In 2008 I saw Jellybean Johnson playing guitar with Ronnie Baker Brooks at the Chicago Blues festival. “Isn’t he a drummer for The Time,” I thought to myself. “What’s he doing playing the blues?”
But there he was.
Actually, by that time, Johnson was deeply involved with the blues. He had already produced three albums by Brooks, a member of the legendary Brooks family of Chicago. Since then, he has played with Brooks and others on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise, an annual boat ride in which passengers groove to top blues talent as they bounce between stops along the Gulf of Mexico.
Whenever he plays rhythm and blues for any of the variations of The Time now in existence, Johnson is on the drums. He works out daily to stay in shape to play them.
But when he’s playing the blues he’s on the guitar, an instrument he started learning when he was 15 years old.
Johnson has referred to the guitar as an “emotional instrument.”
“When I play the guitar, I feel it deep within me,” he said. “Whereas the drums are like physical and violent…I look at the drums; they help keep me alive, they help keep me younger, because it’s so physical and violent and I love playing them. But at the same time, I don’t get the same spiritual and emotional thing from them that I do from the guitar.”
Born in Chicago, Garry George Johnson was brought to Minneapolis at age 12 or 13 by his mother, who wanted to get him away from gangs trying to recruit him.
Once in Minnesota, he became part of a cadre of musicians who would eventually make names for themselves nationally as pioneers of the fusion of rock, new wave, rhythm and blues and funk that came to be known as the Minneapolis sound. Johnson and several other then-stars-to-be—Prince, Morris Day, Jimmy Harris III (better known as Jimmy Jam), Terry Lewis and Alexander O’Neal among others—refined their talents in bands that regularly skirmished with other groups around the city.
Formed in the early 1980’s, The Time grew out of one of those bands: Flyte Tyme, which included Johnson, Lewis and Harris. Drawn from another group, Enterprise, percussionist and actor Jerome Benton joined the Time.
Johnson reportedly was initially not part of the group. He took over as drummer from Day after Day replaced lead singer Alexander O’Neal, who had left after a disagreement with Prince.
The Time went on to tour with Prince, who was viewed as the linchpin of the Minneapolis movement, both in music and business. The group released the albums The Time in 1981 and What Time is it? in 1982.
But tension developed as Time members complained of being underpaid and underexposed, and of not having creative control over their recordings.
Released in 1984, Prince’s breakthrough Purple Rain featured a Time without some original members. Harris and Lewis, on their way to becoming the mega-songwriters/producers they would later be known as, had been fired after a blizzard in Atlanta prevented them from making a Time concert in San Antonio. Keyboardist Monte Moir also left.
Still, the movie, which included the hit singles “Jungle Love” and “The Bird,” boosted the group’s name recognition.
But the band disintegrated in 1985, with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis continuing their rise as leading songwriters and producers and guitarist Jesse Johnson launching a solo career.
Jellybean, Benton and new Time member Paul Peterson joined saxophonist Eric Leeds and keyboardist Susannah Melvoin to form The Family. The group’s one album, The Family, was made up mostly of material composed by Prince. It included “Nothing Compares 2 U,” later covered by Sinead O’Conner, and “The Screams of Passion,” an extended version of which was later released as a single.
The Family disbanded after Peterson, reportedly frustrated over Prince’s control, left for other pursuits.
Johnson began to spread his wings as a producer, becoming an associate of Flyte Tyme, the company started by old band mates Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. (The company was named for the band Flyte Tyme, which in turn had been named for a Donald Byrd song).
He started off with Nona Hendryx, formerly of the group Labelle, producing her single “Why Should I Cry?” Among other projects, he went on to produce “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes) and “Forever in Your Eyes” for Mint Condition (from St. Paul, Minnesota); “Crucial” for New Edition and the chart-topping “Black Cat,” Janet Jackson’s venture into hard rock.
During that time, he frequently applied his guitar skills as a studio musician, delivering a blistering solo on the last half of Alexander O’Neal’s “Innocent,” and playing a funky guitar on a version of “Black Cat.”
The Time’s original members re-formed in 1990 for Prince’s Graffiti Bridge movie and a new album, Pandemonium, which featured “Jerk Out,” the group’s highest selling single.
