Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis have been songwriting and producing for R&B icons for over three decades, and the renowned duo have more than 100 gold, platinum, multi-platinum and diamond albums to show for it.
Set to be honored at this year’s Soul Train Awards, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ imminent Legend Award will recognize the pair’s work behind just about every classic R&B radio hit since the late '80s.
While it's common knowledge the duo had a heavy hand in Janet Jackson’s illustrious career, Boyz II Men, Usher, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Luther Vandross, George Michael, Earth, Wind and Fire and many others have also been the beneficiaries of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ creative genius.
The two have more Billboard number ones than any other songwriting and production team in music history and are widely regarded as one of the greatest production tandems to ever grace the industry.
Ahead of the 2019 Soul Train Awards, airing live from Orleans Arena in Las Vegas November 17, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis connected with BET to break down 10 of their most memorable sessions, including a special B-side bonus by Gladys Knight.
“The best part about being a living legend is the living part.”
Jimmy Jam: This song was a lot of things for us. It came at a time where we felt like people really needed to be uplifted and needed to be inspired. It was a successful record, which was great. It was a number-one record and won a Grammy and all of that. But the best part about it for us was that when people heard the song it became the song that would get them out of troubled times. It was a song they’d work out to in the morning, you know? It was just all the great things that music can bring to people. The fact that the song has lived on in so many ways. Whenever someone hears that record it just takes them to that place of redemption or enlightenment, or whatever feeling good music is supposed to give you.
Terry Lewis: Another one of those songs that very much so moves people. It’s one of those records where I had people calling me, telling me that when they heard the record, they were driving and they had to pull over to the side of the road and shed a tear just because it made them purge some of the negativity they had stored up. That was a very powerfully moving thing if you can actually do that as a songwriter.
Jimmy Jam: It gave us a chance to work with Yolanda Adams. Quick story: we were big fans of Yolanda back when we had our Perspective Records label back in the ‘90s, and we wanted to sign her. We were going after her, but we ended up not signing her. Silvia Rome at Elektra Records ended up signing her. Silvia called us and said, “I hope you guys are still interested in working with Yolanda even though I signed her.” [Laughs] And we said, “Yeah, absolutely, we are.” So that was the reason that the record happened, whether you want to call it divine intervention or whatever. Fast forward to Soul Train Awards 2019 and we’re getting our award on the same night that she’s being honored. We’re also working with her now on some new material… I think it’s interesting, God’s timing.
Jimmy Jam: Control was kind of the breakthrough record for her that we did. "Rhythm Nation" was sort of the anthem; we’re celebrating 30 years of that this year, which is pretty significant. But “That’s the Way Love Goes” to me was kind of the record that really showed her musical depth. We actually won a Grammy for Best Song, which was very cool to be honored as songwriters and for her to be honored. But it was something so unexpected from her, and there’s just a feel to that song that’s very cool. Initially, she didn’t like the track, so we actually took a break and she went on vacation and when she came back from vacation, she came back and said we have to do that song. And we said, “Which song, the one you didn’t like?” And she said, “Yeah, I like it now!” [Laughs] It was one of those moments where it was about a young lady turning into a woman.
Terry Lewis: Because it’s such a sexy song! [Laughs] It went on, just based on its instrumentation, to be a really culturally significant musical event. We put the boom in that song, and up to that point, there was no boom. That song was the beginning of boom in music, of the 808 boom.
Jimmy Jam: It’s also the song that brought us together with Clarence Avant, the Black Godfather. He called us to his office and asked if would we produce S.O.S. band, and we said yes. Interestingly, when we went down to produce, initially, we didn’t do that song. We actually did “Just Be Good to Me,” which could have certainly been a contender for top 10, and a song called “For Your Love.” When he heard them, he said go down and do two more. When we went down to do two more, we came up with “Tell Me If You Still Care.”
We loved that song so much that we said to Clarence, “Rather than come up with two songs, can we just really hone this one song?” And he said yeah. So he gave us the freedom to do that, and of course when he heard it he loved it.
Jimmy Jam: We were huge Mary J. Blige fans for the longest, so when we got the chance to actually work with her, it was interesting, because we didn’t know at that point in time that her and Puffy weren’t working together. When she came up to Minneapolis to work on songs, we gave her a bunch of things that sounded really different than she was thinking she should sound like. She didn’t really like anything. We asked her what she was looking for, and she said, “I want something that sounds like me.” And we say OK, because we’re thinking that’s what we do well anyway. So we played her a couple of tracks, and those tracks ended up becoming “Love Is All We Need” with Nas and “Everything,” which ended up being a huge record for her.
When we came back around to working with her again, to come up with this idea of no more drama, I was a big soap opera fan — I still am. I was a big The Young and the Restless fan; I really like that theme song, and I thought that would make a great sample for her to tell her story over. When we wrote the song and played it for her, she said, “It's like y’all been following me around with private detectives or something.” We told her she could change the lyrics, and she said, “I’m not changing a word of this. This is me. You’ve totally captured it.” We actually wrote that song for the album before No More Drama. She said she wasn’t ready for this song yet. But on my next album, it’s going to be my title track. We kind of thought yeah, OK. We thought she was just making excuses for not liking the song too much. But sure enough, over the course of the next six months, she kept calling us, making sure we hadn’t given the song away. Finally, she ended up doing it and made it the title track; the album was called No More Drama. It ended up being a big record for her. We love Mary to this day.
