At the dawn of the 1980s, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis arrived on the national music scene as the keyboardist and bass player, respectively, for Prince's Minneapolis musical collective, The Time. They were suited-up and ready for business. Little did the world know then that their "business" would become a songwriting, producing and publishing dynasty that would span three decades and create some of the most popular music of the modern era.
When the two first began collaborating on original music, Lewis would lay down the groove and Jam would lighten it with melody and harmony. That combination evolved into an intoxicating mix of sounds - R&B, funk and disco -that percolated with synthesized percussion. When married to impeccably crafted songwriting, the result became their calling card.
Since forming their music company Flyte Tyme in 1982, Jam & Lewis have earned more than 100 gold, platinum, multi-platinum and diamond albums for their work with such artists as Michael Jackson, Boyz II Men, Beyoncé, Sting, Mary J. Blige, Elton John, Usher, Yolanda Adams, Herb Alpert, Luther Vandross, Rod Stewart, New Edition, Human League, Earth, Wind and Fire, Mariah Carey, Robert Palmer, Gwen Stefani and Kanye West. Their work with Janet Jackson, starting with her groundbreaking 1986 album, Control, produced some of the defining albums of contemporary music.
Jam & Lewis have more number ones than any other songwriting and production team in history: More than 100 Billboard top 10 songs, including 26 #1 R&B hits and 16 #1 Hot 100 hits.
Five-time Grammy Award winners, Jam & Lewis also have more than 100 ASCAP songwriting and publishing awards, including the most recent awards for the #1 Billboard Rap Song, "My Last," by Big Sean and Chris Brown, and the #1 Billboard Gospel Song "I Smile" by Kirk Franklin. They are also the recipients of the 1993 ASCAP Golden Note Award and the 2005 ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Heritage Award.
2013 not only marks 30 years as ASCAP members, but the start of a new chapter with Universal Music Publishing Group and their first-ever "Jam & Lewis" album project.
Congrats on 30 years as members and a phenomenal team. Can you recall when you first met and what your initial impression of each other was?
Jimmy Jam: We were in a program called Upward Bound and it was at the University of Minnesota. We both were in junior high school at the time, so it was like a summer program. It was very cool because you got to stay in dorms and stuff, like you were really a college student. So for a couple of kids – I might have been 13 and Terry might have been 15 – it was pretty cool. I remember checking in to the dorm, and walking by one of the dorm rooms where the door was open, and as I gazed through the door, there was Terry with this red, black and green bass. He was just blasting Kool & the Gang and playing the bass part along with Kool. I just remember thinking, "Ooh, that dude's cool, whoever he is," because I didn't know him. His vibe was just very cool.
Terry Lewis: Well, I remember finding Jimmy in the lunchroom playing the piano with a couple of girls around him. I said, "Aw, cool! He can play the keyboard!" At that time, I had just picked up the bass, and had been jammin' with a couple friends of mine – Jellybean Johnson and David Island. At the end of the Upward Bound year, they had a dance, and we were solicited to perform a couple of songs. We enlisted Jimmy. We actually had to go and get his father's keyboard, because Jimmy really was a drummer at the time. I said, "Nah, we already got a drummer. I heard you playing the keyboard, you can play keys, man." So we finally talked him into it, and Jimmy Jam became a keyboard player.
What did each of you bring to the table musically when you first started collaborating?
Jimmy Jam: I grew up listening to pop music. My favorite people were artists like Seals & Crofts and America, that kind of folkie, harmony-driven stuff. Around the time I met Terry the Chicago VI album was getting ready to come out. I was all over the Chicago VI album. And Terry was like, "Man, you ever heard Earth, Wind and Fire? You ever heard New Birth? You ever heard Tower of Power?" And I said, "No." So he turned me on to those. Because of our musical differences, when we tried to get together to actually write songs we initially clashed. Terry's influences were Parliament/Funkadelic, that kind of stuff. I'd come up with a real pretty harmony thing and he'd put this funky bass line under it, and I'd go, "No, no!" So we went through that for a little while. We didn't really hit our stride right away, but we got to spend a whole lot of time together, and obviously became best friends.
"Terry's influences were Parliament/Funkadelic, that kind of stuff. I'd come up with a real pretty harmony thing and he'd put this funky bass line under it, and I'd go, "No, no!" So we went through that for a little while. We didn't really hit our stride right away, but we got to spend a whole lot of time together, and obviously became best friends." - Jimmy Jam
When your group, Flyte Tyme, morphed into The Time your career really started taking off. What about working with that group helped you so much?