In 1991, Johnson met Ronnie Baker Brooks at Kingston Mines, a Chicago blues club. Brooks recalled the meeting in an interview with Blues Revue:
“I was on tour with my father back in ’93. We were doing fifty-three dates with B.B. King and Buddy Guy. Koko Taylor was on it. I was playing behind Koko Taylor, Junior Wells, and my dad (guitarist and Brooks family patriarch Lonnie Brooks). It was the Alligator All-Stars. We’d go on first, then Buddy Guy would come on, then Eric Johnson, then B.B. We did fifty-two dates around the country, and we played up in Minneapolis and Bean saw the show. I didn’t talk to him then, and then a week or two later, he was in Chicago at the Kingston Mines…and I was down the street at another club called B.L.U.E.S on Halsted. Somebody was like, “Albert Collins is down the street at the Kingston Mines hanging out with A.C. Reed.” I heard Albert Collins was down there. I jumped, I was running down there. And Jellybean saw me and said, ‘Ronnie, I’m Jellybean Johnson. I just saw you in Minnesota with B.B. and your dad.’ When I saw him, I thought he was a football player. I was so intimidated because he was so big. I didn’t hear when he said Jellybean Johnson. I’m looking at him, and, oh, Jellybean Johnson from the Time. He said, ‘I dig your stuff, man.’ And we were coming back to Minnesota like two weeks later. He said, ‘Take my number. Whenever you come to Minnesota, call me.’ He came and jammed with me. I went back there and stayed at his house, he stayed at my house, and we became like brothers. It was time for me to record my first solo CD, and the producer I had pulled out at the last minute. I had the studio and everything booked, musicians booked. And I was just calling Jellybean to vent. He said, “Ronnie, get me to Memphis, and I’ll do it.” And that’s how it happened.
Johnson went on to produce—and guest star on--three albums by Brooks: Golddigger (1998), Take Me Witcha (2001) and The Torch (2006).
Starting in the mid-90’s, Johnson joined in on various reunions of the Time. In 1995, he and other former members joined to form a band referred to as Morris Day in the Time. The band, which appeared in the movie Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, is still active today.
In February, 2008, all seven original members joined Rihanna for a medley at the 50th Grammy awards. The members came together again that summer for a series of Las Vegas performances. Two years later, at a “hometown” concert in Minneapolis, they announced they were working on an album of new material. They released the album, Condensate—which featured the single, “Trendin—“ in October, 2011. But the Time could no longer call itself the Time. Prince owned the original name, and he refused to let them use it. The group came up with a new name: the Original 7ven, a reference to Michael Jackson’s and his brothers’ use of the name “Jackson 5ive” for their group.
But the Original 7ven began losing steam when guitarist Jesse Johnson announced on Facebook in December, 2011 that he was leaving, reportedly complaining that the group had a lackluster touring schedule.
Johnson had a similar “band-formerly-known-as” problem with the Family, which re-formed in June 2011 with all original members except Benton. The band renamed itself fDeluxe after Prince refused to allow it to use its original name. Afterwards, fDeluxe released two CD’s: 2011’s Gaslight and 2012’s Relit, as well as a single, “You Got What You Wanted.” fDeluxe put on a string of concerts during 2011-12—including an August, 2012 performance at D.C.’s Howard Theatre—in which Johnson could be seen full sway on guitar.
In the following interview, Johnson talks about the development of the Minneapolis sound and his own beginnings in the “City of Lakes,” and the roles that guitar and drums each play in his musical life. He also talks about the blues and his association with Ronnie Baker Brooks. He also talks about Prince—and not in too flattering terms. The Purple one’s controlling behavior has made things tough for him and others, he says.
BBP: Well I’m curious as to—I was going over some things, man—and I found some videos of you with Ronnie Baker Brooks on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise. Are you going to do that this year?
Johnson: No, I haven’t been able to do it the last couple of years, man, and I miss it too, you know. Ronnie is in the process of doing his album with Keb’ Mo’ and stuff, and I’ve been dealing with my transgressions around here. The Original 7ven has not really been doing anything but I’m still in another version of the Time; I’m still in another version of the Family, fDeluxe, and at the same time bankruptcy and foreclosure and other personal problems. So it’s been kind of tough for me around here, man, so I’ve got to get back on my mojo around here. But it’s kind of hard.
BBP: Uh. Yeah! Man! I’m surprised to hear about the bankruptcy because you’re such a talented cat and you have so much going on. How’d that happen?
Johnson: Well you know, here’s the thing: that’s the myth everyone thinks. I’m so well-to-do because I grew up around them and have been in bands with rich guys,” but it didn’t translate it out to me because there’s been a lot of selfish bullshit that went on in my career over the years. So that’s where we’re at today. I hate my rich friends: I’m not going to lie, they get on my damn nerves. But at the same time, I’m attached to them for the rest of my life. It’s like HIV: they’re going to always be attached to me, so I just accept it and move on. It’s kind of a bitter pill sometimes that I’m struggling like this and I probably shouldn’t be. But I am, so I have to get through it the best I can.
