Pop Playground
The Divas



if we judged Jam and Lewis by the company they keep, we wouldn't be devoting this space to them. For every powerhouse collaborator like Ann Nesby or Gladys Knight, there's at least one Minnie Mouse like Cherrelle or Ralph Tresvant. But then, picking apart their work like that would be missing the point—when Jam and Lewis are at their best, they're in perfect synergy with their vocalist (the most obvious example being their Voltron-like formation with Janet Jackson—for the past 20 years, they've crafted widely assorted and reliably perfect pillows of sound for her eggshell of a voice). Here's a rundown of five divas Jam and Lewis have helped mold throughout their career.


Cherrelle

Cherrelle isn't half the virtuoso behind the mic that Jam and Lewis are behind the boards, but as one of the production duo's earliest protégés, the squeaky Cherrelle was still a decent fit. Her candy-apple voice was tacky enough to complement Jam and Lewis' showy, zapping synths and pummeling drums (they, like many in the post-disco/boogie era, seemed utterly seduced by the technology at their fingertips, as though they needed to put the future to good use because they'd finally reached it). Cherrelle, Pebbles' cousin and Whitney Houston's future friend (and a long-term one, at that—she appeared in an episode of Being Bobby Brown last year), would go on to record three albums (at least in part) with Jam and Lewis—1984's Fragile, 1986's High Priority, and 1988's Affair—before parting ways (only to reunite on 1999's The Right Time). The best results of the long-lasting collaboration are the sonic equivalent of lace gloves—sleazy, transparent, and totally awesome.

Choice Cut(s)
"I Didn't Mean To Turn You On" is the iconic track, but Cherrelle's version isn't the definitive one (nor is Robert Palmer's molesty cover—see below to find out the winner). You're best off grabbing the slower-paced "Saturday Love," in which Cherrelle goes toe-to-toe not just with Jam and Lewis but also with one bellowing Alexander O'Neal, and thrillingly holds her own.


Thelma Houston

Disco-era diva Thelma Houston's career seemed as crushed as the vinyl at Comiskey Park throughout the early '80s. But the woman who most famously pleaded "Don't leave me this way," received her wish when she hooked up with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for her 1984 album, Qualifying Heat. Their band, the Secret, played on the first half of the record, and Jam and Lewis themselves produced two of the album's singles, the first-wave freestyle (and total mouthful) "I'd Rather Spend the Bad Times With You Than Spend the Good Times With Someone New" and what would become one of the biggest hits of Houston's career, "You Used to Hold Me So Tight."

Choice Cut(s)
"You Used to Hold Me So Tight," please. It's a boogie classic, a sly jam that deceives you with its speed (it seems much slower than it is, as Houston turns back time to "the old, good days" with help from a maudlin melody), electrocutes you with its synths, and cold cocks you with percussive thwacks. Love that deep hurts.


Karyn White

Under Babyface and L.A. Reid's tutelage on her debut, Karyn White told us that she wasn't our "Superwoman." She didn't have to say that twice—her delicate reed-thin voice seemed perpetually on the brink of snapping in half. She proved to be surprisingly malleable with her sophomore release, Ritual of Love, which was dominated by Jam and Lewis bigger-beat productions, including the U.S. No. 1 "Romantic." The clumsy stomper was far more anonymous than anything they ever gave Janet, though it did give White the opportunity to reprise the pseudo-rapping skills she flexed on her early hit, "Secret Rendezvous" ("If you want romance / You've got to work at every chance you get…"). Gangsta! White and Lewis married in 1992 and they consummated their union with 1994's Make Him Do Right, the most dance-oriented of her three albums. Do Right, which also found her re-teamed with Babyface, failed, and eventually, so did the marriage. Hmmm.

Choice Cut(s)
"Romantic" is worth revisiting, but even more impressive is Ritual of Love's unsuccessful third single, "Walkin' the Dog." The ode to keeping men on short leashes is maybe the only early '90s R&B; single to reference canines and not use an interpolation of or sample from George Clinton's "Atomic Dog." Amazing!


Mariah Carey

Having a finger in the pot of just about every major R&B; producer of the '90s (save, curiously, Timbaland), it was only a matter of time before Carey hooked up with Jam and Lewis. Bizarrely, the seeming match made in pop heaven marked the start of Carey's commercial downturn. On 1999's Rainbow, Jam and Lewis reprised their knack for turning out forgettable No. 1s ("Thank God I Found You"). The collaboration also resulted in a spate of generically produced weepies, including the Dianne Warren co-penned "Can't Take That Away (Mariah's Theme)," which barely made a cameo in the Top 40 before plummeting. Jam and Lewis also helmed half of the disastrous Glitter soundtrack and a few songs on 2002's similarly unappreciated Charmbracelet. Probably no matter what Carey released at this point would have flopped—after being so spoiled in the 90’s, the public was ready to see her fall. Jam and Lewis merely provided a pile of cheese to soften the blow.

Choice Cut(s)
Glitter's "I Didn't Mean To Turn You On" owns virtually everything else on the album. It sounds like a synth-for-synth copy of Cherrelle's original, so it acts primarily as a showcase for Carey's interpretation. After storming through a subtlety-free decade, Carey finally seems to get it—she understands the song's irony and plays coquette, especially when cooing the title. So maybe she didn't mean it—you still get why "you" were turned on. Elsewhere, Charmbracelet’s "Yours" is a super-sweet recasting of "Tender Love," which Jam and Lewis produced for Force MDs in 1985, and Rainbow’s "Bliss" rivals Carey's TRL striptease as her most outrageous moment caught on tape. She's positively Ripperton-esque over Jam and Lewis' breezy, slow-pump sex jam, as she, in that trademark dog whistle, wails "On and on and on and on an on" throughout the choruses. Can you really resist voyeurism?


Alexander O'Neal

Oh hell yeah, he's a diva. Repeatedly, O'Neal has been called the greatest singer Jam and Lewis have ever worked with. And maybe that's the problem. While it seems to be the Stylus consensus, the albums of his that are considered classics, 1985's Alexander O'Neal and 1986's Hearsay, are largely duds. They're victims of the post-boogie maximizing of R&B; that, in its piling on of layers, forgot how effective a few well-placed synth zaps could be. If anything, O'Neal needed space that Jam and Lewis would not (maybe they thought O'Neal had the power to stand out against the sonic mush they worked out for him) or could not (maybe they just didn't know how to handle a massive voice at that point) provide. The No. 1 rule of divadom is that the diva must be bigger and shine brighter than the song. Sadly, O'Neal spent the height of his fame just peeking through.

Choice Cut(s)
The 10-minute opus "Innocent/Alex 900/Innocent II" from O'Neal's self-titled debut, is a rare fantastic early collaboration with Jam and Lewis. It's wild electrofunk that literally riffs on Prince via a climactic, sprightly guitar solo (payback for Prince's banishment of O'Neal from the Time?). Even better is "All True Man" from the 1991 album of the same name, with its devastating pre-chorus bridge, mid-tempo strut, and production that wisely avoids stepping on O'Neal's toes. Brains over brawn, it turns out, is the way to go.


By: Rich Juzwiak
Published on: 2006-04-20
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