Terry Lewis: When the opportunity to become The Time came down the pipe, that's when it all started. It was just one of those happenstances where it was meant to be. The Time afforded Jimmy and I enough time to spend together to kind of mesh our styles. By spending time together we learned how to merge our two worlds into a workable song concept. So that's what the period during The Time did for us. It allowed us to work together on an intense basis.
Jimmy Jam: Probably the best song early on that kind of sums up what we both were thinking was "Just Be Good to Me" by the SOS Band. When we recorded that song, it was a really funky bass line on the bottom of it, but on the top of it was a lot of pretty keyboard layers. We even had bells in there – I don't remember whether we used a real glockenspiel or not – but I know there were bells and stuff, and real pretty things over the top of it. But it still was a very hard-hitting song. That combination exists to this day when we make records. Terry will always be the arbiter of whether we're funky enough with it, and I'll still be the guy backing the harmonies, and that kind of stuff. We're able to find a middle ground.
Did your production skills develop along with your musical skills?
Jimmy Jam: Yeah, they really did. We were big liner notes readers growing up. That was the reason I wanted to be a producer. Because the records I liked all had the same producers and writers. Whether it was in the Motown era, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Norman Whitfield, those guys. Or whether it was Gamble and Huff, or Thom Bell and the Philadelphia era, whatever. I liked the groups and I liked the artists, but I really liked whoever produced it, that's what I was always into. For us, when we finally got a chance to get in the studio, it was a dream.
There was a producer named Leon Sylvers who, at the time, was one of the hottest producers out there. He gave us studio time and let us go in there and really just do what we wanted to do. It allowed us to get our production chops from watching him. So Leon Sylvers was a big influence, and then obviously, in the early days, Prince.
"We got locked up in a cold city and there was nothing else to do but to play. We all came out and played in bands together and against each other, and had a very healthy competition. The only way that you could survive was to be able to play. It was just a great time for music." - Terry Lewis
What did you learn from Prince?
Jimmy Jam: Prince really recorded differently than everybody else. He kind of wrote his own rules, but still, being in sessions with him also teaches you things to do that are a little out of the box. He called it "visual records." He said, "You always wanna make the record so that it takes people to a place, that they imagine a place." And this is just before music videos were happening. It was the early ‘80s. MTV hadn't really come to fruition yet. Prince was always making records that were really sonically aggressive, but also painted some sort of picture. Between those two – Prince and Leon Sylvers – we really got great studio tutelage.
You guys are associated with the "Minneapolis sound." What does that term mean to you? Do you feel like you created a sound that was original?
Terry Lewis: The "Minneapolis sound" to me is the sound that Prince created. It's the sound that defines Minneapolis. All of us were influenced by the same music during that period of time, whether it be Sly Stone or whatever was happening in that era we were growing up. So we all have a lot of the same influences, James Brown, you know, that's all part of it. We got locked up in a cold city and there was nothing else to do but to play. We all came out and played in bands together and against each other, and had a very healthy competition. The only way that you could survive was to be able to play. It was just a great time for music. I think we did contribute to the Minneapolis music scene. Man, do you ever have an idea when you're creating history? I say, no. You just do what you do and then as time goes on, people keep the measure of history, and it pops up that you did something at a certain time that influenced a lot of people, and I think we did.
Flyte Time evolved fairly quickly as a business entity. What influenced your entry into the business side of the music?
Jimmy Jam: Growing up in Minneapolis, there was a lot of competition with bands and a lot of great musicians. If you were a black band, there were a bunch of clubs you couldn't play in Minneapolis because they just wouldn't hire you to play. We had to be rebels, basically. Rather than wait for the club owners to hire us, we would go find our own spaces. At the time in downtown Minneapolis there were older hotels, and not a lot going on there. We would go strike deals with the people that owned that ballroom. We'd say, "Hey, we wanna bring our band in to play, we think we'll draw a bunch of people and you guys will sell a bunch of liquor, so we'll make a business deal with you."
For us, it was a matter of survival. If we weren't entrepreneurs at that point in time and making our own jobs, we would not have jobs. We would not have gigs. So when those were really successful, people noticed.
On a weekend we'd put on a show, and we'd have 1,500-2,000 people in this ballroom, and the clubs would be sitting empty. Then somebody would say, "Well, the club owners wouldn't let us play there." In the white clubs they'd go, "Hey, where's everybody at tonight?" And the people would say, "Oh, they're down at the Flyte Tyme show." And the club owners would go, "Wait a minute, isn't that the band – how come we didn't hire them?"
