Return of the Jungle Love: On Jesse Johnson
By Michael A. Gonzales
As a brown sugar toking D’Angelo fan who has been digging his sonic voodoo since seeing him jam live that memorably crazy night in 1995 when he played the Supper Club for his debut album release party, for me the release of Black Messiah on December 15 was an early Christmas present that stayed in constant rotation throughout my holiday season spent in Baltimore. “Don’t you want to listen to something else?” my Baltimore host (and former Village Voice jazz critic) Don Palmer asked.
Standing in the kitchen, I’d already played Black Messiah twice since arriving a few hours before. Looking at Don, I smiled and simply answered, “Nope.” I was thrilled that D’Angelo’s team was able to finally deliver Black Messiah to the world as the first Christmas miracle in centuries. It was an album as complexly layered, bugged-out and soulful as I’d hoped, but the Newport puffing southern man had also brought along guitarist/singer/producer Jesse Johnson for his magical mystery journey into sound.
Two months later, seeing Johnson performing alongside D’Angelo and his fellow Vanguard posse this past weekend on Saturday Night Live, especially on the second number “Charade,” where both he and D were able to get into some rock star guitar theatrics, was equally as special. All incognegro in his winter hat and shades, perhaps the getup was Johnson’s way of forging his own identity on stage or the set was really that brick. Regardless, his playing sounded splendid.
Back in 2011, I interviewed Jesse Johnson in Philadelphia on MLK Day in the living-room of our mutual friend and radio personality Dyana Williams. Over a light lunch and Perrier, the former pink suit wearing Johnson told me he was in the studio with D’Angelo. Although vague on exactly what kind of aural tests they were conducting in the lab, Johnson hinted modestly, “We’re just fooling around. I’m not really sure where D is going with it, but I love working with him.
“The only problem is I don’t smoke, but everything I take to the studio now smells like a cigarettes. We’ve played together on a bunch of stuff. He’ll play bass or drums or I’ll play bass. We just jam and record to get licks and things.” Thankfully for both the new jacks and the old heads fans, Johnson was willing to make the smoky sacrifice in the name of Black art, muddy soul, singing in tongues and a little brimstone thrown into the mix.
While neither D’Angelo nor Jesse has spoken publicly on the process of their years in the making collaboration, I assume D learned a few things from the man that the press still keeps referring to as guitarist for The Time as though he never released a few dope solo joints of his own beginning with his 1985 album Jesse Johnson Revue (the bridge between Ernie Isley and Vernon Reid) up to his underrated bluesy excursion Bare My Naked Soul in 1996 and the rock-soul militancy of Verbal Penetration in 2009.
The night before our interview, I saw Jesse playing on the small stage at the Philly Hard Rock Café, where the disrespectful house managers turned on the house lights midway through his set. Refusing to be rushed, he played a few more songs a few more songs and later invited the small audience backstage, chat and take pictures.
While grateful for his generosity, I wondered why he’d taken the gig in the first place. It wasn’t like Jesse hadn’t been a star once, but like many of the musicians who came into prominence under the reign of Prince in the electro ‘80s, Jesse Johnson was often dismissed by critics as a mere poser standing in the purple shadows, a guitar wailing clone who tried to cash-in on the funk-rock-synthesizer Minneapolis sound and failed. As far as the gatekeepers were concerned, Jesse Johnson was at best a footnote.
Of course, the critics were wrong, because, as could be heard on all three of his A&M discs including Shockadelica (1986) and Every Shade of Love (1988), Jesse had his own style, swag, style and studio prowess that continues to flourish thirty-four years after “Cool,” The Time’s first single, was on the charts.
Having grown-up on the gutbucket blues and Curtis Mayfield (“My mother played the Impressions ‘Keep on Pushing’ so much, the grooves of the 45 literally turned to dust.”), the kid from East St. Louis came of age jamming to Hendrix and Funkadelic (“Eddie Hazel in the house!”) while also gigging in white boy rock bands just to make a buck. Granted, once Johnson moved to the Minneapolis, he housed with Prince for a while and was given the chance to observe the master at work.
“What I learned from Prince about the studio was there are absolutely no rules,” Johnson told me in 2011. “Stuff people said about spending a million dollars on equipment and going to recording school, he flushed all that down the toilet. When I first moved in, he had garbage speakers and a 16-track board that was made for live sound; it wasn’t even a recording board. The studio itself was just a regular bedroom, but whenever you walked in, Prince was recording some incredible stuff. He always worked in the middle of the night on some vampire shit, but dude knew how to make records.”
