Prince: The Story of 1999 bonus feature: Jellybean Johnson, 'Prince knew we had something special here in Minneapolis'

Morris Day, Jellybean Johnson and Jerome Benton of The Time
Morris Day, Jellybean Johnson and Jerome Benton of The Time perform during the 2011 Soul Train Awards at The Fox Theatre on November 17, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
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Jellybean Johnson, 'Prince knew we had something special here in Minneapolis'
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While making the documentary series "Prince: The Story of 1999," I got the chance to speak to drummer and guitarist Jellybean Johnson; he is a Minneapolis Sound legend: he's a founding member of The Time, and he continues to perform with the band today.

You can listen to our complete conversation using the audio player above, and read a transcript below.

Interview Transcript

JELLYBEAN JOHNSON: Hello. I'm Jellybean Johnson from The Time, The Family, FDeluxe, the Jellybean Johnson Experience. I've been a Minnesota musician for over 40 years around here. I've been lucky to be national with it, but — and I'm from the north side.

ANDREA SWENSSON: Yes. Very cool.

It's kind of my badge of honor.

I love that. Well, before we get into 1999, I would love to hear a little of your memories of becoming a musician, getting into Flyte Tyme — just paint a picture for me of kind of your backstory.

Well, when Prince came and got us in 1981 and stuff and we did the first tour — the Controversy tour — it was new to me because it was us, him, and Zapp, and that in itself — you know, I've just been a little snotty-nosed musician running around playing in little clubs and stuff when I could, you know, as a teenager and stuff. And our first gig with The Time was in front of 26,000 people, and it drove me — I lost it, because, first of all, I'd never been in front of that many people in my life, and I never heard people scream like that in an arena, you know, 26,000, and it was just — it was surreal, and I'll never forget that.

Jellybean Johnson performing at Target Center
Jellybean Johnson plays guitar onstage at Target Center in Minneapolis. (via Facebook)

So we did that tour, and then the next year it was 1999. And by this time, Prince had added Vanity 6 to us, so it was us, him and Vanity 6. So the other thing is I was doing double duty because The Time was Vanity 6's band in concert. So that was a trip every night, too. We'd be behind a curtain. Nobody knew it was us. I'll tell you a little funny thing about that: When we first started doing it, we wore disguises.

Really? Like what?

Yeah. Jimmy was like in a preacher's robe. I had on like sunglasses and a beret, and Jesse had on a beard. It was so crazy, man! We did that the first few gigs, but Prince finally figured — "No, I put these guys behind" — so he got a pink fishnet curtain, and we would be behind it and Vanity 6 would be in front of it. So it was hilarious. It was a lot of fun. Those songs are so funky and great to play in concert, so—

Wow. So, tell me a little bit about that moment of The Time forming. So, you were in Flyte Tyme with Terry.

I was in Flyte Tyme with Terry and Jimmy and Monte, and originally, like I said, — I think everybody knows this story — Alexander O'Neal was going to be the singer for The Time. So I was kind of out in the cold at that point! Morris had a cousin or uncle or something that had a hit record called — a band called Champagne — called "How About Us?" and he was talking about getting me to play the drums for them, especially since he was going to play drums for The Time.

So anyway, they had the faithful meeting out with Prince out there on 394, and Alex needed some paper. So that didn't go over too well with — anybody that knew Prince knew that was not going to go over too well with him at that point. So anyway, they came back and Prince told Morris, "Well, you know, you could be up front. You get Bean to play the drums." And so I ended up being in the band. I ended up being in The Time, so — and that's how I basically got into it, because, you know, Morris always wanted to be the drummer. He didn't think he could be a front person, and Prince taught him how.

Right. Did it surprise you that Prince was mainly forming this band of people that he'd known since he was young?

It kind of surprised me because we were rival bands when we came up. But to me it showed me the respect he had for us, you know, even though he'd dog us out, he knew we all had talent. And he could see that and he could harness that, and he took advantage of it and he made a great band. Only thing — it turned into Frankenstein after a while, but he didn't know that at the time. He didn't know we were going to be as good as we were.

Right.

Which — we should've been because we rehearsed seven days a week, eight hours a day, so we were tight. We worked at it. We worked really hard at it, we did, before we even hit the stage. We had worked two, three, four, five months just doing that — just rehearsing every day.

Wow.

Yeah.

That was before the Controversy tour?

Yeah, that was before the Controversy tour.

Wow. So, how much did you know about the albums as they were being made? Would you kind of get the songs as they were finished to learn?

