It is a Sunday night at Bunkers, a dive bar just north of downtown Minneapolis and Dr. Mambos Combo is in the middle of a set of 1970s R&B cover tunes.
Jellybean Johnson, who has been an anchor of the Minneapolis music scene for nearly 35 years, jams on stage with Dr. Mambos Combo. Suddenly, Rick Ross’ “Hustlin’” comes blaring through the house speakers and a tall man with a large Top Hat slowly rises from his barstool and makes his way to the stage. The man straps on an electric guitar that is already waiting for him on stage. He briefly tunes the instrument and joins in with the rest of the band in an up-tempo cover of the Al Green classic, “Love and Happiness.”Toward the end of the tune the man breaks into a riveting guitar solo that screams of the unmistakable “Minneapolis Sound.”
The tall man in the audacious hat is Garry “Jellybean” Johnson.
For many casual – or even not so casual – music fans, the sight of Johnson on guitar may at first seem odd because of the origins of his fame – as he is best known for being the drummer of the R&B/funk band, The Time. But for the fans of the area music scene, seeing Johnson wailing on the six strings has become somewhat commonplace. And while most Twin Cities artists who have achieved great musical success have departed for warmer winters, Johnson has chosen to remain.
“I will always be here (in the Twin Cities),” said Johnson. “I love the music scene here. Nobody has a music scene like us. Every night you can go see a great band. Most towns can’t say that for themselves.”
Johnson, who resides in Brooklyn Park, was born in Chicago, but moved to Minneapolis in 1968 as a pre-teen. The move was prompted by Johnson’s mother, who recognized that the neighborhood gangs in Chicago were heavily recruiting her son.
Early on, Johnson’s love for music was recognized.
“My mom got me my first drum set when I was thirteen. I started teaching myself the guitar at fifteen,” said Johnson. And while Johnson is considered a superb drummer and guitarist, he admits he has no formal training. “I don’t read music. I can’t read music. Prince is the same way. It’s just a feel. If I can’t feel it, I can’t play it.”
Origins of The Time
It was not long after Johnson’s move to Minneapolis when he linked-up with a group of fellow teen prodigies including James “Jimmy Jam” Harris, Terry Lewis, Morris Day and Prince. Johnson joined Flyte Tyme with Jam and Lewis while Prince and Day were in the group, Grand Central.
Once Prince scored his record contract with Warner Bros. Records, it was negotiated that Prince could sign acts under him. The first act he signed was The Time – and it did not include Jellybean.
“There was a meeting to form the group and it was going to be Alexander O’Neal signing lead and Jam, Terry, Jesse (Johnson, no relation to Jellybean), Jerome (Benton), Monte (Moir) and Morris on drums,” said Johnson. “People don’t know Morris is a world-class drummer.”
According to Johnson, during the formation of The Time, O’Neal angered Prince and was removed from the group before it truly formed. “Morris said, ‘Go get Jellybean. He’s our drummer. I’ll sing,’” recounted Johnson.
In 1981 The Time signed with Warner Bros. and dropped the single “Get It Up.”
“I went for playing in these little clubs to playing in front of 26,000 people at Joe Lewis Arena in Detroit.
The Time went on to sell millions of records, but later fractioned off with Jam and Lewis going on to produce multi-platinum selling albums and singles for several artists, Jesse Johnson releasing solo projects and Day, Benton, Moir and Jellybean Johnson continuing on as Morris Day and The Time. Johnson was also a member of another Prince formed group, The Family, which release the 1985 hit single, “Screams of Passion.”
Following the break-up of The Time, Johnson began producing and playing for several other artists. The Alexander O’Neal hit “Innocent” features a gritty guitar solo from Johnson. Later, when Janet Jackson needed a rocked-out track for her “Rhythm Nation 1814” album she called on Johnson. The result was the chart topping, “Black Cat.”
“When the song was sent to me the riff to “Black Cat” was originally on piano,” Johnson said laughing. “First thing I did was change it to a guitar riff. The other key (to the song’s success) was getting her to sing it like a rock goddess. I didn’t know if she could pull it off, but she’s a Jackson and she killed it.”
Rift with Prince
Last year, the original members of The Time got back together to perform a few shows in Las Vegas. Shortly after, the members felt the vibe and time was right to reunite and record another studio album. But, according to Johnson, once Prince got word of the pending album, he had lawyers send cease and desist letters to each of the members asserting he owned the name, The Time. The move did not sit well with Johnson.
“I can’t even talk to him (Prince),” said Johnson. “Yes, he made me famous but he got well compensated for that; well compensated. He alienated all of us that grew up with him. We were friends ever since I was 12 years old.”
Johnson said he is both angry with Prince and hurt by his legal maneuverings. He attributes the rift between Prince and the members of The Time to Prince’s ego.
“It’s like Jesse (Johnson) said, The Time is like Frankenstein to him (Prince),” said Johnson. “Yeah, he created us, but he couldn’t control us. See, he couldn’t have known that Jam and Terry would go on to sell hundreds of millions in records, that Jesse would be a solo star; that Morris was going to be the star that he is, that I would produce number one hits. That was a threat to (Prince).”
The group formerly known as The Time decided to continue on as The Original 7ven.
In a similar situation The Family was forced to change its name as well and now performs as fDeluxe.
Nowadays, Johnson can easily be considered the James Brown of Minneapolis – the hardest working man in show business, playing drums with the various forms of The Time and fDeluxe and guitar with JB and the Routine and sitting in with Dr. Mambos Combo and others. And Johnson credits much of his success to the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
“I’m just proud to be a Minnesotan,” said Johnson.