In February of 2009 while living in Tokyo I was dabbling in journalism and had become acquainted with Jill Jones, best known for her work with Prince, specifically on the 1999 album and for her bit part in "Purple Rain". Via our social media communications and eventual phone calls I came to learn that her role was far greater than that, that it strongly resembled the studio guitarist who played on just about everything Tommy Tedesco; everybody has heard them but nobody knows who they are. Looking for something musically interesting to write about I had landed on a treasure trove. Here was a story that needed telling and I was in the best position to tell it. I learned far more than I expected as we dug into the nitty-gritty of the inner workings of those iconic albums.
The interview was picked up by a short lived magazine and eventually life pulled me away from journalism. For years I thought about posting it on my blog. Since Prince's death there's been a lot of revisionist history with different people playing up their importance and downplaying others'. Today, on what would have been his 61st birthday, TIDAL is streaming the new and posthumous THE ORIGINALS, a collection of songs that he gave to other artists. Among the songs included are the original "Manic Monday" with Jill's vocals (I first came across it on a bootleg shortly before conducting the interview, recognized her voice, and sent it to her hence the reference in the interview) and "Baby You're A Trip" from her Paisley Park album. In the decade that has passed since this interview was conducted Jill has been a good friend and sounding board. I hate revisionist history and musicians not getting their due. In response to much of the horse puckey out there here is the original interview as it was published a decade ago, long before his death and the warring factions in its wake. My own writing has been slightly edited for brevity and to catch up on recent events, Jill's words are verbatim. And yes, I still have the audio.
Jill Jones first emerged into the public eye as backing vocalist with Prince & the Revolution singing on "1999" and appearing in the video as well as in "Automatic" and on the album as The Lady Cab Driver. On the tour she sang behind the curtain with Vanity 6 then reprised her album performances. She appeared in "Purple Rain" as the waitress putting her on the big screen but most of her contributions were in the studio as the go-to for female vocals. Her solo album on Paisley Park Records did well in Europe but wasn't promoted in the States. Following her performance in "Graffiti Bridge" she drifted away from the Prince camp and wouldn't see him again until he reconnected with friends and bandmates from his early years in the months before his passing. During those years she worked sporadically with several name artists before dropping out of sight to concentrate on raising her daughter, now also a musician. With the rise of the Internet and social media she slowly reemerged into the public eye releasing solo albums that stretched from acoustic Rock to ethereal introspection to Dance and had a hit on the Dance charts with "Living For The Weekend". In January of 2017 she released the single "I Miss You", a heartfelt song for her late friend and mentor. In the video she recreated her Paisley Park days with props and memorabilia from her Paisley Park album. As former Prince associates have come together to celebrate his life and work she has become more active musically sitting in with Andre Cymone and doing shows of her own.
Jill Jones was born an only child in Lebanon, Ohio. Her mother was a model and a singer. Says Jones, "I used to sing along to a lot of her stuff. She was a standards singer, she liked Blues and Jazz oriented stuff. She loved Nancy Wilson. Miles Davis was always something you'd always hear in the house. Dinah Washington was huge in my house, Sara Vaughan. Nina Simone was a big one. And because part of my life I grew up with my grandmother I had exposure to people like Charles Brown and Muddy Waters. My grandmother loved Dave Brubeck. Billie Holiday was one of her favorites. B.B. King, if you have a black grandma she's definitely into B.B. King! There was a singer from Dayton called Little Miss Cornshucks (Mildred Cummings). I remember on her album cover she was sitting on a suitcase with a straw hat on (The Loneliest Gal In Town). It was really different then, especially being African-American. Everybody really supported each other a lot, supported talent. We'd go to the clubs and check people out."
Barely into her teens, her mom had a relationship with Fuller Gordy (Barry's brother) and Jill moved to California where she got bit by the music bug. "Everyone was at Motown. That's really what started it because I got to see how it all worked, how sessions would take place. My very first recollection of being in a major studio was with the singer Tata Vega. She's a big Gospel singer now but Tata was doing R&B stuff in the 70's and her engineer was Humberto Gatica, who is now an award-winning engineer working with people like Celine Dion. Those are my first recollections, when I moved to L.A. and was around all those people."
