The Time’s What Time is It?, was released on August 25, 1982–just two weeks after the self-titled debut by Vanity 6. It easily outperformed both Vanity 6 and the Time’s own debut, and effectively tied with Prince’s Controversy: peaking at Number 26 on the Billboard 200 and Number 2 on the Black Albums (recently renamed from “Soul”) chart.
Despite their success–or, more likely, because of it–Prince was determined to keep the spinoff group in their place. Studio tech Don Batts recalled him showing up to one of the band’s rehearsals with a rough mix of the finished record: “He threw the cassette at [guitarist] Jesse [Johnson] and said, ‘Hey man, you play really good on your album,’” Batts told biographer Per Nilsen. “That kind of comment, it was like saying, ‘Hey puppets!’” (Nilsen 1999 108).
More than anything, though, Prince kept his grip on the Time’s strings by saving their best material for himself. It’s hard to hear What Time is It?’s underwhelming closing track, “I Don’t Wanna Leave You,” without imagining a stronger alternative in its place: something that would end the album with a bang, rather than a whimper. Something, that is, like “International Lover,” which Prince had originally conceived for his side project back in January before poaching it for the finale of his own forthcoming album.
Like “International Lover,” “I Don’t Wanna Leave You” clocks in at six and a half minutes; but where the former, appropriately, uses that running time to take us on a journey, the latter just feels like a leisurely walk around the block. It’s a perfectly fine song–a pretty good one, even. The premise–inveterate player Morris Day meets his match in a “dame” as ”bad” as himself and determines that “One night to hold [her] just ain’t no good”–may not ring as true to the frontman’s persona as the album’s previous track, “Gigolos Get Lonely Too,” but it’s a pleasant enough change of pace. The bright, catchy chorus and glistening Minneapolis Sound arrangement even managed to get it enough dance club play to reach Number 42 on Billboard’s Dance/Disco Top 80 chart, alongside “777-9311” and “The Walk,” despite not being issued as a single in its own right.
But “I Don’t Wanna Leave You” exhausts most of its ideas by halfway through its runtime, leaving Prince and Day to awkwardly fill the rest of the space with multiple keyboard solos (both jazzy piano and squealing synth) and endless reprisals of the chorus. The sense that the song was conceived to take up a specific amount of time on the album is only enhanced by the atypically clumsy edit at the six-minute mark, which cuts abruptly from Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover”-style keyboard vamp to the sustained closing synth chord–a remnant, according to session Bible Prince Vault, of a heretofore unreleased remix of the Vanity 6 track “Make-Up.” Where’s Dave “the Blade” when you need him?
In the studio, Prince’s authority was absolute: he wrote the songs, he recorded the songs, and he could decide who kept them or, for that matter, whether they were carefully or haphazardly edited. On stage, however, the Time were on equal footing–and often more than capable of showing up their benefactor. “He made music and he told us what to play and we came in and played, a lot of times better than what he had,” drummer Jellybean Johnson recalled in an interview with the blog Beldon’s Blues Point. “And in concert it went over better than what it did on record, and after a while he resented that shit. He resented it!” (Jackson “Part 1”).
Much as they had on the Controversy tour, the Time used their opening slot on the 1999 tour as a productive outlet for their frustrations. “It got ugly for [Prince] some nights,” Day told Ebony magazine in 2012. “He had to come behind us, and we only had 30 minutes to perform. But it was a dangerous 30 minutes” (Tudahl 2018 27). Just how “dangerous” is evident from a video circulating of the group’s December 29, 1982 set at the Summit in Houston, Texas (see above). After a blistering guitar solo by Jesse, the band launches into an airtight version of “Get It Up,” followed in quick succession by “Cool.” They give the audience a moment to catch their breath with “Girl,” then dive straight back into the heaters with “Wild and Loose.” Morris struts, mugs, and preens across the stage, exuding an easy confidence that belies his relative inexperience as a frontman. He extends “Gigolos Get Lonely Too” with seductive stagecraft, inviting a lady from the audience to share a glass of wine onstage while keyboardist Monte Moir plays some jazzy “dinner music” and dancer Jerome Benton plays waiter. Once this interlude is over, “777-9311” provides a vehicle for more guitar theatrics from Jesse and an extended pantomime by Morris and Jerome, all while Jellybean holds down that impossible drumbeat. They even take an encore, briefly leaving the stage in darkness before coming back out for “The Walk” and (literally) taking their final bows. It’s easy to see why, as Moir later confessed, the audience was left feeling “a bit worn out” by the time the headliner took the stage (Hill 119).
