The months after Jill Jones formally joined Prince’s orbit were “one crazy blur,” she recalled in a recently-published interview with writer Miles Marshall Lewis. From the “spring of ‘82 all the way until July, we were pretty much in the studio daily,” working on the Time and Vanity 6 projects alongside his own fifth album. “And who knew what was going to end up where, with who, what. I was just ready for the ride” (Lewis 2020 “Part 1”). Initially, her role was strictly as a backing vocalist: providing support on the 1999 album and tour for both Prince and Vanity 6. But the Artist Formerly Known as Jamie Starr had grander plans: namely, turning his newest protégée into a star in her own right.
Not all of these plans went off without a hitch. Jones resisted Prince’s overtures to change her name to Elektra, after the recently-introduced Marvel Comics character; a decade later, that moniker would of course find a more willing beneficiary in Carmen Electra, née Tara Leigh Patrick (Lewis 2020 “Part 2”). But she did allow him to give her a makeover inspired by prototypical blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe: “Prince said I looked like every girl with long brown hair and I needed something to stand out,” she told Michael A. Gonzales for Wax Poetics. “He said, ‘When Vanity walks in a room, people know she’s a star. You need your own thing’” (Gonzales 2018 66). She got it. Jones–all platinum curls and red lips, artfully disheveled in black lingerie, a Marlene Dietrich naval cap, and Prince’s Dirty Mind-era trenchcoat–would steal every frame of the music video for “1999” she was in, providing a whole generation of woman-loving people (myself included) with their entrée into puberty. Nor, as Lewis observes, did it hurt that the mixed-race singer’s bottle blonde allowed her to pass as a “soulful white girl” during a critical moment in Prince’s pop crossover endgame (Lewis 2020 “Part 1”).
With the look nailed down, Prince and Jones moved on to the music; this, however, proved to be more elusive. The first song they recorded together was an early version of “Boom, Boom,” later to reemerge in the 1989 sessions for her shelved sophomore album. “It was a very different song from the Vanity 6 stuff,” she told Lewis. “Kind of pop, very weirdly dance, very strange. I wasn’t even quite sure what we were creating” (Lewis 2020 “Part 1”). The same summer 1982 sessions at the Kiowa Trail home studio also saw Prince’s and Jones’ first attempt at “My Baby Knows”: another track that would remain in the Vault for the better part of the decade before being revamped and, ultimately, abandoned for good. Later, on July 8–the day after Jones’ notoriety-securing performance on “Lady Cab Driver”–she sang backing vocals on Prince’s demo of “Baby, You’re a Trip”: a soulful Prince ballad inspired, Jones recalled to the New York Times’ Gavin Edwards, by a furtive look at her diary. This one, too, would spend years in limbo, before finally becoming the closing track of Jones’ self-titled debut when it released in 1987.
It isn’t entirely clear whether “No Call U,” recorded toward the end of the 1999 sessions on July 23, was intended for Jones, another side project, or Prince himself; more likely than not, given the aforementioned “crazy blur” of recording sessions during this period, it wasn’t even clear to the participants at the time. The studio notes by engineer Don Batts included in the 1999 Super Deluxe booklet list Prince’s vocal track as a “guide vocal,” which strongly suggests he had another performer in mind from the start. It also feels safe to assume that at least one of these other performers was a woman, given the way Prince’s performance wobbles between male and female perspectives: beginning with the line, “Girl, I’m going crazy, I’m lonely and I need a kiss,” but later mixing pronouns and repeatedly addressing the object of his desire/frustration as “boy.” The main piece of evidence that the song was earmarked for Jones, specifically–aside, of course, from her prominent harmonies on the track–are the vocal gymnastics sprinkled throughout, which feel tailor-made for her style; as Jones recalled in her interview with Lewis, it was the moment when “I went for my own riffs and my own phrasing” that had initially impressed Prince in the recording studio (Lewis 2020 “Part 2”).
Whoever he might have written it for, though, “No Call U” is most definitely a Prince song of its era. The kitschy, New Wave-meets-rockabilly arrangement immediately recalls tracks like “Delirious”; while the lyrics repeat the basic premise of “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” but inject that song’s overriding sense of melancholy with a dose of pure sass. Prince’s narrator wrestles with the urge to break down and call his uncommunicative lover, before ultimately deciding to “listen to [his] ego” and stay strong: “Nah, that’s alright / I’m the coolest,” he pep-talks himself over the fade-out. “That’s right, I’m stubborn / That’s my middle name / [It’ll be a c]ool day in the summer / If I call your ass up on the phone.” The juxtaposition of this plucky declaration of self-determination with the song’s earlier moments of vulnerability brings genuine pathos to what could have been a bit of simplistic fluff. Ditto for the production, which takes full advantage of Prince’s new 24-track console to load up on rich little sonic details: from the densely-layered keyboard and vocal tracks to the whooshing backwards-cymbal effect that punctuates the Linn LM-1 beat.
According to sessionographer Duane Tudahl, Prince considered “No Call U” for the unreleased second Vanity 6 album: adding vocal overdubs on May 1, 1983, the same day they recorded the tantalizingly-titled “Moral Majority.” When that project was cancelled, the track went back into the Vault until July of 1985, when Jones finally got the chance to record her lead vocals; like most things related to her solo career, however, this, too, failed to come to fruition. As of this writing, neither Vanity’s nor Jones’ vocals have been released, through official or unofficial channels. Only Prince’s original take has seen the light of day: initially in a very rough, presumably high-generation source on the bootleg circuit, and now in polished (and extended) form on 1999 Super Deluxe.
As for Jones, the long, circuitous road to the launch of her solo career will be one of the many “plot threads” on the blog in the months and years to come; as I’ve alluded, this story doesn’t exactly have a happy ending. In the meantime, I highly recommend peeking ahead at Lewis’ two-part interview, which I’ve been citing throughout this post; and for that matter, check out the rest of his ongoing Paisley Diaries series on the music blog Soulhead, which is doing some really important work highlighting the oft-overlooked auxiliary projects released on Prince’s Paisley Park imprint in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
(Thanks again to Hayo Reinders, Michael Straughter, and Chris Aguilar-Garcia, who became the latest to support d / m / s / r on Patreon last month! Also, I’m pleased to announce the next patron-exclusive “bonus track” for our coverage of Prince’s 1999-era ephemera, as voted on by patrons at the $5 level and above: in the next week or so, I’ll be covering “Vagina.” Pretty sure that one will be worth a buck a month!)