The Magicians: Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis

James "Jimmy Jam" Harris III and Terry Lewis

Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis may very well be the most legendary creative force in modern R&B music history. The duo have been responsible for #1 hits spanning from the early 80s all the way to hits by Mary J. Blige and Usher in 2002; and they show no signs of slowing down. During the New Jack Era, Jam & Lewis updated their style to stay current – and they did so with astonishing results. While Teddy Riley blazed trails and LA & Babyface crafted hits, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis made magic.

In the Beginning…

Hailing from the cold (and not-so-diverse) city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, James Harris III (b. June 6, 1959) and Terry Lewis (b. Nov 24, 1956) first met up in junior high circa 1975. An immediate contemporary of the two was a young musical genius by the name of Prince Rogers Nelson, who by that time was already making a name for himself locally with his band, Grand Central. Jody Watley’s future producer Andre Cymone played bass for Grand Central, while Morris Day was the drummer. Prince played lead guitar and also handled lead vocals. Jimmy Jam (who could play both drums and keyboards) even auditioned for Prince’s band – but keyboarder Matt Fink got the gig instead.

In the late 1970s, Terry Lewis and a drummer named Jellybean Johnson established a band named Flyte Tyme. Meanwhile, Jimmy Jam was earning his stripes as a DJ at the Disco-trek (a Minneapolis teen dance spot), and by 1980 earned his nickname for his ability to send club patrons into a frenzy. Jimmy Jam was also playing keyboards and drums with two local bands then.

In 1980, Prince had already been signed to Warner Brothers, and was releasing his third LP, ‘Dirty Mind’. Things were really heating up around the Minneapolis music scene, and all of the artists involved suddenly found themselves at the right place at the right time. Flyte Tyme now included lead singer Alexander O’Neal, keyboard player Monte Moir, and Jimmy Jam, also on keyboards. At a club named the Nacirema, Flyte Tyme was able to establish a residency and attract industry attention. The local success of Flyte Tyme caught Prince’s eye, so he decided to help them get signed. However, differences erupted between Flyte Tyme lead singer Alexander O’Neal and Prince, so O’Neal was replaced by Morris Day, Prince’s former drummer. From there, Prince renamed Flyte Tyme as simply, The Time.

Into The Limelight…

The Time toured with Prince throughout the early 1980s, and released several albums while scoring with hits like “The Bird”, and “777-9311”. However, Jimmy & Terry had started writing songs while on the road with The Time. Jam & Lewis sent their demos to Dick Griffey’s Sounds Of Los Angeles Records (SOLAR), where their efforts resulted in production work with Klymaxx. Then they sent their demos to Clarence Avant at Tabu Records, and were immediately tapped to work on the S.O.S. Band. The results were a classic string of hits, beginning with a hit entitled called “Just Be Good To Me”.

However, it was precisely Jam & Lewis’ production work with the S.O.S. Band that angered Prince enough to want to dismiss them from The Time. The most famous conflict between Prince and the duo involved their missing a concert due to inclement weather (they couldn’t fly out from Atlanta where they were with the S.O.S. Band to make a Time show in San Antonio). Prince reportedly fined the duo $3000 each, and soon afterwards, Jam & Lewis and The Time mutually parted ways.

In 1983, Jam & Lewis did production work with Cherelle, and Cheryl Lynn. By 1984, the duo had reclaimed the name Flyte Tyme for their newly formed production company based in Minneapolis. Work with artists like Change, and former bandmate Alexander O’Neal followed over the next two years. In 1985, Jam & Lewis scored their first Billboard top ten Pop hit with Force M.D.’s “Tender Love”, originally just a demo. Later that year, A&M executive John McClain introduced the duo to television actress Janet Jackson – primarily known then as Michael’s cute little sister.

The Magic Begins…

When Janet and Jam & Lewis got together, they created an album that reflected the things that were going on in Janet’s life during that time period. The breakthrough success of the ‘Control’ album with its six top ten singles earned the duo a Best Producer Grammy in 1987. “When I Think Of You” became the first Jam & Lewis single to go #1 on the Pop chart.

Next up was a song for the Human League, a UK-based synth-pop act that badly needed a hit. John McClain of A&M hooked them up with Jam & Lewis, and the result was “Human”, a perfect blend of Pop and R&B, with delicate background vocals by frequent Flyte Tyme collaborator, Lisa Keith. “Human” became the duo’s second #1 Pop single.

After some work with A&M artist (and co-owner) Herb Alpert (“Diamonds”, “Making Love In The Rain”), Jam & Lewis had set their sights on working with a promising new solo artist named Johnny Gill. However, Johnny had decided that he wanted to join New Edition. Jam & Lewis had no problem with this since they had just produced N.E.’s “Helplessly In Love” record for the 1987 ‘Dragnet: Soundtrack’. However, they recognized the Johnny Gill/New Edition combination presented a significant challenge: New Edition was going to have to evolve from a bubblegum act into a full-fledged R&B group to suit the Luther-esque (Vandross) vocal quality of Gill.

In the end the challenge paid off: New Edition’s ‘Heart Break’ album went double platinum, largely fueled by the hits “Can You Stand The Rain?” and “If It Isn’t Love”. Also, the ‘Heart Break’ album effectively reinvented the members of New Edition, and single-handedly served as the launching pad for the wildly successful N.E. spin-off acts to come later. ‘Heart Break’ is probably New Edition’s best album.

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