Jill Jones: Violet Blues (Part 1 of 2)
by Miles Marshall Lewis
Black sailor cap cocked ace-deuce atop platinum curls, ruby red lips, garter stockings, black bustier. Excepting Prince himself, she was the sexiest thing about the “1999” video—a new wave, sultry blonde bombshell. Hugged up against keyboardist Lisa Coleman, she projected as a full-fledged member of the band not quite yet named The Revolution. She figured even more prominently in the clip for “Automatic,” where, together with Lisa, she flogged Prince strapped to a bed in a sadomasochistic fantasy. Who was she? Absent internet fan forums or search engines in 1982, there was hardly any way to know for sure. Some in-the-know Prince obsessives might’ve noticed the 1999 credits for a background singer named J. J. (“Lady Cab Driver,” “Free,” “1999,” “Automatic”) and heard through six degrees of separation that this was her in the flesh. Underneath the faux blonde, she had to have been recognized by a handful of old friends from L.A. and her old hometown of Lebanon, Ohio, too.
Sitting in a booth at the Corner Bistro café in the southeast San Fernando Valley feels like a real-life Boulevard of Broken Dreams, that Gottfried Helnwein print of Elvis, James Dean, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe in a diner. Even in daytime, talking about someone who’s recently passed away with an older woman who’d been closely involved with him as a co-worker and a lover gives off all the noir vibes of a Walter Mosley novel. Across the banquette is J. J., then 54, dressed in all black, her tracksuit jacket partially unzipped, jet black hair spilling over her shoulders. Nowadays she goes by Jill Jones-Mühlum, her last name hyphenated with her husband’s, Frank Mühlum; but for fans of her music, she’s always and forever Jill Jones.
“He had come back from finishing the Controversy tour, he called when he got into town,” she says, thinking back to 1982 Los Angeles and her first musical collaboration with Prince. “We kept in touch over the years, but this time was different. He goes, ‘Let me hear what you’ve been working on.’ I gave him this cassette of me doing Pat Benatar-type songs on the piano. I heard him driving off playing this song I wrote called ‘Runaway.’ And the next day, he called me in the studio and the song we started working on was ‘Boom, Boom (Can’t U Feel the Beat of My Heart).’ It was a very different song from the Vanity 6 stuff. Kind of pop, very weirdly dance, very strange. I wasn’t even quite sure what we were creating.”
Over some salad and a few glasses of Arnold Palmer, Jill Jones talks through her teenage touring days singing backup for Teena Marie, touring with Rick James and Prince, her bit roles acting in Purple Rain and Graffiti Bridge, her eponymously titled debut album, her break with Paisley Park Records, her career’s aftermath. We’d never met outside of Facebook, where she’s been known for bantering with Prince fanatics and true-life friends since 2007, but our conversation still seems kind of cathartic for her, occasionally intimate. Over several hours, the café never plays any Prince music. She never cries either, though the day before our meet-up, Prince would have turned 59.
Jill Jones was born in 1962, the daughter of Winnie Martin and Victor Castellini, an Italian-American jazz drummer who played with Sarah Vaughn and on the short-lived Don Ho Show. (Castellini passed away in January 2016; she never met him.) An aspiring singer, fashion model and former Playboy bunny, her mother moved to California while her grandparents raised her back in Lebanon till the age of 11. Young Jill relocated to Beverly Hills, where her mom had by then met and married Fuller Gordy, an executive at his younger brother Berry’s famed record label, Motown. Fuller’s daughter from a previous marriage—Motown vice president Iris—tapped her 13-year-old stepsister to sing background vocals on Full Speed Ahead, the debut solo album of former Earthquire singer Táta Vega. As Jill Jones enrolled in the rarefied 90212 school system (Lenny Kravitz was a classmate at Beverly Hills High), her mother started managing Motown’s eventual “ivory queen of soul,” the late Teena Marie.
“We all kind of crossed a lot. I knew Tony LeMans a little bit because Lenny had been friends with him,” she says, reminiscing over the former Romeo Blue bandmates. “He was also hanging out with Benny Medina and Kerry Gordy, my cousin. At one point, Berry had tried to put Teena with Kerry and Benny, a band called Kryptonite. And Teena hated it. She was just suffering. After then, I think it became Kagny and the Dirty Rats. They thought it would be a good collaboration and it wasn’t. Benny was the lead singer, along with Teena. It was funny. This is pre him being super-manager of J. Lo and Tyra Banks. I used to go to those rehearsals too, I’ve got dirt on everybody!” She laughs. “And Teena quit. She was over it, she wanted to just do her own thing.”
