Jellybean Johnson is hands down funk’s greatest living drummer. For four decades he has kept the beat behind Morris Day and The Time. Remember the jams “Jungle Love” and “The Bird”? Well, Mr. Johnson is the reason they are so damn funky.
In his spare time he played drums in The Family and also plays guitar in fDeluxe. If that wasn’t enough, Mr. Johnson has produced hit tracks for everyone from Janet Jackson (“Black Cat”) to New Edition. The man is a nonstop funk machine.
Mr. Johnson — known as “Bean” to his friends — sat down to talk candidly about his legendary career, what it was like to be in “Purple Rain” and why he just can’t talk to Prince anymore.
Question: How did you get the name “Jellybean”?
Answer: It had to be 1972 or 1973, and Flyte Tyme was a very young band. We were all about 15. We somehow played a bar. After the gig the trumpet player said, “Man, we sounded like a bunch of jellybeans.” Then he looked at me and said, “Jellybean Johnson!”
The next day someone in the band showed up with a T-shirt with a jellybean on it. I’ve been Jellybean ever since.
Q: How did The Time come together?
A: Flyte Tyme evolved into The Time. Prince and Morris Day were childhood friends. Morris did a song for him called “Partyup.” Prince said, “I’ll give you money for the song or I’ll help you get a band. ” Morris choose the band.
The problem with that was Morris is a world-class drummer. So they had this meeting with Prince, Morris and the members of Flyte Tyme. I wasn’t invited because, at the time, Morris was the drummer and Alexander O’Neil was the lead singer. Terry [Lewis], Jimmy [Jam] and Monte [Moir] were all there at the meeting. And I guess Alex started acting crazy in the meeting, which, if you know anything about Prince, that’s not gonna fly.
Prince walked out and told Morris, “Go back and get Jellybean. He’s gonna play drums and you’re gonna sing.” Morris said, “I don’t sing. I play the drums.” Prince said, “I’ll teach you.”
Q: As the band’s popularity grew, was Prince in control of everything?
A: If you know anything about Prince, that is his whole thing: He is about control. Me and him don’t particularly get along now. He’s a genius, and he made me famous. I will always respect him for that. But some of the other stuff? I can’t.
Q: Why did the band’s lineup change for the breakthrough album “Ice Cream Castles”?
A: Jimmy and Terry missed a Time gig in San Antonio because they had gone to Atlanta on an off-day to produce S.O.S. Band. It snowed. They shut the airport down. The guys missed the gig. Prince fired them. I didn’t think he would fire them, because we had been out there and made him a ton of money.
Monte quit because he had just had enough of Prince. We all felt that way. Nonetheless, we were just about to make this major movie. Black kids from the Northside make a major movie? Who doesn’t want to do that?
Q: What are your favorite memories about making “Purple Rain”?
A: I remember taking acting lessons. I’m a little kid from the ghetto. I didn’t know nothing about no acting. But I found the process fascinating. I remember those were early, early, early mornings. On set every day at 4 or 5 a.m. Prince is obsessed with work, so he would have us up. We may not even be in the scenes they were shooting that day, but he would be up.
Q: After The Time went away, how did you end up in The Family?
A: Prince basically said, “OK, here’s your next project.” After Morris left, me and Jerome [Benton] were still there with Paul [Peterson], who was in The Time. Susannah [Melvoin] was Prince’s girlfriend at the time. Prince saw Paul singing one day at the piano and said, “Let’s build a band around you.”
And then Prince did the same thing to that band. [laughs] Once again we didn’t really get to enjoy things.
Q: But you did reform a few years back as fDeluxe?
A: And when we did get back together, 25 years later, Prince pulls the same crap. Much like with The Time, Prince won’t let us use the name “The Family” because he owns the names.
Q: It has got to be frustrating that Prince won’t let you guys play as The Time or The Family?
A: It’s infuriating. It is a very sore spot to this day for me. I have talked about it publicly and had him mad at me. I don’t give a [expletive]. I’m grown. I’m over 60, so what can he do to me? I don’t work for him. All we ever did was love you and help you, and this is what you do? He acts like we stole something from him. Prince believes he is The Time, he is The Family. He believes that. He’s good at taking stuff from you and using it. He will use you and kick you aside like you’ve done nothing for him.