School of Funk

Jimmy Jam was a DJ. Morris Day was a drummer. Prince was a kid with a huge afro. Before they changed popular music, Mom told them to turn that racket down.

Summer, 2004.On the first of three nights at the Xcel Energy Center, Prince sits down on the floor in front of 19,000 people and reclines on some cushions. He pulls out the recent issue of Rolling Stone with his face on the cover ("Faith! Funk! Sex! He's Still Got that Red-Hot Magic") and begins thumbing through it mischievously as his band vamps on.

Inside he sees a photo of himself from a less confident time, looking skinny with a big Afro, wearing the kind of introverted half-smile you'd expect from a future librarian. On the same page is an article about an album that finds the man of the moment looking to his past--to the summers when he and his friends Morris Day, Terry Lewis, Jimmy Jam, and others were happy to play funk in backyards and basements on the north side of Minneapolis.

Tear the roof off the Elks' Club: Flyte Tyme bassist Terry Lewis circa 1976
Charles Chamblis courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Tear the roof off the Elks' Club: Flyte Tyme bassist Terry Lewis circa 1976

"Remember all the way back in tha' day/When we would compare whose Afro was the roundest?" Prince sings on "Reflection," the closing song on Musicology (NPG/Columbia). He rambles through the images of his youth: mirror tiles over the bed, posters and fishing nets on the walls. Then he concludes: "Sometimes I just wanna go sit out on the stoop and play my guitar/And just watch all/All the cars go by."

You can imagine that the street he's talking about is Russell Avenue North.

 

Summer, 1974.Prince is living in a basement in the home of his friend André Alexander (later André Cymone) on Russell, near Plymouth Avenue. His band practices in the damp room next door, on a red-painted floor crawling with centipedes and spiders. His second cousin Chazz plays drums, with André on bass, and André's sister Linda switching off with Prince on guitar and Farfisa organ. The boys are around 16, Linda 17. They call themselves Grand Central, having rejected "Phoenix" (from Grand Funk Railroad's 1972 album Return of the Phoenix) and "Soul Explosion." The name suggests Central High School in south Minneapolis, which Prince attends, as well as Grand Funk, and anticipates Graham Central Station, the new group led by Sly and the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham, who play O'Shaugnessy Auditorium in May of that year.

Prince sings low, like Sly. He covers Grover Washington and Carole King. All the musicians wear Afros. So does Morris Day, a shy and freckle-faced drummer who is friends with André. Before the year is out, Day is in the band.

In 1974, Terry Lewis is a champion sprinter at Minneapolis North High School. He plays bass in his own band, Flyte Tyme, named for a fusion song by Donald Byrd. Flyte Tyme are sort of a Parliament-Funkadelic to Grand Central's Family Stone. By the time P-Funk's mothership lands in '76, Terry and his friends are wearing space-age costumes and cramming as many as 10 musicians onstage, horns included. Cynthia Johnson, future voice of "Funkytown," sings and plays sax. Other recognizable names pass through the lineup: singers Sue Ann Carwell and Alexander O'Neal, drummer Garry "Jellybean" Johnson, and keyboardist Jimmy Harris III (later "Jimmy Jam," his DJ name at the Fox Trap disco).

Jimmy is two years younger than Terry and goes to Washburn High School. He later says Terry and Jellybean founded the group with him in '72, calling it "Wars of Armageddon," then "Soul Vaccination." By the mid-1970s, though, Jimmy has his own band, Mind and Matter. In fact, everyone seems to have a band, and live within a few blocks of Prince. Everyone knows him, though he keeps to himself. As Jellybean puts it to author Per Nilsen years later, "he was really never one of the guys."

You probably know what happened after that. Over the next 10 years, these young, gifted, black musicians went on to remake the sound of modern dance music. Recording his 1978 Warner Bros. debut entirely himself, Prince turned the keyboard-heavy rock of that basement on Russell Avenue into a career. He cherry-picked musicians from other bands to puppeteer the Time, a dapper new-wave funk band that pulled Morris Day out from behind his drum set. The group upstaged Prince more than once with their burlesque of Ragstock suits and mock-blueblood choreography, and even invented a new dance: "The Bird." Two members, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, became the first producer icons of pop, appearing in 1986's "Control" video with Janet Jackson, whose songs they wrote and recorded in Minneapolis.

"The early '80s in Minnesota was the new era for urban disco and funk," says Pete Rhodes, owner of BlackMusicAmerica.com. "Even Babyface, who was in a group called the Deele out of Cincinnati, sounded just like the Time. Everybody wanted to sound like the Time."

Today Morris Day is a benign icon of '80s self-regard. ("Don't you never say an unkind word about the Time," says Jay in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, the 2001 movie. "Me and Silent Bob modeled our whole fucking lives after Morris Day and Jerome. I'm a smooth pimp who loves the pussy, and Tubby here is my black manservant.") Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis have more No. 1 singles to their credit than anyone besides Sir George Martin (10 for Janet Jackson alone).

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