Producer Jimmy Jam Pays Tribute to 'Ultra Sharp, Ultra Witty' Prince: 'His Talent Was Singular, Second to Nobody'

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis
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Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis attend the 23rd Annual Trumpet Awards at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center on Jan. 24, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. 

"In all of our minds, we were gonna work together again," Jimmy Jam says of his former middle-school classmate and bandmate.

James Harris III, aka Jimmy Jam, began playing professionally at age 12, and his dad Cornbread Harris was famous in Minneapolis as a singer and piano player. But in his adolescence, at Bryant Junior High School, Jam met a schoolmate whose precocious mastery of guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums left him astonished: Prince.

While Prince got a record deal at the age of 15, Jam joined a local band, Flyte Tyme (named for a Donald Byrd album), led by bassist Terry Lewis. After Prince made 1980's Dirty Mind, his third album for Warner Bros. Records, he plotted the merger of Flyte Tyme with another local group, The Enterprise Band of Pleasure, promising them all a record deal. The conjoined funk-rock band was renamed The Time, and true to his word, Prince got them a deal at Warner Bros., which released The Time in 1981. “He was the architect, and we were the contractors,” Jam recalls. Here’s how good they were: years later, Prince called The Time “the only band I’ve ever been afraid of.”

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Within a few years, Prince fired Jam and Lewis for missing a Time concert, and the two quickly became Grammy-winning writers and producers who reshaped Janet Jackson’s career, and made hits for the S.O.S. Band, Michael Jackson, Boyz II Men, Human League, Mary J. Blige, Usher, Mariah Carey, TLC, George Michael, and Gwen Stefani.

Harris, 56, decided not to do any interviews after Prince died on April 21; as he explains in this ample and loving remembrance for Billboard, Harris changed his mind so that Prince’s life and legacy would be described by someone who knew him well, not by onlookers. “He was a better musician than the rest of us,” Jam explains. “There is not even an argument there."

When we met in junior high, Prince had the biggest afro in the world. I was envious of his hair, 'cause my mom would never let me wear it like that. I was a good keyboard player, but he was on a whole ‘nother level -- and we’re talking 12, 13 years old. He was kind of quiet, didn’t talk a lot, but when he was around music, it opened him up. You could tell that that was his comfort zone.

He was short, but he had confidence because he was a heck of a basketball player -- a point guard who could distribute, had great handles, and could shoot the lights out. Steph Curry reminds me of the way Prince played, literally. He’d run up the court and girls would scream: “Ahhh! Prince!” It was crazy. Where we lived, Minneapolis Central [High School] was known as a basketball school, and if you could play, people respected you.

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Purple Rain did a good job of explaining how competitive the environment was in Minneapolis. But here’s what wasn’t talked about in the movie: There was maybe a three percent black population in the Twin Cities, and less than that in the whole state. There were tons of white clubs, but you couldn’t play in a white club if you were a black band. White bands wanted to get a great residency at one of the clubs. We couldn’t pull down a good salary in our own hometown. So our goal was to take our focus and put it nationally: do a video, make demo tapes in the studio.

There were some very accomplished musicians in Minneapolis, but he was better than the rest of us. And Prince got discovered first. He recorded his whole first album basically by himself, playing all the instruments and singing all the vocal parts, then made a follow-up album with “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” a huge single. He was so different and so captivating, and it made record company people say, “Where is he from? Minneapolis? Let's go up there and see what else is up there.” Once he got us a record deal, he was the one calling the shots in The Time.

Then it turned into a situation we didn't like. First Avenue, the Minneapolis club, was always a haven for artists. And after Purple Rain, it slowly turned into a tourist place. People were coming from other cities and acting like they were from Minneapolis to get a record deal. Literally, a guy would show up with a trench coat and some makeup on, claim he was from Minneapolis, and get a record deal.

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Before The Time opened for Prince on the Controversy tour [which started November, 1981], we went on a chitlin’ circuit tour of the South in two station wagons. We had to eat a lot of humble pie. In one place, the club was on stilts, and the management canceled our show, because the place wasn't fit to play. And I lost it. “We’ve got a record on the charts. Where are the girls? Where are the screaming crowds?” Prince planned it like that, so we’d get our performing skills together.

When the Prince tour started, there were screaming girls and people knew our songs, all of that. We were the opening act, then as the middle act we had Roger Troutman and Zapp, who were huge. There were all kinds of undergarments thrown onstage for Prince. Not so much for The Time.

