Category Archives: Janet Jackson

Dystopian Dance Party presents Jheri Curl June: Jesse Johnson

jheri-johnson-1212x1200

Every year in the month of June, my blog Dystopian Dance Party throws a month-long celebration of the wet, silky ’80s R&B we like to call Jheri Curl Music: a kind of hazily-defined intersection of post-disco boogie, electro-funk, and the Minneapolis Sound that, like pornography, is unmistakable when you hear it. And for the past three years, we’ve commenced our Jheri Curl June festivities with profiles of major figures in the style, 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!

The Time in 1981 (Jesse Johnson far right); photo stolen from Lansure’s Music Paraphernalia.

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.

© A&M Records

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 Clubsoundtrack:  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.

© A&M Records

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.

© A&M Records

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.

© A&M Records

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.

© A&M Records

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.

© A&M Records

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.

For more Jheri Curl June, check out Dystopian Dance Party every weekday for the rest of this month; I’ll also be posting highlights for my remaining Saturday guest posts. See you again soon!

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Filed under Janet Jackson, Jesse Johnson, Jesse Johnson's Revue, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Pepe Willie, Prince, Sly Stone, The Time

Rebbie And LaToya: The Unsung Ladies Of The Jackson Family

Rebbie & Latoya

The Jackson family’s biggest female star commercially is undoubtedly Janet. However she was not the first lady of the famous family to embark on a music career. The first was LaToya Yvonne-born today in 1956. The second made her debut five years later in 1984. This was Maureen Reillette Jackson,known as Rebbie. She is the eldest of all the Jackson siblings-born in 1950 on the same day of the year as her younger sister LaToya. Both haven’t been taken very seriously-likely due to criticism they’re not talented vocalists. For their birthdays,thought I’d explore their first albums through my Amazon.com reviews.