Susan Rogers, a former maintenance engineer hired by Prince in 1983 as a recording engineer, remembered Jesse helping her set-up when she first moved to Minneapolis. “Prince was spending a lot of time in LA (at Sunset Sound) working on the Purple Rain, so Jesse basically showed me how Prince liked to have the instruments miked and how to capture the right sounds. He was a real friend. I think he is being modest about his abilities in the studio, but other than being a strong musician, he is also a talented arranger and producer.”
Unlike most of the rock press, Prince fans, of which D’Angelo was and remains one, understood that more than a few of the former sidemen and women (Terry Lewis, Jimmy Jam, Andre Cymone, Wendy and Lisa, Jesse Johnson, BrownMark) had enough talent to do their own things in the lab, which was why they were collaborators as opposed to protégés. After contributing “The Bird” and “Jungle Love” to the third Time album Ice Cream Castles, Jesse left the group. Although more famous than he was a few years before, Johnson was still broke as hell and felt he had nothing to lose by going solo.
Johnson signed with A&M’s John McClain; the old Jackson Five friend who’d was later was responsible for launching Janet Jackson (Jesse produced the track “Pretty Boy” for her second album Dream Street), believed in Johnson’s talent in front of mic and behind the board. Throughout the ‘80s, Jesse worked steadily as a producer (Ta Mara and the Seen, Paula Abdul, Da Krash), on soundtracks (Pretty in Pink, Another 48 Hours) and other projects that never saw the light, like his work with D’Angelo’s other musical inspiration Sly Stone. With both of them signed to A&M Records at the time, Jesse worked with Sly on the feel good funk of the catchy “Crazay.”
Although D’Angelo was only twelve when that song was being introduced by Donnie Simpson on Video Soul or flickering on the screen during the USA Network/Night Flight programming, I’m sure he was down in Virginia blasting that mofo on a daily. “Sly impressed me with his grasp of technology,” Jesse said. “He was messing with sequencers that I couldn’t even turn on.
Citing Fresh (1973) as his favorite Sly album, Jesse continues, “After the video shoot, he played me some new music. My mind couldn’t handle how incredible it was. Whatever you think is funky, Sly was funkier. We later worked on a bunch of stuff together, but nothing ever came of it.”
One can only imagine the kind of funky sonic fictions those two came up with two might’ve conjured in the studio.
Johnson’s last released album for A&M was Every Shade of Love (1988), whose funky single “Love Struck” ends with a fiery guitar solo; coming out the same year as Living Colour’s startling debut, Johnson too was riffing towards an electric revolution. In 1990, John McClain left A&M Records and the new regime was pushing Jesse Johnson towards recording more of a hip-hop influenced style that was miles away from the sound he’d developed. “This was when new jack swing was big and they wanted me to make records that sounded like that; they wanted me to work with new jack producers, but I wasn’t interested.”
Instead, Jesse delivered his fourth disc In the Real Life Mode, an album that was never released. “It was a scary, angry record. It was a depressing time and the music on their reflected that darkness,” he said. “One song was called ‘Perpetrator.’ I’m actually glad it didn’t come out.”
Waiting for the A&M contract to expire, eight years passed before he released the electric rawness of Bare My Naked Soul in 1996. It was a rough period of smaller budgets, tiny venues and pissed-off fans that were mad that the stark blues had little to do with the Minneapolis sound. “When that record came out, you should have heard the people,” Johnson told writer Scott Lenz in 2009. “(To them) it was the biggest piece of garbage that they’d ever heard.”
Naturally, not everyone felt that way. In her book Rip it Up: The Black Experience in Rock ‘n’ Roll writer/editor Kandia Crazy Horse proclaimed in the disc, “One of the best (black) rock albums of all times.” It would be another thirteen years before Johnson surfaced again with album Verbal Penetration in 2009. Admittedly, I slept on this fantastic disc (might even have to write a column about this sucka), but thank heavens for Spotify for having the complete joint in rotation.
For all of Jesse Johnson’s talent as a guitarist, producer and overall artist, his work has never been on the radar of the Rolling Stone magazine heavies who periodically create these lists (ya’ll bastards know he should’ve been on “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” joint) that define the canon. Talking to him in 2011, I got the sense that the stardom trip meant little, he just wanted to be an creative being in the truest sense while steadily exploring his instrument and experimenting with music.
Now that Jesse Johnson is once again in the spotlight, recording and touring with the genius child D’Angelo, it will give critics a chance to reevaluate Jesse Johnson’s musical legacy and start giving the brother his due respect. God bless Black Messiah.
About the author:
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales writes the weekly column Vintage Vision for Ebony.com, blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com and Twitters @gonzomike.