Terry Lewis: Once again, this song kind of changed the air in music. It was probably one of the most aggressive songs to that point that a woman had ever done. How she treated it and how she floated over the funk. Jam might have a rebuttal.
Jimmy Jam: [Laughs] Well, it’s not a rebuttal. The two things that come to mind for “What Have You Done for Me Lately” is John McClain. When John came to town, we played him all the songs that we had done. We had "Control" and "Nasty" and "When I Think of You" and all these songs. And like all good A&R people, he said "OK, but I just need one more." We’re thinking, "What’s he talking about?" We’ve got all these songs—”Pleasure Principle.” "Let’s wait awhile because we have some good songs." “I just need one more.” So, we went riding around, and we started playing things from our album, from when we were making a Jam & Lewis album. We started playing him those tracks from that album, and about the third track in, he says, “That’s the one I need, that’s for Janet.”
To what Terry was saying, the way radio sounded, and particularly if you were a Black female artist, if you think about the records that were popular at the time… the Anita Bakers an the Patti LaBelles, they were great records that were doing well, but they weren’t aggressive-sounding records. Radio was very downtempo. If you were a Black artist to get played on pop radio at that point in time, it almost needed to be a ballad. You could be romantic. But all of sudden there was aggression, there was funkiness and there was energy. It really changed the way that radio thought of uptempo music, funky music, theme music by women. It really broke down a lot of barriers the way it sounded, and lyrically it was so empowering for women. The whole concept of her whole album.
Terry Lewis: Just a fantastic piece of a song.
Jimmy Jam: I remember the [NBA] All-Star game was in Minneapolis that particular year. The guys were coming into town for that, and we met at our studio. They played us the songs that they had for their album. They asked what we thought and [we] said, “sounds great.” They asked if there was anything that’s missing, and we said, “Yeah, to us, you don’t have a begging song.” "What do you mean?" "We mean a song where you’re begging—you did wrong and you’re begging to come back. You guys are really good and begging and pleading and you don’t really have that song here." So they asked us to come up with something, and we did. When they came back to town we said we had this song called “On Bended Knee.” We played the demo and they laughed, because I was on there singing, trying to do all their parts and stuff. [Laughs] But when they got done laughing, they were like, “We get it.” They knocked it out of the park and killed it.
The name Boyz II Men for them came from the song we did with New Edition that Johnny Gill sang that was called “Boys to Men.” And when they auditioned for Michael Bivins, the song they sang was “Can You Stand the Rain” by New Edition. Again, just the connectivity of it all.
Jimmy Jam: This was the Heart Break album, when Johnny Gill had joined the group. If you think about “Can You Stand the Rain,” the first single from that album was “If It Isn’t Love,” which was very much a New Edition sounding record. You barely even hear Johnny’s vocals in that record. The next single was “She’s Not My Kind of Girl,” which snuck in a little more Johnny. The whole idea was… if you remember The Stylistics song “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” where the baritone singer comes in first, then the falsetto singer comes in—that was sort of the idea with “Can You Stand the Rain.”
It was a way to introduce Johnny’s vocal, but then have Ralph come in and put the two of them together. If you watch the New Edition show that was on BET a few years back, it kind of gets told in the story where it was really a bonding moment for Ralph and Johnny. Because where there could have been a lot of jealousy, because all of a sudden this new singer is coming in… what it did was it really bonded them. It not only ended up being a great record, but it also really bonded the group together and ended up being very influential.
Terry Lewis: It was almost a joke that Jam was kind of putting together, and he didn’t even want to let me hear it. He said, “It’s a song that has all the days of the week in it.” And I asked how did it go. He says, “Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday love…” I say yeah, that’s hot. [Laugh]
Terry Lewis: It was a song that we never thought of as a single. It was just meant to be fun and funky. That song changes the air whenever it comes on.
Jimmy Jam: Like Terry said, we weren’t thinking of “Fake” as a single. I remember Clarence Avant came to our studio in Minneapolis and said, “Let me hear this Alexander O’Neal. We said OK. We started playing this song and Clarence asked, “What’s that? The 'Fake' song? Yeah, that’s the single right there." That record went straight to number one. That record went so fast up the charts it was crazy, and we just thought, “Wow, Clarence, that’s why you the Black Godfather.” He heard that.
Jimmy Jam: It’s not a hit. It wasn’t even a single. It’s not that people didn’t notice it, but it was just an album cut. But when I look back at all of the years of Soul Train, one of the greatest performances that I saw on that show was Gladys Knight. On any show, really. Whenever she comes on, it’s just a better place. It’s an amazing place to be.
We got a chance to work with her on that particular song. That song for me is just one of the greatest. It’s obscure, but the listeners should check it out and see what we like so much about it.
(Photo by Getty Images)