Prince was the principal songwriter for The Time. [Singer] Morris Day contributed a little, but Terry Lewis and I didn’t contribute much. We had song ideas. At the end of the Controversy tour, we were sitting around a hotel room, just the Time members, and Terry said, “I want to go to L.A. and make some demos. They need us out there.” And this will mark the time for you -- everybody’s answer to Terry was, “Man, you're crazy. I'm saving my money for a VCR.” A VCR! So I said, “Terry, I'll go.”

We did a bunch of demos in L.A., and the S.O.S. Band recorded one of those songs, “High Hopes.” Clarence Avant, the head of Tabu Records, asked us to produce some songs on the next S.O.S. Band record. We were on [the 1999] tour with Prince, so we looked at the schedule and saw four days off in New York [in March, 1983] before we went to San Antonio for the next leg of the tour. We booked studio time in Atlanta to work with the S.O.S. Band those days.

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Prince had told us, “Don’t go produce other bands.” He didn't want us to give away The Time's sound. And we felt like, well, the records we're doing have nothing to do with The Time sound. So we went down to Atlanta, got a couple of songs done with the S.O.S. Band. The morning of the San Antonio gig, there was snow in Atlanta -- literally nothing, an amount that in Minnesota, we’d call a dusting of snow. But the airport in Atlanta was closed. So we ended up missing the gig.

They pull off the gig anyway. Prince knew all our songs, since he wrote 'em, so he played bass behind the stage, and his keyboard player, Dr. Fink, knew our songs, too. Prince thought we’d gone to Atlanta to see some girls. So when we saw him, he just said, “That's what you get.”

He and management fined us for missing the gig, which was kind of laughable. I think they fined us $2,000, but we were making only $170 a week, so I don't know where they thought they were gonna get that money from!

About a week later, Billboard magazine came out, with a story that said, “Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis from The Time were in the studio with the SOS Band.” We panicked. We were like, “Oh my God, we gotta hide all the Billboards.” And there's Billboards everywhere. Every time we saw a Billboard, we’d throw it away.

He finally saw it. But he never said anything.

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So Terry and I booked time at Larrabee Sound in L.A. to mix the S.O.S. Band. We got a call from Prince: “Meet me at Sunset Sound.” We thought we were gonna start working on a new Time album with him.

When we get there, it's Prince, [Time members] Jesse Johnson and Morris Day, and me and Terry. Prince says, “Guys, I told you not to produce other acts, but you did, so I'm gonna have to fire you.” I sat there for a second and then walked out. Terry stayed for a little while and tried to reason with him. We went back to the other studio, and the S.O.S. Band song we mixed was “Just Be Good To Me,” which became our first big hit. It bothered Morris a lot. He was very depressed about it, because he felt like The Time should be his band and he didn't get to make the decision.

Every week, we went into Prince’s accountant’s office to get our checks, wondering if they were going to say, “This is the last check,” but they never did. A month later, we walked in and the accountant says, “We can’t give you a check. We heard you got fired -- it was on the radio.” Prince never told the accountants he’d fired us. He said to Jesse and Morris, “Let’s see how those guys fare,” something to that effect. So we weren’t really fired. It was a bluff, for us to fall flat on our faces, and it backfired.

At one point, they tried to get Terry to come back to The Time, but not me. This was right before Purple Rain, and I said, “Go ahead and do it.” It sounded fun. And Terry said, “No, we’re in this together.” And that was it -- we were full-fledged producers. Truly, we know we wouldn't be where we were at if it wasn't for him.

I've never seen Prince drink. In knowing him and working with him, I never knew him to drink or do drugs. The one thing I would say -- and this is not about him, this is just in general -- is that often, problems happen with prescription drugs, rather than recreational drugs. I’m not speculating that happened to Prince, I’m just saying that in general, prescription drugs can go awry.

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There’s always a rush to conclusion that takes place. It's the nature of the Twitter world: everything has to be immediate. We gain nothing by speculating, and to me, we distract from the major story, which is that we've lost an extraordinary human being, an extraordinary musician who really changed music forever. That should be the story. The other stories come in their time.

I never had a conversation with Prince about God, but my partner, Terry Lewis, did. I don't have the attention span for it, quite honestly.  But I know his faith was important to him, and it manifested itself in lifestyle changes he made and choices of songs he no longer wanted to sing.

Prince was ultra smart, ultra sharp, ultra witty. He really was one of the smartest people I knew. As your life goes on, and the older you get, you go through different phases and your priorities change. That’s something we got a chance to watch was his career went on. The thing that never changed was just his incredible talent. That was really singular, second to nobody.

