Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis may very well be the most legendary creative force in modern R&B music history. The duo have been responsible for #1 hits spanning from the early 80s all the way to hits by Mary J. Blige and Usher in 2002; and they show no signs of slowing down. During the New Jack Era, Jam & Lewis updated their style to stay current – and they did so with astonishing results. While Teddy Riley blazed trails and LA & Babyface crafted hits, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis made magic.
In the Beginning…
Hailing from the cold (and not-so-diverse) city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, James Harris III (b. June 6, 1959) and Terry Lewis (b. Nov 24, 1956) first met up in junior high circa 1975. An immediate contemporary of the two was a young musical genius by the name of Prince Rogers Nelson, who by that time was already making a name for himself locally with his band, Grand Central. Jody Watley’s future producer Andre Cymone played bass for Grand Central, while Morris Day was the drummer. Prince played lead guitar and also handled lead vocals. Jimmy Jam (who could play both drums and keyboards) even auditioned for Prince’s band – but keyboarder Matt Fink got the gig instead.
In the late 1970s, Terry Lewis and a drummer named Jellybean Johnson established a band named Flyte Tyme. Meanwhile, Jimmy Jam was earning his stripes as a DJ at the Disco-trek (a Minneapolis teen dance spot), and by 1980 earned his nickname for his ability to send club patrons into a frenzy. Jimmy Jam was also playing keyboards and drums with two local bands then.
In 1980, Prince had already been signed to Warner Brothers, and was releasing his third LP, Dirty Mind. Things were really heating up around the Minneapolis music scene, and all of the artists involved suddenly found themselves at the right place at the right time. Flyte Tyme now included lead singer Alexander O’Neal, keyboard player Monte Moir, and Jimmy Jam, also on keyboards. At a club named the Nacirema, Flyte Tyme was able to establish a residency and attract industry attention. The local success of Flyte Tyme caught Prince’s eye, so he decided to help them get signed. However, differences erupted between Flyte Tyme lead singer Alexander O’Neal and Prince, so O’Neal was replaced by Morris Day, Prince’s former drummer. From there, Prince renamed Flyte Tyme as simply, The Time.
Into The Limelight…
The Time toured with Prince throughout the early 1980s, and released several albums while scoring with hits like “The Bird” and “777-9311.” However, Jimmy & Terry had started writing songs while on the road with The Time. Jam & Lewis sent their demos to Dick Griffey’s Sounds Of Los Angeles Records (SOLAR), where their efforts resulted in production work with Klymaxx. Then they sent their demos to Clarence Avant at Tabu Records, and were immediately tapped to work on the S.O.S. Band. The results were a classic string of hits, beginning with a hit entitled called “Just Be Good To Me.”
However, it was precisely Jam & Lewis’ production work with the S.O.S. Band that angered Prince enough to want to dismiss them from The Time. The most famous conflict between Prince and the duo involved their missing a concert due to inclement weather (they couldn’t fly out from Atlanta where they were with the S.O.S. Band to make a Time show in San Antonio). Prince reportedly fined the duo $3000 each, and soon afterwards, Jam & Lewis and The Time mutually parted ways.
In 1983, Jam & Lewis did production work with Cherelle, and Cheryl Lynn. By 1984, the duo had reclaimed the name Flyte Tyme for their newly formed production company based in Minneapolis. Work with artists like Change, and former bandmate Alexander O’Neal followed over the next two years. In 1985, Jam & Lewis scored their first Billboard top ten Pop hit with Force M.D.’s “Tender Love,” originally just a demo. Later that year, A&M executive John McClain introduced the duo to television actress Janet Jackson – primarily known then as Michael’s cute little sister.
The Magic Begins…
When Janet and Jam & Lewis got together, they created an album that reflected the things that were going on in Janet’s life during that time period. The breakthrough success of the ‘Control’ album with its six top ten singles earned the duo a Best Producer Grammy in 1987. “When I Think Of You” became the first Jam & Lewis single to go #1 on the Pop chart.
Next up was a song for the Human League, a UK-based synth-pop act that badly needed a hit. John McClain of A&M hooked them up with Jam & Lewis, and the result was “Human,” a perfect blend of Pop and R&B, with delicate background vocals by frequent Flyte Tyme collaborator, Lisa Keith. “Human” became the duo’s second #1 Pop single.
After some work with A&M artist (and co-owner) Herb Alpert (“Diamonds,” “Making Love In The Rain”), Jam & Lewis had set their sights on working with a promising new solo artist named Johnny Gill. However, Johnny had decided that he wanted to join New Edition. Jam & Lewis had no problem with this since they had just produced N.E.’s “Helplessly In Love” record for the 1987 Dragnet soundtrack. However, they recognized the Johnny Gill/New Edition combination presented a significant challenge: New Edition was going to have to evolve from a bubblegum act into a full-fledged R&B group to suit the Luther-esque (Vandross) vocal quality of Gill.