LaToya Jackson-Self Titled/1980

Obviously not in the state of mind to be the last member of the Jackson family to record an album (that honor would go to big sister Rebbie) LaToya came out with this album in 1980 and,actually wound up becoming the FIRST Jackson girl to record rather then the last (prefiguring her little sisters debut Janet Jackson by a couple years.Even at this time LaToya was the shy and somewhat sheltered “middle child” of the Jackson family and it comes off all too clearly in her timid,restrained singing.
To some it comes of as pure vocal weakness but most of the time,that isn’t the case at all. Luckily for her LaToya chooses to begin the album in the best possible way with the “If You Feel The Funk”-it sounds not unlike a Patrice Rushen hit of the same vintage but has a lewdness in it’s lyrics I am surprised that then heavily Jehovah’s Witness LaToya could manage to project.Many of these cuts are cut from the same basic cloth as the pop/R&B/disco projects that Jermaine was cutting at this time.
Only it was without the strong sense of craft and they certainly bare little resemblance to the majestic sounds The Jackson’s were getting the same year on their Triumph album.Even Janet’s collaboration with Michael “Night Time Lover”,while a good dance tune is too much an obvious clone of a Donna Summer tune to really stick out.But this album is home to three other truly great songs-“My Love Has Passed You By” is a pretty EWF type ballad featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica (a really nice touch too).
Another great song here is “Lovely Is She”;now Wonder isn’t on this track but the arrangement of the synthesizers brings him to mind,and the light latin inflected melody is pretty infectious.”If I Ain’t Got It” ends the album the same way it begun-with hefty funk and,this time around,a more lyrically assertive LaToya.So while nothing on ‘LaToya Jackson’ qualifies as truly wretched,if this music were precious metals exactly half this album is pure gold.The other half may be good quality brass but they all shine in much the same way.And no matter what it’s nice to have this long forgotten album available for those who really want to hear it.
Since Maureen “Rebbie” Jackson was the last of her superstar family to record there were probably very few expectations;after people had been exposed to the sweet but light,whispy singing of Janet and LaToya it seemed that the talent in this family laid mainly in the boys. But after listening to this it’s clear Rebbie is the Jackson’s best kept secret. Rebbie has one HELL of a voice if I may say so:she uses a lot of jazzy phrasing and inflections and obviously possess at least a 3 octave vocal range-dropping from her materialistic high alto down to a raspy Chaka Khan-ish growl in no time at all.
Her alluring,sexy voice is married to some truly wonderful material here,most of it with a mildly exotic 80’s funk-jazz bent. The best example is the title cut.Penned by brother Michael the tune has a strong electro funk pulse which Rebbie wraps her impressive voice around…well like a crawling centipede indeed. She also gets to mix it up in much the same way on the similarly part friendly groove of “Come Alive (It’s Saturday Night)”. “Hey Boy” finds her spreading her jazzy voice along to a very 70’s style soul ballad that ups in tempo a little bit towards the end-her malisma’s and turns on this song are truly tasty.
“Open Up To My Love” is one of the best songs on this overall wonderful album-nice mid tempo soul with tasteful,80’s friendly instrumentation and a really strong catchy hook. “Play Me (I’m A Jukebox)” showcases Rebbie in a very Minneapolis-type setting-she even adds some sassy rapping to the setting;for a woman who is a devout Jehovah’s Witness this song is very openly erotic. She obviously has a strong affinity for Prince’s sound because,as Chaka Khan and earlier The Pointer Sisters had done she covered his “I Feel For You”.
Nobody can probably beat Chaka’s famous reinvention of the same vintage but like the Pointers Rebbie retains the original’s upbeat music (the instrumentation is even very similar) and the use of her higher voice and the rocking guitar solo in the middle really help that feel along. “A Fork In The Road” is beautiful with it’s 60’s soul ballad feel and Rebbie’s yearning voice throughout. The album ends in a great way with the peppy,very 80’s Jackson-sounding groove that will have you bobbing and singing right along!
Rebbie’s solo career turned out to be sadly short lived;because of the Victory tour and Michael’s huge success in 1984 “Centipede” became her only big hit-she only recorded two more albums in the 80’s after this and her long awaited fourth album didn’t come out until 1998. With the proper guidance Rebbie could’ve easily been the heiress to Michael’s throne.Sadly that never happened but we can still listen to this and muse on this legend that should’ve been.
Since writing these reviews,there’s been something of an online buzz about the growling vocal parts of Rebbie Jackson’s “Centipede” were sung by The Weather Girls’ big voiced Martha Wash. Whatever the case may be, Rebbie and LaToya Jackson both share a soft,soulfully jazzy whisper of a voice. And actually are able to utilize family members and outside musicians,writers and producers who bring in material suited to their particular style.

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Filed under 1980's, Amazon.com, disco funk, electro funk, Janet Jackson, Jehovah's Witnesses, LaToya Jackson, Michael Jackson, Music Reviewing, Prince, Rebbie Jackson, synth funk, The Jacksons, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Say You Do” by Janet Jackson

Janet Jackson is turning 50 today. It’s amazing to think her music career is 34 years old now. She was groomed by her family to be an actress-doing Mae West impressions on the Jackson 5’s Las Vegas shows in the mid 70’s and staring on Norman Lear’s Good Times as Penny,an abused child adopted the Evans’ next door neighbor Willona Woods on the show. Just before Mothers Day this year,Janet announced she was 2 weeks pregnant with her first child by her husband of five years Wissam Al Mana. Would like to wish these expectant parents all the happiness in the world for this happy event.

Growing up Janet was actually interested in becoming a horse racing jockey or an entertainment lawyer- supporting herself through acting. By her early teens,she’d become committed to being an entertainer. With the help of her father Joe,she got a contract with A&M Records in 1982. The album had an incredible array of session musicians,songwriters and producers working with an appropriate sound for Janet’s still developing vocals. The album itself did chart in the R&B Top 10. But somehow never produced any hit singles. One big potential one was the opener “Say You Do”.

Starting out with a hard hitting 5 beat pattern on the snare drum,a thunder like sound allows a thumping bass line and a cosmic space funk synthesizer to ascend in sound and pitch into the refrain. After this,a liquid rhythm guitar protects the groove with several accenting keyboard patterns. One is a horn type Clavinet accent,the other is an orchestral Fender Rhodes-themselves accompanied by aggressive Chic-like bursts of disco era strings along with Jerry Hey’s horn arrangements. These work tightly in concert with those Chic style strings arranged by Benjamin Wright.