"My mom started managing Teena Marie and Teena moved into our house. She was always writing songs. I was on the other side of the house but she invited me to start writing with her. So I began to see how that worked. She really inspired me. Then she started asking me to sing backing vocals for her because being 13 or so, your voice is kind of open to be shaped a little tonally and being a background singer is kind of easy because you start to shape your voice around the tone of the lead singer. I'm good at doing that with a lot of other singers. I can somehow always shape my voice to support them. So I started to really understand my range because Teena has such a huge broad range. I may not have all the intonation or that melisma, we weren't big church-goers, but I somehow got the vibe and once being her background singer I started working professionally, leaving school to go sing on gigs. It was great."
"I had finished high school and was on my way to college when I ran into Prince. I had already been on a tour and we had met. I called and said I needed a job because school just wasn't my thing." With her hair dyed blonde she was soon a staple on MTV standing next to keyboardist Lisa Coleman singing one of the three-part vocals of "1999". The two women standing together behind the keyboard gave a provocative girl/girl image and the camera panned up and down the blonde bombshell in lingerie, heels and captain's hat. On the LP she put in a steamy performance as The Lady Cab Driver on the song of the same name. What seems passe by today's standards pushing the envelope at the time- two years later Tipper Gore, wife of Al Gore, would start PMRC and introduce the Explicit Lyric label in retaliation to hearing her daughter blasting one of Prince's raunchier songs, "Darling Nikki".
What set the Revolution and Jill apart from the competition was the undeniable talent beneath it all. These were schooled musicians and a tight act, tight enough to give their own heroes like James Brown some competition. When 1999 hit the road Jill pulled double duty singing with both Vanity 6 and the Revolution. Unfortunately she was kept behind a curtain during Vanity 6's set and for all but two songs during the Revolution's set. Her voice was a needed instrument but the blonde bombshell from the video was kept in the background until she came out for the encore on "1999" to mimic her performance in the video. Prince had deemed her "plain Jane" and audiences to this day have never understood why.
"At the beginning of my relationship with the Prince entourage, it was to give a little bit more credibility to the sound that was being pitched to the labels but yet it would completely go against the marketing side that he wanted to project which would be the really young girls who were really really cute but perhaps lacked a little in the vocal department. Once I became on-salary as opposed to work-for-hire then everything really opened up. It's kind of like having a 9 to 5 except it's 24/7 and someone would call you to come to the studio. I would sing on so many different things and a lot of that stuff got mish-mashed. I don't know who kept a score of who was doing what. You give this song to The Bangles, they decide to do it, are they going to keep the backing vocals? A lot of stuff has been news to me. What's great about all this social networking is engineers come back and tell you. Prince locked stuff up in his vault and you could hardly get a cassette. That was something I wasn't really paying attention to even though my mother came from a publishing background. In hindsight I should have been more on top of that because sometimes I listen to songs and go 'that's me!' I would definitely advise people to stay on top of their game, it's not even a joke. It's kinda like 'if you only knew then what you know now'."
On singing with Lisa Coleman, "The greatest thing about Lisa's voice is there's a real purity that I love. It's not gonna have a ton of vibrato or be over the top. It's consistent and reinforces. I think it's because she's a keyboard player. Her pitch is always on point. But who knows what he blended in. Like on "1999" he blended our voices together." She is a featured, though uncredited, vocalist on The Bangles' hit "Manic Monday". In many ways her time with the Revolution was typical of that of a studio musician such as guitarist Tommy Tedesco- everybody's familiar with the sound but nobody knows the name or the face. During her time with the Revolution she studied kickboxing, horseback riding, sculpture, and gymnastics. "That was during my grooming phase and Prince's Louis B. Mayer phase, having the stars in the stable and grooming them, making them the best of the best. He had a real interest in getting everybody in a stable and controlling them. He was a great combination of Louis B. Mayer and Huggy Bear."
In PURPLE RAIN she played the waitress at the now-legendary First Avenue in Minneapolis exuding a charisma that led many to wonder why she wasn't cast as the female lead. Originally the album was to be a double LP featuring songs from all the artists appearing in the movie. Jill sang a melancholy piano ballad named "Wednesday". When the album was whittled down to a single LP of only Prince & the Revolution hers was one of the songs that ended up on the cutting room floor. Either 100 or 1000 test pressings of the double LP were pressed but "Wednesday" would not be heard again until after Prince's death when his legendary vault was opened.
