I’ve talked a lot about Prince and the Minneapolis scene, that being mostly the Purple One, Jimmy Jam and Terri Lewis and maybe Shelia E. on occasion. But another graduate of the school, Jesse Johnson made some notable undercurrents of his own.
While Johnson had a successful solo career, during the early height of his productivity he helped his record label cash in on its version of the ‘Prince sound’. By creating a side project, Johnson was not unlike Prince or Andre Cymone in seeking out alternate avenues for their creativity.
That avenue for Johnson led to Ta Mara and the Seen. A name given to Margaret Cox, a fresh young face from Morocco who grew up in Minneapolis. Her sensual voice and vocal style might have led many listeners to believe she was black, but like many in the Minneapolis school of funk, color was not an issue as Ta Mara was white (as was most of the band). In 1985 that barrier had been broken on MTV, but it was sadly still an issue for radio and record label marketing.
With four musicians from around the area (who resembled the Time or the Family), Ta Mara and the Seen would release a self-titled debut. Produced by Jesse Johnson, the sound was not much of a departure from Johnson’s own work, but benefited from the range of Ta Mara’s voice. Much of it really could have just come from Johnson’s own unpublished catalog.
Silly fun songs along the lines of Apollonia 6 like “Everybody Dance” became a hit. Other songs like “Affection” got heavy rotation on BET and VH-1. They even made an appearance on American Bandstand, although their primary audience likely would have been watching Soul Train. Not surprisingly Jesse Johnson’s Review was on the show also promoting Despite being one of the better Prince knockoffs (or maybe that was Vanity knockoff) of the year, Ta Mara and the Seen was not quite able to crack to top 50 albums chart of that year.
It’s easy to see why it was so successful in the confines of the R&B community. Besides that whip sound Prince first used in 1999, there were surprisingly contemplative ballads like “Long Cold Nights” or the saucy raunch of “Thinking About You”. Other songs were sprinkled with rock flourishes, in the typical Minneapolis way.
The charts were full of bands out of Minneapolis (or pretended to be) that year, but Ta Mara and the Seen managed to stand out, at least initially.Jesse Johnson himself had a banner year in 1985 with his hits ‘Be Your Man” and “I Want My Girl”. With all the sound alike pop filling the airwaves,the long period to a follow-up to Ta Mara and the Seen likely took the air out of Ta Mara’s bubble in the fast-moving world of pop music. Nearly three years had passed when the band’s next album Blueberry Gossip dropped.
Blueberry Gossip and to some extent Ta Mara and the Seen are nearly impossible to find unless you like me scour used record stores and don’t mind slumming with a cassette. Although I’m happy with my old record, I would like finding a nice digital copy eventually.