them a little bit more my own.
Do you recall any of business conversations after the success of “Love Is Contagious”? I heard it was the first song you ever wrote.
Iy was the first song I ever wrote. The thing is, I wrote the song and I had my own little studio and put the whole thing together. The drums, the bass, the whole thing. Then I submitted the tape, and they were like, “Oh, they really love the song.” That song everybody agreed should be the first single. Normally you would go out with a Prince song, but that’s how strong that song was. But one day, my manager called and said, “It’s a hit in the UK. You’ve gotta get your passport, we’ve gotta get you over there in two weeks.” I had a stomachache for two weeks I was so nervous. But once I got over there, it was just so much fun to have your first song you ever wrote and it’s a hit, being received so well. I had a ball, it was beautiful. Shows, TV, in-stores, radio, interviews in hotels. Everything.
I would’ve chosen either “Popular” or “Fly for Your Painted Rainbow” [next]. Once you introduce a brand-new artist, here’s the style. So what makes sense to come next? “Painted Rainbow” would’ve been awesome, and it would’ve fell in with the style and then established that. Then you could depart from that. So I felt that “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” was too rapid a departure from “Love Is Contagious.”
“Love Is Contagious” had been so well received, and I noticed that when I performed “Love Is Contagious,” people would just be standing up, singing along. And when I would perform “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?,” it was a far different reaction. I just felt it was too radical too quickly. But it’s tough, because you have a legend who wrote the song. He’s the one who’s graciously why I’m even out there. Logically it makes sense to put the song out that he wrote. So there was a lot of discussion about it. And everybody tries to make the best decision that they can. I was just always pretty happy during that time. [laughter] And I was learning. I had no complaints. It wasn’t like there was a lot of tension or anything like that.
Check out Taja Sevelle’s work with UrbanFarming.org
Miles Marshall Lewis has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Ebony, Essence and many other publications. His work has appeared in Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, Hip-Hop: A Cultural Odyssey, The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, and elsewhere. He’s also the author of There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises. Follow MML onTwitter and Instagram. Check out some of his work for soulhead.