When Janet Jackson spent her first week in Minneapolis getting ready to record what would become her multi-platinum album, Control, she was unaware that her new producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, were busy taking notes on her personal life.
Jam and Lewis were doing their kind of research, gathering the raw material from which they would fashion a batch of semibiographical hit songs — “Control,” “Nasty,” “What Have You Done for Me Lately” — that revealed a shockingly emancipated Janet Jackson and subsequently transformed her into the major new superstar of 1986. Of such unorthodox songwriting methods, Jimmy Jam says simply, “All we ever try to do is bring out the personality. Janet was like a stick of dynamite. We lit the fuse.”
Unusual though it may be, the Jam-Lewis approach has made them the hottest record producers in America, a fact that was driven home in February, when they won the Grammy Award for Producer of the Year, beating out such established industry favorites as Paul Simon, David Foster, Michael Omartian and Russ Titelman and Steve Winwood.
Last year Jam and Lewis wrote and/or produced seven Top Ten hits: “Tender Love,” for the Force M.D.’s, “Human,” for the Human League, “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On,” recorded by Robert Palmer, and the three aforementioned hits, as well as “When I Think of You,” for Janet Jackson. About 15 million records produced and written by Jam and Lewis were sold in 1986. Publishing royalties alone made them millionaires before either turned thirty. During one particularly lucrative week, Jimmy Jam, who is twenty-eight, went out and bought his dream car, a $108,000 Ferrari Testarossa. He paid cash.
Their careers show no sign of slowing down. They began 1987 with “Let’s Wait Awhile,” the fifth hit off Control, entering the Top Ten and Herb Alpert’s “Keep Your Eye on Me,” which they wrote and produced, climbing the pop and black charts. They’re hopeful that the albums they’re writing and producing for the soul singers Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal will be major hits. They’re readying the first album by their own group, the Secret, and they’ll be key figures in the eagerly anticipated reunion of the Time, which should yield a film (costarring Janet Jackson), an album and a tour by the end of 1988. Still, Jam is philosophical about the future. “We may never have another year like 1986.”
Jimmy Jam once said, “If Terry Lewis were a woman, I’d marry him.” Inseparable buddies since high school, Jam and Lewis are a couple of larger-than-life characters, never seen in public without their trademark black fedoras and shades. Dressed in the hippest, most stylish threads, towering Jimmy Jam looks like a funk Buddha, with his immaculately trimmed beard and mustache, a ponytail hanging halfway down his back, diamonds gleaming from his left ear and off his fingers, a serene expression on his face. Thirty-year-old Terry Lewis, by contrast, is the class clown, doing the “James Brown” across a shoe store to see if a pair of “pimp shoes” — outrageous slip-ons covered with black-and-white flames — measure up. Fingering a pair of $200 dress shoes, Lewis grins: “I know I’m in the high-end district when I feel the leather.”
Style comes naturally to the pair. “Jimmy Jam always looks like he’s just come out of the tailor’s,” says Human League singer Philip Oakey. “The coolest. Terry looks great as well. In the studio, I normally wear a T-shirt and jeans, but I had to change my clothing habits while I was there. I started wearing suits. I had to. People would say, ‘Where’s the singer?'”
In just four years, Jam and Lewis have emerged as the Gamble and Huff of the Eighties, auteur producers whose body of work has a musical and thematic unity that transcends the work of the individual artists they produce. Songs like “Saturday Love,” sung by Alexander O’Neal and Cherrelle, “Just Be Good to Me,” performed by the S.O.S. Band, “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On,” originally sung by Cherrelle, “Human” and “What Have You Done for Me Lately” are melodramatic tales of love and loss, sexual awakening and rejection, that take commonplace boy-girl scenarios and blow them up to cinematic proportions.
Sitting in a Minneapolis ribs joint, Jam and Lewis are trying to explain how they come up with the hits. “Reality. We try to go for that in our songs,” explains Jam. “We write about everyday life but try to do it with a unique twist.”
