James Samuel “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis have fundamentally shaped our perception of popular music, especially R&B, over the past four decades. The powerhouse duo has written and produced more Billboard No. 1 hits than any other team, and has 5 Grammys and more than 100 gold, platinum, multi-platinum and certified diamond records to their name. They helped create Janet Jackson’s career-defining albums Control and Rhythm Nation, and have collaborated with dozens of other artists, including Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, George Michael, Mariah Carey and Kanye West. Now they’re just about to release their debut album in early July, Jam & Lewis: Volume One. Although the two men won’t be singing on it, it will be comprised of their songs, their production and their vision — brought to reality by incredibly talented vocalists.
The two met when they were in junior high in the early 1970s while attending an Upward Bound pre-college education program at the University of Minnesota. Jam saw Lewis playing Kool & the Gang’s “Funky Stuff” on a red, black and green bass.
“When I saw that Terry knew a Kool & the Gang bass part,” Jam recalls, “I just was like, “OK, I got to get to know this brother.’ ” The two put together a band to perform at a celebration for the end of the program year.
Jam and Lewis soon formed a songwriting team and tried to find a way to synthesize their two distinct musical backgrounds. Lewis was into funk — Parliament Funkadelic, Tower of Power and Earth, Wind & Fire — while Jam was into the sweet vocal harmonies of groups like America, Seals and Crofts, the Carpenters and Chicago. Their songwriting style took shape on “High Hopes,” an early hit for the S.O.S. Band. That, Lewis recalls, was “the first song that dynamically worked with that funky bass and the pretty top
“High Hopes” reached No. 25 on the Billboard R&B chart, and caught the ear of industry executive Clarence Avant, also known as “The Black Godfather.” He knew that Jam and Lewis wrote the song but didn’t produce it. When they played Avant their demo, he thought it was good enough to let them produce the next S.O.S. Band record. The two learned engineering from Prince, who, according to Jam, was almost single-handedly responsible for The Time’s song “Get It Up,” and from Leon Sylvers III, a producer who basically gave Jam and Lewis unlimited time to experiment in the studio. Now Jam and Lewis had become bona fide R&B renaissance men: writing the songs, producing the records and recording the music. Jam sums up the concept: “We invent it and then we build it.”
They may be two of the most accomplished artists in the industry because they’re born collaborators. “We look at an artist and we go, ‘If I could hear the ultimate song by that artist, what song would I like to hear?’ ” Jam says. “And then that’s the song we try to create.” This process, he says, often allows the artists to “fall back in love with themselves.”
Before writing, producing and engineering Janet Jackson’s Control, the two spent a week with her, talking and taking notes. “Our plan was very much to just give her tracks that allowed that aggressiveness, that feistiness, to just come out — to put that attitude back,” Jam says. The result was a monumental success on the back of such iconic singles as “What Have You Done for Me Lately.”
In an interview after Control went big, Jam and Lewis were asked how it felt to be the hottest producers. They responded that although they didn’t necessarily want to be the hottest producers, “we do want to be warm for a long time.” Subsequent decades brought more chart-toppers, including Janet Jackson’s 2015 album Unbreakable, which debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 chart.
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Now it’s time for the two songwriters and producers to make an album that is free from, as Jam puts it, “record company interference.” “[This] is the record we want to make because we want to make it,” he says. The album contains more definitive collaborations with artists including Toni Braxton, Babyface, Usher, Mary J. Blige and Boyz II Men. It’s a great example of pure, human emotional expression blended with high production gloss.
“We were doing a Mary J. Blige song and we wanted it to be raw, like Mary is, but also have an elegance about it,” Jam says. “I think that’s kind of our philosophy about what we do: We want it to be very human and feel right, but also very sophisticated. That’s what we set out to do.”
“We get into the technicality of it, but the key part of any record is the artist,” Lewis adds. “We are there to get that artist’s experience all the way on the record, or as close to it as we possibly can — always wanting them to be emotional, always wanting them to be engaged, and not letting the technicalities get in the way of that, because I think sometimes they can. We add polish because we want our music to be musical.”
It’s significant that Jam and Lewis have an ongoing successful relationship with the popular music industry, which tends to promote the young and the new. “You can’t teach experience,” Jam explains. In that sense, Jam & Lewis: Volume One is coming out at exactly the right time. “We couldn’t have done this record 20 years ago, because we didn’t know enough to do it,” Jam says. “Now we do.”
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ curated playlist: “Our Influences”
These artists inspired Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to dedicate their lives to creating music, and these songs helped teach them how to write, arrange and produce that music.
Read about their picks, then scroll down to listen to the playlist on Spotify.
If You Play Your Cards Right performed by Alicia Myers
Terry Lewis: “Usually in Black music you have a couple of themes, and within those themes you can write songs. Those themes usually are Party at the Club and Love. That song just expressed falling in love with somebody in such a different way, and it really moved me.”
For the Love of You performed by the Isley Brothers
Jimmy Jam: “In our band Flyte Tyme, before we were in The Time, we played a bunch of cover songs. It was kind of our musical education, if you will. By learning to play other people’s hit songs, it taught us how to write hit songs. The Isley Brothers were a staple.”
Soul Vaccination performed by Tower of Power
Terry Lewis: “That was also one of the songs that we played. It was a musical lesson in how to be tight. The way the parts all fit together in that song are extremely intricate. That helped us to become better musicians.”
