The songwriting-production team of James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis have dropped so many hits since leaving their Prince-mentored band the Time in 1983 that their publisher released a four-CD boxed set of their hits… in 1997. Since then, they’ve added at least another four CDs’ worth of their patented sophisticated soul-funk mix, which over the past 35-odd years includes more than 40 Top 10 hits and five Grammys — including producers of the year in 1987 — from their work with Janet Jackson (her blockbuster “Control” and “Rhythm Nation” albums), Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Boyz II Men, New Edition, the Human League, the S.O.S. Band and so many more.
It’s all a long way from that day in 1983 when Prince fired them from the Time for missing a gig (they were stranded at the Atlanta airport by a snowstorm, after producing a track for the S.O.S. Band during a couple of days off from the Time’s opening spot on Prince’s “1999” tour). Yet amid all that music, they’ve never released an album of their own — until now, with the nearly four-decades-in-the-making “Jam & Lewis: Volume One,” released today (July 9). This first volume boldly takes the pair all the way back to their flashy, funky time with the Time in its use of Morris Day and Jerome Benton, as well as presenting Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton, Usher and Mary J. Blige in the most dramatic and elegantly soulful settings. Variety caught up with them earlier this week.
Our first question comes from “Volume One” guest, Questlove: He claims the two of you play every note live, rather than loop and sequence. Why?
Jimmy Jam: There’s a few reasons. Like in the old days when chefs had to use ovens rather than microwaves, the technology didn’t exist: We were musicians growing up, so sequencing and looping weren’t part of our language. Even when sequencers came out, we didn’t like them or want to learn, because we could play whatever sequence there was. We did loop back in the day, but we did that cutting and splicing tape. In the great music of the past, a performance wasn’t done in a seven-second loop or sample, it was a seven-minute performance. We thought of what we did, always, like a great seven minute performance.
Terry Lewis: Tell him to read the directions (laughs). Rather than try to figure out technology over the course of several hours, we would just play for five minutes, and were done. Within that, happy accidents happen, and the character of a song develops. The things you didn’t intend make the moment. When a drummer hit a lick, it manipulated me as a bassist to do something different, which in turn manipulated the keyboard player, the guitarist or the vocalist. If you’re using a loop, that never happens; it’s always the same. For the longest time, I couldn’t play with drum machines — there’s nothing inspiring about them.
You have a signature sound: cosmopolitan chords, smart lyrics, a sophisticated mix of technology and organic. How did it develop?
Jimmy Jam: Our philosophy grew into something based on my pop loves – I grew up listening to Seals & Crofts, America, Chicago, Carpenters – and Terry’s, which happened to be P-Funk. When we got together, initially, we clashed. I put a pretty top on his funky bottom and it didn’t work. We finally figured it out though, around the time of the S.O.S. Band’s [Jam & Lewis-produced 1983 hit] “Just Be Good to Me,” with its glockenspiel bells and an un-sequenced bassline playing for 10 minutes, from start to finish.
Was there anything about that song in particular that made it gell?
Jimmy Jam: Our style used the artist as inspiration for each song. Rather than coming in with a preconceived notion, we talked to the artist, figured what they want to discuss and represented that. Also, we brought in new instruments for each artist. That helped us avoid record companies who wanted the same thing from us, every time. So labels that wanted [another] “Just Be Good to Me” got Cheryl Lynn’s “Encore,” with a totally different drum machine and bass pattern, then “Didn’t Mean to Turn You On,” by Cherelle which was a whole different thing. By the time we came back around to work with the S.O.S Band again, we had the same dish, but used different ingredients – the chef thing again.
All of those songs are from your early years, just after you’d left the Time. Weren’t you going to release a Jam & Lewis album in 1987?
Terry Lewis: After we were released from the Time — so graciously by Prince — our plan was to do a Jam & Lewis album. We fell in love with [Tabu Records founder and legendary executive] Clarence Avant when he brought us in to do the S.O.S. Band, and allowed us to create as we saw fit. Anything he wanted us to do was a joy, we could develop any creative motif we chose. Then Janet came along, we began working with her, and stayed sidetracked. One of the songs Jam and I planned for our album, “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” got commandeered by [then-A&M Records senior VP of A&R] John McClain for her album. That launched her solo career, and put our solo career on the back-burner. For 35 years, we’ve been threatening a solo album! After getting inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, we felt as if it was time to get a little bit selfish. But over those 35 years, we’ve worked with wonderful people we loved, and thought, when it came time for our album, to work with those people.
How did all those chef techniques apply to what you’re doing on “Volume One?”
Terry Lewis: The songs are still tailored to the artist.
But since this is your album, are you trying to tell two sets of stories with each track: theirs and yours?
Jimmy Jam: We’re always telling the artists’ stories, with the distinction being, this time, that our names are in slightly bigger letters. As artists, we are producers. I like the analogy of being basketball fans, which we are, watching key players run the ball: Some are three-point shooters, some dunk, then there are the assist guys who set up the score. The artists are the scorers; we’re the assist guys. We’re putting them in position to look good and be successful.
But how do you tell a Mariah story, a Toni story or a Mary J story while also telling a Jam & Lewis tale?
Jimmy Jam: With Mariah, we sent her something we thought would be cool for her. She liked it, but also had an idea that she wanted to sing for us – an a capella with a piano part. Great! It was an idea that she had for a song from before she had kids. We put it together with intricate arrangements, and of course, a beat. Two days later she sent something back, we mixed it, and it became “Somewhat Loved.”
