Greatness isn’t always quantified by numbers. Listing all the albums they’ve sold, hits they’ve charted and Grammys they’ve won would do a disservice to the iconic production duo that is James "Jimmy Jam" Harris III and Terry Steven Lewis. Instead, the pair should be measured by the legends they’ve blessed: Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Usher, Mary J. Blige, Lionel Richie and countless other musical titans.
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis famously helped Janet Jackson gain “Control” on her album of the same name, and transformed New Edition from “Boys To Men” on Heart Break. But if you’ve seen BET’s The New Edition Story, or have watched any specials documenting the legacy of Ms. Jackson, you’re likely acquainted with these works. With BET set to honor the hitmakers tonight (Nov. 17) at the 2019 Soul Train Awards, we dug through the crates and found six songs you may not have known this year’s Legend Award-winners produced.
A few years removed from producing New Edition’s first album featuring Johnny Gill, Jam and Lewis doubled back to help fuse the smoothness of Gill’s baritone with the rowdy fervor of dancehall star Shabba Ranks. The pounding bassline paired with the track’s soft strings allowed for Shabba’s proclamations of “12 inches or more” to coexist with Gill’s decidedly subtle form of seduction, as if the two men were offering different reactions to the same temptation. With the help of Jam and Lewis, Ranks’ “Slow & Sexy” peaked at number 33 on the Billboard Top 100, his highest charted single to date. Yet the dancehall banger is rarely mentioned when discussing the duo’s catalog.
Jam and Lewis have excelled at too many styles of music for anything they’ve produced to be considered predictable, yet this deep cut on Patti LaBelle’s When A Woman Loves album is a perfect example of their standard brilliance. LaBelle’s vocals gently cascade over a brief piano introduction, before the legendary singer lets out a wail impassioned enough to bring an entire nightclub to tears. Jam and Lewis placing LaBelle’s powerful soprano voice over an atmospheric dance track was a stroke of production genius similar to their work on Mary J. Blige’s “No More Drama.”
The Confessions era saw Usher at the peak of his pop powers, but it’s understandable if you missed his 2004 short film Rhythm City Vol. 1: Caught Up, or its accompanying soundtrack that dropped a year later. Should that be the case, you unfortunately missed some of Jam and Lewis’ best production of the past 15 years. The song carries a strong Stevie Wonder vibe, with a harmonica breakdown in the middle of the record. The track was likely created during the same sessions that produced “Truth Hurts” and “That’s What It’s Made For” on Usher’s Confessions album, a gold standard for modern R&B music to this day.
Legends went to Jam and Lewis when they wanted to keep up with whatever new sounds were emerging. After taking a decade off from releasing original music, the 80s dynamo Lionel Richie returned with his fourth album Louder Than Words, and the underappreciated “I Wanna Take You Down.” Jam and Lewis laced Richie with some New Jack Swing, and penned lyrics urging the then 46-year-old singer and a companion to “go deep undercover, get into each other.” Yet in true Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis fashion, the duo allowed the soft sincerity that Richie is known for to breathe through—only emboldened and molded into a heat rock that would scorch dancefloors if it were played more today.
Sometimes the mark of a great producer is knowing to get out of the way when an artist’s talent demands certain attention. That’s exactly what Jam and Lewis did with the incomparable force that is Aretha Franklin on “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” a track from the late singer’s 35th album, So Damn Happy. Submerged under a mountain of classics from the Queen of Soul is this beautiful, minimalistic cover describing the disillusions that sometimes come with love.
An argument can be made that no producer-artist combination consistently produced better music than the trio of Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Janet Jackson. Damita Jo is one of the last albums the three worked on together, and “Truly” is a beautiful tune about clear and intentional love. An ineffable sense of trust and assurance is communicated in Jackson’s whispering “I’m truly in love with you” as only she could. While Jackson has been relatively quiet since, “Truly” is a nice reminder that for the greats, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are only one phone call away.
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