The sessions for the Time’s third album began during an especially fraught period in their relationship with Prince. On March 21, 1983, just over a week before recording commenced at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, Prince left the band off the bill at New York’s Radio City Music Hall–an apparently calculated move to keep the spotlight on himself, and off his protégés. A week later, he’d repeat the snub at L.A.’s Universal Amphitheatre. Meanwhile, keyboardist Jimmy Jam and bassist Terry Lewis were on thin ice after missing their flight for a March 24 show in San Antonio. Once Prince discovered the reason for their absence–an unsanctioned Atlanta studio date producing the S.O.S. Band–it would spell the end of their tenure in the group.
Yet, even amidst all this interpersonal strife, there was still room for a little levity. And so it was that, on March 27–just one day before the Universal Amphitheatre show–Prince and the group’s frontman/studio drummer Morris Day cut “Cloreen Bacon Skin”: an improvised, 15-minute funk groove-cum-comedy sketch with a surprisingly long afterlife in the former’s body of work.
The spark of inspiration that produced “Cloreen” came after an afternoon spent laboring over “My Summertime Thang”–a track, according to sessionographer Duane Tudahl, that Prince was never quite able to nail to his satisfaction. At some point in the evening, Day recounted to music blog Diffuser, he and Prince nipped out for a little clubbing on the Sunset Strip. When they got back to the studio, Day got behind the drums and Prince picked up a bass. “He was acting silly, we were just in that frame of mind,” Day recalled. “That’s what we did a lot… He’d be on bass, I’d be on drums[,] and we’d start like that” (Wilkening “Prince” 2017).
In his liner notes for Crystal Ball, the 1998 compilation on which “Cloreen” would finally find its home, the Artist then-Formerly Known as Prince recalled the track as a burst of pure spontaneity: “Everything U hear is impromptu,” he wrote. “No lyrics or music, even the title was made up a split second be4 U hear it” (O(+> 1998). This sense of looseness is evident from the false start in its opening seconds, when Prince notices that Day’s monitor headphones have fallen off his head: “Motherfucker didn’t even have his headphones on,” he rasps in the voice of his alter ego, the Time’s fictional producer “Jamie Starr.”
I’ve already mentioned the “‘Jamie Starr’ voice” a few times in passing, but it’s only fitting that we examine it in detail now, on the occasion of its most prominent appearance in Prince’s official catalogue. A close cousin–or, perhaps more accurately, uncle–of the “pimp” persona Day portrayed in the Time, the voice crops up in a few of Prince’s 1999-era recordings, most notably the extended outro of “Do Yourself a Favor” (“Somebody call up the Colonel, I hear some chicken scratchin’!”). Exactly when it became attached to “Jamie Starr,” in particular, is less evident. Prince clearly had plans for the character, though: His original lyric sheets for “Feel U Up” and “Irresistible Bitch,” as seen in the liner notes for 1999 Super Deluxe, are both credited to the spurious Svengali.
By the recording of the Time’s second album in 1982, Starr had even taken on physical form–albeit with some last-minute revisions along the way. According to Allen Beaulieu, after paying for “Jamie Starr”’s work on the Time’s debut, Warner Bros. wanted a photo of the elusive producer; and Prince decided that the photographer himself would make an ideal stand-in. “So, he dresses me up like a pimp,” Beaulieu recalled in his book Prince: Before the Rain. “I’m an American Indian–I don’t look like a pimp; there’s no way you’re going to be able to make me look like a pimp… He was trying to curl my hair for the photo, and he burned me” (Beaulieu 192). In the end, Prince posed for the photo himself: completing the illusion with a pair of dark sunglasses, a cigarette, plenty of visible chest hair, and a comical grimace (see above).
So who was Jamie Starr, exactly? The Crystal Ball liner notes describe him (albeit not by name) as “an alter ego voice that was sick, spirited, and highly percussive,” which “Prince would go in2” in order “2 keep Morris in the pocket” (O(+> 1998). Susan Rogers, who would serve as Prince’s home studio engineer from mid-1983 to 1987, had her own surmise: “that was him imitating men of his father’s generation… barber shop guys,” she told Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “He was doing his dad” (Tudahl 2018 50). One can also detect more than a hint of James Brown and Miles Davis.