On the one hand — as the first side of Control makes clear — Jam and Lewis are masters of the modern funk groove. What they call their “ignorant” dance tracks are hip enough to fill up club dance floors as they bullet up the charts. But Jam and Lewis are equally adept at producing commercial pop ballads — “chocolate music,” as their mentor, Prince, once put it — silky blends of black and white influences best exemplified by their Number One pop hit “Human.”
“With ‘Human,’ I think the lyrics came out of just thinking about relationships,” says Lewis, who is married and is the father of two young children. “Men always express that they go out and do what they have to do, and they come home and the woman forgives them and everything is wonderful. But a woman never speaks up. She’ll go do her do [have an affair] and tiptoe back home, and you never know it. So I thought it would be cool to have this little twist where the woman comes in and says, ‘Yeah, that’s cool. You was human. I forgive you, but let me see if you can take this shit. While you was gone, I was human too.'”
“They have such a wealth of musicality between them — everything from Stravinsky to James Brown,” says John McClain, the A&M Records executive who paired them with both Janet Jackson and the Human League. “When you have that kind of musical palette, there are just so many influences you can draw from. They have so much depth.”
James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis met while participating in an Upward Bound program at a Minneapolis college. Jam, whose father played piano in a jazz band, was a drummer before settling on keyboards. But he always wanted to be a record producer. “I tended to fall in love with the writers and arrangers and producers,” he says. “I would buy records because somebody I liked produced it. Gamble and Huff were the main cats.”
Lewis was a star high-school athlete until an injury put an end to his hopes of a sports career. A naturally talented bass player, he put together a band he named Flyte Tyme. “They practiced down in my basement,” says Vernetta Benton, Terry’s mother. “If they played too loud, I just stomped on the floor and told them to tum it down. I didn’t mind, though. It kept them off the street.”
In January 1981, Lewis asked Jam to join Flyte Tyme. A few months later the group got its big break when Prince called. Flyte Tyme vocalist Alexander O’Neal was replaced with Morris Day, and the group was dubbed the Time.
“We knew going in what was happening,” says Jam. “Prince was going to call the shots. We weren’t going to get paid a lot of money, but we were going to learn. We were not going to make a bunch of mistakes Prince had made. This was an opportunity to get the fuck out of here and do something.”
They became professionals while playing in the Time. “I remember when we were first rehearsing for the second tour,” says Jam. “Prince would walk over to the keyboard: ‘Okay, you can never have a lazy hand. You’ve got to be fillin’ in stuff. Jimmy, what are you doing? You got to do this.’ I said, ‘That ain’t even on the record.’ He said, ‘You do better than on the record.’ So okay, fine. Next thing: ‘Jimmy, what note are you singing?’ ‘You didn’t give me a note, Prince.’ ‘Okay, here’s a note for you to sing.’ So now I’m doing this part and I’m singing a note. Next thing I’m dancing, too. It’s like there’s no way I can do this. He rehearsed us into the ground. Next day I’m playing this shit like it’s second nature. He’d come in to our rehearsal and do that, then he’d go to his rehearsal and do it, and then he’d go home and write some songs or record. You come away from that experience definitely having the work ethic. You believe in yourself.”
By 1982, Jam and Lewis were moonlighting as record producers, despite Prince’s displeasure. Things came to a head the following year when a snowstorm in Atlanta, where they were producing “Just Be Good to Me” for the S.O.S. Band, caused them to miss the flight to a Time gig in San Antonio. Prince fined them $900 each, about a month’s pay, then fired them. “It devastated me,” admits Lewis. “I didn’t think I’d miss being famous or making money; I’d miss being with the fellas. These are the guys I grew up with. It was like taking your family and splitting it in half. ‘You and Jimmy go away.”
Actually, Prince had inadvertently done them a favor. “That was the first time that we got serious about producing,” says Jam. They spent the next few years generating heat in the dance clubs and on the black charts with records they either wrote or wrote and produced for the S.O.S. Band, Cherrelle, Klymaxx, Patti Austin, Cheryl Lynn, Change and Gladys Knight. “Up to that time it was just fun. ‘Hey, let’s write some songs. Ha-ha, this is fun.’ All of a sudden, it’s like ‘Fuck, this is how I’m going to make my living now.'”
