Prince Was Never Afraid of Any Band. Then He Created the Time - Rolling Stone
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Prince Was Never Afraid of Any Band. Then He Created the Time

Lead singer Morris Day looks back on the origins of the funk group, whose debut album turns 40 in July

morris day

Morris Day

Courtesy of Rhino Records

In 1990, Prince, who was as competitive as he was virtuosic, made a rare admission of vulnerability: “To this day, [the Time] are the only band I’ve ever been afraid of.”

Prince had initially helped nurture the Time, a group of crack musicians from his hometown of Minneapolis that he formed into a band and wrote songs for. When they emerged in 1981 with an eponymous album full of knee-buckling funk and an impeccably choreographed live show, they immediately scored a pair of Top Ten R&B hits: “Get It Up,” a thoroughly convincing argument for “freaking all night long,” and the chest-puffing, highly danceable “Cool,” which ticks off the resume of an impossibly wealthy, indefatigable playboy embodied by lead singer Morris Day.

The Time released two more albums — and appeared in the blockbuster Prince film Purple Rain — before splitting up, though they later reunited for another record in 1990. To honor the 40th anniversary of The Time, the band is releasing a new edition of their debut and a HD version of the “Cool” music video. Day spoke with Rolling Stone about the origins of the Time, working with Prince, and the time their on-stage rivalry turned into a food fight. 

Do you remember when you first met Prince?

My mom moved us to Minneapolis from Springfield, Illinois. I was like eight years old. We were supposed to be coming to California, stopped in Minneapolis to visit a sick aunt, and ended up there for the next 20 years. When I was about 12, we lived on the North Side of Minneapolis on a street called Vincent. Prince lived right around the corner from me. He was a little dude, not just in stature but in age — I was 12, he must have been 10 or 11. I used to see him and his sister playing outside because we lived on the same block. But I didn’t know him, I put two and two together later.

In high school, we went to different schools, but we all lived on the North Side. I couldn’t find myself. I wasn’t a jock, and I wasn’t in with the in-crowd at that point in time. I couldn’t find my mix. One night I was at North High, they had cleared out the lunch room for a school dance, and this band Grand Central was playing. I go there thinking I’m going to meet up with a girl. I got there and I saw this band playing and I was mesmerized. I was in front of them the rest of the night. These guys were 13, 14 years old but playing like 25 year-olds. Prince was playing Carlos Santana guitar solos, crazy stuff. 

I’d been playing the drums at that point for a few years, really been woodshedding. I got to know Andre Cymone, the bass player [in Grand Central], after that. One day, we’re skipping school at my mom’s house, and I start playing my drums. I had this huge speaker behind my drums, and I’m playing some Tower of Power “Soul Vaccination” note for note. I get through playing, and Andre’s just sitting there with his eyes stretched. He’s like, “I didn’t know you could play like that. We just so happened to be having some problems with our drummer — bring the drums by and let Prince and all the guys hear you.”

So I did it. Prince was an avant garde character even back then. He didn’t say much, just looked at me, called out song keys. But I set my drums up and they never got broken down, I was in from that day. 

Were you already singing at that point?

I was singing on my own. I happened to have a big sister who knew I had a little bit of a singing voice. Any time she had her girlfriends over, she had me sing in front of them. So I started like that. Prince did most of the lead singing in Grand Central, but there were some songs that he didn’t want to sing and there were some we learned that I wanted to sing. I started singing from behind the drums with the boom mic, and eventually I ended up singing a song or two out in front of the band and our percussionist would get on the drums.

But my passion was always to be a drummer. When it happened and we put the band together, we just couldn’t find a lead singer. We tried some women, we tried Alexander O’Neal [who later recorded gems like “Hearsay” as a solo act], nothing was working. O’Neal sang a few tracks that Prince put together, he was an awesome singer. But he wanted money up front — he was under the assumption that if you’re gonna be signed to a major label then there must be some up-front money. We didn’t have that that I knew of. So he was like, “well, I’m not interested.” And that’s when I got pushed out front. 

Were the Time set as a unit when you were working on the first album?

We knew who the band was gonna be. But Prince and I pretty much did the whole first album. He did the lion’s share of writing and production; I played drums on most of the songs, lead vocals and backgrounds. Some people did some backgrounds with us too. 

We put the band together after that and did the pictures. I wanted to use Flyte Tyme — I loved Jimmy [Jam] and Terry [Lewis] because I’d heard some production work they’d done with Cynthia Johnson early on. She did “Funky Town” [as part of Lipps Inc.] later on; that was a worldwide smash. And I knew they were awesome musicians. Prince wanted some other musicians he’d seen around town, but he let me make the call on Flyte Tyme. 

