Artist to Artist: Jesse Johnson – Listen Up!

This is not an article about Prince. However, I bring him into the conversation to say this: The man knows how to surround himself with brilliant and incredibly talented musicians who, if we are going to be honest with ourselves and the rest of the universe, stand on their own merits without a single mention of the artist formerly known as His Royal Badness. No discussion of this nature is complete without mention of the ever-cool Morris Day and the Time—perhaps Prince’s only true “competition”; and what good is mentioning The Time if we do not bring the conversation around to the incomparable Jesse Johnson?


That’s right. Jesse Johnson. Arguably one of the baddest guitar players of all time, this singer, songwriter, and producer worked his magic on Time classics like “Jungle Love”, “The Bird”, and “Ice Cream Castles”. When he left The Time to form his own outfit, Jesse Johnson’s Revue, he scored gold and platinum hits with his funk-driven songs “Be Your Man”, “Can You Help Me”, and “I Want My Girl”. His songs appeared in films like “Pretty in Pink”, “The Breakfast Club”, “The 5 Heartbeats” among others, and he returned to The Time for the Pandemonium album and Prince’s “Graffiti Bridge” film and soundtrack.

In 2010, Jesse released Verbal Penetration, Vols. 1 & 2, a two-disc set of new material that beautifully displays his broad range of musical influences and brilliant dexterity at crafting timeless music that moves the heart and the feet. Jesse spoke to about his musical legacy, his journey as an artist, and how the shifting musical landscape has impacted him as a composer and producer.

Soul Train: Your bio/discography is bananas! In addition to your years as a member of The Time and your solo projects, you’ve written and produced for numerous artists throughout your career. So which hat suits you best—that of performer, or that of writer/producer? Or are you equally comfortable in each role?

Jesse Johnson: The performer—it’s a lot easier doing my own thing. I’ve had the opportunity to work with other people, but I most enjoy playing guitar and playing my own music by far.

Soul Train: It seems you bid adieu to The Time at what some would consider the pinnacle of the band’s career. What motivated you to leave the group at that time and strike out as a solo artist?

Jesse Johnson: I didn’t really leave at the height of The Time’s success. I’ve got songs on the Ice Cream Castles album and performed in the movie “Purple Rain” as well. So I left after that, but I don’t think The Time did any touring or anything after I left. I just wanted to go express my own opinions and pursue my own musical ideas. I did that for about three years, and it was a great learning experience—almost like going to college.

Soul Train: Your singles “Be Your Man”, “Crazay”, and “Free World” enjoyed significant radio play back in the day. It goes without saying that the radio landscape has changed dramatically in the intervening years, which means audiences may not get to hear newer music from established artists like yourself. Your latest release, Verbal Penetration 1 & 2, has been out for quite some time now. Has the lack of traditional radio support impacted your fans’ access to your music? Or has new technology such as digital distribution, etc., taken up where radio play back in the day left off?

Verbal Penetration, Vol. 1 & 2 - Jesse Johnson
Buy Jesse Johnson
music on iTunes

Jesse Johnson: When you release something on a major label, it usually has an expiration date. When you release something independently, it doesn’t have an expiration date. The gigs we play now are smaller, but it’s also a process of learning how to approach music in a totally different way. It’s the same thing with the record. I didn’t want to try to make a record based on the way radio is formatted; I wanted to make a record that was about music I want to hear as an adult. Almost all aspects of entertainment now are geared toward a much younger audience, so I wanted to make some “grown-folks’ music”.

Soul Train: Who were some of the musicians and artists who influenced and shaped you growing up?

Jesse Johnson: In East St. Louis (IL) I was exposed to black radio and all kinds of music because of my mother and father. Their musical taste was very broad, so I was listening to James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Ramsey Lewis, Lou Rawls. I heard all that stuff before I was even in school, long before I was playing anything. When I was living in Rock Island, IL I played in a band and we played biker bars every week. I missed a lot of TV and black music during that time. By the time I came to Minneapolis in ’81 I didn’t know who a lot of the current black artists were. I really didn’t know who Prince was {at that time}.

Soul Train: Any current musicians and artists you’re into right now?

Jesse Johnson: I’ve always been a fan of Angie Stone and Amy Winehouse; I think there are some really talented people out there. But I feel that some of the better singers, like Jaheim, get lost in the tracks because the music’s not written as melodically—it’s almost like the music is written for a rapper.

Soul Train: We’re celebrating forty years of love, peace, and Soul Train this year. Tell us about some of your favorite Soul Train memories.

Jesse Johnson: I remember when Soul Train was still in Chicago! Don Cornelius was so cool. The highlight of your career is to be up on stage with him. The very first time we were on Soul Train, we had planned ahead of time to try to make our voices lower so we wouldn’t sound like girls next to Don Cornelius when he talked. By the time he got to me I was laughing too hard! My favorite Soul Train episodes were ones with James Brown, Ohio Players, Al Green—it’s hard to pinpoint because with the show you got to see so many of the big black artists of that era. To this day I still watch a lot of the old episodes.

Head over to for tour dates and more, and join him on Facebook at and get a taste of Jesse’s talent below.

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–Rhonda Nicole

Rhonda Nicole is an independent singer/songwriter from Dallas, TX whose EP Nuda Veritas is available on CDBaby and iTunes. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter, @wildhoneyrock.


One Comment

  1. lesley williams says:

    Love Jesse Johnson. He’s one of the best guitarists in the world and seems too be the most humble. He doesn’t seem too do for recognition but for the love of music, his music.

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