BBP: Wow! Well who particularly are you mad at? I guess I have to ask that question.
Johnson: Well, a prime example, Prince has messed up three bands I’ve been in. He wouldn’t let us be The Time. You know I’ve been in Morris Day and the Time and I’m in the Original 7ven. We put off our major release last year because he was threatening to sue us. He didn’t want us to be the Time because he’s been a selfish jerk, because he didn’t want a partner. We offered him money, we offered him everything to be part of the project and he didn’t want to be. The same thing with fDeluxe. He did the same thing with us. We got ready to put a record out, we asked him, “Man, you have any songs for us?” No, he didn’t want to have nothing to do with us. He wanted to leave it totally—he created us, and he wanted it to just stay like it is. Well, uh, I’m 56 years old; the rest of us have careers. The rest of us are talented. So we want to make albums, whether he was part of it or not! And he always thought that these bands couldn’t make albums without him.
BBP: Wow. It’s interesting that you bring him up, because I heard today he has a new single out. Something called “Screwdriver?”
Johnson: Yeah, “Screwdriver.” He has a big-assed orchestra now; he’s got bands with guys, he’s got all-girl bands. He was just here; he just played a few days here. But that’s how he is. Prince has not treated our version of the band with any respect since ’06, since he did the Super Bowl. He’s had a hair up his ass about these other bands who have been around him for over 30 years, I might add. And I just don’t understand why. On the other hand, my other people—I was in the Original 7ven with Terry and Jimmy and Jessie Johnson—and they always do this. Anytime a crisis comes, they run off, because they’re rich. They run off, and you don’t hear from them no more. And Jessie Johnson bailed on another project too. So you know I’m just tired of babysitting and bowing down to cats that I grew up with. Because I got talent too. So..
BBP: Yeah, Yeah, I’ve heard it. Yeah, because you guys have been friends since way back. You went to high school together, right?
Johnson: Oh yeah, we grew up together. I grew up with Prince. I’ve been knowing Prince since I was 12 years old. I’m 56 years old now; he’s 54. I’ve been around him since I was 12 damn years old.
BBP: Yeah, and Morris too? Because I remember hearing that you guys used to set up drums in his mother’s house.
Johnson: To play together, yeah. That’s the reason me and Morris are still friends to this day. This is why we’re still friends and we still get to play in a band together because Morris gets this. And even though Morris has his greedy moments and shit too, I understand that. But you know, at the same time, he takes care of me, he makes sure I have some money in my pocket. My other friends that are rich, they didn’t ever do that shit. Except for the years that I worked for Flyte Tyme. And the minute I stopped working for Flyte Time, then that was done. So you know, whatever. But me, I’m just an old rock ‘n’ roller, man…actually I like the blues so much because you can play the blues until you’re 80 damn years old. And so that’s why I’ve always been attached to it. I know this funk/R&B thing that I’m famous for—sooner or later—it’s going to let me down. So I gotta have something to fall back on, because music is all I know. It ain’t like I can go get a job at Wal-Mart, or you know any shit like that, McDonald’s, or any of that bullshit. Who wants a damn-near 60-year-old man doing that? It’s gotta be music for me. That’s what I deal with.
BBP: You played drums first, right?
Johnson: Yeah. I got famous playing the drums first and the guitar was more incognito, because I started doing solos on Jimmy and Terry’s projects, like Alexander O’Neal. I did (O’Neal’s) “Innocent,” I did (The Time’s) “Fishnet,” I did Nona Hendryx “Why Should I Cry?” I did stuff for Janet (Jackson), I did stuff on New Edition, I did Mint Condition; you know, so that’s when my guitar playing came out. But still it was in the background as I was producing, but I was playing on the records. But the drumming—even to this day—here in town a lot of bands want me to play the drums. I just don’t do it. I sit in on guitar. Because my drumming I save for The Time. That’s the style of drumming that I want to play.
BBP: I heard you described guitar as an “emotional instrument.” I was curious about that term. What did you mean by that?
Johnson: Well, this is what I mean: the guitar I look at as spiritual and emotional because I feel it in my soul when I play. …Sometimes, as you know, being in a band with Jesse Johnson, being around great guitar players, and I’m playing the drums, it hits me emotionally. I’m not going to lie about that, but still that’s coming back to me being a guitarist. So, that’s what I meant by that.