Now everyone wants to work with Jam and Lewis. Their business manager, Clarence Avant, has fielded calls from Whitney Houston, Lionel Richie, Patti LaBelle, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Olivia Newton-John, Stevie Wonder, Hall and Oates, New Edition and others. They’ve turned most of the offers down.
“It’s very hard to work with a legend,” says Jam of the offer to work with Franklin. “I would have been feeling very stupid telling Aretha what to do. ‘No, Aretha, sing it like this.’ What are you gonna tell Aretha Franklin? I couldn’t do it. Anyway, we’d just as soon take the chance and work with the underdog.”
One day in mid-February, Jam is sequestered at Flyte Tyme, the pair’s Minneapolis recording studio, where he’s working with a classic underdog, Pia Zadora. Down the hall, Lewis is patiently coaching Alexander O’Neal through a lead vocal. Flyte Tyme feels more like a clubhouse than a recording studio. Buddies like former Time members Jellybean Johnson (now a Flyte Tyme producer) and Jerome Benton (Lewis’s half brother) can often be found shooting pool in the back of the studio or watching videos in the lounge. Lewis and Jam slip easily from a vigorous ping-pong game with Cherrelle and Benton into producing a potential hit, like “Never Knew Love Like This,” which sounds destined to be a smash for O’Neal.
Not only do Jam and Lewis write the songs, play much of the music and handle the production, but they work only at Flyte Tyme. Janet Jackson wasn’t thrilled about leaving the protective cocoon of her Valley-girl life to brave the Minneapolis chill. But now it’s no problem, Jam says. “People would kill if we said, ‘Oh, we’re not going to record in Minneapolis. We’ll come out to L.A.'”
“‘No!’ ” shouts Lewis, mimicking a hysterical singer. “‘No! Wait! I’m not getting the real treatment. I am not a stepchild. You have to treat me right!'”
Using the recording studio as their instrument, Jam and Lewis whip up new songs in no time. With the music “in the pocket,” Lewis consults his “famous book of titles,” a notebook in which he’s jotted hundreds of potential song titles. That’s where he found “Keep Your Eye on Me,” the title for the Herb Alpert tune. They have written lyrics at the eleventh hour, finishing them moments before a session — sometimes during the session.
For Cherrelle, who told them that all her life she had to fend off nearly every guy she so much as smiled at, they wrote “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On.” “It’s easy to write songs,” Jam says. “We say to Pia [Zadora], ‘Go to dinner. We’ll come up with a new song for you.’ She’ll come back from dinner, and we’ll have something. It’s all spur of the moment. That’s the way we work. It all falls together.”
They’ve always worked this way. “It started back playing those clubs in the old days,” says Lewis. “You play all your good songs, and everybody be looking at you: ‘You gonna do that new Teddy Pendergrass? You don’t know that new O’Jays?’ And we’d be making up some of our own songs, telling them, ‘This is a new song by Waylon Jennings.'” He looks at Jam, and they crack up. “We’ve improvised all our lives. Life is improvising.”
It’s after midnight at A&M Records’ post-Grammy party at Spago, the ultratrendy Hollywood restaurant that overlooks Sunset Boulevard, and the glad-handing and backslapping is in full swing. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, outfitted in their matching “brims” and Ray-Ban shades, are among those most sought after.
“I got to meet these guys ’cause they’re so bitchin’,” says producer David Foster. Shaking Jam’s hand, he adds, “I was rootin’ for you guys. Excellent work.” Lewis poses with Jerry Moss (the M in A&M Records), then he and Jam work their way through a sea of tuxedoed executives. “I know you’ll give me an AOR radio track I can work with,” an A&M promotion man says to Jam.
Reaching the less-crowded back room, Lewis does a few nimble dance steps, then considers his Grammy. “My first thought was ‘Me? Okay, cool.’ The second thought was ‘We won!’ I had to kiss my wife. Then it was time to go get the award. It felt natural. Felt like I should have had that! Felt like I should have been accepting that award. So I want to have fun with the night. Tomorrow it’s back to work.”