Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis
Photo: Marselle Washington
35 Years In, Legendary Duo Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis Finally Release Their Debut Album, 'Jam & Lewis Volume One'
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were actively writing and producing for their musical alter ego, The Secret, in 1986 when a demo they'd just completed caught the attention of an A&M Records executive. That minimal dance-pop track went on to become Janet Jackson's first Top Five hit, "What Have You Done For Me Lately," and put Jam and Lewis' personal recording careers on the backburner for awhile, their hit-making production and songwriting skills suddenly and incessantly in-demand.
The GRAMMY-winning Minneapolis natives' induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2017 encouraged them to revisit their dream to make their own albums. The prolific twosome is finally releasing their debut full-length project, Jam & Lewis Volume One, today, July 9, via BMG in collaboration with their revamped label, Perspective Records. At approximately 50 minutes, the Oscar and Emmy nominees' 10-track effort features The Sounds of Blackness, Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Babyface, Boyz II Men, Usher, Charlie Wilson, The Roots, Heather Headley, Morris Day, and Jerome Benton.
"We would love it if people listened to the record from start to finish," Jam said. "The thought process for all of the artists on the album is if you say the artist name and mention it's a new song by them, what would you want that song to sound like? We use the word 'newstalgia,' which is the discovery moment of hearing something new but that comforting moment of familiarity."
Jam and Lewis originally pivoted and morphed into accomplished songwriters and producers after departing from the Prince-produced funk outfit The Time in 1983. The fedora and sunglass-wearing pair's knack for tailor-making tunes regardless of genres under their imprint, Flyte Tyme Productions, resulted in timeless classics for Klymaxx, Cheryl Lynn, The Human League, The S.O.S. Band, Alexander O'Neal, Cherelle, Herb Alpert, Force MDs, Robert Palmer, George Michael, New Edition, Michael Jackson, Yolanda Adams, TLC, Vanessa Williams, Patti Labelle, Barry White, Elton John, and Gwen Stefani.
The multi-instrumentalists, who originally met as teenagers at a college readiness program, have placed 41 songs in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100; earned more number one singles (16!) than any other songwriter and producer in history, and received over 100 gold and platinum plaques. The winner of five GRAMMYs, Jam and Lewis earned 11 career Producer Of The Year nominations, more than any other in the history of the Recording Academy. In 2007, Jam became the Recording Academy's first Black chair of the board.
GRAMMY.com recently caught up with Jam and Lewis to hear details about making their first full-length album, their Midas touch, and their groundbreaking involvement with the Recording Academy.
What's that like coming full circle as sought-after producers and artists?
Jam: Being outfront feels interesting. We really are the assist guys; we set the artists up to score, so it's a little different being the scorers this time. We're prepared for it because we started out as artists with The Time 40 years ago, but our artistry is all really based on just making everybody look really good. So with all of the artists involved, they're the inspiration for what we do. The difference [on this album] is our name is in big letters instead of little letters, but we pretty much do the same thing.
Lewis: We're used to being Nostradamus for everyone. All of the artists that we work with, we're fans of those people: their art and of them as humans. The hang factor is always high there. This project is a reflection of that; we got to hang with the people that we love and make music.
The long story is after the music stops being created and you let it part from your hands, then the other things begin. That's the part I'm still trying to get used to because I'm used to it for someone else. People love the songs, but now they're asking about videos, who's doing the artwork for the album cover, or who's the stylist. I hadn't thought about that. We can see everyone else from a 360-degree cycle, so we have to incorporate other people to help us see the vision for what we can't see. That's a little strange because we've never had management or too much of the other fluff things that make successful artists. Being an artist is no joke; it's no day at the beach.
How did you decide on which artists to collaborate with for your debut project?
Jam: We made a wishlist, which is ever-evolving, of people that we wanted to work with. Terry always calls it "hang factories:" the people we enjoy just being around whether we're making music or just hanging out. Then subject to their availability or other factors that go into it, that's how we determined the ten we thought were good enough to have. We also thought we wanted to have something that was long enough.
It was a combination of people we've worked with before and really loved working with, a few people that we've never had the chance to work with before, so it was a good opportunity to do that. There's a volume two already in the works and hopefully a volume three and four. One of our goals overall is we want to leave music in a better place than we found it; we can do that by creating music with great artists. It elevates everything, especially Black music.
Did your track record with Janet Jackson influence this album in any way?
Jam: The Control album days that we worked on with Janet helped us realize the palette we had to work with was endless. It wasn't that we had to say we couldn't do uptempo or downtempo, in this key, a rock song or a sensual love song. Everything was open, and we got a sense of trust with each other right away. That's been the key.
[Her] albums up to All For You and later Unbreakable, we did the whole album. Not only were we able to do the songs on the album, but we were able to arrange them in the order with the little interludes in between, so it was almost like telling a story or reading a book. That's how great records were done.
