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Lessons From the Best: What Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis Have Learned Through 40 Years in the Biz

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis
Marselle Washington

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis at their California studio in June.

The duo knows that tapping into an artist’s individuality -- and powerful vocals -- is key to making great records.

When Mary J. Blige listened to her recording of “Spinnin” for Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis’ new album, Jam & Lewis Volume One, she asked Jam (birth name: James Harris) to convey a message to his partner: “‘You tell Terry that he killed me on that vocal, but it’s amazing,’” he recalls her saying.

Blige was referring to the number of takes Lewis had her do for “Spinnin” to get a performance that packs a lasting emotional wallop. While some producers use Auto-Tune to tweak vocals, Lewis says, “Tuning instead of takes is blasphemy. I’ll do that with any artist because you’ve got to move me.” The version of “Spinnin” on Volume One, which BMG released July 9, does that. “Whenever I play Mary’s song now, I always run the bridge back two, three times because I can feel what she’s singing.”

As writers and producers, Jam & Lewis have built a 40-year career helping an enviable roster of acts find their best selves, including The S.O.S. Band, New Edition, Boyz II Men, Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey. In the process, they have scored 16 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1s and 41 top 10 hits, five Grammy Awards and induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Their influence still resonates: H.E.R. sampled the 1987 Herb Alpert track “Making Love in the Rain,” which the duo wrote and produced, on her 2021 platinum single “Damage.”

Volume One is the first Jam & Lewis studio project in which their names appear in the album title instead of just the credits. A starry lineup of vocalists performs on the 10-track recording, which has already yielded singles by Babyface (“He Don’t Know Nothin’ Bout It”) and Carey (“Somewhat Loved [There You Go Breakin’ My Heart]).”

Instead of their trademark black suits, shades, fedoras and ties, Jam & Lewis wore casual all-black attire, including ball caps bearing their “JL” insignia in white, on a recent day at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. There, they discussed the lessons and creative insights gleaned from their 50-50 partnership, which began with a handshake in 1982.

Terry Lewis: True production comes when you relate to an artist’s individuality as you blend their performance and the musicians’ performance into one piece of art. It’s like molding clay, although on a real level, it’s much more complex.

Jimmy Jam: It’s communicating to figure out how they like to work. Day or night? Do they like an entourage around them or to be by themselves? Do you bring the artist along slowly or jump in right away? Can they sing for long stretches or a short time? You need to recognize what makes them feel comfortable. The most intimate relationship you can have is with an artist. They’re telling you their secrets. They’re trusting you to help interpret their song.

Lewis: You’re the brain trust of the situation: therapist, problem-solver, mentor, parent, confidante, ego handler, friend. You must enable them to let go and show their strengths and weaknesses. That’s when you find out things about artists that you didn’t know. A little crack [in a vocal] can take you somewhere unexpected and good. That’s when you get your best take.

Jam: When we were coming up, we were sensitive to the frequent “You sound like Prince” comparisons. [Jam & Lewis were original members of The Time.] Of course we did, because Prince was us. He made those early Time records. The S.O.S. Band’s “Just Be Good to Me” was our first big hit. After that, people would come to us and say, “Give us something that sounds like The S.O.S. Band.” And we would be like, “That’s their sound. We’ll give you something different.” So we established Janet [Jackson]’s sound, New Edition’s sound and so forth. It has never really been about a Jam & Lewis sound. We’re the thread, but each suit is custom-tailored.

Lewis: Cultivating a talent pool of different musicians is important. We’ve done R&B, gospel, pop, soft pop, rock, an Olympics theme, NBA broadcast music. Having people around that understand the different genres and different gears that you have to shift can add another color or flavor to what you’re working on.

Jam: Under Prince, we learned spontaneity — getting it on the first take. Then we worked with Leon Sylvers III. On one record we did with him, we got only a rhythm arrangement credit, not producer. When Leon redid the vocals on the track, we said, “How did you get those amazing vocals out of those guys?” And he told us, “You’re not a producer until you can produce vocals.”

Lewis: Clarence Avant [former head of The S.O.S. Band’s label, Tabu Records, and behind-the-scenes mentor known as “The Black Godfather”] taught us about knowing our value. His whole thing was always, “You MFs need to learn how to count.” He would say, “So-and-so wants to sign you to this deal, but you’ve already made that [level of] money. Why would you sign with him for the [same pay]?” And by the way, we did learn how to count. (Laughs.)

Jam: During our second meeting, Clarence was already asking what we were going to be doing seven years from then — beyond trying to make hits. He was [asking], “Who’s going to be the next Berry Gordy? Who’s going to be on the boards of companies or become involved with charities?” He planted those seeds in us.

Lewis: When we first came to Los Angeles, Clarence told us not to look at the Hollywood sign when we drove around. He was saying we needed to pay attention to what we’re doing and not to what Hollywood is doing — or we would crash. Which is why we ended up moving back to Minneapolis [for 15 years. They returned to L.A. in 2003.] There were too many distractions for a young man — girls, cars, girls and the perception of having some money. Since then, we’ve stayed focused.

Jam: People frequently tell us they’re waiting for their break. And we always tell them to substitute the word “preparing” for “waiting.” If there’s an artist you want to record, you should know everything about that artist: the key he sings in, the engineers he likes, the studios where he prefers to record, producers, writers and A&Rs he has worked with. Then when you see that artist and he asks what songs you have, you’ll be ready to say, “I know you like to sing in the key of E, and I have a song in that key that reminds me of you.”

Lewis: Networking and relationships can come out of studio ratting. We were hanging out like flies on the walls at every studio while trying to figure everything out. You also have to understand the business. It’s like playing chess: You need to know what the players do, why they do what they do and what you’re bringing to the table. The toughest part is understanding your value. I don’t know how many contracts I threw behind the bed because I wasn’t willing to sign to anybody.

Jam: After [Jackson’s 1986 album] Control happened, we told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that we didn’t want to be the hottest producers. We want to be warm for a long time. The decisions we’ve made were never for the quick buck or hit. It was all about the big picture.

This story originally appeared in the July 17, 2021, issue of Billboard.