Jerome [who became Day’s comic foil in the Time] is Terry Lewis’ brother. He was always around; he was like our valet for the band. When we first started touring he would come and collect everyone’s luggage at midnight and put it on the tour bus, do whatever we needed. He always had a strong personality. One day we were rehearsing to go out on the road, doing the song “Cool,” and I get to the part where I’m like “somebody bring me a mirror” at rehearsal. Jerome runs into the bathroom and snatches the mirror off the wall and runs in front of me with it. Everybody stopped. I think Prince was at that rehearsal. We’re looking at each other like, this has got to be a part of the show. So he transitioned from doing roadie work to being in the band with that one gesture. 

What was it like to work in the studio with Prince?

Prince liked me as a drummer, so we were always jamming. He was that kind of guy. He’d chase women here and there, go to the clubs and see what they were playing, but otherwise he was in that zone, recording, jamming, doing something music related. We would come up with bass and drum lines, find something we liked, and then start layering it. Groove first, always. 

“Get It Up” was one I didn’t play on — Prince had already cut that. He played me that song early on. He cut it for the group Brick. They didn’t want the song, so when we put the band together, I said, “I want that song.” 

“After High School” started out as a jam. A lot of times Prince would have an idea — “I want to do a new wave, uptempo kind of vibe.” So we went to work on that. At that time he was going from being an R&B artist to his Dirty Mind venture, which was a bold move. He tilted south on popularity but started in the direction that he wanted to go in. He wanted us to have elements of that. 

I felt like we were in a zone at that time. I was really happy with the music. I didn’t know what the reaction would be — “Cool” was unlike anything else on the radio. But I loved the concept; it defined me as a front person. 

Prince is famously exacting in the studio; how was it recording vocals for him?

He was a taskmaster, man. It was grueling at times. He just wouldn’t stop — it was all about the emotion and the character. It wasn’t even getting perfect pitch. It had to have the correct character. We’d sometimes do one line, even one word, twenty times. It taught me a lot; it was like going to song-production college. Sometimes he’s like, “we need more of this, more of that,” and I’m scratching my head — what the fuck was wrong with that last one? A lot of it was fun, but it could be a grueling at times. But with him really pushing me on the vocals, to this day I still enjoy listening to songs like “Oh Baby.”

You’ve talked about this over the years, but why did you want to invent the character Jamie Starr, who was credited as the man behind the first album?

Prince wanted us to have our own identity, sound self-contained as he was. A lot of his production work he just put under the guise of Jamie Starr. He wanted him to be a mysterious producer character; it was all part of the myth he wanted to put together. People were curious: Who’s Jamie Starr? People reached out to me to produce records, and of course they wanted to get in touch with Jamie too, but there’s no way to do that!

Prince wouldn’t let me work outside of the camp. Back in the early Eighties when our stuff was hot, I got offered $75,000, which was a lot of money then, to produce a record for Evelyn “Champagne” King. Of course, Prince wouldn’t let me do it. That was when I realized I really wasn’t going to rise as a writer-producer in his camp. That wasn’t a deal breaker, but it would’ve been nice to do those kind of things. 

Famously Prince once said the Time were the only band that scared him.

I always say he created a Frankenstein monster. We had good bands on the North Side when we were kids. It seemed like there was a band on every block. We learned how to perform at an early age. When Prince put us together, we gelled, we got good, got better every night we played. It was part Prince’s fault or credit, you could say both, he pushed us really hard, taught us a work ethic: rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. 

When we got on the road and it started to show, some people were like, damn, I think the Time was better than Prince tonight. And he’s like, “oh shit, what have I done?”

How often did you rehearse?

We had to rehearse, whether we wanted to or not, pretty much every day when we weren’t on the road. On the road we rehearsed at sound check. It was a constant state of rehearsing, honing everything we did. 

Did you have any time to enjoy yourself?

I was pretty much in the studio with him every day. We would go to clubs together, and that would be time for me to meet and greet, so to speak. I would sometimes run into Prince at the grocery store at a night that I thought I was gonna be off. He’d be like, “I need you to come by the studio tonight.” Damn! It was constant.

Is it true there was a food fight on stage between the Time and Prince’s band?

I call that the $5,000 food fight. It was the last night of the tour, I think we’re in Ohio, and him and his band decide they’re gonna throw eggs at us on stage. We’re like, what the fuck is this? We’re trying to do our show. We come off stage and I was pretty pissed about it. Prince and his band are laughing, and then he’s threatening me — you guys better not get any ideas about doing that to me tonight. I’m like, it’s on now. We sent our guy to the store to get eggs, Prince gets on stage and we’re bombarding the stage with eggs. He got pissed, and it just turned into a big mess after that. Him and I damn near came to blows backstage after that. He’s like, “how dare you do that shit?” And I’m like, “what makes you think you can do that shit to us?” 

The food fight went on after both bands were offstage. We did some damage to the venue, $5,000 worth. Of course Prince takes that out of my money. 

That’s cold.

It’s cold blooded. I think I was making $7,500 a week. That was just about my week right there.

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