Her solo debut on Prince's newly established Paisley Park label was a big hit in Europe but went unheard of in the States because of major label politics; they outright refused to promote it.
"Prince had some successes on his label and the politics of having the label started to encroach upon what he could do with it. He had to deal with certain things from the corporate sector. Unfortunately when you become that successful in any business it's always amazing to watch the people who start to surround the person who actually had the dream, who brings the dream forward and makes it a reality. It's infuriating to watch how people thwart it and create the monster. They helped to create it and facilitate it. Most record labels have let artists have their labels almost in a condescending way. They ultimately lock those artists into ridiculous business-like formations and then squash anything they put out. That's what corporations do across the board. They don't get it. He fought very hard, he was not even on my project. Very rarely. He was not micro-managing like he did the other ones, as far as being there 24/7. I did it with David Rivkin. He had full faith and trust in what we were creating. I think they were trying to teach him a lesson, like he was getting too big for his britches. And if it hadn't been for the English Warner Brothers, who got it, I wouldn't have had anything. It was the guys in England who brought me over and promoted the record. The American Warners did nothing because they would not let him have any more successes."
With or without label support the album is none the less one of the finest works ever to come out of the Prince camp- funky grooves, catchy hooks, memorable songs, and top-notch musicianship (including one of the Revolution's tightest jams ever on "All Day All Night"). It's the signature Paisley Park sound performing as a vehicle for Jones' vocal. Finally turned loose in the spotlight she shines gloriously. Producer David Rivkin -brother of Revolution drummer Bobby Z- recalls, "We recorded at Electric Lady Studios in NY. Prince and I had recorded some of the tracks in Minneapolis, but for the New York segment I got to pick my favorite guys including Steve Stevens (guitar), Steve Gadd (drums), Tony Levin (bass), Hugh McCracken (guitar) and Randy Brecker (horns). We spent some time sending cassette mixes back and forth to Minneapolis for final approval but I eventually came up with the method of using two separate phones and two separate lines to play stereo mixes long distance, kinda like a long distance iPod. Saved a lot of time. Jill was a perfectionist in getting her vocals just right. I loved working on that record. When we added the strings with Claire Fisher it became a motion picture, bigger than life."
Jill adds, "After we had mixed it he asked if I wanted Claire Fischer to do the strings because he knew I loved Claire's work. It was a little all over the place. We even had Pop tunes on it, but I'm not a Pop girl. Those songs were like bad blood-transfusions, they didn't work, so we took them off. They were really cute and they were really 'nice' and if I wanted to have a hit record I probably made a mistake in taking those songs off- you have to give the label what they want- but we took a chance. We wanted them to work a little and get up off their asses and market! And the only place that did was Warners UK."
Although Warners refused to promote it those who did hear the album recognized it's artistic merits. "I met Miles Davis through Prince. I met him briefly and he was really kind to me. It was pretty amazing. Miles loved my album and he made Prince very happy when he told him that. And that should go on the record!"
Things shifted towards the end of the decade as one chapter in her life closed and another began. There was a second Paisley Park album planned that was demoed but never materialized. The standout songs from this era are "You Do Me I'll Do You" with Ryuichi Sakamoto and "C'iest Si Bon" for an Yves St. Lauren commercial. She recalls, "Trevor Horn did that. Jean Baptiste Mondino hooked it up. He had the visual sense and Trevor had the audio. Naomi Cambell did the commercial and I sang. Once again, behind the curtains!"
But the end of an era had already begun. She explains, "Around '89 I had a fire in my house. My two dogs Koo Koo and Gertie died. I lost most everything I owned. The learning experience was sometimes you have to do things when you don't want to. My girlfriend came over that night and said 'let's go out' and I didn't want to go out, I wanted to stay home. She goes 'no let's go to this party' so I left. I had this custom made furniture that wasn't flame retardant and it had toxic materials. It was an electrical fire. The firemen said toxic materials killed everything in my house in 6 or 7 minutes just because of the fumes alone."