We were always entrepreneurs, even early on, because it wasn't enough to just have the talent. You can have talent but you still have to figure out how you're going to break through. Flyte Time was basically founded on a handshake. Me and Terry basically shook hands and said, "50/50, for the long run, that's what we're gonna do." And that was it. That was the company. So the idea of starting a publishing company and a recording studio and all those things, they all just made sense. It made sense to control what we wrote, it made sense to have a place to create. If we had our own studio, then we could go in any time and do what we needed to do, and then in the big picture, if we had our own place and our own headquarters, we could then bring along the next generation of writers and producers to mentor them, and so on and so forth.
A key figure in your career is AmerIcan music entrepreneur Clarence Avant. Why was he so important to you?
Terry Lewis: We got involved with Clarence Avant early on as we became professionals. Clarence taught us a lot, showed us what not to do, especially.
Jimmy Jam: Clarence was our mentor and godfather and still is, really, to this day. Clarence is a phone call away whenever we need advice. He was very instrumental in telling us that it's important to set your business up right, to get your publishing right. But the other thing he did that was even beyond that was that he told us that, "It's not enough for you to set yourselves up right, you need to look out for other people and set them up right, too."
We had a conversation with Clarence one day and he said, "What are you guys gonna be doing in seven years?" This was back when we had first started, and we said, "Makin' hits." He said, "Okay, hopefully you will, God willing. Besides that, think about it like this. There's me, there's Barry Gordy, we're basically the record executives that are out here right now. Who's gonna be the next ‘us?' That's what you need to think about. So when I ask you what you're gonna be doing in seven years, I hope you're running a label or you're running a publishing company, or you're involved with a production company."
So all of those things basically led to us thinking about that at an early age. We knew we had to do it based on growing up in Minneapolis, and we knew how to make our own way and figure it out. Terry, very much, has the hustler mentality. He has that. We already had it. But it was put in a much more formalized fashion by Clarence Avant.
As writer-producers you soon had the world coming to you, including Janet Jackson. When the Janet thing came along, did you have any idea that you had the potential to create what you did with her?
Terry Lewis: Janet is a real talent. Just look at her pedigree. I mean, she comes from the Jackson family, one of the greatest musical families of all time. With that and the attitude she was able to present, she was a great vehicle for songs with attitude. We were fortunate to get her at the right time and get her focused and committed. The rest is history now.
Jimmy Jam: Janet was a fluke. We were approached by [A&M Records executive] John McClain. He called and said, "I got projects, I want you guys to do some stuff." We were supposed to do a project for another female singer, but she decided that she didn't want us to do the project because she wanted to work with her husband. So we were like, "Okay, fine." John asked, "Is there anybody else on our roster that you would like to do?" And we said, "Send us the roster." He sent the roster, and we were at the studio going down the thing, and we both looked and our fingers both stopped on Janet's name. We looked at each other and I said, "We could do Janet."
Janet was inspirational. To this day, when we pick artists that we want to work with, it's because when you either hear them sing or see them perform or have bought past projects of theirs, whatever it may be, we ask ourselves "Do they make us want to write a song? And with Janet, it was like the floodgates opened. I couldn't wait to get in the studio.
First of all, we thought she had a great voice, a very underrated voice. We thought that the albums that she had done before sounded like what they should've sounded like. They were getting great producers for her; what was missing was her input and her imprint.
I would think back to Janet doing her Mae West impression on TV's The Jackson Special. She was this little girl with this feisty attitude. We thought "That's what's missing!" So, when we started recording with her, we loved the project, we loved her, we didn't feel like there were any boundaries on the records we could make.
"Janet was inspirational. To this day, when we pick artists that we want to work with, it's because when you either hear them sing or see them perform or have bought past projects of theirs, whatever it may be, we ask ourselves ‘Do they make us want to write a song?' And with Janet, it was like the floodgates opened. I couldn't wait to get in the studio" - Jimmy Jam
You must have had a great time in the studio.
Terry Lewis: With Janet we started fresh with a blank canvas. The difference with us was that when she got to Minneapolis, we basically just hung out for five days and didn't even go to the studio. She at one point asked, "When are we going to start working?" And I said, "Oh we're working already." And we showed her the lyrics to "Control," and she said, "Oh wait, this is what we've been talking about," because we would have all these long conversations with her about stuff. We said, "Yeah," and she said, "Oh, so whatever we talk about, that's what we're going to write about." It was like a light bulb went on, like, "Oh okay! I can really say what I want to say here."