After several choruses and refrains of Janet’s vocals-featuring the singer accompanying herself with several layers of lead and back-round choruses,there’s a thick and funky drum/Clavinet/synth bass funky bridge before a symphonic chorus of Janet’s vocals comes in. Janet’s voice is elaborately echoed in a rather psychedelic manner-again accompanying herself with her lower and higher range over the 5 beat drumming.After this, that drum breaks off into the thunder sound that started the song concluding it-with the synthesizer that fades up into the intro fading out in the exact opposite manner.

When I first heard this album 20 years ago,it came as a total surprise that so much elaborate musicality would go into an unproven teenager singer-even if she did carry the famous Jackson name. For awhile now,almost no thought goes into the majority of teen singer/boy band/girl group style musical productions. With the entire focus being on the singer’s vocal persona and the songs hook. This Rene & Angela composition that starts out Janet’s debut album takes a totally different approach-much like an early 80’s update of the sound Norman Whitfield got for The Temptation on songs like “Masterpiece”.

The incredible instrumentalists on this song might have a lot to do with this sound. Rufus’s rhythm section Bobby Watson,Tony Maiden,John Robinson AND Andre Fischer are all over this groove. Not to mention James Jamerson Jr. coming in on bass too along jazz oriented keyboardists/synthesizer players  Jeff Lorber and Frank Zappa’s Ian Underwood. Janet’s teenage voice is very impressive on this song. Her maturing vocals not only scale from a low tenor to her high mezzo soprano by turns-along with the multi tracked and echo-plexed symphony of her voice added to the mix too.

Of course there’s also the influence of her brother Michael here too. Michael Jackson was one of the biggest personalities in the music world in 1982,and only about to get bigger on that level. Janet does her own versions of his vocal hiccups and range on this song for sure. But the idea of combining a tight rhythm section of strong session instrumentalists with the horn arrangements of Jerry Hey,also working with Quincy Jones and MJ at the time,showcased her influence from her brother was as much musical as it was from the performance standpoint of her presentation.

Musically this song also bridges two generations of funk as well. It has the elaborate arrangements of the cinematic soul sound of Isaac Hayes and Barry White that inaugurated the disco era. But the clipped,stripped down presentation of the rhythm section and spare bursts of strings and horns also fall in line with the new wave influenced Minneapolis sound of Prince. Which was one Janet would embrace more fully in the next several years. This sort of instrumental thoughtfulness and funkiness stands for me as a superb model for teen singers. And stands as a highly unsung debut song from Miss Janet!

 

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Filed under 1980's, Andre Fischer, Angela Wimbush, Benjamin Wright, Bobby Waton, Boogie Funk, cinematic soul, clavinet, dance funk, drums, Fender Rhodes, Funk Bass, Ian Underwood, James Jamerson Jr, Janet Jackson, Jeff Lorber, Jerry Hey, John Robinson, Joseph Jackson, Michael Jackson, naked funk, Rene & Angela, Rene Moore, rhythm guitar, strings, synth bass, synthesizer, teen pop, Tony Maiden, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Control” by Janet Jackson

Janet Jackson released her third album Control 30 years ago today. Yes that does feel like it’s aging me a bit,though I was technically five years old when it first came out. Years of looking at the past,present and possible future of black American music bring out just how important Janet’s first big moment in the sun actually was. Not only did it do a lot for her career wise. But with the level of consistency producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis bought to it, the album focused attention back on full albums as a prime medium for uptempo funk and dance oriented music in the late 1980’s. Needless to say,my ongoing journey with Control is full of personal reflections as well.

First time I ever heard of Janet Jackson was a gift of the first 45 RPM records in my collection in 1987. They were Janet’s “Nasty” and “When I Think Of You” from this particular album. It wouldn’t be for another decade or so that I’d finally hear the entire album. It’s yet another in that special CD rack reserved for my very favorite albums. Am sure many of you reading this have similarly nostalgic memories of when they first heard this album. Of course I was also hearing this while almost simultaneously getting seriously into The Time. So just the idea of the Minneapolis sound meeting up with Janet Jackson let me to talk about the song “Control” itself.