The fire was the precursor to a long road ahead that would see her disappear from the limelight. She had a major falling out with Prince that ended her tenure at Paisley Park and left her without a record deal. Then shortly after giving birth to a baby girl her mother, to whom she had been very close and had helped nurture her career, died after a long battle with cancer. Soon her marriage fell apart. At one point she was hospitalized with a blood clot by her heart. From then on things would never be the same again.
"My life has been backwards. I had a life where I was working non-stop from the time I was 13 until I was in my 30's after I had my child. Getting divorced, my mother passing away, losing my record deal in England... the worst part of it was I had to survive and I had to figure it out fast. Everybody's gotta survive and you do what you have to."
It was an about face that woke her up in a big way. "I think it's a big laugh. I had a problem with it at some point. I remember my life had changed so dramatically. I was managing a restaurant here in New York, it was a month after my mom died and I was getting a divorce, and my friend Alec Kashishian brings in Madonna and she knew what I had done (musically). I remember the conversation- you're an artist and these are the things that happen. They just do. Sometimes it's just for art's sake. So shit happens and you go on. I was feeling 'oh my god I'm so embarrassed' then I thought 'Jill toughen up, this is just how it ended, this is how it is and you'll be fine'. And I think I've written better songs because I had to go through some of those experiences."
By the end of the 90's she began to slowly emerge back into the public eye. She sang with Jazz guitarist Ronny Jordan on a cover of Carly Simon's "Why" from his album A BRIGHTER DAY. "It's all right. I think I could have done a better job for him. I didn't get in the pocket. I would have rather done something original with him." She also sang backup with Sinead O'Conner then with Chic on their '96 Japan tour on what turned out to be bassist Bernard Edwards' final performance, he died later that night in his hotel room. His last performance was released in '99 as LIVE AT BUDOKAN CD/DVD. But it was with the release of TWO with Chris Bruce in 2001 that she emerged as a fully realized artist in her own right.
"I met Chris through my friend in L.A. who was running a bar. Chris was playing and he told me 'you should meet this kid from Chicago' so I flew him out, we became really good friends, I liked his music, and he's been like my little brother forever. He ended up working on Wendy & Lisa's records, then Seal. After my mother passed on and I lost my deal in the UK we decided to write TWO. I went to his house in Chicago, chilled out for a bit, and we wrote it in a couple weeks."
TWO is a musical landscape of ethereal sounds and haunting melodies underscored by deep introspection. It's the musical diary of an artist coming to terms with "the private Armageddons a lifetime sees." It doesn't coddle or entice. Opening with a haunting minor chord followed by a dissonant riff, it provokes the listener throughout the first few songs. The album's peak comes midway on "Gorgeous Wonder". Jones' performance embodies the experience of motherhood in a way that transcends gender and touches the core of human experience. It's uplifting and lamenting at the same time, sobering and intoxicating, exhilarating and soothing. The remainder of the album closes with a calmer yet equally provocative tone.
"It was a very moving experience for me. I'm very proud of that record. It's a little thought provoking about things in my life and just coming to terms with who I really am and just trying to figure out what I had to be grateful for because you get a little broken as you go along. You know, rocky roads... you get a couple shards sticking out."
TWO was also a turning point for her writing process. As she explains, "It took me years to be comfortable with initiating songs because I didn't feel comfortable enough with my playing abilities to express what I want. But I started to figure out I don't care if you can only play three chords or four chords, you're actually being more honest when you sit in front of anybody who can take that and really shape it and help you to see it. A lot of people cut themselves short creatively with that stuff- 'oh I'm not as good as he is', 'Prince plays better than me, how can I sit in front of him'. With Chris I pulled out the guitar, played chords and my melodies and said 'now I need to figure out the bridge, this needs to go somewhere' and it moved like that. There was something I had to get out- I have to take this step and nobody else can take it for me. This was a very different way of songwriting for me. Which is why those 'blood-transfusion' songs don't work for me. I don't feel them. I have to connect. I lost my frilliness for little Pop tunes a long time ago."
"There are songs that will be with you forever. Sometimes they're like your best friend, songs that make you laugh, make you cry. That to me is really important. I listen to all the songs that I like and I think 'this must be who I am'. Because not everybody is going to pick up a Morrisey record, not everybody's going to listen to Ryuichi Sakamoto, but the things that you identify with and you relate to these are things that resonate in your soul whether it be emptiness or loftiness or happiness or whatever. You find it."
