For the past three years, we’ve commenced our Jheri Curl June festivities with profiles of major figures in the style we call Jheri Curl Music, timed to line up with their birthdays in the beginning of June. In 2014, it was Prince (born June 7); in 2015, it was Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (the former born June 6); last year, it was L.A. Reid (June 7 again). But until now, we’ve never managed to make time for another architect whose birthday falls as close to the beginning of June as possible: June 1, 1960. I’m talking, of course, about Jesse Johnson.
Jesse, in our defense, hasn’t exactly been a stranger to Jheri Curl June. His “Be Your Man” was our second-ever JCJ post back in 2014, and we’ve also considered his work both as a member of the Time and as the producer of late-’80s Minneapolis funk-rockers dáKRASH. But we’ve never taken a deep dive into his music–and that’s a damn shame, because whatever Johnson might have lacked in the innovation of his former associates Prince, Jam, and Lewis, he more than made up for with some of the strongest pure Jheri Curl Music of the mid-to-late 1980s. In other words, there’s no better person with whom to launch our fourth annual celebration of all things wet and silky in ’80s R&B music. So let’s get to it!
Jesse Johnson was born in Rock Island, Illinois and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, but he will forever be associated with Minneapolis: the city where he launched his career in 1981 as lead guitarist for Prince’s first and greatest “protégé group,” the Time. Much has been made of the Time as a kind of dummy act for their svengali‘s straight-up R&B material, but Johnson in particular played a greater role in the studio than has been acknowledged; recently, for example, he released his own early demo version of the group’s second-biggest single, “Jungle Love,” long widely assumed to have been written by Prince alone. Yet, like so many other musicians over whom Prince ruled with a lacy fist, Johnson’s independence chafed against his employer’s desire for control, and by the end of 1984 he and the rest of the Time had jumped ship.
Like his fellow Time escapees, Jam and Lewis, Johnson started out as a songwriter and producer: a role he’d already inhabited while in the Prince camp, penning not only “Jungle Love” but also “Bite the Beat” for the Vanity 6 project. In fact, while Jimmy and Terry are the bigger names, Jesse actually beat them to the punch in one respect: contributing two songs to Janet Jackson’s 1984 sophomore album Dream Street, a year and a half before Jam and Lewis did Control. The first of these tracks, “Pretty Boy,” may not be “Nasty,” but it’s a nice, fizzy dose of New Wave-inflected jheri curl pop; and Johnson himself re-recorded the second track, “Fast Girls,” for a B-side in 1985 (his version is the one included here). After Janet, Jesse’s next major break came in the unlikely shape of the Breakfast Club soundtrack: his “Heart Too Hot to Hold,” a duet with fellow A&M artist Stephanie Spruill, obviously fell short of Simple Minds’ epochal “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” in capturing the zeitgeist, but I can’t imagine he minds when those residuals come in.
For all intents and purposes, however, Johnson’s debut as a solo artist came with the release of his 1985 album Jesse Johnson’s Revue. It was at this point when his characteristic take on the Minneapolis Sound, hinted at in his earlier production work, came into full bloom: surprisingly keyboard-driven for a guitarist, explicitly New Wave-influenced, and with plenty of the fiery guitar solos that had been his specialty in the Time. Songs like “Can You Help Me,” “Let’s Have Some Fun,” and the yearning ballad “I Want My Girl” established Johnson as a kind of middle ground between the Time’s good-time funk and the sexier, artier stylings of Prince.
Indeed, it’s clear that in 1985 A&M was positioning Johnson as a potential competitor to W.B.’s Prince: it didn’t hurt, of course, that Jesse was a dead ringer for his former employer, with the mandatory mid-’80s thin moustache and even a trademark color, pink, to match Prince’s purple. Johnson was less comfortable with these comparisons, however; and his response, the B-side “Free World,” became one of his most enduring songs. Not only did it address the elephant in the room–“Nobody likes the way I hold my mic / They say it’s too much like my friend”–but it was also an influential work of electro-funk on its own merits: just try and listen to the Egyptian Lover’s “Freak-a-Holic” and tell me he didn’t have “Free World” on the brain.
Jesse Johnson’s Revue wasn’t the runaway success it should have been, but A&M wasn’t ready to give up on turning Jesse into “their” Prince: he even got his own protégés, Ta Mara and the Seen, led by the crossover-friendly (read: white) singer Margie Cox, a.k.a. Ta Mara. Their “Everybody Dance” was as “Jesse Johnson” as Vanity 6 had been “Prince,” and has become as much a part of the Minneapolis Sound’s legacy. Johnson also made time for another Brat Pack soundtrack in early 1986, contributing the New Wave-y “Get to Know Ya” to Pretty in Pink.
The followup to Jesse Johnson’s Revue, 1986’s Shockadelica, carried on the inevitable comparisons to Prince–though this time through no fault of Johnson’s own. The story goes that Prince, after hearing the name for Jesse’s new album, tried to convince him to write a title track–then, when Jesse declined, went ahead and wrote it himself, leaking it to Minneapolis radio so listeners would assume he’d come up with the title first. It’s unfortunate, because Shockadelica shows a lot of musical growth for Johnson: plucking Sly Stone out of his self-imposed obscurity for the lead single “Crazay” and incorporating prominent freestyle influences on “Baby Let’s Kiss.” But on some level, at least, Johnson also got the last laugh: his “Do Yourself a Favor” nicks Prince’s unreleased arrangement of “If You See Me” by Minneapolis Sound godfather Pepé Willie, but credits Willie alone, ensuring he got all the royalties.
Shockadelica was another modest, but not overwhelming success, and Johnson continued to produce for other artists, collaborating with Ta Mara on “I Need You” by Paula Abdul. His next album, 1988’s Every Shade of Love, fell short of the previous records’ sales, but it still had some gems in “Love Struck”–Johnson’s biggest hit since “Crazay”–and the mellow, soulful “I’m Just Wanting You.”
It’s convenient, for our purposes, that the first wave of Johnson’s solo career ended along with what we like to call the “jheri curl era”: after Every Shade, he still contributed to soundtracks and other artists’ projects, but wouldn’t reemerge with an album of his own until 1996’s rock-oriented Bare My Naked Soul. Today–after another, 14-year leave of absence–he’s arguably at his highest profile since the ’80s: performing with D’Angelo and (occasionally) the original lineup of the Time, most recently at the 2017 Grammy Awards. Earlier this year, he played to a packed house at the Minneapolis club Bunker’s to commemorate the one-year anniversary of his old sparring partner Prince’s death. Things, it seems, have come full circle; Johnson has both outlasted Prince and become more inseparable than ever with his legacy. And he’s built a hell of a legacy of his own: one we’re proud to celebrate this Jheri Curl June, and many more in the future.