Making this performance all the more impressive is the fact that it wasn’t even the Time’s first that night: the group, hidden from the audience by a pink curtain, also provided instrumental backing for Vanity 6 on the tour. Much to their chagrin, this only earned them about an extra $100 a week–and even that only came after a “big argument with Prince’s management,” according to Jellybean. “It was already insulting for us, a gold record-selling band with our own following, to have to be on stage with these chicks no one knew,” he told Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “That they didn’t want to pay us added insult to injury” (Nilsen 1999 110). The sense that they were being exploited added fuel to their rivalry with Prince. “We were angry, because we were so broke,” Jesse recalled. “We were all pretty pissed, and that energy came out in our show. We were out for blood” (Gonzales 2012 38).
Years later in an interview with Rolling Stone, Prince admitted that the Time “beat us up every night. They would laugh about it; it was a joke to them” (DeCurtis 2004). “We were whooping his ass,” Jellybean concurred. “We were as hungry as he was. We couldn’t wait to get to the next show so we could whoop his ass some more” (Nilsen 1999 113). The crowds–and critics–took notice. In a poetic echo of Prince’s own stint opening for Rick James in 1980, reviews began to tout the opening act as superior to the headliner. Prince “hated that,” Moir told biographer Dave Hill. “So it was like, he’d started this thing, and it had got to be bigger and bigger. He liked it, but he hated it. He’d done something good, but now he wanted to tear it apart” (Hill 118-119). Tension mounted in the weeks leading up to Christmas; in Nashville on December 16, production designer Roy Bennett remembered “a big fight during soundcheck, with Prince riding [the Time] pretty hard” (Nilsen 1999 113).
Prince told DeCurtis that he took advantage of the tour’s Christmas break to “get things tightened up,” making sure his own band was polished enough to go toe to wing-tipped toe with the Time (DeCurtis 2004). But he also wasn’t shy about wielding his power over the opening act: “He would stop us from doing certain dances, from wearing certain clothes, because he just never wanted there to be any room to upstage him,” Jesse recalled during a 1986 appearance on BET’s Video Soul (Simpson 1986). Later, as the tour began entering major media markets like New York and Los Angeles, the Time would find themselves mysteriously removed from the bill: “He kept [Vanity 6], made us play for them and wouldn’t let The Time play,” Jellybean complained. “Do you know what it’s like to have a major star–Quincy Jones, Sting–coming to see us, and we don’t play?” (Jackson “Part 2”).
With the Time’s star continuing to rise but morale at an all-time low, keyboardist Jimmy Jam later recalled, “Morris had a meeting and told us [the group] isn’t going to last forever. He told us that everybody needed to figure out individually what [they were] going to do next. That’s a tough thing to hear when you’re at the top. But that’s when [bassist Terry Lewis and I] began songwriting and producing for others” (Tudahl 2018 51). The pair recorded some demos and got them in the hands of SOLAR Records producer Dick Griffey, who recommended them to contribute a track to the second album by all-woman funk group Klymaxx. By the second leg of the 1999 tour, Jam and Lewis had secured a handful of songwriting and production credits for artists including Dynasty (“The Only One”), Gladys Knight & The Pips (“When You’re Far Away”), and the S.O.S. Band (“High Hopes”).