Her next release was WASTED in 2004 as the vocal/guitar duo The Grand Royals with Ian Ginsberg. "It was a very different style of writing, going into a grittier feel. During that time it was the next step for me to just be out with a band and without the accoutrements of 'you've got a tour manager'. It was important to make that step and along the way those experiences created the songs of WASTED. There was some sort of reality check that came. The Grand Royals sessions are based upon 'this is fuckin' for real, this isn't a joke'."
"I was getting a little bit more involved politically, paying attention. That was the reality of the world had been spinning and I didn't realize where it spun to. So that's what that record was about, the core necessities of life- you need love, you need food, you need air, water... and you need some money! And I think I had turned into a bit of a little hustler about certain things, and had some boundaries, and had a little bit of a spine at that point. I wasn't like a spoiled brat asking for something, I was just a regular citizen. How do I get along here?"
Ian adds, "There's a lot of depth underneath that beautiful exterior. Lyrically, she's got some great images and phrasing, and as a singer, she has this wonderful gift of being able to shape-shift a little. Sometimes her voice can be so emotive, and sometimes it can be very matter-of-fact and removed. Each song needs something a little different, and Jill can do it all. That's one of the reasons WASTED is really stripped down and bare. We used to go to our friend's place and lay stuff down really simple so we could listen back. At a certain point, Jill and I were on a roll and had a bunch of tunes we were working on. We went to Willy's (the friend) one day, and just played them. Completely live. We added some vocal doubles and harmonies, but the basic songs were all one-takes. They weren't even finished, but somehow, they were. So a good portion of what's on WASTED was done in that one day."
WASTED also saw Jones turning her attention to larger matters. "Lily White" is a song that was interesting to me because it's about Condoleeza Rice. There's a line where I sing 'under the Big House television lights/your brown skin looks so lily white'. I started to become very pissed off at the last administration (Dubya & Cheney). People have no idea what they're actually doing to people. They've taken many liberties in all this. It's been a nightmare but hopefully that'll change. Let's see."
During the early days of social media her MySpace player featuredt recent songs. "Helpless Man," "was with Ian, a project we did with Sony/Columbia and had "So Glad To Meet You" (unreleased) originally." "Live In Me" is an outtake from WASTED. "Chris and I wrote a song called "Sweet Liberty" back in the 80's and each time it's evolved into something else." "Fuck You 'Til You're Groovy" is a breathy, spacious piece that further enhances the sex symbol of "G-spot". "I'm going to do the releases through CD Baby because I really like them a lot; they're efficient, it's very simple and they're very clear."
Like many independent musicians in the 21st Century she's embraced the benefits of home recording. "I'm writing new material and seeing wherever it's going to lead me. I'm doing a lot of it alone. Towards the middle I'll probably start bringing in other people. When it's just you and a machine that's a different thing, especially when you don't know how they work which can be good on a certain level because you don't know what it can do and sometimes it's doing stuff it shouldn't do but you like the way it sounds. I love making music but I want to evolve it into something a little more to help solidify certain things in the industry. Maybe setting up a company to execute certain kinds of media and that way I can deal with artists who are having their moment."
Reflecting back on her beginnings with Motown she states firmly, "The Gordy family did instill inside of me one thing which is the entrepreneurial stuff; you should try, you should just try to create. And Prince was like that too. But I had to get in there to see how these people are working it and it's very interesting what consumers allow to happen to themselves."
"Everything doesn't have to be perfect pitch for me, I just have to kind of believe it and get the whole gist of it. I love the new stuff that's coming out, I love the freedom that's coming from it because I think we've not had it for a long time in the music business. The trickle down of the publishing/songwriting people they hook you up with, you go and write a song... that stuff is just cold. Some people need those songs but it can just be so boring. People make money on it, I'm not condemning it, but it can be so 'American Idol'."