Teena Marie figures prominently in the Jill Jones story, for historical and allegorical reasons. Born Mary Brockert in Mission Hills, California, Marie came into the Motown empire through staff producer Hal David. Under the management of Jill Jones’s mom, she languished through projects like Kryptonite until the day Rick James walked in on her playing Stevie Wonder’s grand piano up at Motown’s Sunset Boulevard offices. (“Teena was living with her manager, Winnie Jones,” James would write in his memoir. “Winnie’s daughter Jill would later become a protégé of Prince’s. Teena wound up in this household because her own parents, angry that she was hanging out with blacks, had kicked her out of their home in Venice.”) Dropping his plans to produce Diana Ross for the label, James took to Marie both professionally and romantically, producing her 1979 debut, Wild and Peaceful. The album, a solid success on black radio, didn’t feature Teena Marie photos in any of its packaging. (“Was she white? Was she black?” James wrote. “She got over as a soul artist, and when fans learned she was white, they didn’t care. They were already hooked on her music.” Paisley Park would one day try this stratagem with the biracial Jill Jones and fail.)
Six years her senior, Teena Marie—living with Jill Jones’s family, driving her to school in her periwinkle blue Chevy Vega—felt like the big sister Jones never had. Her sophomore album, Lady T, gave Jones her first co-writing credit on “Young Girl in Love.” She was 18. (Jones scored another in 1981 with “The Ballad of Cradle Rob and Me,” on Marie’s It Must Be Magic.) By then she’d already left high school to tour as a background singer with Marie as the opening act for the milquetoast pop heartthrob Shaun Cassidy. Those gigs gave way to an opening slot on the Rick James tour and soon, after dwindling ticket receipts forced James to downsize, to opening Prince’s Dirty Mind tour.
On December 4, 1980, Jill Jones pranced backstage at Shea’s Buffalo theater in upstate Buffalo, New York, sporting a red ice-skating outfit meant for sharing the stage with Teena Marie when she crossed paths with Prince for the first time. Sarcastic words were exchanged, something about the size of the stage, cheeky teenage humor on her part. He later isolated her voice from the soundboard at a future show and loved what he heard. Soon the two started collaborating in Prince’s favored Sunset Sound studios in Hollywood and his home studio, on Kiowa Trail in suburban Chanhassen, Minnesota.
“I jumped right into working on the 1999 album with him,” she says. “He started me with ‘Lady Cab Driver,’ anything he had at his disposal. He would have me at the studio that spring of ’82 all the way until July, we were pretty much in the studio daily. He was finishing up the girls [of Vanity 6] and he was finishing up The Time all at the same time. And then he was also working on his 1999 record. I just remember it being one crazy blur. And who knew what was going to end up where, with who, what. I was just ready for the ride.”
Jones self-identifies as a cheerleader—an enabler to help get your thing done—a role she fulfilled in Prince’s lifework at the crucial period when he tried to self-actualize into a superstar. She also self-admittedly fell in love with him, even as his affections were pretty flagrantly spread thin between both Vanity and Susan Moonsie of Vanity 6, high school sweetheart Kim Upsher, Susannah Melvoin (twin sister of his new rhythm guitarist, Wendy) and Latina percussionist Sheila E. As she started appearing on MTV in the clip for “1999,” Jill Jones was just 20 years old. Prince was 24. This was young love stuff, taken to the nth degree and warped by the narcissism and ego-inflating temptations of celebrity stardom, Prince’s in particular. She briefly moved into his purple house at 9401 Kiowa Trail before finding her own apartment. (Prince would temporarily rent rooms at the Chanhassen Inn; at one point, Jill’s room happened to be right next door to Vanity’s.)