Keep Your Head to the Sky performed by Earth, Wind & Fire
Jimmy Jam: “Keep Your Head to the Sky was the first Earth, Wind & Fire album that I bought. They were one of the soundtracks of me and Terry meeting for the first time. Later on, we put that lyric in our favorite song that we ever wrote, which is ‘Optimistic,’ by Sounds of Blackness: ‘You can win as long as you keep your head to the sky.’ ”
What’s Going On performed by Marvin Gaye
Terry Lewis: “Marvin was just such a genius, and not only as a lyricist. Just his delivery — how he made every song feel good, even if he was thinking about something that wasn’t so good.”
For the Love of Money performed by The O’Jays
Terry Lewis: “That one was the one that actually turned me on to bass effects. Besides being a great and relevant song, it just embodies everything that a bassist would want. And for me, that’s where I live.”
I Got the Feelin’ performed by James Brown
Jimmy Jam: “That was the first 45 that I ever bought. There was a barbershop and a record store right next to each other. I was sitting on the barber chair, getting my hair cut as an 8-year-old, or however old I was. I heard that song coming out of the record store, and I almost jumped out of the barber chair. The barber was like, ‘Sit down!’ I said to my mom, ‘You’ve gotta go get that record, whatever that record was!’ When we were done, we went next door to the record store, and she bought that record for me.”
Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out performed by Bobby Womack
Terry Lewis: “Gutbucket all the way! Another one that for me as a songwriter hits right home. That song touched me in various different ways, not only the lyric part of it but just how he put the music together. And that bass part on there was just nasty!
I Call Your Name performed by Switch
Jimmy Jam: “The way that record comes in, with the harmonies and the whole thing, that was really elegant. It was just such elegant music — the chord changes and the textures. I was always a sucker for that.”
Funky Stuff performed by Kool & the Gang
Terry Lewis: “That’s the record that I cut my teeth on trying to play the bass. [Robert ‘Kool’ Bell] made things part-wise sound so simple that I felt like I could play them. It would be different if I picked up a bass and started listening to Stanley Clarke!”
Get It Up performed by The Time
Terry Lewis: “It’s the alpha of everything. It’s the genesis of our career nationally. I mean, certainly we were playing around locally, but “Get It Up” was the first thing that got us out of Minneapolis.”
Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) performed by Sly & the Family Stone
Jimmy Jam: “I’m sitting, eating dinner in a restaurant, and I hear that song’s little guitar break. I was like, ‘Check! Check, please!’ I literally ran to the studio, put that in a sampler, looped it up, and then played it for Janet Jackson — and she lost her mind. She said, ‘Oh, my God.’ And I said, ‘This is it. This is ‘Rhythm Nation.’ Everything was built upon that.”
Don’t Ask My Neighbors performed by The Emotions
Terry Lewis: “Once again, one of those songs that showed me that you could have a song that wasn’t about the two things that they sing about in R&B, and actually you could express things in a different way. Great songwriting and just great performances as well. A very underrated group.”
Think performed by Aretha Franklin
Jimmy Jam: “It’s the same story: I was sitting in the barber chair and I heard that song come on. I said, ‘Wait a minute! What is that?!’ It was ‘Think.’ There’s a million Aretha songs you could go with.”
Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker) performed by Parliament
Terry Lewis: “That is just one of the funkiest songs ever, and the intro of that is the defining thing.”
Jimmy Jam: “It’s so cool when you hear something like that and you just know, ‘Oh, music is changing. Music is on a whole different wavelength now.’ ”
Tell Me Something Good performed by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan
Terry Lewis: “Flyte Tyme had a vocalist by the name of Cynthia Johnson, who actually became the lady who sang ‘Funkytown.’ We would perform anything by Chaka, because Chaka was the gold standard.”
So in Love With You performed by Leroy Hutson
Terry Lewis: “That song made me understand what ‘oui’ was.”
Jimmy Jam: “Just so underrated. Leroy Hutson would come up to Minneapolis a lot. We always used to sneak into clubs and stuff and then go watch him perform.”
Tuesday Heartbreak performed by Stevie Wonder
Jimmy Jam: “That was a song that we learned within the first month of knowing each other. We performed it at that first little gig we played at the school when we first met.”
Sweet Sticky Thing performed by Ohio Players
Jimmy Jam: “It was a hit record, but it had all of the jazz inflections in there. It was kind of genre-breaking in a lot of ways. It didn’t fit neatly into anything, but it just sounded so luscious and so good.”
Hold On, I’m Comin’ performed by Sam & Dave
Terry Lewis: “Sam Moore was one of the greatest singers of all time. I actually became their bass player as a teenager and went on tour with them for several dates. What they taught me musically was something that I carry on and on the rest of my life. There was a lot of understanding tone and how to fit in the pocket with the drummer.”
I Can Understand It performed by The New Birth
Jimmy Jam: “It’s the first song that Terry Lewis turned me on to when we first met. In my mind, it’s like the Terry Lewis theme song. If there was one song that if I thought of Terry Lewis in the time that we actually met, that would be the song that would come into my mind.”
See instructions below on how to add the playlist to your phone or tablet.
GET THE PLAYLIST
Every playlist on Spotify has its own unique code, similar to a QR code. Called Spotify Codes, these bars make it easy to add a playlist to your Spotify app on your device. Here's how:
- Download and open the free Spotify app on your phone or tablet.
- In the app, tap Search.
- Click the camera icon.
- Scan the barcode above, then tap the arrow to listen.