I feel so blessed to have worked with both Prince and Michael Jackson, and get to know both of them really well. And they were totally opposite people, as far as the way they worked. Prince was much more of a musician than Michael. Michael was meticulous. We would go over the same thing five or six times over five or six days, to make sure that it was the best it could be. Prince would do it one time and say, “That's it,” and move on. At one point, they were gonna do a duet together, and knowing the way they both worked, I can't imagine it.

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I’ve talked to a lot of people who said they'd been in a meeting with him, and you couldn’t talk directly to him -- you had to talk through somebody to express an idea, or to pitch something. I remember that Prince, although he never did that to us. At a certain point, yeah, I think a lot of that went on. But in his later years, he was much more forthcoming and communicative.

He definitely loved the ladies, and he had impeccable taste in women. Vanity is always the one that pops into my mind, because she was so beautiful. Meeting her for the first time, you’re blown away by her beauty, and you think to yourself, “Of course that’s Prince’s girl. Of course.” And man, she was also a beautiful human being -- so nice and so warm and so caring to us in The Time, because we were the backup band for the Vanity 6 album and for the tour.

All the women adored Prince, and at certain times, he was obviously seeing more than one of them. And the other ones that weren't with him on a particular night, they’d always commiserate with us. Just kinda, “Hey, what are you guys doin’ tonight?” So that was funny. And I think he had a lot of respect for women, too. He had a female keyboard player, a female guitarist. At one point, he had a full female band. He empowered women in many ways, where you saw them out front and writing and being part of the creative process.  

Terry Lewis and I were talking about our bucket list of people we want to produce, and Prince's name was at the top of it. Terry mentioned it to Prince. At first he just laughed. Then he said, “What would you do?”

Terry said, “The first thing we’d do is go to the vault, and listen to all those songs you have from the early ‘80s, stuff we worked on for The Time, Vanity 6, or Sheila E. Let’s finish those songs, and go from there.” Just as an example, the versions of “Jungle Love” and “The Bird” that were in Purple Rain were live recordings at First Avenue. But there are studio recordings of both songs. And they are impressive. He was sitting on a lot of treasures. He used to say, “I’m keeping these for myself.”

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In all of our minds, we were gonna work together again. We’d get a phone call, and he’d say, “Meet met at Paisley Park on Tuesday.” Too bad that's not gonna happen -- or at least not the way we thought it would happen. It's too early to speculate -- a lot of things need to be settled with his estate, and maybe he had plans for his recordings. At the appropriate time, Terry and I would be interested in being part of the curation process. It reminds me a little bit of Tupac, in that there were four or five albums put together after he passed. I’m thinking that, probably, times ten. I expect a lot of great music will continue to come into people’s lives from Prince.

When the news reports came out, my office called me and my phone was blowin' up, and I was like, “I'm not saying anything.” And then, I have to be honest with you, I turned on the TV and saw some people talking that had, we'll just say, a dubious connection with him. Like, the nail lady next door to the such and such, or somebody's cousin's second niece. It’s not that they were saying anything wrong, it’s just that they either don't have a connection, or don't know him as a musician.

And so if I do talk about him, one, I think there's a perspective I can offer that's different than what's out there, and two, for me, personally, talking about it makes it real. Because it seems very surreal. And to talk about it actually makes it better. It's like you're mourning, but you're not doing it alone.

The outpouring of affection, the vigils, the all-night dance parties, all these things bring us together and help us heal. I think he’d want us to celebrate his music and his life -- not mourn it, but celebrate it. I know he's got his eye on us, and he is probably very happy with what's happening.

The thing that keeps popping into my mind over the past few days is the look he had on his face when we were playing Saginaw, Mich., on that chitlin’ circuit tour I mentioned earlier. He flew in to see us play -- he was hiding behind a side fill [monitor], so nobody could see him. But where I was positioned, at the keyboards, I had a direct line of sight. We started doing our antics -- Jerome brings out the mirror and Morris starts combing his hair -- and the audience is going berserk. He had the biggest smile on his face, like a dad watching his kids in a school musical. I had that feeling of, "Wow, we’re doin’ good."

And it was funny, because when he noticed me looking at him, the smile came off his face. I’d caught him -- he didn’t want us to know he was enjoying himself. He wanted us to keep the pedal to the floor and not get complacent, which is why he’d say to us, “Yeah, y’all are okay.” Hahaha.

But we gave him something to be proud of -- which was something we always wanted to do.