Jesse Johnson should be sitting on top of the world.
An alumnus of the Prince-propelled group the Time, the 26-year-old singer-guitarist has released a debut album, "Jesse Johnson's Revue," that's about to go gold on the strength of cuts like "Can You Help Me," a current staple on black radio. As a member of the Time he also co-wrote many of that group's wittiest hit singles, including "Jungle Love" and "The Bird." He'll share the bill at the Forum on Saturday with Maze, Teena Marie and the Whispers.
But instead of enjoying it all, Johnson recently found himself facing a felony riot charge--later reduced to a lesser charge of "inducing panic"--following a May concert at Cincinnati Gardens, where he was the opening act for New Edition. Police claimed that Johnson told the audience to ignore the security guards' demands that they not cram the aisles or attempt to jump onto the stage.
"That night, security guards were walking around poking people with billy clubs. If anybody was provoking a bad situation, they were," Johnson asserted during a recent interview in his West Hollywood hotel room.
"I just told the people to stand up and party, not knowing I was committing a crime by doing that."
Encouraged by Johnson, 60 to 80 teen-agers jumped onto the stage. But, said Johnson, "The whole thing was pretty orderly and nobody got hurt. I mean, people were coming up one at a time. There was no so-called stampede."
Johnson was arrested after the show and he spent one night in jail before posting bond.
"They took me to jail in handcuffs like I was some kind of criminal and gave me a bail of $25,000 like I was a murderer," he complained. "It was a big joke to them. The police took pictures of me and had me signing autographs for their kids." Johnson maintained that the situation was turned into a full-fledged media circus: "They had the news people out there, the TV cameras. They even called the wire services. I felt like they really wanted to break my spirit."
It was in 1979 that 11 people died in a crowd stampede at a Who concert at Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum. Noting that there weren't any injuries at Johnson's concert, Judge Mark Painter fined him $1,000 plus court costs--and then waived $900 of that fine in exchange for a $250 donation to the Cincinnati Free Store, a facility that distributes clothing and food to the disadvantaged.
Johnson has no objections to making the donation--"I donate to charities all the time"--but says that he does plan on suing the city of Cincinnati. "I'm not taking lightly what they did to me. I'll fight it if it takes every dime I've got. I know the difference between right and wrong; I just didn't know the laws in that town and they decided to make an example out of me."
When he turns his attention away from his legal problems, Johnson says that he's currently enjoying a level of freedom as the frontman for his own band that he never experienced as a member of the disbanded Time. "I get to do what I want for a change. The Time was built around Morris Day and I was his first employee, his director of the rhythm section," said Johnson, who once played in biker bars like the Tiger's Den in his hometown of Rock Island, Ill. "But the guys in the Time were all older than me. More experienced.
"In the Time it was like I was always off to the side, not smiling," he admitted. "But I had a lot to be angry about then. In my own group, the guys respect me. They look up to me because I've proven myself to them."
One of the main causes of dissension among the ranks in the Time was the unwritten rule that its members couldn't write material and/or produce records for outside artists: "But I'm in the middle of producing an album for a new group called TaMara & the Seen and my band members are writing songs for them. I'm not into ego, or making the people who work for me wait 10 years to get recognition."
Johnson currently lives in a suburb of Minneapolis, but he is contemplating a move. "I don't really like it there. In Minneapolis I'm not a star because I'm not Prince."
Johnson points out that he, Morris Day and Prince "all had the same musical influences--Sly Stone and James Brown," but Johnson feels that his songs reflect little of the ultra-cool, sex-for-sex's-sake attitude that highlights much of the music by Prince and the Time.
"My songs are more about love, not lust," he said. "And that's not a front. I'm really like that. There's a song on my album, 'Be Your Man,' that reflects a quirky situation of really wanting a girl's love, but being afraid of a heavy relationship. You want to stick around and get close, even though it's easier to just call a cab." Johnson laughed, and his features brightened for a moment. "Chauvinistic, huh?"
Johnson still smarts from the barbs of Minneapolis music critics who noted that nothing on Johnson's debut album rivals Prince's "When Doves Cry." Putting things in perspective, Johnson observed, "Nothing on his first album is like 'When Doves Cry,' either."