Purple Women: Wouldn't You Love To Love Taja Sevelle?

'Purple Women' is a limited tribute series honoring the women who made music and history with Prince during his lifetime. To follow this series and check out the who's who of women on the roster, be sure to visit the introductory page for further information.  

Whenever I find myself in a conversation about Prince's protégés (which isn't often, and devastatingly so), Taja Sevelle is a name that tends to get overlooked. Names like Sheila E., Vanity, and Morris Day are almost always the first names to be uttered, and if someone's wanting to impress and flex their Prince knowledge, Jill Jones or Wendy & Lisa get verbal nods. Taja Sevelle's name comes up when you're truly digging in those crates, discovering those luminaries that had a brief bask in the purple light. Even though her time to glow was pretty brief, Taja Sevelle is no footnote in the Purple Reign, and truth be told, she's one of my favorite protégés for all her elusive, and short-lived presence in it, because nothing is more intriguing to me than a singer who hits all the right and distinct notes, but still cannot capture the attention of pop's ever-fickle audience.

Dig if you will this picture...

Taja Sevelle (born Nancy Richardson) had some strong ties to Prince from the get-go, as she herself was a Minneapolis native, and like Prince she also was on that young musical prodigy hustle with her career beginning in radio as a DJ and show programmer, and later on hopscotching around to various local R&B and jazz bands as a singer. Such hustlin' led to Taja merging into Prince's world as she not only became an extra in the iconic Purple Rain, but she also caught the attention of his Royal Badness during production. Soon Taja found herself in the her own Sophie's Choice a year later when the same week she was accepted to the Berklee College of Music, she was also offered a record deal by Prince. Like any sane person, Taja signed on the dotted line and became a recording artist for Paisley Park Records. Prince's initial interest in Taja was to utilize her for a new girl band he was forming, but after some pondering, he decided to scratch the idea and focus on making her a solo act.

Prince gave Taja the most breathing room to craft her own material, this permission a little unprecedented in the protégé camp, as she wrote four songs for her album as akin to his two previously-performed contributions ("Wouldn't You Love To Love Me" and "If I Could Get Your Attention"). Still, the most unique gesture is that Prince decided not to do a total hands-on production for Taja Sevelle, as he asked then-Warner Brothers Records president, Lenny Waronker, to guide the creation of Taja's debut, bringing along the assistance of  Michael Ostin and Benny Medina (who would later on become notable for piloting Jennifer Lopez to superstardom) to executive produce. This changing of the guard led to Taja Sevelle sounding less like a Prince album, and more like a Taja Sevelle album.

Prince does tend to overpower on productions, least we forget, and I give him credit that he can ride shotgun when he wants to, but at this time, the mid-'80s, with the Revolution now disbanded, and his attentions diverting towards 'grooming' Sheila E. for solo success, and being a mad scientist in the studio to create such elusive epics like Sign 'O' The Times, giving Taja some room to grow on her own seemed like another experiment in itself. Maybe Prince couldn't exactly give Taja the attention she deserved, or maybe this was the beginning of the notorious scuffling that was going on behind the scenes with Prince and Warner Bros. that led to such a decision, but even though Taja Sevelle isn't drenched in the Prince sensibility that most protégé albums posses, it still retains a lot of Prince's desires for urgent and exciting music in a sea of synthesized sameness.

Prince keeping the faith and swooning over Taja's self-written cut, "Love Is Contagious" might be what cements this album. It really is a one-of-a-kind track as it sounded like nothing that was coming out at that time. It was simple in style and intention, but it revels in such warmth about the beginning buds of sprouting romance, that you can't help but feel uplifted and recall your first time innocently crushing on someone. Instrumentation wise, it doesn't need the extra tinsel of scythe-slicing '80s synths or drum machines, and its clean, almost blank backdrop, rubber band snap percussion, and calliope synths winked towards a subtle Prince trademark. Still, "Love Is Contagious" has the cool grace to waltz like a Prince song, but still move in its own direction. Unfortunately such uniqueness wasn't enough as it rested at an insulting #62 on the Hot 100, making it one of the most underrated singles of the 1980s, if not in pop/R&B in general.

Second single, "Wouldn't You Love To Love Me" is infamous for being the song that Prince wanted to produce for Michael Jackson, but failed in doing so after creative differences clouded their once-proposed collaboration. When you first take a listen to the song, it is kind of hard to imagine Michael singing it, in fact I myself can't imagine Michael singing anything by Prince and vice versa, because they were like oil and water, essential when we discuss the main ingredients of pop culture history, but still immiscible together. Them together would just distort the legend of them as these extremely larger than life entities. I mean, such a union didn't exactly work for Prince and Madonna either...

