In 2005, when I first moved to DC, unsure of what I wanted to do with my life (something I still grapple with, 16 years later, with a PhD), I set up a website for TDC Productions, an informal “production company” my cousin, his friends and I, co-founded sometime in the mid-1990s. After the TDC crew dispersed in the mid-2000’s, I was the only one consistently using the name. Unfortunately, it took me a few years to get any video production work, so the website turned into more of a blog and repository for other projects and events I was starting to put on around town. In 2006, I started doing freelance writing for a briefly lived music and culture blog, and I remember the editor telling me that he liked my website, but he really had no idea what it was. Was it a music blog? Was it a comedy website? Was it a retrospective archive of some marginally funny DIY films my cousin and I had made over the previous decade (hindered, no doubt, by the lack of embeddable streaming way to share the films).
Nonetheless, I pushed on with the blog, using it as a way to keep generating what would, by the beginning of the 2010’s, be called “content.” Back then, “micro-publishing” would have been a better term for it.
Anyway, for my first two years after college, I worked for an audio company in Bethesda. It didn’t offer a whole lot of upward mobility (which was, to paraphrase my friend Jake Young of Wizard and the Bruiser, something of an American birthright, until around 2007), but it was flexible, cushy, and I actually liked my coworkers. During my lunch breaks, I had opportunities to wander around the fading landscape of “the old Bethesda,” filled with greasy spoon sandwich shops, an Olsson’s franchise, and a wonderful (long-extinct) used bookshop whose name I forget. All I remember was that it was located on/near the 7700 block of Old Georgetown Road. This dusty bookshop had bins of classic LP’s in decent shape for unimaginably cheaper than what they would bring today on the Bubble-driven Discogs. I could be wrong, but I bought a copy of Tom Waits’ Frank’s Wild Years for $8 and a copy of The Housemartins’ The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death for $3. I wish I had bought more vinyl from that place, but I lived in a small room in my friend’s apartment, without much disposable income.
It was in one of these dollar bins that I saw Bobby Vandell’s photo for the first time – he was one of five musicians supporting Jesse Johnson, the hot-pink-bedecked Prince associate best known for playing guitar behind Morris Day in the Time) on his 1985 “solo” album, Jesse Johnson’s Revue. Vandell, Tim Bradley, Mark Cardenas, Michael Baker, and Gerry Hubbard were all stylish as hell for Minneapolis ’85, but from where I sat 21 years later, they looked like characters in some Rocky Horror/80’s Prom b-movie. In fact, Cardenas was the only one in the band without a ghost-whisper of a crustache. Observe:
For reasons owing equally to me being too young to lack wisdom for what to place on the internet and having too much time on my hands (a deadly combination, we all know), I decided to scan the photos and roast the band, individually, on a blog post. I was thoroughly convinced that my audience consisted of about 10-15 likeminded college classmates, so I filed it away and didn’t think of it.
A few months later was when it got weird. I checked my email at work, and I saw a message from an AOL email address that I didn’t recognize. It was Bobby Vandell, whose wife had apparently googled him, found that post, and completely lost it in laughter. She called Bobby into the room, and between uncontrollable laughing fits, read the post to him. He found my email address and reached out to tell me that I was welcome to trash him anytime I liked. What a guy.
Not know what else to do, I called my friend Adam and left a voicemail. He called me back to say it was the greatest thing he had ever heard. That night, I told my roommate Tom, who told me that I should interview him for my website. Tom was (and still is) a genius. So, I worked up the nerve to email Bobby back, explain myself, and ask if he would like to answer some questions. Below is the result.
I’m excited to re-share/re-issue this interview now after 15 years, since it was the first interview I conducted for my own publication, and it really set in motion what’s become a life-long passion for oral history and musical ethnography. Also, I’m sure this would gel with the research on the Minneapolis Sound by Maciek Smółka as well as Rashad Shabazz’s work on the role MPLS had in nurturing Prince.
TYLER: the general overview question. What have you generally been up to nowadays? Do you still live in the Minneapolis area? Wife/Kids? Still doing percussion much? As a side note, are you well versed in any other instruments?)