This part of Jill Jones history is like a spicy deleted scene from 20 Feet from Stardom, the Oscar-winning documentary on the unsung lives of background singers. Her vocals served as the secret sauce to songs she wasn’t even credited on: the Time’s “My Drawers”; the Bangles’ “Manic Monday” (originally meant for Apollonia 6); Sheila E.’s “The Glamorous Life” (originally meant for Jill), “Oliver’s House” and “Next Time Wipe the Lipstick Off Your Collar”; “Possessed,” “Wonderful Ass,” “17 Days,” “Love and Sex,” “The Dance Electric” and “We Can Fuck” (all released in 2017 on an expanded edition of Purple Rain); and several Apollonia 6 tracks.Check out this Jill Jones “Secret Sauce” Playlist
Launching in November 1982, the 1999 tour took Prince, Vanity 6 and The Time through the United States for six months as MTV helped turn their audiences a whiter shade of pale, with Jill Jones singing backup vocals. At Prince’s suggestion (read: insistence), she’d dyed her hair platinum blonde, a Marilyn Monroe-inspired look that gelled with the multiracial composition of his backing band. Given her biracial background, the visual inference made Jill Jones seem like some vanilla soul addition to the group, the Prince camp’s own Teena Marie. A light-skinned brunette black girl singing backup would’ve telegraphed a different message to increasingly white crowds paying for Prince tickets in early 1983, and so he refused to play it that way. Like The Revolution (resembling Sly and the Family Stone in its mix of race and gender) and the rock opera Prince had in the works, a soulful white girl fit the bill for his overall plan to maximize his fan base.
Keeping up appearances occasionally created some conflict.
“Everything was smoke and mirrors,” she confesses. “He would say, ‘Jill, you need to look like a star every day when you go outside.’ I was like, ‘I. Don’t. Want. To.’ I don’t have time to keep straightening this blonde hair when I’m going out, I gotta wear a hat. ‘Well, Marilyn Monroe said…’ He always quoted Marilyn Monroe, and I was like, ‘How do you know what the fuck she said?’ ” She laughs at the memory. “I always said, ‘She has white people’s hair!’ ”
Prince’s mainstream magnum opus came six albums and six years into a career with two classics to its credit already, Dirty Mind and 1999. But Purple Rain reached such heights that it was easy to feel like he peaked early. Here’s a koan for sleepless nights: what if Michael Jackson had made the movies and Prince the million-dollar music videos? Would pop superstardom have manifested for them in the same way? Like almost everyone else in the film, Jill Jones starred in Purple Rain as herself: a First Avenue nightclub waitress named Jill pining over the Kid. Earlier drafts painted her slightly suicidal over his unrequited love, with her own set piece singing the piano ballad “Wednesday.”
“‘Wednesday,’ he wrote that during Purple Rain,” she says. “We had to change one of the lyrics, ’cause it was like, ‘Contemplated suicide from twelve o’clock to two.’ When it was in the movie at one point, they had us re-record it because ‘contemplated suicide’ was not good for the masses. ‘Contemplated your embrace from twelve o’clock to two,’ ” she sings like it was yesterday. (In fact, it happens to be a Thursday.) “I think that was it. But then [director Albert Magnoli] ultimately cut it out anyway, it’s on the cutting room floor.”
On his 26th birthday—June 7, 1984—Prince and the Revolution played First Avenue, a concert that resembled the footloose after-shows he’d soon become famous for, featuring brand-new tracks (“Our Destiny,” “Roadhouse Garden”), B-sides (“17 Days,” “Erotic City”) and a ballad written for Sheila E. (“Noon Rendezvous”). Though she wasn’t on stage that night, one of the songs from Prince’s show ended up on Jill Jones’s debut album three years later: the funk rave-up “All Day, All Night.” An overdub of her vocals replaced Prince’s while The Revolution jammed on. A couple other songs from Jill Jones spring out of this period, Prince on the cusp of conquering the mainstream: “G-Spot” (originally meant for Vanity 6), “Mia Bocca” and “Baby, You’re a Trip.”
