You notice him. It doesn’t matter if he’s onstage or standing in the back of the club. You notice Jellybean Johnson.
At 6-feet-4, he is basketball tall. Crowned by a top hat, or maybe it’s a fedora tonight. He’s wearing a faux fur jacket, or maybe it’s a sequined suit. A polka dot shirt, or maybe it’s a flashier pattern.
You notice Johnson because he’s a fixture in Twin Cities music clubs on any given pre-pandemic night. He might be a supportive observer or sit in for a song or two. Or he might be in the band, playing guitar.
That’s not how he made his name. Johnson — Bean to his buddies — is known as the drummer for the Time. They started 40 years ago when Prince gave them a shot at a recording contract. Johnson is still the drummer for the long-since-rebranded Morris Day & the Time. Before the COVID shutdown, they were averaging about 50 gigs a year.
The pandemic gave Johnson a chance to finish something he’s wanted to do for a long time — his debut solo album as a guitarist, “Get Experienced.”
“We’re in the fourth quarter now. I just wanted to put something out before they put me in the ground,” said Johnson, who is 64. “I’ve spent most of my musical life backing up my friends and other people. Frankly, I never wanted to be the boss. I just wanted to leave something that was me — that I was responsible for.”
Johnson can play guitar in all kinds of styles — blues, heavy rock, hip-hop, Princely funk, classic rock — as he demonstrates on the album. He doesn’t sing. He didn’t even write any of the tunes. Billing the project as the Jellybean Johnson Experience, he teamed with younger players including Tracey Blake, L•A•W, iLLism, and former Prince protégée Ashley Támar Davis as well as old pals Chance Howard and blues star Ronnie Baker Brooks.
“Bean has his own voice as a soloist,” says veteran Los Angeles producer Oliver Leiber, another drummer-turned-guitarist who has known Johnson since the mid-1980s. “It sounds soaring and it sounds big and it sounds majestic and it’s got some fire. And it’s kind of egoless.”
There is a moment in every selection on “Get Experienced” when, despite his sideman’s mentality, Johnson’s guitar grabs you — his wiry rave-up on the blues-funk “Put Some Jelly on It,” his jazz-fusion journey on the cuddly jam “Energy,” his searingly soulful solo on a tasty remake of Latimore’s sexy groover “Let’s Straighten It Out.”
Praise from Miles Davis
Johnson has been serious about guitar for a long time. He took a few drum lessons at age 13 after moving to Minneapolis from Chicago as a preteen, then taught himself guitar two years later after a cousin left one behind.
As a teenager growing up on the R&B of KUXL radio and the rock of KQRS, he played drums in the band Flyte Tyme and basketball at Marshall University High School.
It was a Flyte Tyme gig at the old Flame Bar on Nicollet Avenue, in front of an audience of no one, that gave Garry Johnson his nickname. Afterward, the trumpeter told his mates: “We sounded really bad tonight. We sounded like a bunch of jellybeans.”
As Johnson tells it, he looked at the drummer and said, “Jellybeans. Jellybean Johnson.”
“And the next night he comes back to the Flame, and he hands me a T-shirt made with ‘Jellybean Johnson’ on it.”
Johnson attended the University of Minnesota, but Prince recruited the members of Flyte Tyme to be a new full-time band backing drummer-turned-singer Day — the Time.
The R&B ensemble scored such hits as “777-9311” and “Cool,” opened for Prince on tour, appeared in the movie “Purple Rain” and then broke up. Johnson ended up in a Prince-produced Time spinoff, the Family, with other Purple associates. The Family released a debut album (featuring the original version of “Nothing Compares 2 U”), played one show at First Avenue and dissolved while Prince was in Europe filming “Under the Cherry Moon.”
Johnson moved on to become a staffer at Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ hit factory, Flyte Tyme Productions. He wrote and produced hits for Alexander O’Neal and Mint Condition and collaborated with Janet Jackson on her guitar-propelled rocker “Black Cat.”
“My coming-out party on guitar was on ‘Innocent’ for Alexander O’Neal,” Johnson said.
He had a confidence-boosting encounter at Paisley Park with jazz giant Miles Davis, who praised the guitar solo on “Innocent.”
“When somebody the caliber of Miles Davis tells you something, that just changed my whole guitar world,” Johnson reminisced. “Prince told me later: ‘Bean, if he tells you that, you can take that to your grave.’ ”
But unlike Day, Jam and Lewis, and others from Prince’s court, Johnson says he never landed a big payday. He mostly received a salary.
“I never got paid for a Time record all these years,” he moaned.
He did get a handsome check in 1990 when the Time reunited for the album “Pandemonium” in conjunction with Prince’s third film, “Graffiti Bridge,” but claims he received one-third of what Jam, Lewis and Time guitarist Jesse Johnson pocketed.
“There was no reason I should have been struggling. I went through bankruptcy in 2008 or 2009,” he said. “People think I’m rich. I’ve had one new car in my lifetime — a 1994 4Runner that I ended up with 300,000 miles on.”
For Johnson, though, it’s never been about the money.
In the clubs every night
“Jellybean is someone who loves music for music’s sake,” said Paul Peterson, who has played with Johnson in the Time, the Family and fDeluxe. “He’s out every night playing. I’m sure this pandemic has not been easy for him.”
Johnson lives to spend his nights in clubs, “to the detriment of my family life,” he said. (He has seven kids, ages 15 to 39.) “I don’t apologize for that. I have a lot of musical family — Black and white — that have always appreciated me.”
Sitting in with other bands enables Johnson to keep his guitar chops up. He doesn’t practice at home unless he’s got a recording session. The only time he plays drums is on gigs with Morris Day & the Time. In his Brooklyn Park townhouse, he never uses his electronic drum kit.
From 2003 to 2012, Johnson hit the road as a guitarist with Chicago bluesman Ronnie Baker Brooks, including an annual blues cruise in the Caribbean. He also plays guitar in fDeluxe, the new moniker for the Family, which reunited in 2011 and has released one live and two studio albums.
Along the way, Johnson has accumulated about 120 guitars, housed in his bedroom, office, living room and the lower level of his townhouse. In a normal year, he plays about 25 to 30 of them.
“I live alone,” he explained. “I joke with people that the only things here with me are my guitars, my clothes and my hats. I have well over a hundred of those, too. I have the top hats and I have the pimp hats and the gangster hats. I’ve got a bunch of derbies.”
Every Wednesday, Johnson dons one of those hats, grabs two guitars and heads to the Minnesota Music Cafe in St. Paul, where he has been playing with JayBee & the Routine for years.
“There’s a humility to Bean,” Leiber observed of the nationally known Minneapolitan. “He’ll go out five, six nights a week and sit in these clubs still, even though he also flies out to headline shows with the Time. He never lost that working musician’s mentality.”
Or as Peterson put it: “Whether it’s in front of three people or 30,000, he doesn’t treat it any different. I think it just feeds his soul.”
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719
JayBee & the Routine with Jellybean Johnson
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays.
Where: Minnesota Music Cafe, 501 Payne Av., St. Paul.
Info: Reservations required. 651-776-4699 or firstname.lastname@example.org.