But whatever the origins 0f the “Jamie Starr” voice, it’s hard to dispute that “Cloreen” was its finest hour. Prince turns his nonstop, “highly percussive” patter into an instrument in itself, as essential to the groove as Day’s rock-solid, syncopated backbeat and his own volcanic bass. More to the point, he’s hilarious: alternating between roasting himself and his “first wife,” the titular Cloreen, all while seamlessly barking out instructions to the drummer, in character as “Cloreen’s brother Alfred.” Like the more polished skits released on the Time’s albums, the comedic value is less in the content than the delivery; the jokes, such as they are, can be summarized as, “Cloreen is fat and ugly, ‘Jamie’ is old and ugly.” But Prince’s delight in the Starr persona is so infectious, I’d probably crack a smile listening to him read the proverbial phone book.
To be clear, “Cloreen” is not for everyone; for all its merits, it’s still 15 long minutes of nothing but drums, bass, and half-baked inside jokes. But for a certain kind of hardcore fan, following the circuitous path of Prince’s stream of consciousness is pretty much irresistible: As Tudahl observes, it’s likely no coincidence that “Alfred” shares his given name with Prince’s older half-brother, Alfred Jackson, Jr.; or that at one point the singer calls out, “We’re gonna go to the jungle one time,” the day after he and Morris laid down the track for the Time’s “Jungle Love” (Tudahl 2018 50).
It helps, too, that “Cloreen” simply knocks: It’s an unfiltered masterclass in groove by one of Prince’s most underrated rhythm sections, not to mention arguably the purest raw funk in his greater studio oeuvre. The Crystal Ball liner notes are surprisingly modest about Prince’s playing, claiming, “The bass line was not important, so he just played the beat on the bass so 2 speak” (O(+> 1998). But he was clearly satisfied with the effect–enough so that, when he joined post-punk bass hero Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart for the encore of their May 16, 1983 First Avenue date, “Cloreen” was the song he played to showcase his own mastery of the low end. Moments earlier, according to Wobble, Prince had “wander[ed] into the dressing room with his bodyguards, lick[ed] my bass and [said], ‘Nice and greasy, just how I like it’” (Dawes 1990). If you didn’t just read that quote in the “Jamie Starr” voice, then you and I have clearly been listening to different songs.
Intriguingly, Prince would revisit “Cloreen” on March 31, booking a quick session at Sunset Sound between tour dates in Phoenix and Long Beach. Tudahl speculates that he may have mixed the track for consideration as the B-side of the Time’s next single; this plan never came to fruition, but it was far from the last we heard of “Cloreen.” “Chocolate,” recorded on April 17 and eventually released on the Time’s 1990 reunion album Pandemonium, revived the “Jamie Starr” voice and a few of the earlier song’s lyrical elements (particularly the pleading, “What’s the matter, don’t you like me?”). Meanwhile, “Tricky”–recorded on January 12, 1984, and issued on the B-side of “Ice Cream Castles” in June–is a “Cloreen” remix in all but name: embellishing the original bass and drum groove with Minneapolis keyboard hits while Morris and “Jamie” play the dozens (My vote for best line: “Jamie”’s sarcastic, “What time is it?!… It’s time for you to retire, you old–!”).
Easily the shining jewel of “Cloreen”’s legacy, though, is the re-recording of “Irresistible Bitch,” released as the B-side of “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” in November 1983. The original version–cut in late 1981 and, you may recall, credited to one Jamie Starr–was vintage, Linn LM-1-heavy punk-funk. But the remake is heavily “Cloreen”-ated, with explosive live drums and a percussive bassline; the track even opens with a false start. The excellent blog 500 Prince Songs described “Cloreen” as “molten funk, fresh from the forge prior to being hammered into the rough shape of a song”; “Irresistible Bitch,” then, is the final product, welded and finished into a new, sleek shape. Even the Artist himself dubbed “Irresistible Bitch” “the coolest” of the songs “cut in the same vibe” as “Cloreen” (O(+> 1998). Who am I to argue with Jamie Starr?