BOBBY: I have been fortunate to make a “living” performing and recording music for my entire working life to this date. I got paid to do my first gig when I was 14. Today, 39 years later, I’m still doin’ it! I have begun to broaden out a bit however. Presently, I am working with my friend Scott Olson, who invented Roller Blades, on a book about the subject. Roller blades are considered to be one of the most significant inventions of the 20th century and I was lucky to be one of the first people on them back in the early 80s [since] I grew up playing hockey. I am doing all the research for the book. We will be video taping interviews for a documentary also. It is an exciting project.
I continue to play drums mostly locally, where I live, in the Twin Cities. I still get off on playing in a band. I get around a guitar and a keyboard a little and I love to sit in with bands on bass, but I am not very good. Unfortunately, I was not blessed with the common Minneapolis talent of being great on every instrument. I have a wife, 3 pugs and 2 cats. No kids that I know of.
Are you still in touch with Jesse or anyone from the Revue?
I just got Mark Cardenas’s email address. He is in Seattle. Jesse is in the Phoenix area. He had to move there due to extreme allergies. I just got his [phone number] recently. I may give him a call. He had a rock trio last time I saw him in the early 90s. It was a great band. Very loud, tons of Marshall amps, really good. He is a great guitar player. The others, I don’t know.
Until when would you estimate you actually resembled that sexy photo of yourself on the back of the album?
I would say I held on to it a bit [too] long, the 80s were hard to let go of for me. I met a woman 20 years younger than me in 94′. She eventually influenced me to change my hair and some of my clothes. But, I am embarrassed to say, that didn’t happen till about 1999. After she changed my look, I married her in 2000!
Who were your favorite drummers/percussionists while growing up? Anyone that you pay particular attention to today?
I like drummers for different reasons. Some for their chops and others because they are simply so musical. In my early years, I loved Ginger Baker from Cream, Jon Bonham from Led Zeppelin, Mitch Mitchell from Jimi Hendrix’s band and Buddy Rich. My biggest inspiration was probably David Garibaldi from Tower of Power and Mike Clarke and Harvey Mason, both from Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. Tony Williams was a true giant, I dug him a lot. There are so many great drummers now. Keith Carlock with Steely Dan is a really cool drummer. Guys like Dennis Chambers and Vinnie Calliuta are true heavy weights but I also like drummers who are simply musical, I don’t need all those chops to be impressed. Don Henley with the Eagles is a great example. The guy with Maroon 5. I could go on listing great drummers for days.
What were your thoughts on the Minneapolis music scene (any/all of it) at the time? Were you guys positive or negative about Purple Rain mania?
Looking back, it was cool living here and being part of it. When Prince began breaking this city wide open, we were all playing in bands around town. I made it a point to be in the best, funkiest band in town at any given time. Prince would come to our gigs often just to hang out or steal one of our members. The Time would come to our gigs and we would let them perform on our gear for a whole set. There was a really cool energy going on in the early 80’s in Minneapolis. Because of Prince and the Time, the ears and eyes of the musical world were on Minneapolis. It did not suck.
If you could conjure them up (I know you said a lot of it was a blur, haha), we’d love to hear one or two of the greatest stories you’ve got from your time playing/touring with the Jesse Johnson Revue.
You must understand, Jesse Johnson’s Revue did not really exist, at least not in the way that you and the public perceived it to exist. That in itself is a long story you are probably not interested in. As a band, we did the video for the single, “I Want To Be Your Man”, only showed on BET. I wore a red suit that people still comment on to this day! A bass player friend of mine got that suit as a hand me down and sold it for a gram of cocaine! I would love it back, if you ever see a guy in a red suit, I’m sure it is mine so just take it!