What's Going On by Marvin Gaye is probably our favorite albums of all-time because of the way the songs are sequenced and how they flow together with continuous thought. That, to me, was always the brilliance of making albums. That's what we love about doing this Jam & Lewis album; it's an actual album. There's something that's very special about that.
Is there a story that you're telling with the album sequencing?
Jam: The Sounds of Blackness was our musical foundation. It's very good for us to see our label logo for Perspective Records also. When we started Perspective 30 years ago this year, our idea was to give people the music that they needed, not necessarily what they wanted. The first foray into that was signing The Sounds of Blackness and the song, "Optimistic," which to this day is our favorite song that we've ever been involved with.
Our theory was if you're gonna build a nice tall building for success, the first thing to do is dig that foundation deep. Thirty years later as we come back to that Perspective label, it was that same idea. Let's dig that foundation deep. The Sounds of Blackness start our record with "Til' I Found You," which is appropriate to start off anything that you're doing. That was really important to us to try to do as the first thing you hear sonically. It sets the tone.
Lewis: It bookends. "Babylove" with Morris Day and Jerome Benton [who were also in The Time] as the last record is the beginning of our beginning. We have the beginning and the beginning at both ends of the record. That was very special to us and important to have that inclusive nature. Sounds of Blackness was the beginning of our record label 30 years ago, and [Morris Day and] The Time was the beginning of our artistry 40 years ago.
"When we started Perspective [Records] 30 years ago this year, our idea was to give people the music that they needed, not necessarily what they wanted. The first foray into that was signing The Sounds of Blackness and the song, 'Optimistic,' which to this day is our favorite song that we've ever been involved with." Jimmy Jam
How did the coronavirus pandemic and social climate affect plans for the album release?
Lewis: The last year was a little inconvenient. I used the last year to learn about things and to do things that I never had time to do. When people started talking about getting back to normal, I always say normal was overrated. Normal was not having enough time to spend with your family, running from here to there, being in meetings about meetings. I'm just not that guy.
There's always been racial unrest; it's magnified now because everybody slowed down enough to visualize it. The world is paying attention at the same time. When does that happen with the way the world works now? People had time off from work, so they had time to march. If those things happen six months from now, I don't know if the same results will come. How we handle that is we stay diligent and get over people's preferences. If you can't want for someone else the same things that you want for you and your family, then you don't deserve it. I want everybody to have the same opportunities that I have. If you got the goods, bring it on. It's enough for everybody.
Jam: Ditto. What he said.
What's your relationship like with the Recording Academy?
Jam: When we got involved with the GRAMMYs probably around '86, we were told if we joined the Academy, then we could vote for ourselves. We got nominated for Producer Of The Year [in 1987], voted for ourselves, and won. It was great, and it set us on a path where we have to live up to that.
Someone asked me about being on the board. I'd always thought of the organization as a one-night-a-year awards show. I didn't realize that year-round work was going into advocacy, music education, fundraising for schools and instruments, and MusiCares. When I got involved, I felt the music community was my community. I ran and ended up becoming vice chair, took that experience and ended up becoming chair. I ran uncontested. It was great, and it ushered in the 50th anniversary of the GRAMMYs.
I was the first African American chair of the GRAMMYs. One thing on my agenda was always diversity; membership was important because we're a member organization. There's nothing like receiving an award from your peers. What was cool was after becoming chairman, Harvey Mason jr, the new CEO, said the 50th anniversary when I was honored planted the seed in him. He knew someday he'd like to get involved and do something.
To have that inspiration for people is really the best thing that came out of it: for people to see me and know they can make a difference and get involved. I love the organization, but we're only as good as our members, and we have great members. That's the beauty of the Recording Academy. We're more relevant now than we've ever been. We're on a great path with great leadership, and I couldn't be more proud to be involved with the organization.
"It's great to be a part of the fabric of something great, and music is that great thing... As Jam said, it's a connector and what connects us all. To be a part of that is one of the most awesome feelings in the world, to think that we've added something to the world that no one can ever subtract. I know we've added some good music to the world because that was our passion; that's the gift that God gave us." Terry Lewis
What crosses your mind anytime people call you legends or icons?
Lewis: With music being the soundtrack of life, it's just great to be a part of people's lives. It's great to be a part of the fabric of something great, and music is that great thing. I really don't understand for the life of me why people don't wanna buy music anymore, but so be it. We just gotta figure out a new paradigm. Music is part of the fabric of who we are. We would live in a terrible world if we didn't have music. If we didn't have melody or just couldn't hear it, that would be tragic.
As Jam said, it's a connector and what connects us all. To be a part of that is one of the most awesome feelings in the world, to think that we've added something to the world that no one can ever subtract. I know we've added some good music to the world because that was our passion; that's the gift that God gave us. It feels really really awesome.