Local Current Blog

Minnesota music pioneer Herman Jones: Still funky after all these years

courtesy Herman Jones

Twin Cities funk star Herman Jones grew up in a house brimming with song and dance. While his parents weren’t professional musicians, they placed an emphasis on music. Jones’s childhood home was rarely silent, with 45s of Tina Turner, B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and other R&B stars playing. At age 15, Jones bought his first drum set—and the rest is history.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Jones’s first musical purchase. Last month, Numero Group released a 32-song album, Purple Snow, to commemorate the Twin Cities’ music innovators of the 1970s—including Jones. His songs “I Love You” and “Ladie” were included in the compilation.

Jones points to his early years in St. Paul’s Rondo Neighborhood as the inspiration for his career. “It was just wonderful times,” he said. “You could just walk out of the house and down the street; listen to the matinees on Sunday and all the band.”

A drummer and vocalist, Jones’s style mixes 1960s Motown and his explorations in R&B, funk, soul, and jazz to deliver songs of “good, clean fun.” He is among a collection of musicians that pioneered the “Minneapolis Sound,” a style that added elements of new wave pop and synthpop to traditional funk music. The genre was later popularized by Prince, whom Jones calls “a musical genius.”

While Jones would go on to tour the country, it was at the famed Western Lounge, a neighborhood joint down the street from his boyhood home, where he found his calling. Jones frequented shows at the venue, and as a teenager, he worked near the stage as a shoe shine—anything to get his foot in the door of the Twin Cities R&B scene.

“It was a place you dreamed about playing when you were younger,” he said. “I could shine shoes and stick my head around the corner there and stand there and look at the bands, look at the drummers. I learned a lot from the older drummers, listening to them and asking them questions.”

Several years later, when Jones and several friends formed an R&B group called the Exciters, Jones’s dream came true when his band played behind electric blues artist Jimmy Reed at the venue. “That was what kind of opened it up for us as young artists,” Jones said. “That was just a real treat.”

After graduating from St. Paul Mechanic Arts High School, Jones continued to perform with the Exciters—opening for Ike and Tina Turner, the Impressions, and the Temptations. “You’re sitting there with artists you heard about on the records,” Jones said. “You heard about them and read about them. Then when you finally get a chance to meet them, you can’t really put it in words to say ‘Hi.’ You don’t want to make a fool out of yourself with your mouth wide open.”

In those days, the Exciters would practice five hours a day on Jones’s front patio. Neighborhood kids would flock to listen to them, leading Jones to call it “a house party during the daytime.”

The hard work paid off as the band soon became a household name. They road-tripped to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama to collaborate on an arrangement of the Beatles’ song “Ticket to Ride” with soul musician Wee Willie Walker. They also performed live with esteemed jazz organist Leon Haywood. “We were more like a family,” Jones said. “Whatever group you were in, that was your family. You just slept, ate, drank, played music with your family all the time.”

In a time of heated racial segregation and inequality that was perpetuated by I-94 construction along the Rondo Neighborhood where Jones grew up, it was uncommon for black and white musicians and listeners to integrate. Jones’s band was one of the first in the Twin Cities that played for mixed audiences.

“It was hard for us to break into,” Jones said. “Dean Constantine [the owner of King Solomon’s Mines in Minneapolis] gave us that opportunity and with that, we just kind of caught on with both white and black crowds. We were fortunate enough to get into places. It was really tough for a lot of the bands. [Constantine] fought for us.

“It was a tough fight, but it opened doors. You keep fighting and things had to change, and they did.”

Performances weren’t always free from danger, though. As local guitarist Jeffrey Diamond recounted in an interview with Secret Stash magazine, a man started shooting a gun during one of the Exciters’ shows, prompting band members to crouch down on the ground—but continue performing.

“No matter what, you don’t quit playing,” Jones quipped.

This was a mantra that Jones has maintained throughout his career. After the Exciters separated in 1970, Jones hit the road as a drummer with Gene Williams and the Sweetback Band before joining childhood friend Stevie Crowe in the band Zulu. In the mid-1970s, Jones took the helm at lead vocals for a revived Exciters band that he stayed with until the late 1980s when the group permanently disbanded. With a child on the way, Jones took a job as a fleet driver for the Minneapolis Star and Tribune; and slowly faded away from the music world.

Although Jones still did studio work over those two decades, it wasn’t until a talk with Crowe in 2009 that Jones returned to live performances. With the convincing of Crowe, Jones formed Herman Jones My Funk Brother, a soul group now nearing its five-year anniversary.

My Funk Brother has built a reputation with performances at the Uptown Art Fair; Red, White and Boom; and other festivals. Much of the group’s music is drawn from Jones’s memories and previously recorded work: songs like Jones’s 1979 classic “Party Charlie,” about a happy-go-lucky man who parties “another day, another dollar”; and the 2011 release “I’ve Got a Hot Spot,” which explicates the meaning of TGIF.

Upon learning of his inclusion on the Purple Snow album, Jones was struck with pride and nostalgia. “I went to the CD release party recently, and I ran into guys I hadn’t seen since we were kids,” he said. “It just brought back a ton of memories.”

“Hopefully we helped the other young people coming up,” he said. “[We] let everybody know that Minnesota was a good place to grow up in and play music.”

Jones has shown no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Next up on his to-do list? A January 18 performance at Arnellia’s, the release of recent studio recordings, and a greater focus on writing and producing original music.

“I’m having fun,” he said. “It’s really what I enjoy doing. As long as I can still sing…”

Benjamin Bartenstein is a student at Macalester College.