"Wouldn't You Love To Love Me" deserved to get its second wind through Taja for it bubbled with vigorous optimism, an attitude that a debut artist would revel in, not a been-there-done-that performer like Michael whose virility was in overdrive mode without guesswork circa 1987. It's why the track fits Taja to a tee, and Taja's playful power flirting is well, mighty contagious. Written by Prince during the sessions for his 1978 debut, For You, and featuring Eric Leeds on an unaccredited sax solo, "Wouldn't You Love To Love Me" bounces, shimmies and shakes, Taja sounding so jubilant, so damn euphoric that you wonder why this guy she's yearning for hasn't taken her up on her offer. While this song feels familiarly Prince, Taja goes off-script for a lot of it, adding in vocal flourishes here and there for flavor.

Adding to the fun, "Wouldn't You Love To Love Me" has the most 1980s video I've ever seen as its littered with workaholic yuppies and West Side Story-meets-urban-jazz choreography of Paula Abdul. Unfortunately, all of Prince's push and power couldn't save this single from being cursed to also not climb out of the bottom 50, as it stalled at an unfair #61 on the Hot Black Singles chart.

The remainder of Taja Sevelle is a treasure trove of potential. Third single, the funk snack of "Popular" snaps and crackles with slap-bass and storytelling lyrics about a love-starved and knocked-about prostitute. Such an honest topic no doubt was too 'real' for radio, as it never registered on the radar, even though it is one of the best songs here and could rival Janet Jackson's "What Have You Done For Me Lately" and Jody Watley's "Looking For A New Love" as being some serious straight-forward take-no-bullshit R&B workout. It's remixed video version kinda warps the song for me (seriously, the album version is ah-mazing and would make a hell of a dance routine), though it does beef things up in the bass department, and that's never a bad thing.

While incorporating all the '80s hallmarks of sassafrass attitude, metropolis despondency, and voluminous crimped hair, Taja Sevelle isn't over-saturated on such characteristics. Far from processed in sound and narrative it is, and it's also not too carefully pruned as debut albums tend to be, as its alchemy maintains an earnest 'earthiness' to it, and more than often doesn't pretend to be something that it isn't, which to me is the main attribute of a honest to goodness pop record. It's not without fault though, as it does suffer from direction issues and some uninspired moments, but Taja is more than capable of carrying her songs and sound above the generic Madonna wannabes that came out by the truckloads at the time, and in some sense, she predates what Paula Abdul achieved to hit-status on 1988's Forever Your Girl by way of skirting on the fine, blurred line of where New Jack and Pop were beginning to intersect. Taja's pipes also win her over as they were in prime condition, enabling her to switch gears from going all-torch and all-register changes a la Mariah Carey like she does on the impeccable paper-hearted ballad, "How Could You Do Me So Bad?" to firing up about the plight of teenage mothers on "Mama 16".

"Take Me For A Ride" was not the wisest single choice as it just didn't grab one by the collar. On it, Taja morphed into a edgier, bronzer Debbie Gibson, something that diluted a lot of the hot sauce of tunes like "Popular" and "Wouldn't You Love To Love Me". Fairing better as a single would've been the hard-oiled electro-funk machine of "Infatuation" or the other-Prince curated track, "If I Could Get Your Attention", as it explored the Paisley Park just right on whimsy and wit, but at this point in the game, nobody cared, and the album dissolved into obscurity while interest in Taja also faded.

Taja would release two more efforts, 1991's Fountains Free and 1997's Toys Of Vanity, before bowing out of the music industry for a bit to flex her green thumb, forming Urban Farming, an organization that provides farm-raised produce for food banks in inner cities. Prior to Prince's passing he donated funds as well as performed at a benefit concert in Urban Farming's honor, pushing aside the false narrative that Prince doesn't care about his former associates. While Urban Farming continues to flourish today, Taja never once let the fault in her stars keep her from her musical passions, as she's still on that hustle, dropping a single or two on Spotify yearly.

So why did Taja Sevelle not take the expected hit-filled flight and notoriety that a Prince protégé often promises? Timing is everything in this case as 1987 was nothing but a diva party.

The year saw Janet and Jody reinventing themselves to a successful string of cross-over hits and album sales, with Madonna was continuing to titillate audiences, and Whitney Houston was bringing the songstress back into fashion for a new generation of songbirds. Teen idols like Tiffany and Debbie Gibson were covering the Orange Julius crowd at malls across America, and New Jack would find its brigade of divas with Karyn White and Pebbles waiting in the wings. Taja Sevelle could've fit in among the Taylor Daynes and the Jody Watleys, but as I've always seen with particular time frames of female music movements, sometimes not everybody can join in on the party full-term. Taja Sevelle had just enough spunk and quirk to carve a different kind of diva niche for the late '80s, but unfortunately, not enough elements aligned in her favor for success to gain traction.

That's the pop life for ya, and sometimes it better to get that one surefire thrill than none at all.
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