few years ago, a friend sent me a copy of a promo boxed set he’d snagged from a used-record store, titled EMI Music Publishing Proudly Presents Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. It was a special piece pressed specifically to celebrate Jam & Lewis—maybe there was some sort of celebratory L.A. dinner, or perhaps it was just made to encourage licensors to use their catalog in TV and film, I really don’t know. What I do know is that you pretty much can’t find it in any store (though you can, on rare occasion, find it listed on eBay), and that I don’t think there’s a piece of music I’ve listened to—or enjoyed—more in the past three years.
The set is made up of an awesome 78 songs, spanning from Klymaxx’s “Wild Girls” (the first time Jam & Lewis, as they’ll be referred to forever, produced and wrote as a team, for the girls’ 1982 debut Girls Will Be Girls) to Janet Jackson’s 1995 top 5 hit “Runaway” (a new song tacked on to her skimpy A&M contractual best-of, Design of a Decade). Over the course of four discs, you essentially receive a crash course in the R&B between those two dates, from the S.O.S. Band (their first significant success as producers and writers) to Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal (some of their most definitive work outside of you know who), to Janet Jackson (forever their crowning achievement—and hers), through work for New Edition (together, on Heart Break, and solo, for both Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant at the height of New Jack Swing-slash-Swingbeat [depending upon which side of the Atlantic you reside on]) and the gospel choir Sounds of Blackness (their first success as label heads, running Perspective Records), ending with various and assorted mid-‘90s work for hire (for icons such as Patti LaBelle, Boyz II Men, and Barry White).
Yes, they’re still working together—it’s not as if they ceased-and-desisted at the end of ’95 —and, in fact, were nominated for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical at this year’s Grammys (they won the award once, in 1987). In the past year, their most notable studio work has been on Jessica Simpson’s “These Pizza-Bites—Er, Boots—Were Made For Walkin’” (okay, so magic doesn’t happen every time, even when you’re Jam & Lewis); they’ve also logged time working with gospel star Yolanda Adams, R&B singer Heather Headley, and Earth, Wind & Fire. That means, obviously, that their profile’s lower these days, and I’d be baldly lying if I even attempted to tell you that their work lately is a patch on their prime years, largely those captured on Proudly Presents. But they’ve still got it, as evidenced by their recent work with Gwen Stefani and Usher. And even more importantly, that 10-to-15-year run is basically unrivalled in pop history.
Their work with Alexander O’Neal, perhaps even more than their ongoing 20-year relationship with Janet Jackson, provides a tidy summation of who Jam & Lewis are. O’Neal was the original lead singer of Flyte Tyme, the Minneapolis R&B group Jam & Lewis were members of (the group later became The Time). Prince reportedly clashed with O’Neal, which led to the latter’s departure from the band. After a few years of wandering the musical wilderness, O’Neal was signed to Clarence Avant’s new label Tabu Records, whose star attraction at the time was the S.O.S. Band—who were, whaddaya know, largely being produced by O’Neal’s former band mates Jam & Lewis. (By this point, they too had parted ways the Time, supposedly due to being late for their own concert. One of their first producing gigs, with the S.O.S. Band, was followed by some bad weather which prevented them from flying on time and making said concert. Being the notorious taskmaster he’s known as, Prince fired ‘em.) Jam & Lewis ended up handling much of the production and writing for O’Neal’s self-titled 1985 debut.
It’s been said by plenty of people, and I’ll join the chorus right here: O’Neal is unquestionably the finest singer Jam & Lewis have ever had the privilege of working with. That includes Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Barry White, and Ann Nesby, not to mention Janet. Like the finest, softest leather glove, O’Neal’s voice can just as easily caress as slap you—and make it sting. That voice was put to fine use on his debut, from his crooning on the lovely shuffler “A Broken Heart Can Mend” to the iron lungs he displays on the cyborg-soul of “Innocent/Alex 9000/Innocent II.” The quartet of songs Jam & Lewis provided O’Neal with here (the others being “What’s Missing” and “You Were Meant to Be My Lady”) are chock-loaded with what were already becoming their signatures at the time: perfectly-placed synth squiggles, whipcrack percussion tracks, a tendency to pull back during the choruses and let the singer do his thing (check out the way O’Neal soars on “What’s Missing,” especially on its stunning bridge: “I’d walk from New York to L.A. / Swim the ocean in a hurricane,” et.al.).
