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Blockbusters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis: ‘Prince Marked Us’ | Pop and rock


SSome albums take a long time to make, but few have had the gestation period of Jam & Lewis: Volume One. The production duo began work on their debut artist album 36 years ago, just as their careers were taking off thanks to their hit single. SOS Band. Just be good to me, but they went astray working for a lesser figure with a couple of failed albums to her name: Janet Jackson.

Together they began to shape what would become their 1986 breakthrough with 10 million sales, which understandably “stopped the progress of our own album,” as 62-year-old Jimmy “Jam” Harris puts it today when he and His partner, Terry Lewis, 64, appears on a video call from their homes in Los Angeles. With Control ready to go, they wrote a song to themselves that sounded like the perfect calling card for a Jam & Lewis album. “We thought we were done with Control, so Janet’s manager came to hear the album,” says Harris. “We played him Nasty, When I Think Of You, The Pleasure Principle… And he says, ‘I just need one more song, for Janet.’ I say, ‘No, man, no.’ We get in the car to go to a restaurant, Terry plays a cassette and, on the third song, Janet’s manager says, ‘That’s the song I need.’

It was, inevitably, the song Harris and Lewis had destined for their own release, What Have You Done For Me Lately? “So his career started and ours ended, at least as artists,” Harris sighs. “That same scenario happened a lot. We’d work with someone and then we’d say, ‘Hey, do you want to do something for our album?’ They would say, ‘Great.’ Then when the song ended, they would say, ‘No, that’s too good, we have to keep that.’

Harris says they “finally got selfish” and embarked on their own album, which arrives with a star-studded guest list that includes Mary J Blige, Mariah Carey, The Roots and Usher, three years ago after trying to find out. what “we still had to do on our bucket list, or on our shit list, as Terry likes to call it: fuck it, let’s do it.”

Jam & Lewis in their studio.
Jam & Lewis in their studio. Photograph: Philip Cheung / The Guardian

What is left for them to do is not an unreasonable question for the couple. It’s hard to quantify how many records they’ve sold as producers and songwriters: apart from their association with Janet Jackson, who produced nine No. 1s in America, they’ve worked with her brother Michael, TLC, Kanye West, Spice Girls, Rod Stewart, George Michael, Bryan Adams, Luther Vandross, and Gwen Stefani, among many others. They’ve also garnered industry accolades: Harris was the first African-American to chair the Recording Academy, the organization behind the Grammy Awards. They are, Harris says, “in a good moment in our careers where we have nothing to prove, but a lot to say.”

They met at school in the early 1970s in Minneapolis. Harris says it was “love at first sight … I was an only child and I saw my older brother.” Lewis was impressed by the audience Harris attracted with his keyboard playing, “a group of three girls around him at the piano – he was serenade them. “They eventually began playing together at Flyte Time, a fixture in the city’s fiercely ambitious music scene.” We grew up in a competitive environment but also in an environment of racism, where we couldn’t play in the best clubs, “he says. Harris. “So we not only had to learn to play our instruments, but we also had to figure out how to bring out our talent. We became entrepreneurs and rented dance halls in hotels that were going to be demolished and filled them with people. other clubs would all be empty: ‘Where is everyone tonight?’ ‘Oh, they’re seeing the black band that you wouldn’t hire.’

They were already aware of the city’s rising star, Prince: he would come to their school to use their music room, dazzling everyone present with his ability to play any instrument, before he essentially took over Flyte Time, installing his friend Morris Day. as lead vocalist, renaming them Time and landing a record deal. Harris and Lewis enjoyed what we might call a fickle relationship with their new mentor. On the one hand, they were amazed and inspired by his talent and work ethic. “I would come to rehearse with The Time for four or five hours, then I would rehearse with The Revolution for four or five hours, soon go to the studio all night, ”marvels Harris. “The next day, he’d come into our rehearsal, put on a cassette, and, like, 1999 came out. ‘Oh, I did it last night.’ It’s like, ‘Oh my God, this is crazy.’