In the end the challenge paid off: New Edition’s Heart Break album went double platinum, largely fueled by the hits “Can You Stand The Rain?” and “If It Isn’t Love.” Also, the Heart Break album effectively reinvented the members of New Edition, and single-handedly served as the launching pad for the wildly successful N.E. spin-off acts to come later. Heart Break is probably New Edition’s best album.
Amid the success of the N.E. project, Jam & Lewis got back together with Janet Jackson to record her follow-up to Control. Once again the trio sat down to discuss what was going on in Ms. Jackson’s life, and where her thoughts were. The result was a socially conscious album named Rhythm Nation 1814, released September 19, 1989. By this point, it was quickly becoming clear that commercially and creatively speaking, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis were definitely on a roll. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation album would go on to spawn seven top five singles, four of them reaching #1 on the Billboard pop chart – no other artist has yet to break this record. Additionally, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 World Tour remains the most commercially successful debut tour in history…
Into the 90s…
Even after New Edition went on hiatus at the end of the Heart Break tour, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis played a major role in each member’s subsequent career. It was a Jam & Lewis idea for the remaining members of N.E. to form Bell Biv Devoe while the duo collaborated with their informal rivals, L.A. & Babyface on Johnny Gill’s solo project. Ralph Tresvant’s solo project was also helmed by Jam & Lewis, spawning the #1 hit, “Sensitivity.”
In the summer/fall of 1991, Jimmy & Terry formed the Perspective Records label with distribution on A&M. Perhaps sensing the winds of change at the end of the New Jack Era, Jam & Lewis began to produce music with a more “urban” focus. The first few releases from Perspective Records were a gospel group named the Sounds Of Blackness, and debut albums by two bands: Lo-Key, and Mint Condition. Mint Condition was probably Perspective Records’ biggest success story.
Terry Lewis wed former LaFace-associated artist Karyn White while co-producing the majority of her sophomore LP, Ritual Of Love. Then by the summer of 1992, Jam & Lewis had completed their work on the Mo’ Money soundtrack’ released around the same time L.A. & Babyface’s Boomerang soundtrack hit the streets. Janet Jackson and Luther Vandross performed the duet “The Best Things In Life Are Free” along with cameos from BBD and Ralph Tresvant. Ralph also scored his last major hit with “Money Can’t By You Love,” and Color Me Badd had a winner with the ballad “Forever Love.”
In 1993, Jam & Lewis unveiled their third collaboration with Janet Jackson, simply called janet. The project’s first single “That’s The Way Love Goes” today remains Janet Jackson’s biggest hit, and proved an excellent way to reintroduce the superstar during the post New Jack Era. The duo also scored a minor hit in “La La Love” that year with Bobby Ross Avila, a solo artist signed to Perspective.
The Magic Continues…
While Jam & Lewis nurtured their decidedly more “urban” artist roster on Perspective (i.e. Solo, Krush, Ann Nesby, etc.) they still found time to work their magic in 1994 with Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee” from the II album released that fall. Michael Jackson recruited the duo to work on the HIStory album, and the result included “Scream,” the album’s first single — and Michael’s first duet with his sister Janet.
In 1996, Jam & Lewis worked on New Edition’s reunion LP, and scored with the album’s second single, “Still In Love.” Then in 1997, the duo blessed Mary J. Blige’s third album with “Love Is All We Need” and the megahit, “Everything.” Later that year, Janet Jackson returned with the Velvet Rope album boasting an updated, post-Timbaland/Missy style that sounded nothing like anything Jam & Lewis had done before, compliments of newly-hired Flyte Tyme staff member, Alex Richbourg.
Meanwhile, Mint Condition seemed to be the only act on Perspective Records that was enjoying commercial success. By the time 1997 rolled around, the label (and it’s major label distributor A&M) had folded and was renamed Flyte Tyme. In 1998, the duo’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back soundtrack’ (released on Flyte Tyme/distributed by MCA) failed to live up to Babyface’s 1995 Waiting To Exhale soundtrack – both films were based on novels by Terry McMillan. But by this time, the Cheiron Pop Era (The Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, *Nsync) was beginning to dominate popular music, while traditional R&B seemed to take a backseat until 2001.
Entering The New Millennium And Beyond…
In 1999, Jam & Lewis did some pop music production work on former ‘New Kid’ Jordan Knight’s solo debut, and in 2000 they also worked with Mariah Carey on her Rainbow album (“Thank God I Found You”). Later that fall, Janet Jackson released “Doesn’t Really Matter” from the ‘Nutty Professor II: Soundtrack’, and by the spring of 2001, her ‘All For You’ album was unveiled for the world to enjoy. In August 2001, Usher returned with ‘8701’ featuring substantial production by Jam & Lewis, including the hit “U Remind Me”. Now in 2002, Jam & Lewis can be proud of their latest blockbuster hit, Mary J. Blige’s “No More Drama”…
In all, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis have scored over 25 #1 R&B singles, and over 15 #1 Pop hits. They have been nominated as Producers of the Year by the Grammy Awards SEVEN times. Jam & Lewis were awarded their own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and are largely considered the most successful production duo in contemporary music history. For more on Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, visit their official Facebook Page