The indelible stamp of writing and production super duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis continues to saturate today’s R&B and pop landscape. They famously helped shape the sound of Janet Jackson, they infamously got fired by Prince while their band The Time was backing him, and they haven’t missed a beat as they continue to evolve with work on a new Peabo Bryson album and a compilation series of never-released songs.
As the duo prepares to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame on Thursday (June 15), the customarily less talkative Lewis opens up about why he wouldn’t change a single note in his storied career.
You and Jimmy reunited with Janet Jackson for her current album Unbreakable. What was it like working together again after so many years?
We’ve always had just a great rapport with Janet, creatively and socially. She’s like our sister. For so many years we did great records together, and then she grew to a point where she needed to go off and do some different things, as all artists do. During that period we really missed her and would always stay in contact and, you know, try to help her through whatever [she needed] because we knew the combination of how she liked to do things. The goal was always to help her win at all costs. But in doing the new album, it was an amazing thing just to get back together and spend time together again. It was almost like going back to the beginning because for all the other albums between Control [released in 1986] and now, everybody wanted to be involved, everybody had an opinion, and everyone wanted to stick their finger in and put their fingerprints on things. And in the early days of Control and Rhythm Nation, we didn’t really have that or allow that. The only person involved would be [A&R exec] John McClain, and he’d bring keyboards and whatever, but everybody else stayed away. But after that, after she had two big hits, everybody wanted to have an opinion.
How did you manage all those cooks in the kitchen?
We managed it easily because at that point we had moved back to Minneapolis, and distance causes a great buffer. So if you wanted to work with her you had to come to Minneapolis. Janet was perfectly happy and comfortable being in Minneapolis, but a lot of people didn’t want to come, especially in the winter. Nobody wants to come to Minneapolis in the winter, so it was definitely an advantage in that immediately we had our own identity in a sense. We were separated from all the trends and we were set into an area where we had to create our own, which was good. Our influences there were quite different than they would’ve been had we been on either coast or in the south.
Were there influences and elements you wanted to make sure were conveyed on Unbreakable, or was it just more a vibe of getting the band back together?
Unbreakable was definitely a “get the band back together” moment. It wasn’t about what we created as a production team; it was about what we created as an overall team, with Janet. What I tend to do is always just lean on the artists to see what’s in their brain and in their heart. One of the things we always say is, “What comes from the heart reaches the heart.” We wanted her to have the concept of what she wanted to say, instead of us putting words in her mouth.
And speaking of Minneapolis, stories of your coming up with Prince are legendary. Can you share some of your experience?
It was an amazing experience. I learned so much by Prince. He was an amazing musician, mentor, friend, brother. He was there at the beginning with us, and we were there at the beginning with him, before he was the Prince everyone came to know and love. We knew Prince when he was in high school playing in the local bands, and we would be in rival bands and having battle of the bands, and that’s kind of the way it worked. We grew up together; we were elated he got out and made his mark, and definitely blessed by him coming back and giving us the opportunity, as other opportunities came that we didn’t take. The opportunity for me came in all of that because at a point when he was changing bass players I was supposed to be his bass player and I had considered that, but then the thing came along with Morris [Day] and I said, “I’d rather just do this.”
At this point in your career, as you think about opportunities taken and not taken, is there anything you’d do differently?
No, I’d do it all the same. Every bit of pain was worth it, every bit of agony, every bit of the love we shared, the time we shared. It was all worth it. If I changed something the outcome might be different, and I actually like the outcome. Everything’s not meant to be easy, and we all should just appreciate where we are and as we strive. To me what makes life feel real is the push and pull. It is a little bit of the agony of it all. If you’re not trying to break through something, you’re too comfortable. I’m always trying to break through and find what’s next.
What does that feel like now? What feels a little uncomfortable today, what’s driving you?