We also did the Soul Train television show. That band did not tour so I really have no wild stories to relate but I remember the whole JJR experience teaching me the power of television and the media. In 1985, I worked for a short time for the group Chicago. We were in Canada and one night, Robert Lamb, Jimmy Pankow and myself went to a disco after a show. Now keep in mind Robert and Jimmy are very successful and rich rock stars in a band that has many, many top 10 hits but is virtually faceless. Our table was frequented by fans throughout the evening who wanted autographs, but not from my rock star friends, from me! Jimmy, Robert and I got quite a kick out of it. I will never forget it.
Also, I was in Africa shortly after that and I was recognized on a safari in a very secluded part of the bush country in Kenya. A very [bizarre] experience to say the least.
By the way, I was on a break at that photo shoot having a cig when that shot for the album was taken. I begged Jesse not to use it. I didn’t relish glamorizing cigarette smoking for kids but he loved the shot and the rest is history.
As what may possibly be an addendum of sorts to that last question, your first email made it sound like the groupies were flowing back in the day. What sort of audience and ‘backstage friends’ did the JJR shows attract?
As I said, we did not tour as the JJR. but I will say that where ever I went back then, there was an abundance of women. Mostly young, black or mixed and fine. More times than not, they thought I was quite something. Those times were very good for my ego and other parts of my body as well. The good thing was that the worst STD you could get back then was treated with a trip to the doctor. Let’s just say it was a good time to be young and known.
What have you been listening to primarily as of late? Any favorite artists out there today?
I listen to a lot of different stuff, I always have. Mostly I listen to obscure stuff. I love Jon Cleary. He is Australian but has lived in New Orleans for years. He also plays keys with Bonnie Raitt. I dig this group called Soulive, I just got hip to a group called CAB, their CD “CAB4” is really cool. I love Donald Fagan, Mark Brussard, Maroon 5. I like country guys too, Vince Gill is awesome, so is Brad Paisley. I dig Latin music. Big band Salsa stuff.
What do you think you’d be doing today had it not been for your experience with this band?
Quite honestly, even though we never did a gig, The exposure that band got me was quite amazing. I definitely would not have gotten known as much as I would have without JJR. But I would be doing the same thing now regardless.
Any final reflections on the state of music/the world/the lack of pink cars with “Jesse” license plates today?
I have played music all my life. JJR was a small fraction of the experiences I’ve had. I have been fortunate to play for many great artist’s. Bonnie Raitt, Roy Buchanan, Al Wilson, Sam Moore, Bruce Conte, The Time and Chuck Berry to name a few. I even produced the music for Rosanne Barr’s comedy album and backed up The Amazing Jonathon and Soupy Sales. I was a member of the band Lipps Inc. who had the number one hit in the world at the time, “Funky Town”. I performed for 65 thousand people with Alexander O’Neal at Cincinnati’s River Front Stadium and RFK Stadium in DC, We also sold out Wembly Arena in London 10 nights in a row. I have earned 4 gold records. I have also performed as a Lion in a fast paced stage show with costume changes and pyrotechnics for one passed out drunk at a smoke filled casino in Wendover Nevada on a sunny Sunday afternoon! I remember opening the Soul Train Awards show on live National TV and the next night playing blues for a bunch of cowboys in a funky bar in the Colorado Rockies that had bra’s and panties hanging from the ceiling! All have been rich and rewarding experiences.
My main observation about performing now is that audiences don’t seem to listen like they used to – the passed-out drunk in Wendover excluded! – It seems like live music doesn’t have the same effect on people it did years ago. Almost as if the music is bouncing off them, like it’s disturbing their television watching. I blame MTV for a lot of it. People seem to listen with their eyes now. It also seems like people are unable to discern between quality and crap in live music and there is a lot of crap! Everyone now wants to be on stage and it seems like everyone is in a band. News flash: Not everyone is a musician or a singer!
Audiences in Europe are more discerning. I know a number of American artist’s that have moved to Europe for the very reasons I’m talking about. I realize my comments seem a bit jaded and tainted with anger and bitterness. I accept that criticism but I don’t feel that way. I can only observe from my perspective of years of performing and that is what it feels like. I also acknowledge that there is an enormous amount of talent in young people. Those are my observations today, tomorrow, who knows!