O’Neal’s sophomore effort, 1987’s Hearsay, would in Friends parlance be called The One Where Everything Came Together. This is the finest R&B album of the ‘80s not made by Prince, a perfect marriage of songs, production, and singer. Apart from “Criticize,” which O’Neal co-wrote with Garry Johnson, Jam & Lewis wrote and produced every song on the album, and played most of its instruments, too. Just take the backing vocals on the lush “The Lovers,” especially its trading-lines chorus—Jam & Lewis produce them so that a mere four voices (Lewis himself, Cherrelle, Randy Ran, and Lisa Keith) sound like a ready-for-church choir. The song’s backing track, meanwhile, is major synth chords that are soft as pudding (as tasty, too). “The Lovers” is followed by “Fake,” O’Neal’s sole R&B #1 single (on 7/25/87, for 2 weeks) and a fierce indictment of, well, fake women, grounded with a simple, direct arrangement (largely about the “nasty bass” O’Neal requests in the song’s intro) that provides its singer with a fine bed on which to lay his accusations. Played at top volume, this one’s still a killer in the club.
After a remix set and a Christmas album, O’Neal’s next full-length was 1991’s All True Man. Jam & Lewis handed some of its duties to others, such as Jellybean Johnson (another Time alumnus) and Foster and McElroy (who produced En Vogue’s first LP); the album wasn’t nearly the hit O’Neal’s first two were, and only two of its tracks found their way onto his 2004 Greatest Hits set. Those two, “All True Man” and “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” are fine songs, but you can tell that Jam & Lewis weren’t 100% on top of the game by this point; the bassline that opens “Thing” is eerily reminiscent of Paula Abdul’s “Vibeology,” from the same year. That said, “Thing” features a gorgeous string arrangement and a different sound from Jam & Lewis, one that was not quite so machine-bound. But somehow, the magic that made O’Neal’s first two full-lengths so irrepressible was missing. For 1993’s Love Makes No Sense, O’Neal and Jam & Lewis parted ways; the hits were over (none of the album’s singles made the R&B top 10).
Listening to Jam & Lewis’ work for/with Janet Jackson, one could be fooled into thinking that, until 2004’s misguided Damita Jo at least, the duo was still a huge pop force. Honestly, they’re not, anymore, which is why O’Neal’s career trajectory works as a better, clearer display of Jam & Lewis’ work. But in their time, in their element, no one could top them. No one. Which is why we at Stylus are making Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis the second inductees into the Stylus Hall of Fame. This week you’ll get examinations of the many aspects of their career together, starting today with re-examinations of two of their most iconic singles, Janet’s “Nasty” (from Jeff Siegel) and New Edition’s “If It Isn’t Love” (from Mallory O’Donnell). Coming over the rest of the week: Alfred Soto giving the Human League’s Crash an On Second Thought; Soto and Justin Cober-Lake coming at First Listens to O’Neal’s Hearsay from very different angles; Rich Juzwiak on some of the many women Jam & Lewis produced who weren’t named Janet; O’Donnell listening to a few of the duo’s most monumental instrumentals/remixes/dubs; Andrew Unterburger looking at just what Jam & Lewis have been up to over the last decade; and a special edition of the Stylus Jukebox, with a panel rating (and blurbing) some of Jam & Lewis’ biggest-slash-most important singles. In addition, Josh Love examines that special relationship between Jimmy and Terry and Janet, and Marcello Carlin offers his unique, and uniquely British, perspective on their work.
Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis are kings. It’s high time we bowed down.
Special thanks to Michaelangelo Matos.