Jill Jones: Violet Blues (Part 2 of 2)
by Miles Marshall Lewis
MML: Tell me about your first time onstage with Teena Marie.
Jill Jones: I think my first time with Teena was… We used to do a lot of things at the Gordy house, you know, because my stepfather was Fuller Gordy, Berry’s brother. There were lots of family events. And sometimes she would just play guitar at those events and say, “Hey, do you wanna just join in and sing backing vocals?” or whatever. And you have to understand: those events at Berry’s house were the equivalent of being onstage. You have some of the biggest celebrities in the world there just sort of hanging out with the family. And it was a little bit of a competitive environment. All the kids had to do something. But, not competitive so much as it was to excel at something.
Bringing me in that fostered a lot more attention on me, and even for her. She lived in our house, my mom and dad’s. We were with her band in the garage. And I would always be there. I knew all the parts. I had started out singing, just going in the studio. Family events or restaurants just jumping up and singing a lot of Smokey Robinson songs. We just kept doing that. And then I just became her backup vocalist.
The first official tour I went on was the one with Shaun Cassidy, which was crazy. Because I went to school with Shaun’s brother Patrick, which was funny. But that was a wild one. And we were also not the opening act for the Shaun Cassidy tour. It was just not for the little white girls across America, in Boulder, Colorado. That was just terrifying. Spandex, wings. It was funny.
What was your first collaboration in the studio with Prince?
I think it was “Boom, Boom.” He had come back from finishing I think it was the Controversy Tour, then he called when he got into town. I mean, we kept in touch over the years. But this time was different. He came, and I had given him a cassette. ’Cause he goes, “Let me hear what you’ve been working on.” And I gave him this cassette of me just doing Pat Benatar type of songs on the piano. I had recorded ’em, right? And I gave it to him. I heard him drivin’ off playing this song I wrote called “Runaway.” I was just: “Oh my god.” And the next day, he called me in the studio and that was the song that he pulled up or started working on, “Boom, Boom,” and gave me.
I watched the video on YouTube 10 minutes ago.
Yeah, and that was remixed years later. The first one was great. I mean, it was just fun. I wasn’t really sure about it. He just had me in the studio. Then when I just sorta did the riffs at the end, I remember he was just standing up and going “oh my god.” He was really happy and very enthusiastic, excited. He and I think it was Peggy McCreary the engineer, she was kinda like, “Yeah, she can sing out of what you been doing.” He knew I was for real. Although he’d known on tour, ’cause he used to solo my voice on the Dirty Mind Tour. But when I went for my own riffs and my own phrasing, then he knew.
Where was “Mia Bocca” shot?
San Felipe, in Baja.
Whose idea was that?
The director [Jean-Baptiste Mondino]. We went and scouted that whole area, me and him and the producer. It was fun.
Tell me about the frustration over the performance of Jill Jones.
I think it was the album itself, with the strings. It was very string laden. I think that it missed its mark, because things had already started to go into a very different direction for women in America musically. And then the moral majority, that Tipper Gore whole shit, came down on me with my video. There were many obstacles with it. And then the black community wasn’t supportive [of the album] because they didn’t know what I was. I guess they were saying, “We’re only gonna let one white person sweep through, that’s gonna be Teena.” But I wasn’t white, so I felt… Until I went to the Jack the Rapper convention: “Yo, I’m black.”
And I was never one to go around touting the whole Gordy connection. Because I kinda wanted to prove to them that I didn’t have to come to them and ask for everything. But I learned later that it’s not like everybody asks for things. You’ve earned your position in that family. I had a little bit of an ego. Pride, actually. And I was like, well I can do this on my own. I don’t need anybody. Even against some of their advisements business-wise about what decisions I was making.
But the album didn’t perform very well in America. I mean, I think we sold only 50,000 copies when it came out. That was it here. And it was a big disappointment. I think it was really Rob Dickins in the UK who actually pulled me out of it at Warners and was like, “The hell with this, come over here.” He came through a couple of times for me, which opened me up to a lot of different possibilities. And then having Roger Davies as a manager at one point.
Bringing in so many outside people, Prince had resistance with that. Because they weren’t the nucleus at his disposal or control. So yeah, it was disappointing. And I also think that Warners here had leveraged him a little bit with all these great ideas he wanted to do. They were kinda like, “uh, no.” Because they hadn’t been satisfied with their recoupments either. It was just like they’re letting this guy go off on a tangent. And as my mother had said, artists’ vanity labels are always a dangerous thing, because they’re almost always set up to fail. It’s been proven. Madonna’s the only one who ever really had one [succeed]. She actually had some major success with Alanis Morissette. And that’s because she’s such a badass. She wasn’t gonna fail.
Do you remember any specific chart numbers for the success of Jill Jones in Europe?