There’s always musically the quest to make the perfect song and that’s arriving at a place where I hope I never arrive because I just want to continue to create and be free and be open to whatever the world brings. There are so many things to sing about in the world, and hopefully we can do more with the music because music is also a great healer in the world and we need that. Music is the soundtrack to life, the thing that keeps everything relatable and breaks down language barriers. It breaks down everything. It gives you a way to say something you could never find a way to say. Music is always a relevant part of life and society and so I’m just happy to participate and very blessed to be able to do it. I don’t take it lightly.
What projects are you working on now?
Lots of projects [laughs]; I’m not a one-trick pony. We just finished a full Peabo Bryson record, I don’t know the last time Peabo Bryson had a record out. It sounds incredible. Peabo is just one of the great voices of our time. People forget how great he is; he just exudes class. It’s something that’s so needed. We need the bar to be set high, and you need people that can set the bar high so they have something to aspire to. This is our first opportunity to work with him.
And we’re working on a Jam and Lewis album, which is a compilation project, and this will be volume one of many to come. We have music with all our friends we worked with over the years, and we have some new unreleased music and that is extraordinarily fun. It’s some new material, some going back and pulling things out. All of the above. We have people like Janet, Usher, Mary J. Blige, Heather Headley, Alexander O’Neal, The Sounds of Blackness… you know, just people from our history. That is the fun part about it. If you can go back and find an old track and update it and make it relevant, that in itself is fun. It’s stuff you remember and thought should have had a life at the time you created it, but it didn’t. That’s the way it works. Like “No More Drama” — we created with Mary and it took maybe four years, five years before it actually came out and became a hit. She put it on the back burner and then it finally came out.
Can you take us back to the beginning, to creating some of your early hits?
“What Have You Done For Me Lately” [performed by Janet Jackson] — this was back to the beginning. That song was actually supposed to be part of the first Jam & Lewis album for a group we had called The Secret. And we had put it aside, and we were kind of playing down some music for the A&R person at the time, his name was John McClain, and played some music we had created for Janet—pretty much the rest of the Control album, and then we started playing some stuff for what we were thinking at the time was going to The Secret album. And he said, “What’s that?” And we said, “That’s something from our album.” And he said, “I need that on Janet’s album.” And we were like, “No man, this is for our album.” We were going to be the artist behind it. So he said, “Alright, we’ll play the song for Janet and see if she likes it.” We went to the studio the next day and we had the song playing in the background. Janet popped her head in the door as soon as she heard it and said, “Who’s that?” We said, “It’s just a song?” “Who’s it for?” And I said, “I guess it’ll be for you if you like it.” She said, “I like it.”
There are a couple songs I always gravitate to because of how they make people feel. One of those songs would be by the Sounds of Blackness — “Optimistic.” That’s an incredible song. That song changed a lot of people’s perception. It was really a great time in that when people heard that song that would say, “Man, I wake up and I have to play that song every day because it gets me ready for life.”
“Open My Heart” by Yolanda Adams — that’s another one that transcended a lot of different things in terms of genre and everything, and moved over from gospel on to mainstream radio. And I got so many calls, people calling me and telling when they heard that song they pulled over on the side of the road and just had to listen and they cried and it emotionally stirred them.
Have the fundamental elements of crafting a song that’s going to move people remained consistent through the years?
I’ll give an analogy. It’s still the same house but maybe the paint is a little different, maybe the façade is a little different, but it’s still the same three-room house. A great song is based on a great lyric, a great melody, and then the third thing that makes it all work is a great performance. If you have all three things you have a shot. If you have two of the things you might have a shot. If you have one of the things you probably are not going to succeed.
And one last, non-musical question… What’s something most people don’t know about Jimmy Jam?
He likes to take a shower with his hat on [laughs], just kidding. That’s a tough one, people know more about Jimmy than they know about me. What I’m really proud of Jimmy for is just being a great man, being a great father, being a great leader for his family. To me, that says everything about a man, because if you can’t take care of your home, what are we here for? I don’t know if people know that side of him.