Opening up with wind chime effects,whirring electronic hums and liquid guitar-like accents,the main groove opens with some brittle hand claps/drum machine percussion effects. The song’s sections is separated out by distinct breaks. The first is an instrumental chorus with Minneapolis funk’s trademark of (by this time) digital synthesizers playing the strong grooving horn lines. Janet’s vocals duet call and response style with her own harmonies on the main chorus. The bridge has a sunny melody with digitized bells. The final choruses of the song Janet’s lead and harmony vocals play in beautiful harmony with the percussion and synth horn lines with a playful synergy.

Rhythmically,this song has a very strong industrial and hard hitting sound that is right on time with the dance music coming out of Japan and Europe during that time. Yet even with the hard slamming electronic instrumentation, “Control” is still structured entirely in the mold of a James Brown style funk jam.  The big beat on the one,with it’s many breaks continues to drive the groove. Also Janet’s budding confidence in singing about if it has to do with her life,she wants to be the one in control in response Jam & Lewis’s synth horns. Whatever musician and/or producer was personally involved,this showcased how Minneapolis was a major source for revitalizing a hard funk attitude for the late 1980’s.

 

 

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Filed under 1980's, albums, drum machines, electro funk, funk breaks, Industrial funk, Jam & Lewis, James Brown, Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Minneapolis, Nostalgia, synth brass, The Time, Uncategorized

Andre’s Amazon Archive for 5/16/2015: ‘Dream Street’ by Janet Jackson

Dream Street

A truly amazing album and,with little doubt in my mind THE BEST of Janet’s pre Control recordings. At this point in her life Janet was officially entering adulthood and breaking away from her families control by marrying (then leaving) James DeBarge. On this album Janet has found her musical niche and is starting to put her sound together. She wasn’t all the way there but was edging closer and closer to the sound of her breakthrough only a year and a half later. Produced alternately between her brother Marlon,The Time’s Jesse Johnson and Donna Summer’s former producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Ballotte the sound of this album is dominated by uptempo tunes with a far more aggressive musicianship,sharper sonic’s and top notch songwriting as well.

The opening is the slamming electro funk of “Don’t Stand Another Chance” which really shows you how underrated Marlon Jackson is as a producer and how much of the early electro/hip-hop/funk sound he’d actually assimilated,especially hearing some of Janet’s growls and snarls in the vocals. “Two To The Power Of Love” is the lone ballad here and is the only song that really doesn’t quite fit,with a very corny arrangement not that different from something you might heard sung by a Jem doll at that time frankly. “Pretty Boy” gets the mood up very quickly. Prince,“Purple Rain” and the Minneapolis sound in general was super hot at that point and here you see the reason.

Janet and Jesse Johnson JAM out this song that completely exposes the nucleus of the sound she’d soon make famous only in a somewhat rawer Minneapolis funk context with some screaming synthesizers and Janet’s call and response “PLAY THOSE FUNKY HORNS!”. On Giorgio Moroder’s title song,with a video that was snuck into one of her appearances in Fame definitely finds Janet maturing on every front,singing a very bittersweet tale of the realities in the struggle for celebrity to one of Moroder’s patented euro/Italo disco style arrangements.

“Communication” and “Hold Back The Tears” are his other two productions and find Janet succeeding much better in the new wave/rock style she’d attempted less successfully at the end of her previous album. Jesse returns again for the very break dance/electro friendly mid 80’s street funk of “Fast Girls”,another driving and amazingly effective groove. Marlon returns with “All My Love To You” which very much echoes the flavors of the first song on this album.

The record closes with another Moroder tune in the potent new wave-soul-dance hybrid of “If It Takes All Night”. You’d think with all the cooks in the kitchen on the production of this album that Janet’s identity would remain very submerged-it didn’t. If anything on this album Janet’s actually began to develop a persona driven by intense,funky 80’s style dance jams and some unbeatable hooks and breaks as well. For those looking into early Janet for music that points to her big breakthrough later in the decade this album would be the sure fire place to find it.

Originally Posted On March 31st,2010

Link to original review here*

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Filed under 1980's, Amazon.com, elecro funk, Fame, Giorgio Moroder, Italo disco, James DeBarge, Janet Jackson, Jesse Johson, Marlon Jackson, Minneapolis, Music Reviewing