In Italy, I think I was number one or two. Italy was like the best for me; France did well.
I heard the Netherlands too.
Uh-huh. They embraced me a lot. And I think I was like a character. They were receptive to what they created, but you know, we never followed up with other records.
Whose decision was it to add strings to the album?
Prince did. After some bombing in Libya, he flew back and he was in New York. I was in New York ’cause I lived there. And we were just driving around in the rain in a limo listening to the songs. And then he made a decision. He goes, “Hey, what do you think?” We took a lot of the poppy stuff off, like “Living Doll” and all those things. Those might have actually worked to be really honest with you. “Miss Understood.” But I never liked those songs. I hated “Miss Understood.” I might have been a huge pop star had I kept the fluff on there. But it just wasn’t working for me.
What made you decide to add “With You” on the album?
He asked me to record it. And he was really sweet. He called and goes, “Would you wanna do one of my songs? Like I have…” I said, “Sure, which one?” He said, “With You.” And I was like, “Really? Okay.” And it was nice, it was kind of a nice thing for him.
But he had no involvement in producing “With You.” Why?
It was me and David Z. I think he was going through some different things. I think that my relationship with him was at a different point. He had decided to be engaged at that point with Susannah. I had this amazing penthouse in New York, and I was taking all these classes and doing whatever.
I had started reaching at Paris. And he actually saw the vision that they saw, which was cinematic, cuckoo crazy Betty Blue Fellini woman. Y’know: she’s kinda nutso. And he got it. But he stayed out of my business on that.
Did you feel like Jill Jones was taking too long to come out?
Were you vocal about it?
I feel like we missed our window. That could be partly my problem because I didn’t sign the contract at one point. But I just had to be sure.
You would have preferred ’86 maybe? ’85?
I think sooner. When we had less baggage between us. You know, when there’s still enthusiasm about stuff.
Would you tell me about your dad?
Victor Castellini. He played with like a lot of Hawaiian acts. My stepmother is Joy Wood, she was a jazz singer in Hawaii and she’s got a whole list of… Herbie Hancock, different jazz people. I can look on her page and see her talking about knowing Judy Garland and all those people back at some point. My dad basically split when I was born, and I didn’t really have a relationship with him. I think he played with Don Ho as well, and some TV shows. But I never met my dad. We only spoke on the phone.
He was from Italy?
No, no. He was American Italian. One time I invited him to one of the shows we were doing when we were in Ohio and he didn’t show up. And Prince was like, “Just forget it. Don’t even ask anymore.” He was really very protective of me. And he kept me busy actually that whole tour in Ohio so I didn’t have any time to see him even if he did show up.
Tell me about David Z’s involvement with Jill Jones. When was he brought on?
From the very beginning Prince brought him on. I mean, over the years we had done things like “Mia Bocca,” me and Prince, sitting at the Kiowa Trail house. That was probably recorded before David and I went in. We had material. But yeah, he suggested him. I think he liked what he did on The Family. I think he trusted him.
Do you remember conversations with Warner about the album’s audience? Was there confusion over who to market it towards?
Yes, for me there was. For Taja [Sevelle], it wasn’t. She went through R&B radio, but Taja, they curled her hair and did the tone a little bit different. You would think that she was just a light-skinned black girl. That was totally strategic. And it worked. She had them in her corner because Prince wasn’t really all that attached to the project that much. He gave autonomy for that as well. With mine, he wasn’t willing to.
Two came about solely because a friend of mine, Dave Honl, a photojournalist. Dave was a really good friend in Minneapolis, and he knew my uncle Earl and he knew me. My mother had become ill and died. The record Two came about because it was just cathartic. I worked with Chris Bruce, went to his house in Chicago for a little bit and chilled, and we wrote that. I wasn’t gonna do anything with it. The internet was kind of bubbling and Dave put it out. I had no interest, I was done with music. Then I started doing live gigs again, just for enjoyment, with no expectation. I still don’t have any expectation. It’s kind of it’s a wrap. It’s done. There’ll never be, like, big records and there’ll never be big money. I know that.
And the album after that? Wasted?
It was a friend of mine, we had a band called the Grand Royals. Another situation: put it out.
Could you tell Graffiti Bridge was gonna…?
I’ve never seen it in its entirety ever. He was really excited about first with me about the part. Because he had to pump it up because he promised me other parts before it got changed a million times. I was supposed to be Elektra. He had always, he wanted to name me Elektra. Even in 1982. Elektra Tuesday off of Elektra: Assassin is where this came from. Elektra: Assassin is a Marvel comic, and I got the name Elektra. “Are we gonna use…? We can’t use a Marvel name.” So I was gonna be this woman, but I wouldn’t do it. And Steve Fargnoli who was like, “She’s already in the union, she’s… Why would you wanna go and change her name? She has some credibility that we can actually work with to legitimize a little bit of what you’re doing, rather than just women coming out who can’t sing.” But, you know, they had cool music, sure.