Then the tracks we created for her were very aggressive tracks, more like the kind of tracks you would create for a male artist at the time. Part of that was because Terry and I at the time were actually working on our own album project. So we had all these funky, hard-hitting tracks, and that was kind of our frame of mind, but then we'd give them to her, and she could pull them off because of her attitude and the way she sang, very forcefully, even with a soft voice. She had a great sense of rhythm. It almost became part of the instruments. Part of the funkiness of the song was the way she would breathe, and the way she would attack certain words, very similar to her brother Michael. All of those factors kind of went into making it work.
Worked out very well for everyone, indeed. Five incredible singles.
Jimmy Jam: As a matter of fact, the very first single from the album, which was "What Have You Done for Me Lately," was actually a track meant for me and Terry's album. We were playing John McClain our album because he wanted to hear our album, and he heard that track and he said, "Oh, I need that for Janet." We were like, "No John, that's our song!" He said, "No no, I need that for Janet." We said, "Okay, play this song for her and see what she thinks. If she likes it then, whatever." She was in the studio the next day, and we put the track on and didn't say anything. She was actually sitting on the couch in the hallway and got up and came to the door and said, "Who's that for?" We said, "Um, well you, if you want it." She said, "Oh, I love this." It ended up being the first single and that kind of entrée to the Janet that we all know now.
We had no idea that it was going to cross over. We figured, "Yeah, that could potentially be a #1 R&B record," but we never figured it was going to be a top 5 pop record. Or "Nasty" would be a top 5 record...those kinds of things we just didn't know.
Your relationship, experience and success with Janet would seem like a unique situation. When working with other artists, what is your guiding philosophy?
Terry Lewis: If the person is an established artist we would study the things we like about that person, and where that person went wrong, creatively. Now, if it is a brand new artist, what we do is we always allow time at our own studio so that we are never on the time clock. When we get an artist in, we kind of just talk, chill out, eat, have fun, allow them to just be themselves, and then we get to know who the person is, and incorporate that into the creative process. I think that is something that is really missing now. The way we love to do it is a lot less "cookie cutter" than how you have to cram it in now. "Okay, we gotta do three songs in two days." How are the songs real when people don't even know what the artist is about? I think that's so missing in today's music business, the development of artistry. It needs to come back. If you start to count the number of important artists, it's gone down significantly just because of that. There's not enough to pull you in, to make you care anymore.
Jimmy Jam: We always think of any project we do as an individual project. We think of it, first of all, as the artist's project. It's not about me and Terry and trying to create our thing – a lot of producers get into a thing where they would create their sound, and it would be that producer's sound and then the artist would just be a delivery of that sound…but no, we always wanted to create a sound for the artist. Our philosophy is simple. When we're done making a record, it is the beginning of the record for the artist, because they have to go out and promote it and make videos for it and do live shows, all of those things. You better make sure that the artist is really happy with it, lyrically, musically, all of those things. I also think that we we have to be fans of the people we work with, and that's whether it's an established artist that we've been longtime fans of, or a brand new artist that we're just introducing to the world. We gotta feel like, "Oh man, I'd buy that record."
The relationship between an artist and a producer is the closest thing to being in an intimate relationship, because trust is the main thing. People are not going to give you their best performance unless they trust you. At the end of the day, we want to give them their own sound. Almost like making a suit from scratch, and not going to a store and picking out a suit. Really tailoring it for the artist, and that way they feel good about what they have, knowing they have something that's custom-made for them, and they also know that they're not gonna see that same suit anywhere else.
It's like those pictures in the magazines where people wear the same exact dress, and the headline says "Who Wore It Better?" I don't want to do that to the artist. When you hear Janet sing "Nasty" or you hear her sing "That's the Way Love Goes," you don't go, "Oh man, somebody else could've done that song better." No, it shouldn't be like that. It should be like, "That is the perfect song for the artist." That's kind of the thing we always keep in mind.
You've recently started a new chapter with your publishing agreement with Universal. What's the significance of this new partnership?
Terry Lewis: The new agreement just marks a whole new era. [Universal Music Publishing Group President] Evan Lamberg has been our guy since he was at EMI. We've always been friends, and if we ever had an opportunity to just talk about it, we would always say, "Yeah, we need to work together," and then the opportunity came about. It just made sense. It feels like coming home because Evan is such a great guy, and he understands us and he understands where we come from. He's watched how we do things for a long time. I think as time goes on, something that Jimmy and I like to do is we like to interface not just with the people we deal with, but we like to share a lot of the knowledge we've gained over the years because I think it just helps the industry as a whole. He has a lot of new artists, a lot of new writers, and just to be able to interface with them and have conversations, and see where they're going, see where they wanna go, I think the mentorship part of it is very important. It's not to be underplayed. It's not just about the publishing, it's about music itself.