Yeah. He would finish them and he would bring us cassettes, and we'd learn them. Because first off, Prince — anybody who knows Prince — he never slept. He was a workaholic, and if you couldn't keep up with him, that was your problem, because he — you know, you had to be available 24/7. I think Morris would tell you this. Because he might call you at 3 or 4 in the morning, want you to come and cut something, and you gotta be ready. You might not like it; you might be in bed with your wife or your girlfriend or whatever — you gotta get up and go. So that's just how it was with him.

Right. Well, it's so incredible to think about this period of early 1982, coming off the Controversy tour, and suddenly there's all of these records coming out from Prince. There's the second Time album, there's Vanity 6, and then there's 1999. Tell me about kind of the energy as the 1999 tour is starting, with all of this new music out and a lot of buzz around Prince.

Well, it was great for me because we learned — and, you know, this is when "777-9311" came out. So it — you know — it ran to like number two. Evelyn "Champagne" King kept us out of being number one, but that song ran to number two, so it was already a big buzz for us — you know, for our single. That was our first single off What Time Is It?. And so just learning that — I remember we were rehearsing at The Amory downtown and stuff, and that beat, as you know, that beat is ridiculous to play in concert and stuff, so, you know, David Garibaldi from Tower of Power had programmed it into a LinnDrum machine, and Prince made a song out of it. But it's damn near impossible to play, you know, right, like the machine, but we had to figure it out. So me, him, and Morris sat down at the drum set one day, and we said, "We gotta figure out how Bean can do this in concert and you guys can dance and it sounds right a we don't lay an egg."

So we worked at it, we worked at it, and finally it come — you know I've been playing it 40 years now. It's second nature to me now, but that was the exciting part for me, just getting prepared and getting all those songs together, and then taking songs from the first album and incorporating them in and getting — our first year we only played like 30 minutes. Well, this second time it was 45, so we were going to be featured more prominently and stuff. We had more cooler songs to play, and so, you know, we just worked at it.

Jellybean Johnson performing on the Soul Train Cruise 2019
Jellybean Johnson performing with The Time on the Soul Train 2019 cruise aboard Holland America Line's vessel, Nieuw Amsterdam, in January 2019. (Rebecca Deshong)

Yeah. Well, tell me more about getting ready to back Vanity 6, too. What did you think about this new project?

Well, I loved it, but we got in a fight with Prince about that because he was nickel-and-diming us about rehearsing, but as we got into the songs more, they were so funky, we actually enjoyed it because they would warm us up for our set, you know, so it was cool. We spent a lot of months with them, you know, getting their stuff tight and everything. And they were women, so of course they got treated better, but — we used to always tease them — you know, "You women, you do all right around here PRN. Guys, not so much!"

But it was cool, and the girls, they were appreciative toward us and stuff. So it was cool.

I think I heard a story — someone said that The Time, obviously, backed Vanity 6 on this tour, but that even Prince sometimes would pitch in.

Yeah. I loved that, because it would be so nasty when he — he would come out — he'd be back there playing with us, you know, and he'd be in the band with us. And him and Jesse — the guitars would be just killin'. Like I'd be just have this big grin on my face when I'm playing because it was so funky and nasty, you know, and people had no idea what was going on back, because they look at the band, they're seeing a pink curtain and these three girls, you now. And that's all they're seeing. They ain't seeing us, you know, and we're just going at it back there. So it was a lot of fun. I enjoyed that part of it.

There's just something so incredible to me about — that he had so much music in him that even though he had his own full set coming up, he just couldn't help himself.

He couldn't. He couldn't help himself. I watched him sometimes. He'd be onstage and he'd just be making faces at me, and I'm like — and so I knew it was only a matter of time he was going to grab his guitar or have one of the techs bring him a guitar, and he started playing with us. He didn't do it all the time, but he did it a lot, yeah.

Wow. So, is it true that there was a pretty heated rivalry between The Time and Prince's band?

Yeah, yeah. I think — you heard about the famous food fight at the end of the Controversy tour — yeah. And then he charged Morris for all the damages.

Oh, no.

He charged Morris for that, but hey, that's the way it was, yeah. We kind of — we destroyed them too. They — Prince got mad at me in later years because I said we destroyed them. We did, but of course we had all this pent-up anger anyways, so we took it out on The Revolution, you know. But, yeah, that's the famous food fight.

Do you think that competitive spirit goes all the way back to the North Minneapolis days?