Some things are a blessing in disguise. While she may have missed out on being the star that many felt she should have been, she's retained her integrity. "The spotlight is a very strange thing. I don't think I do too well with that, even with the little bits that I've had. Some love the warmth of the light. I like it but I don't want to sunbathe in it. Usually I'm the type that likes to bring other people in it with me. My feeling is we'll all get in the spotlight together, because everybody plays such a big part in what the moment is."
Her time with the Prince camp put her on the map but it doesn't bother her. "I take the rumors as they come. I do recall years ago when I had an interview for my first album in Germany, there was a point where I said I could be in the Swiss Alps living on land hoeing and toiling and in the midst of hard physical labor someone will come across the hill with a microphone and say 'what was it like working with Prince?' I could be throwing down seeds and a buzzard would fly in, take the seeds, and on his way out say 'Hey! What was it like working with Prince?' But in all seriousness there are not many people who can change the world or the perspective of the way people look at the world. It would be great if we could all do it but most people don't usually have the balls, the courage or bravado, because we doubt ourselves so much. There are very few people who have done that and he is definitely one of them so on that note I give him complete respect. I'm honored to have had the privilege of our paths cross. And everybody who crosses mine I feel we're all interconnected anyway."
Since the rise of the Internet her Paisley Park album became available to public ears despite being out of print for over a decade and finally got its due. As a former 'Prince girl' she's regarded as one of the best, an equal who stood on her own much like Wendy & Lisa. It's not surprising they continue to make enduring music long after the glory days of the Revolution have faded. Strip away the hairspray and ruffles and what you have left are dedicated musicians who raised the bar. On the subject of a Revolution reunion there are many who specifically want to hear Jill Jones with Wendy & Lisa. "I think it would be a great project. Just the three of us would be nice. We would be quite the trio." Wendy & Lisa unequivocally state, "Jill Jones kicks ass!!!"
Into the 21st Century she has been an inspiration to many up-and-coming musicians and rumors circulate of collaborations with her most vocal supporters. One in particular insists on bringing her to Austin, TX for a Blues/Jazz/Roots oriented album visiting the early influences that came from her mother and grandmother. It's a logical step after C'EST SI BON, the Ronny Jordan track, and WASTED. Framing her voice in a sparse setting -piano, arch top guitar, upright bass, small drum kit- giving it space to capture every nuance and expression of this most dynamic singer.
Musician and faux-celebrity Jeremy Gloff, long one of her most ardent supporters, sums it up eloquently while reflecting on one of the high points of his own career; "The first time I viewed Jill Jones was standing behind a keyboard with Lisa Coleman in Prince's 1999 video. Little did I imagine that 26 years later I'd see her standing next to me on stage singing along with me. During those 26 years she established herself as a restless uncatagorizable artist -- releasing music under the radar that was full of emotion, quirkiness, spirit and sincerity. Jill Jones is one of the few daring artists who can truly immerse herself in a full-on House track, a haunting Indie Rock masterpiece, or an angry folk song, and nearly everything in between. Jill is the best of the best."
Throughout the highs and lows she has maintained a strong connection to her roots, something that has kept her grounded through it all. "Being from Ohio was the best thing for me. That set the tone and I always harken back to my Ohio days. Cuss you out one day and come in the next like nothing happened. 'Hey, how you doing? Wanna go down to the Piggly Wiggly?' That is so Ohio. People don't get it here in New York. If you piss them off they don't know how you can make up. Yeah, you make up! It's no big deal. I have no problem getting cussed out or cussing somebody out and then being like 'what do you want for dinner?' I'm born Year of the Tiger. I read something in Chinese astrology that I would be content just laying around, talking to people, playing a couple bongos. I'm very boho. I have a thing about 'what's the rush?' but then I get impassioned about things."
During the 80's when she was closest to the limelight Jill Jones stood out from the pack despite the limited exposure. Without ever being prominently featured she showed a promise and potential that was widely acknowledged. After a long road she has at last fulfilled that promise. And so begins the next chapter for this diversely talented singer and songwriter...
Interview conducted with Jill Jones 2/22/09
Further comments by Jeremy Gloff, David Rivkin, and Wendy & Lisa
http://come.to/jilljones The original comprehensive Jill Jones web site.
www.jeremygloff.com/jilljonesessay.html Jeremy Gloff's essay on Jill Jones and her music
www.jilljonesonline.com A work in progress