St Aug’s Hamp Fest: Interview with Prince’s arch rival, Morris Day

For more than 52 years, Edwin H. Hampton taught band at St. Augustine High School, where he created St. Aug’s “Marching 100,” to this day widely considered New Orleans’ best marching band – which is really saying something. In the year of his passing, 2009, the annual Hamp Music Festival was created to celebrate Hampton’s legacy and life, and to raise financial aid funds for students who would otherwise not be able to pay for a St. Aug education. This year for the first time, Hamp Fest comprises two nights. The second night will feature Morris Day and the Time, most famous for playing Prince’s Minneapolis music scene rivals in the movie Purple Rain.

Morris Day plays Hamp Fest this weekend.

For his upcoming New Orleans visit, Day will bring his hot “touring band,” featuring just two other original Time members: keyboardist Monte Moir and drummer Jellybean Johnson. But after watching live clips from the ’80s, ’90s and now, the funk group’s kinetic, synchronized stage show and wild guitar solos make it harder to feel justified asking Morris Day a bunch of questions about Prince.

“The whole band dances for 60 to 70-percent of our show,” Day quantifies via phone from his home in Las Vegas. On stage, when not dancing, Day is touching the buttons on his white sport coat, adjusting his cuff links, sculpting his small moustache. After 30 years, his is a well-honed act. “After you do it so long it becomes second nature,” says Day. “Then you find ways to make the dancing better, you think about it, you always add little things, and the show keeps building.”

Prince questions are justified however, as the Artist wrote most of the songs Day will perform at Hamp Fest. The Time, as a band and concept, sprang fully-formed from Prince’s dirty mind in 1981. “He did everything on the first three albums,” says Day. “Initially, Prince was sort of opposed to the idea of anybody else doing anything. On the records, I played drums and did most of the vocals, but he did everything else.”

The duo first began playing together while barely teens in high school. Their first trio, Grand Central, featured Day on drums. Day went on to sing in Minneapolis band Enterprise. Prince later plucked Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis from Flyt Tyme, and coronated Day as the singer of his imaginary dance band, The Time. The Time’s self-titled first album featured hits “Get It Up” and “Cool,” while “Jungle Love” and “The Bird” helped power Purple Rain.

Those glory days under Prince’s thumb, however, were not all rose petals and bubblebaths. “For us as musicians it was a super creative time in our lives, we were all writing, submitting stuff, everybody. So by the time we got to do some songs on our own we were more than ready. Before that we had turned down so much money from people who wanted us to write and produce for them — because we were just unable to.” Because, admits Day, Prince wouldn’t let them. Day and his fictional rival’s first real-life rift came when Prince fired the Time’s keyboardist and bassist, the later acclaimed production team of Jam and Lewis. “I was pissed that they got fired,” Day says. “I didn’t like that they missed a show, but they didn’t miss it on purpose. It was a weather thing; they got stuck in Atlanta while producing somebody else [the S.O.S. band]. It was all mixed into one big reason that Prince let them go.”

At least Day still had Jerome. Not exactly Flavor Flav to Day’s Chuck D, but close, Jerome Benton played an ever-present, hilarious-yet-earnest “valet,” attending, in various ways, to Day’s beauty care needs while on stage. “There were bands like the Busboys, they did a thing like Jerome,” admits Day. “They’d have a guy who didn’t sing with them yet he was always busy on stage, hyping the crowd.”

Day explains the origin of Jerome’s signature stage move, the move that defined the duo’s relationship as man-servant to comically vain boss: “The Time had just cut the first album and we were in this dusty little rehearsal hall rehearsing to go on tour. Jerome was always around, and he had a great personality. And there’s a part in the song “Cool” where I say, ‘Somebody bring me a mirror!’ And as we were rehearsing it Jerome ran into the bathroom and grabbed the mirror off the wall and brought it out, and we all just looked at each other like, ‘That’s got to stay! That’s got to be in the show!’ From that point on Jerome was in the band.” Day has a more limited relationship with Jerome these days. “We just decided that we’d only work together when it was with all the original members,” he explains. “That way it would make that thing more special.”

In 1990 the original Time reunited with Prince for the movie Graffiti Bridge and the Paisley Park Records release of the Time’s Pandemonium, which featured their biggest ever hit, “Jerk Out.” The Time has since opened scattered dates for their creator, including the famous, all-night “this is your life” Prince show at Essence Fest 2004. More recently, in 2007, Day became band leader on the TV One talk show Baisden After Dark, where he reunited for a performance with the original Time, including Jam and Lewis.

The group proceeded to perform with the considerably less talented Rihanna at the 50th Grammy Awards show in 2008. “After we did the Grammys, we all decided we were gonna put a new CD together,” recalls Day. “It took a while but we committed, and we did it.” The original band members were not, however, allowed to use the original name for recording purposes, and were forced to rebrand themselves “The Original 7ven.” “At first it was [irritating],” admits Day. “But we can’t let things interrupt our life too much. I ranted and raved about it, got past it, now I’m on to the next thing.”

Day says “the record company” owns the name, but one has to wonder if Prince (famously proprietary regarding every single note he’s ever played) hasn’t disallowed usage — Prince is as well known for his personal degree of difficulty as he is that of his guitar solos. Seeing as the duo have collaborated since they were both 13, I couldn’t help but ask Day frankly if Prince was always so…not weird but…you know? “Absolutely,” Day answers. “It’s not an act. He talked to other kids a little bit and he was on the basketball team at Central High and stuff,” says Day. “But after they heard me play drums, and wanted me in their band, when we played together he never said anything to me, not for quite a while. He’d just be standing around looking at me all crazy and shit.”

Hamp Fest’s two nights of food and music cost $40 apiece, $65 for both nights. Thursday, September 27 features headliner Howard Hewett, plus Mike “Soulman” Baptiste & The Real Soul Band, Kermit Ruffins & The Barbecue Swingers, DJ Captain Charles, and the St Aug Marching 100. Morris Day and the Time perform on Friday, September 28, after a musical tribute to Whitney Houston (featuring Angela Bell, Erica Falls, & Elaine Foster), Free Agents Brass Band, BRW and Luke James. Music starts at 6 p.m., headliners perform soon after 9 p.m.