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. We were rival bands. I was in Flyte Tyme. Flyte Tyme was like 12, 13 pieces. Grand Central was like five, you know, but they was funky as hell, you know, so that's the thing, and they watched what we did, we watched what they did, and we always tried — all the discrimination and stuff — you know, we could only play at certain places, so, you know, so it was always a — for us an Elks Club or The Thunderbird or a sorority or something like that. That's how we gigged. Every once in a while we would end up in a nightclub and stuff, but we were 15, 16, 17 years old. We shouldn't have been there, but we were.

Right. And you were playing those battle of the bands showcases.

The battle of the bands — we used do to those over north — out in North Commons. We did those as — you know, before we even got famous, we did those. That was famous on the north side. North Commons Park — it would be people — more than the eye could see — it'd be just crazy. All day long it would be bands, all into the night, and the police wasn't trippin'. We had a few incidents over there, but for the most part nobody got killed or anything — that I knew of — so it was a lot of fun. And, like you said, it was competitive.

Right. Right. Well, it's so incredible to think about you going from those roots in North to playing in front of 26,000 people. What kind of changes did you notice in all these musicians, including The Time and Prince, as you were realizing like, "We're becoming famous?"

Yeah. You know, it's funny because I just played on a talk with Morris, and he was talking about that too. You know, it was like — for us, it was just innocent at first, and then — I give Prince credit. He, from day one, he said, "We're gonna be famous, we're gonna make a movie, we're gonna do all that." He said that. He would say that to us, you know, "You're gonna be famous." And me, I still had my doubts. I mean we're cool. Everything was cool and everything, and but, you know, the music business is so finicky, you don't know — what people like today they may not like tomorrow.

But he knew. He knew we had something special here going in Minneapolis, and then I think I began to know when I started to — we would play around the country, and people were dressed like us. And then I said "OK, something is changing here." Somebody is — and all these bands started popping up that was trying to imitate us, you know.

Yeah. How did you land on the look for The Time?

I have to give Prince credit for that too. He wanted us to look — he took us to vintage stores, and he just wanted us to be cool. He didn't want us wearing blue jeans — nothing like that — because some of us was blue-jean guys and all that stuff. He changed our whole life with that — with smoking jackets and skinny ties. I had drumstick jewelry. I had — all — hair done, you know, kind of pimpish. That's the way he envisaged — he wanted The Time to be his alter ego, the ultimate R&B band. We was his R&B side. That's what we were. Prince was his — you know, his — the Revolution was his experimental and pop — he wanted to be pop because he knew we had to get the pop crowd — the white people — on his side to get to that next level.

Right.

But we was his black R&B urban side. That's what The Time was.

Yeah. I think about that a lot — thinking about all these different splintering offs of projects and expressions of different parts of Prince's personality. And, as you said, he really was trying to reach a whiter audience in this period.

Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. That's what "1999," "Little Red Corvette" — he was aiming at the white audience, and he succeeded.

Right. Were you surprised when that went into the top ten?

No, no, because he was so controversial by then that everybody was trying to figure out — especially the white people was trying to figure out what is — who is this guy? And it was him and Michael Jackson, so they was trying to figure it out, you know. And as Michael was the king of pop, Prince was right behind him.

I talked to Dez Dickerson, and he told me that each night he would look out and do a white count, and as "Little Red Corvette" broke through, all of a sudden he could see oh, now were 50% white, now we're 75% white, then it went to 90.

Yeah. We watched it right before our eyes. We watched it happen, yeah.

Wow.

We'd come to those concerts, and what used to be a mostly — at least 50% black or maybe more sometime — now it was like 75%, 80% white, you know, and that, right there — and I knew Prince could see that. I knew he could sense that, you know, because that's what he was trying to do.

Right. Yeah. Well, when you look back on it now, what do you think is the legacy of 1999?

Wow. I think it was the beginning of Purple Rain. I think 1999 was setting us up for Purple Rain. I know it did. I know the money we made for it financed Purple Rain, but I think that was setting us up to do that. That's when he really started thinking big, he started thinking movies, and he knew he had the pop audience now, so now, if this was — if he was going to make a move, this was the time to do it, and that's what 1999 did.

Yeah. That makes a lot of sense.

Yeah, yeah.

Well, is there anything else I haven't asked you about, about this era and the tour and all that?

I think you pretty much hit it all. You know, it's over 30-some years ago, you know. I'm 62 years old, soon to be 63, and you know, it's just great to think back on that stuff and remember how much it changed my life. It did, as far as being famous, it did.

Right.

So, you know, I like to think a lot of people know who Jellybean is now, and it started with that. It started with those early years.

That's amazing.

Yeah.

External Links

Jellybean Johnson - Facebook

Prince - official site

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