After the triumph of Purple Rain and the tsunami of creativity whipped up around it, Warner Bros. Records set up the Paisley Park Records imprint as a virtual record label playground for Prince and his protégé acts. The Minneapolis funk-rock troupe Mazarati signed, along with Taja Sevelle (an airy voiced DJ at KMOJ radio) and the Family, a group pieced together from the disintegration of the Time. Jill Jones headed for the east side of Manhattan in 1985; Prince installed her in a penthouse at the ritzy Tudor City apartment complex. An aspiring model named Vivica A. Fox moved in for a while. The French hiphop duo Assassin floated in and out from Paris with one of their brothers, actor Vincent Cassel. Screenwriter Jenny Lumet (granddaughter of actress Lena Horne, daughter of director Sidney Lumet) popped by. So did Maripol, legendary stylist to Grace Jones, Madonna and Debbie Harry of Blondie. Freed from freezing Minnesota, Jill Jones held court in her own European-style salon while taking classes downtown at New York University.
“Life was very separate from hanging out at Paisley Park and kissing his ass,” she says now. “No offense, I’m not trying to be shitty about it. There are dynamics of how to keep him interested. He was a lot of hard work and he needed a lot of attention, but so did I. We had a very different dynamic. I am like a gypsy. He was fine footing the bill for the penthouse.”
April 1985 brought Prince and the Revolution’s Around the World in a Day; dipped in psychedelia, the album was a notorious left turn from Purple Rain. According to Jill Jones, the colorful Doug Henders painting on its foldout cover—full of different figures meant to represent Prince, the band and characters from the record’s different songs—also features her as an old woman in tears. “When he showed me the Around the World in a Day cover, he told me that he modeled that old lady after me,” she says. “Look at her hair: white blonde. I said, ‘Why is that me?’ He said, ‘Because I’m gonna know you forever.’ It didn’t work out that way. But I had a kind of crazy looking green dress like she’s wearing. And those boots were kinda like the beginning when I met him. In the ’80s, there were those black boots that came up. It’s just, I knew it. God, he put me in the ugliest outfit of my whole closet.”
With her sculpturing classes wrapping up a month later, Jill Jones headed back out to Hollywood, having decided with Prince to get serious with the recording of her first solo album. The record almost became My Sex, but the title track (never released) ultimately wasn’t up to muster. “Married Man” and “Killin’ at the Soda Shop” also got axed, though the latter developed a step further months later with added strings courtesy of arranger Clare Fischer. Prince and Jill Jones also laid down “Living Doll” at Sunset Sound; another veto. (“I knew ‘Living Doll’ was something he projected upon me because he said I looked like a big doll. I always did, and I got that,” she says. “However, I just couldn’t. I had an appetite for some of his meatier, more cerebral music. I might have been a huge pop star had I kept the fluff on there. But it just wasn’t working for me. We took a lot of the poppy stuff off. Those might have actually worked to be really honest with you.”) In the same period, she continued singing background vocals: on “Hello”—Prince’s answer to the debacle around his non-participation on the African famine charity single, “We Are the World.” And “Come Elektra Tuesday,” an unreleased track wherein Prince nudged Jill to assume a pseudonym inspired by the Marvel Comics femme fatale Elektra Natchios. (She refused, and he’d later stick Carmen Electra with that one.)
But there were songs that stuck. “For Love” was recorded live with The Family, Paisley Park Records’ first protégé act, who were in Los Angeles shooting their one and only video for “The Screams of Passion.” “My Man” also made the album, written on acoustic guitar that spring with Jill Jones adding vocals the following year, whereas the 1982 Prince ballad “Baby, You’re a Trip” got revived by her impassioned vocals into a keeper. On the personal front, Prince was now engaged to The Family vocalist Susannah Melvoin. Pre-production on Prince’s second film suspended their recording, and she returned to the gilded cage penthouse in Tudor City. On the business front, Jill Jones had yet to even sign her contract with Warner Bros. for her Paisley Park debut.
“I signed after my album was completed,” she shares. “I was advised not to sign it by my attorney, Don Passman. He wrote the book about all the pitfalls of business [All You Need to Know About the Music Business]. I’m sure he wrote that book knowing some of the shit…” We share a laugh over record industry double-dealings that seem self-evident with 20-20 hindsight. “He was like, no. It was taking me so long, Prince called Don’s office. He said, ‘If you ever wanna leave, you’re my best friend, you can go whenever you want.’ And I signed. But Don said, ‘I just don’t believe it unless I can get it in writing from him.’ We never did, and I trusted him.”
END OF PART 1
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 on Twitter and Instagram. Check out some of his work for soulhead.