It was the latter group that ultimately spelled the end for Jam’s and Lewis’ tenure in the Time. R&B mogul and self-styled “Black Godfather” Clarence Avant came to Jimmy and Terry with an offer they couldn’t refuse: writing and producing two tracks for the S.O.S. Band’s fourth album On the Rise. The session was scheduled in Atlanta, during a two-day break between dates in New York and San Antonio. Everything went off without a hitch–until a freak snowstorm blew into town. “[W]e didn’t think that was any big thing, being from Minnesota,” Jam remembered. “It had to be literally half an inch of snow, but the airport shut down.” Meanwhile, in San Antonio, the rest of the Time tried to cover for their absent bandmates: “Prince was on me, because Terry and Jimmy are my boys,” Jellybean recalled. “And I couldn’t say nothing; Morris, all of us knew they were going and we knew there was no way in hell that they would miss a gig… But in Atlanta, if it gets half an inch of snow, they close down” (Tudahl 2018 45).
In the end, an unamused Prince covered for Terry and Lisa Coleman covered for Jimmy, playing their parts from behind the curtain while Jerome and backing singer Jill Jones, respectively, mimed them onstage. The prodigal duo caught up with the rest of the tour, and for a while it seemed like the incident had blown over. Prince “thought we were off seeing some girls,” Jam told Hill. “The first thing that came out was, ‘Ha ha, serve you right for chasing women’” (Hill 121). Jam and Lewis were even granted a rare appearance on a Time session a few days later, joining Prince and Day at Sunset Sound to track an early version of “My Summertime Thang.” But they ultimately couldn’t keep their real reason for missing the date a secret. “We knew there was a picture of us in Billboard magazine with the S.O.S. Band,” Jam said. “We were trying to hide every Billboard magazine we could find. Every time the manager would try to give it to him, like, ‘Oh Prince, here is the new Billboard,’ we would snatch it. We were thinking, ‘Oh, he’ll never see it,’ and of course, he finally did” (Tudahl 2018 69).
Prince was willing to forgive Jam and Lewis for their perceived womanizing, but he was less tolerant when it came to making music beyond his grasp. “He felt that we would be giving away the Time sound,” Jam recalled. “We actually even got accused of doing a song that we didn’t do that Leon [Sylvers] produced that was influenced by the Time, which was a Whispers single called ‘Keep On Loving Me.’ And Prince swore we did that record, and I said, ‘We weren’t even around. We didn’t have a thing to do with that record.’ He truly believed that what we were doing outside of the Time was a conflict of interest” (Tudahl 2018 71).
On April 18, 1983, a week after the last night of the 1999 tour and just before recording the Time’s third album, Prince called a band meeting at Sunset Sound. Jam and Lewis were officially out of the group. Later, he’d claim that the final call wasn’t his. “Morris asked me what I would do in his situation,” he told Rolling Stone’s Neal Karlen in 1990. “You got to remember, it was his band” (Karlen 1990). But Morris was unequivocal: “He absolutely fired them,” he later responded. “He didn’t ask me anything” (Tudahl 2018 71). Jesse had his own theory: “I think the Time was just too good, and he wanted to ruin and weaken it,” he told Michael A. Gonzales for Wax Poetics. “One way of doing it was to break us up” (Gonzales 38).
Of course, the Time weren’t officially disbanded; to a casual observer, they had just begun, their greatest success still to come with the following year’s Purple Rain. But the dismissal of Jam and Lewis fundamentally altered the chemistry: neither the band, nor their relationship with Prince, would ever be the same. In the words of Alan Leeds, who had joined the Prince camp as tour manager just as the tension between Prince and the Time reached its boiling point, “Morris was not happy with what Prince had done: ‘It’s my band, but I have no voice in this.’ Of course, the hypocrisy was, it never really was his band” (Tudahl 2018 72).
(This post has been updated with an interesting detail on what, exactly, is up with that clumsy edit at the six-minute mark.)