Then he pulled that old Elektra along and he finally got Carmen Electra to do it. But I laughed because “she got that old name… somebody got it.” I used to tell him, “Are you casting central 101?” Like, “You’ve got the part and you just need somebody to fit the bill?” ’Cause he had names! It’s like having a name and then you have a child and you go, “I have these lists of names I’ve been wanting to use all my life.”
I know he loved The Godfather a lot, and there’s an Apollonia in The Godfather.
We watched that together. And when the car blew up: “Apollonia!” You know, that’s Al Pacino’s part. And that’s where her name came from, directly. I would swear on it.
Did you tour with Jill Jones?
No. I did a couple tours with Level 42. Just a couple of gigs. I rehearsed for months. Prince was resistant to let me go out on tour. We were so tight, and then he came and totally shut me down and told me I didn’t need to be doing singing, I needed to quit and stop this madness and all this stuff. Ripped my band apart. And only because then he took Sheila on tour, the Sign o’ the Times thing. I was really pissed. It was like I had nobody looking out for me. Nobody. Even him at one point, because it was all about manipulations, to get me to do other stuff.
Where did that come from?
He wanted me to go and do some more singing with them on tour as backing or whatever. You have to also keep in mind, I had a boyfriend, I was living in New York. Life was very separate from hanging out at Paisley Park and kissing his ass. I mean, honestly. No offense, I’m not trying to be really shitty about it. There are the dynamics of how to keep him interested. And everybody who knew how to work him knew how to work him. But ultimately, you get tired of having to work somebody when there’s just a thing of equanimity and being fair. He was a lot of hard work and he needed a lot of attention. But I was like, so do I.
And he was fine footing the bill for the penthouse. It just shocked him that I had a boyfriend living there and, like, Vivica Fox. She was a really good buddy of mine, she was just starting to model in New York. I moved her in. My friend Moni was there. I had the guys from this band called Assassin, they were a rap band from France.
I know Assassin. My wife’s French, I lived in Paris seven years.
Yeah, I was with this crew! My friend Ava, she worked for Chanel but she made the big emblems like Chanel was doing, the big hiphop chains for a gazillion dollars. My friend Monie was there, who has a kid with Jesse [Johnson] now. That house was banging. Jenny Lumet, I remember waking up one morning and she was there. Vincent Cassel. But everyone, they were babies. Maripol was one of my close buddies.
Sooo, I think we had a very different dynamic. It was like, Jill’s life is so different. I am like a gypsy, and I always used to tell him I’m a gypsy. I do music because I love it. It was just the funniest thing. We were growing at different rates.
Your B-side, “77 Bleeker St.,” who lived there?
Who lived on it? Oh, I can’t tell. But it was somebody that I had a crush on.
Was it Steve Stevens?
[laughter] Yes! Yes, it was. Steve and I met during “With You.” He played on it when we started hanging out a little bit. Prince went on his way to be engaged. He would ask and I would say, “You’re engaged, remember?” I was just moving on and doing things. I think maybe that decayed the relationship. He had Susannah directing a backing session once, I think it was on “Good Love.” And he did that on purpose. He did shitty stuff like that sometimes. But I’m saying it in a funny way because it’s just guy-girl stuff.
Angie Stone co-wrote another B-side for you, “Baby Cries (Ay Yah).” How’d you meet?
She auditioned for my band in New York. I loved her immediately. I loved her sense of humor, I loved that we could just yak it up. And she was funny as hell. She got my humor and she was an amazingly badass singer. Better than me.
She was gonna sing as a backup singer?
She did. We rehearsed for like seven months, all of us.
And then it got shut down.
Yeah, we did like a couple of gigs and that was it. Prince just kinda shut it down.
She started writing a little bit?
Yeah, me and Angie did. But yeah, Prince shut it down because his world started falling apart too, with his managers and things were changing a little bit.
George Clinton told me Warner Bros. started getting disillusioned with him when he killed off Christopher Tracy in Under the Cherry Moon.
I don’t think whether Christopher Tracy lived or died was going to make a big difference. I think they started to have problems with it. I think Prince may have told a lot of people that that’s what was going on. You see, there’s this other reality that he had, an alternate reality—or, not alternate reality. You know how sometimes we talk and maybe give our perspective. But Prince would also never give you the full story.
They had an issue when he took over directing. And that was before Christopher Tracy died. That was when he got rid of Mary Lambert. I had to audition for the role too. I remember I met Mary Lambert and I was sweating so much I looked like a fucking hog, sitting at a café in New York. It was humid, my hair looked like shit. I couldn’t have looked like a rich heiress if you paid me. I looked like a fucking hooker by the time I showed up. I was just like, goddammit. So many people you’ll meet say, “He offered me the part.”