'I never had a problem with him being the boss, because he earned that right' ... Terry Lewis, left, with Jimmy Jam.
‘I never had a problem with him being the boss, because he earned that right’ … Terry Lewis, left, with Jimmy Jam. Photograph: Philip Cheung / The Guardian

On the other hand, Prince controlled: he wrote all the songs for Time and played all the instruments on his first two albums. “I never had a problem with him being the boss, because he earned that right,” says Lewis. “He had better ideas than any of us at the time. The problem only arose when he didn’t want us to share our ideas … we felt we were subject to some kind of indefinite marginalization so we started doing things … we needed to find outlets and when we did, he was shot down and told no we could do that. I think his biggest fear was that we would learn too much from being in his presence and then sharing it with the world in a way that he didn’t want us to. “

They started out as producers and songwriters as producers and songwriters as “moonlighting or night or whatever you want to call it”: pop-minded Harris provided the tunes, and George Clinton fan Lewis featured “the funky background.” It was an event that, according to Lewis, left Prince “just livid”: After they missed a Time concert, caught in a snowstorm en route to a recording session with the SOS Band, he fired them. But by then, they had started to have hits: with the SOS Band, Klymaxx and another Minneapolis native, Alexander O’Neal.

Then came Janet Jackson. They worked with her even though her career had stalled, Harris says, because they remembered her appearing on variety shows, “the Cher show or whatever, always with that fighting attitude,” and they thought her music to date it had not reflected it. They moved her from Los Angeles to Minneapolis, “a place where she knew she was going to be an artist, not an artist / actress,” they threw their craziest production ideas at her: booming, almost industrial beats, stabs of dramatic synths, and samples. “I wasn’t scared, I would try anything,” says Harris. “It was literally like a blank canvas and we could throw away any paint, we could put watercolors, we could do oil, we could do abstract art, fine art, we could do anything and she could do everything.”

Alexander O'Neal during a recording session with Jam & Lewis in Minneapolis in 1988.
Alexander O’Neal during a recording session with Jam & Lewis in Minneapolis in 1988. Photograph: Jim Steinfeldt / Getty Images

The results were surprising and defined a certain kind of futuristic ’80s funk. Almost uniquely in the anonymous world of producers, they also developed a visual identity: I’m a bit disappointed that the two figures on my laptop screen are not dressed in the Jam & Lewis regulation uniform of matching suits, ties, sunglasses and pig. cake hats – and he turned out to be spectacularly adept at what Lewis calls the “overwhelming” business of production. It’s not just the music you have to worry about, he says, you also have to be good at “psychology-slash-psychiatry.” They proved as capable of changing the fortunes of a sick British synth pop band (America’s number one human in the Human League) as they were of adapting material to soul legends: Barry White, Earth, Wind & Fire, Aretha. Franklin. “What we have with artists is more of a hobby than anything else; that relationship comes first, ”says Lewis. “We try to navigate back to that position and say: OK, this is the kind of album as a fan that I would love to hear you perform. We don’t really take into account where the other music is today, or the analysis and all those things that people go through. “

Among those whose ears perked was Michael Jackson, who apparently had a particular fondness for the more difficult tracks the duo had devised for his sister – Nasty, Rhythm Nation, The Knowledge – and requested the services of the duo. “He loved superhero music, as I call it,” says Lewis, “music that splashes and is rushed and like, industrial.”

When he appeared to record the next single Scream, it was, Harris says, “the most shocking moment we’ve had in the studio,” even though Jackson initially seemed to be doing everything wrong. “He’s dancing, stomping around, clinking clothes, all the things you’re not supposed to do in a recording studio. And we were like little girls: ‘Aaaah! It’s Michael Jackson! ‘”. But Jackson delivered a brutally funky performance. “He takes her shot, kills her and says, ‘How was that?’ We thought, ‘Yy-yeah, Mike, that’s good!’ Janet was supposed to do her take right after Michael finished. She just leans in and says, ‘I’ll do my voice in Minneapolis.’ She didn’t want to participate in following Michael … that is how crazy it was. “

In the wake of their debut artist album, there is talk of a Jam & Lewis tour, an intriguing prospect. They haven’t played live since they left Time, but as anyone who has seen an old YouTube video of Time knows, they were very good performers – Prince made sure their shows were as well-trained and choreographed as their own concerts. “I always thought I was a better fit behind the scenes,” says Harris. “If I look at myself on stage, I think: I prefer to look at someone else. I’m more excited to see New Edition or Boyz II Men, or Mary J Blige or Mariah singing our songs than actually being on stage. But with that said, the opportunity to be on stage with Terry is very tempting. We realize, as we age, or rather, as we age like a good wine, that there are fewer first few times that we are going to be able to experience in our life. We have to remind people that this is a new experience for us. It does not mean that we are not producers, we are not giving up anything else. But those first few times, we really appreciated them. “

Jam & Lewis: Volume One Releases July 9 on Flyte Tyme Records / BMG


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