BBP: And I notice you kind of like the blues guys. You like Albert King and B.B. and Hendrix was—
Johnson: Oh yeah. Yeah. Albert Collins. B.B. King. All the guys, man. And you know Hendrix, and you know I like some of the hot-shot white guys too. I always liked Frank Marino (Mahogany Rush), Robin Trower, Jeff Beck…I like all of the hot-shot guitar players…and I’ve been lucky enough to either see them or see them live or actually play with some of them. So..I like all the young guys, you know, like Eric Gales. I think Eric Gales is our 21st Century Hendrix. I think he is absolutely scary.
BBP: Yeah, I’ve seen him. Experience Hendrix tour. Did you ever pick up anything from Prince? He’s been known for his guitar playing.
Johnson: You know, I did. I can’t lie and say I didn’t pick up stuff from him. I learned how to be funky because of Prince. You know a lot of my funk came from being around him, because he’s such a funky cat. But at the same time it’s hard, because he’s not an easy guy to be close to. So it’s like he’s begrudgingly letting you learn shit from him, but he really don’t want you to learn it. But you can’t help but learn something from him if you’re around him enough, and that’s the thing. So I retained what I got from him. I just keep it in my back pocket, and like I said I’m always going to be, I’m always called a Prince disciple. Well, I accept that label even though sometimes I resent it. I accept it because I grew up (and) he made me famous. He made the people realize who Jellybean Johnson was. So I will give him that. But at the same time, I want respect from him. Because I helped make him a ton of money too, just like the rest of us.
BBP: Right. Now I heard you guys started in some school called “The Way Opportunities in Music School” in Minneapolis?
Johnson: It wasn’t a music school. It was like a community center where we hung out and stuff. And we didn’t hang out as much. Prince did, but Flyte Tyme was a whole separate thing from the guys at The Way. Prince was up there with Sonny Thompson; they had The Family, their band was called The Family back then and stuff..
BBP: He was a bass player, Sonny Thompson…
Johnson: Yeah. Sonny T. Sonny T: bass player. He’s legendary around here. He’s a badass, and Prince learned a lot from him. And The Way used to give these outdoor festivals every year, and all of our rival bands…we would fight against each other in front of thousands of people. And that’s how we got famous around here in the city, because we used to go at it at a young age. We had a community center here called Phyllis Wheatley. There’s a park: in the middle of July we’d go out there—thousands of people—and all day we’d have battles of the bands. Prince learned a lot of shit from all of us being around. We all learned from each other in this Minneapolis thing when we were younger, around the 70’s, in the middle 70’s coming up.
BBP: You know what strikes me as remarkable about that? It was basically live bands doing shows there—were doing the party scene in Minneapolis—at a time when the rest of the country was going more towards deejays…
Johnson: Yeah. They didn’t even know about us! They didn’t really know about us. That’s the reason Minneapolis music—Prince—made such a big splash in ’78 when he came out. Because they’re like: “Not Minnesota! Cold-assed Minnesota? They’ve got people that funky up there in Minneapolis?” You have to realize too, man, I moved here from Chicago. My mom moved me here from Chicago in 1968 to keep me out of the gangs because the gangs were recruiting me. I was 12 or 13 years old. When I moved here, man, the black radio stations stayed on ‘til about five o’clock in the afternoon. That’s it! That’s all! So I grew up listening to all the white rock bands, man. Black Sabbath. Rare Earth. Three Dog Night. All that shit. All the white rock shit, I grew up listening to that, in addition to having the funk shit because I’m from Chicago! I had already been around Chicago soul—Tyrone Davis; Chicago Blues—Buddy Guy; I had already been around that shit. My mom had records of that, and God bless her, I knew about James Brown, Funkadelic, all that shit, I knew about it. At the same time, I absorbed all of the white rock, and that’s why Prince is different today because of that. Because he was around here—we didn’t have no black radio—we still don’t have a major black radio station here in Minnesota, which is tragic. We don’t.
BBP: Wow. So that’s why the Minneapolis sound you guys played had elements of rock in it.
Johnson: It had a lot of elements of rock because we grew up around that kind of shit. We grew up around the white rock guitars and, you know, Rolling Stones and Kiss and all that. I remember going to see Kiss in 1976. I was the only black kid there watching them there, man. I remember bottles and shit crashing around me. Everything. Because I was standing there, watching them. This is 1976, and I’m watching Kiss and Rush at the fucking Met Center, you know. And like I say I’m probably the only black kid there.
BBP: Wow, that’s incredible. That’s right, because I notice in your drums, the guys you like on drums. I heard that you like the drummer from that Bay Area band, not Tower of Power, but the other one: Lydia Pense is the singer?