I didn’t care about that stuff. I actually was like, “Whatever, I’m taking sculpturing at NYU. And I got a house full of folks I gotta… Fabio’s my neighbor!” Which he was actually. The photographer Gianni, who was his friend, he would stay at Gianni’s house all the time. Fabio would leave his bags sometime. We had a doorman, but he’d go, “Can I leave my bag?” It was crazy.
Tell me about working with Trevor Horn.
Trevor Horn I worked with through Mondino, for the Yves Saint Laurent commercial. I had a lot of people who had my back because money was tight for me during that point. I got the thing with Yves Saint Laurent, “C’est Si Bon.” That was amazing because Trevor had a very different way of working. Very precision oriented. The engineers, everyone, it was just like a beautiful tag team. He really knew how to communicate what he wanted. I had the client telling me how to say “bras dessous.” Naomi [Campbell] did the visuals and lip-synched to my thing, so that was cool.
How did you find out “She’s Always in My Hair” is about you?
He gave it to me in a cassette and he said it’s about me.
You sang on “Manic Monday”? How?
Originally it was gonna go to [Apollonia 6], so I did all the backing vocals. I’m not so sure why he gave that song away. This is up for debate. At one point, Apollonia was like, “I don’t want anybody singing on it.” That was the caveat. She wanted Brenda, herself and Susan. Well, Susan talked, she didn’t really do background vocals. And Brenda has a very strong voice; probably she should’ve been doing lead more, because then everyone would form around her. But now the tone and the blend had to form around Apollonia. And he couldn’t tell her that we were singing. I was on “Take Me With U.” I ghosted these songs.
I’m wondering when he started dating Susanna Hoffs. Then he gave it to her. During this time, he started to realize having all his songs in one bucket was going to screw him. He started to get wise to the leveraging happening. There was a catch 22, playing that game with Warner Bros. saying, “Why wouldn’t you give ‘Sugar Walls’ to somebody here where we’ve got your publishing?” They got pissed on that stuff. But he started to get wise and spread his seed, and they got pissed, and that’s what it kind of turned into basically. I don’t know what he should’ve done. And then the other labels would kiss his ass more, because they didn’t have him. They thought, “oh, we’ll make this huge!”
The only thing I sometimes wonder [is] why he always felt he had to be such a lothario to get this stuff played with all the women. I just never understood that, why he didn’t have more faith in his abilities rather than to always have to romance somebody. It’s a power struggle.
So on “Manic Monday,” they didn’t take me off of that. That’s me on the top register. We were on the backing vocals, me and Brenda.
There was a disagreement in terms of where you wanted to take the second album?
I think he had gotten really freaked out [when] the whole Bell Biv DeVoe, that whole era, started to come along. I think it really challenged him. It perplexed him. I don’t think he understood it, but then he tried to learn it and do it, and I just wasn’t with it. I was kind of headed more into indie music that was out then. I thought that would have been the normal direction. And he wanted to still be competitive in that arena. And it just wasn’t for me. I was, what, 28 at that time. I wasn’t really interested in that.
He revamped “Boom, Boom.” He took a lot of demos and revamped them all with these Bell Biv DeVoe kind of remixes. The Chris Lord-Alge one for “Flesh and Blood” didn’t bother me. It was the nicest thing he came up with. But he was kind of missing the mark. And it looked like he wasn’t himself. We’re headed in the ’90s and there was Soundgarden coming up and all these new edgier things I was more interested in. I think my voice suited more rock anyway. He didn’t wanna do it.
In terms of Warner Bros. and you being biracial, was there a conversation about pulling the wool over people’s eyes?
No. I had a problem with the R&B radio stations. The album wasn’t R&B enough for them, they were like, “Well, we’re not really gonna do anything with it.” They could’ve given me a little bit of a bone. But they didn’t want to, and they weren’t getting paid to do it. Everybody who gets played on radio, you’re paying. The same with “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” Gordy told me they fucking paid that. You have a radio plugger it’s called. That’s how it works. Taja had one, I didn’t. I didn’t play the game. She was smart, she figured out how to do it. But she aligned herself with Warners to be the golden child. I didn’t. I was caught in between Prince and them.
END OF PART 2
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.
Ron Worthy is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of soulhead.com. A passionate audiophile who has been a DJ for over 25 years, Ron studied classical music and plays 4 instruments. He loves discussing all things Prince, Hip-Hop, and Funk. When he is able, he shoots a mean game of pool, digs comedy, loves eating fried fish sandwiches, making crab cakes and drinking micro-brews from all over the World. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, daughter and cat. Check out some of his work for soulhead.