As I've said on several occasions, although I'm an only child, if I had the opportunity to ‘pick' someone to be my brother, I'd ask for Jimmy. He's such a wonderful, thoughtful, smart, kind, and cool person! - Neil Portnow, President/CEO, The Recording Academy
Jimmy Jam: The significance is a couple of things. First of all, EMI has been our publishing partner for a long time, and still is our publishing partner for everything we've done up to a certain point. Universal is all about the future. Evan Lamberg told us "We have a lot of great projects and a lot of great writers who can do collaborative things with you, and we want to know what you guys want to do moving forward. Wherever you see yourself moving forward, we want to be a part of that. We want to be in the Jam and Lewis business moving forward." That was very interesting to us.
"I think as time goes on, something that Jimmy and I like to do is we like to interface not just with the people we deal with, but we like to share a lot of the knowledge we've gained over the years, because I think it just helps the industry as a whole. I think the mentorship part of it is very important. It's not to be underplayed. It's not just about the publishing, it's about music itself" - Terry Lewis
You've been honored by ASCAP numerous times over the years, and ASCAP is getting ready to celebrate its 100th birthday next year and it continues to be relevant to so many people. Can you express how important ASCAP has been in your career?
Terry Lewis: ASCAP has been, just, I can't even get a word for it, I mean, ultra-important. I remember when we first started with ASCAP. I remember getting my first check from ASCAP. The ASCAP family treats you like family. They do want to know what's wrong and what's right. It's been a very good relationship for us over the years. Whenever we needed anything, ASCAP has been there for us.
And Jimmy, you served on the ASCAP Board for a number of years, so you have added appreciation for ASCAP's mission.
Jimmy Jam: I've been able to see ASCAP from the inside because I was on the Board. I just like the idea of a Board representing songwriters and publishers, and it's made up of songwriters and publishers. The creative people are going to look out for the creative people, that's what it's all about. When ASCAP goes to Washington DC to discuss performance rights issues or intellectual property issues, you're going to speak on behalf of the creator, because you are the creator. I think there's something very special about that. I also feel that there's something right about being a member of an organization where I can actually sit on the Board. I'm a songwriter, that's what I do. So I feel like there's something very right about that.
Through our relationship with ASCAP over 30 years, I've had the chance to see, not only for myself and Terry, that ASCAP is such a great advocate for songwriters. That to me is really the distinction that ASCAP has over everybody else. I also think the leadership is impeccable. We were part of the first years when what they now call the Rhythm & Soul Awards started. The fact that ASCAP was the first to really recognize R&B music, hip-hop music, give it its own awards event, I think that's cool.
"After 30 years of making hits for dozens of artists and being icons in the world of music, Jimmy and Terry are still the same savvy, humble, gracious, dynamic and passionate guys that they were on the day they joined ASCAP! I continue to be proud to call them friends and clients, and I don't expect them to slow down with creating great music or nurturing new artists anytime in the near future." - Darrell Miller, Entertainment Attorney, Fox Rothschild LLP
As smart and talented as one can be in this business, some beautiful strokes of luck can help. Where do you feel you've been most lucky in your career?
Terry Lewis: Well I feel very fortunate to have met Jimmy Jam, and to make some wise decisions in business in terms of how we choose to divide our spoils, so to speak. We've been 50/50 partners, no questions asked, that's what it is. It's been no drama. I've been with Jimmy almost 40 years, and we've never had an argument or disagreement about anything significant. We disagree about some creative things sometimes, but it turns out we don't look at right or wrong, we look at whatever's best for the situation right now and whoever's the most passionate, that's who gets the call. That's been very fortunate. Meeting Clarence Avant was a godsend.
Jimmy Jam: Well I used the word "lucky" but I also use the word "blessed." I was, first of all, blessed to meet Terry Lewis. That would be the first blessing for me, musically. I had a dad who gave me the musical genes, because he was a musician. I had a mom that gave me the freedom to go make music. I think luck nowadays is I'm lucky to have family, I'm lucky to have three great teenagers to keep me very current on music and keep my ideas fresh, and help us really keep our ear to the ground as far as discovering and mentoring young talent. I'm lucky or blessed, whatever you want to call it, all the way around.