Johnson: Oh yeah, Sandy McKee. Sandy McKee was motherfuckin’ scary! Him and David Garibaldi were absolutely scary when I was coming up. And me and Morris learned a lot of shit from most of them.
BBP: David Garibaldi of Tower of Power, you mean.
Johnson: David Garibaldi of Tower Power. And I went from that and I started getting into the fusion drummers, like Lenny White and Billy Cobham, Tony Williams and stuff like that. But I started with David Garibaldi and Sandy McKee. They had that “pop;” I just like it. If you listen to any of the Minneapolis drumming, that’s what we got. We got that “pop” on our shit, man, because of that. To this day.
BBP: Wow. What was that band called?
Johnson: Which one?
BBP: Sandy McKee’s band.
Johnson: Oh. Cold Blood!
Johnson: Lydia Pense was the lead singer and they had horns, and some of those horn players used to play in Tower of Power. That’s East Bay, that’s Oakland, man. That’s Oakland funk, man. That’s what it is: Oakland/San Francisco, that’s where we got that shit from, man!
BBP: “Squib Cakes…”
Johnson: “Squib Cakes” and all that shit, man! Yeah, Morris could play “Squib Cakes” beat-for-beat, man. That intro that David Garibaldi played, Morris is the closest cat on this earth to sounding like David Garibaldi. I tell people that, they freak the fuck out. I’m telling you, if you heard Morris Day, cool-ass Morris Day play the drums, he sounds like David Garibaldi when he plays drums.
BBP: I heard that he started out as a drummer but he never does it with The Time, or I’ve never seen him.
Johnson: No he never plays with The Time. We were going to do it. We played back in ’08: we did a three week stand at the Flamingo in Vegas, and we were going to do that. Morris was going to play the drums, I was going to play the guitar, and Jesse Johnson had a hissy fit, and we couldn’t do it.
BBP: Oh, wow. Wow! What’s your relationship with him (Jesse Johnson) like? I heard he had an interesting background. He used to play in biker bars and stuff like that?
Johnson: He’s from East St. Louis and Springfield, Illinois and all that shit. But Jesse is crazy, man. I love him to death, but Jesse is nuts, so, we have a skewed relationship. We have the same last name, people think we’re brothers. We’re brothers in one way, but we don’t get along. We’re like estranged brothers—trust me—because he’s hard to deal with. He’s very hard to deal with, and he’s a selfish person. That’s his biggest problem. His biggest problem is he wants to be Prince and he’s not Prince. He can’t be Prince. So that’s the whole thing.
BBP: So what’s this I hear about him getting handcuffed to a—what was it—a coat rack?
Johnson: That’s back in our early days of The Time and shit. We got into a food fight with Prince’s band…that was our first year out. That was us, them and Zapp. And the last couple of nights of the tour we got into it with him and his band, Prince and his band, and they started doing shit to us while we were on stage. And one night they just took Jesse off stage—and Jerome—and took Jesse back in their dressing room while we were in concert. Prince had his bodyguard take Jesse off the stage, take him back in the dressing room, handcuff him to the thing. He (Prince) played guitar, Prince jumped in The Time and played guitar while this is going down. Back then his band put food and shit all over Jesse and Jerome.
Johnson: This is the kind of childish shit that Prince did. So, after we got done, we went back and rescued Jesse, and we went and got us some shit, put us some dirty clothes on and found every egg, and everything we could and waited for them after the concert. And we beat their asses! Of course it cost Morris a bunch of money because Prince charged Morris a bunch of money for wrecking the arena. But we beat their ass! You know, because it’s ridiculous! You have to realize, we’re some kids from the street. The original Time was just some ghetto kids from the street, and there’s some shit you just ain’t going to put up with. And that includes Jimmy and Terry—all of us. Even Monte, the little white boy; some shit, we just will not put up with. Because we’re like a gang. And Prince’s band, they couldn’t compare to us with that. And he knew it. And deep down, Prince wants to be one of us. He had created this Frankenstein and he couldn’t control it no more. So he actually wanted to be one of us and he couldn’t, ‘cause he was Prince.
BBP: He wasn’t part of your group, he wasn’t part of your circle while you were growing up? Was he different?
Johnson: No. He made music and he told us what to play and we came in and played, a lot of times better than what he had. And in concert it went over better than what it did on record, and after a while he resented that shit. He resented it! And so then, when it came time for us to do a record on our own, he didn’t want us to do it. ‘Cause he didn’t want it to be better than something he had come up with.
Catch Part II of our interview with Jellybean tomorrow, in which he talks about, among other things, how he got the name Jellybean!