“Happily Unhappy” with Toni Braxton came from something we had in our iPhones – something we’ve had forever in our “Book of Titles.” We continue the tradition we’ve had for ages, where if someone says something quotable, we write it down. She loved that we had that title and wrote a bridge from there.
Terry Lewis: Regarding the Book of Titles, my mother always told me, ‘A sharp pencil is better than a long memory.’ Writing stuff down is absolutely imperative.
Jimmy Jam: And Mary J? She constantly has ups and downs in her life, and her fans respond to that. It was important to us in the ending to “Spinnin’” that she figures it out, and is victorious — that she lets go.
You mentioned Prince ‘graciously releasing’ you from The Time. We always hear how his sound and work ethic influenced artists. How do you believe Jam & Lewis inspired Prince, changed how he heard things?
Terry Lewis: I’d like to think we made him proud. I know for a fact that he thought “What Have You Done for Me Lately” was his song, because he said it — he called it ‘my song.’ It was something he felt that he could have or should have written for himself, but we did. Prince was the greatest as far as I’m concerned. He stretched us, made us better musicians. We only became producers so that we could hear our songs the way we wanted to hear them. We learned from Prince, [artist/producer] Leon Sylvers III, and Quincy Jones, as well as watching the artists we worked with. And we made a lot of mistakes – we’ve got songs that we love so much that we’re keeping them to ourselves, not quite knowing how to get them done.
Jimmy Jam: Terry, you always say that it’s one thing to learn something, but another to apply it. We had an education under Prince and Quincy, watching Gamble & Huff and the Motown guys. Is the solo record we’re doing now different than the one we would have done in 1987? We know more and have a bigger tool kit. On the Prince thing, I remember playing him Janet’s “Rhythm Nation” for the first time, and it blew his mind because we sampled Sly & the Family Stone, his favorite. It wasn’t a competitive thing between us. He was proud. Speechless. It was like watching your kid do something great. He just laughed when he heard it. That moment may have changed his philosophy, how he did things.
Do you remember exactly when you and Terry decided it would be you and he, exclusively?
Jimmy Jam: It was love at first sight when I met Terry. I was 13, he was 16. Terry was sitting on his bed at an Upward Bound program at the University of Minnesota — even though we were both still in junior high — with his red, black and green bass, playing Kool & the Gang. I decided right then that I had to get to know this brother. I think he felt the same way when he allegedly saw me trying to woo some girls by playing piano in the lunchroom. (Laughter) We were drawn to each other. When we went our separate ways for a bit — he to a P-Funk-like band called Flyte Tyme, me to a Sound of Philly-inspired group Mind & Matter — we watched each other. Even when [one of] our bands kicked the other band’s ass, there was admiration. We finally figured out that we should make songs together, and when we did that with the Time, finally, and toured: We were around each other every day and grew to love each other even more. We shared values, morals, views on life, we even fell in love with our differences.
What we did do, in 1982, was shake hands, and say “50-50, everything is a partnership,” which eliminated nearly everything that we would ever disagree about. It takes any argument out of creative thinking, and you’re free to just make music.
Terry Lewis: Yes, Jimmy was playing for girls (laughs). With our contract, freedom is the biggest part of a good relationship, allowing one to grow into the talent they’re meant to be or direction they wish to go in. Inspiration is a driver. And look, I haven’t always been inspired. It took an artist, Usher, to come along and drive me into being creative again. Jam and I, of course, draw major inspiration from each other, but we always look to the artists. Usher gave me hope that there are still artists out there to feel connected to, who work hard, and put their trust in us, which in turn, makes us better producers. With that, we can get the best of them for them.
Was that the backstory to Usher’s “Do It Yourself,” on “Volume One”?
Terry Lewis: Usher always wanted to learn. Most people just want to sing the song and leave, go onto the next thing. Not Usher. He wanted to know things, study. He’s a studio rat, never shies away from repeating a performance or doing something different you request from him. As a talent, he’s phenomenal. In addition, the Avila Brothers [Bobby Ross and Iz Avila], co-workers of ours and the funnest musicians and songwriters available, are a part of that song’s mix.. It has a real band feel to it.
Speaking of a band vibe, “Babylove” on “Volume One” teams up the Roots with your former bandmates in the Time, Morris Day and Jerome Benton.
Jimmy Jam: Our main goal was to reunite Mo and Jerome, who haven’t worked together in a while. The banter and all the things you miss about the “Purple Rain” era — we wanted to bring that back and do a song that was lyrically true to the day. We’re not young guys anymore, so hitting on younger women, that’s meant as tongue-in-cheek. That the Roots got involved was icing on the cake. Quest, Terry and I struck up a relationship years ago when one of our artists opened for the Roots, and we played with them. He was amazed that we asked to open and came along to help out an artist, load in, and everything. The Time was always a great band, and those members are my favorite players. The Roots? They’re as good as it gets. That’s why “Babylove” is the last song on the album. We begin with Sounds of Blackness, which was the start of our 30+ year journey in relaunching our label. But it’s also Morris Day who was the roots — no pun intended — of where we started. So this album doesn’t have a beginning and an end, but rather, a beginning and a beginning.
As far beginnings go, if this is “Volume One,” should we assume there is a volume two in the works that might include Janet Jackson, who is surprisingly MIA on “Volume One”?
Jimmy Jam: “Volume Two” is in the works, with “Three,” “Four” and so forth to follow. Janet isn’t so much missing, any more than New Edition, S.O.S or Alexander O’Neal are missing. We have a nice long wish list and a nice set of volumes to fill.
Terry Lewis: There’s plenty of great music to go around. Hopefully we’ll make it all with everyone we want to make it with.
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