Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis have become synonymous with recording excellence
In part two of our interview, James Harris III breaks down his beginnings as a musician and shares his thoughts on his prolific recording career thus far.
Over the past three decades, James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis have become synonymous with recording excellence. They’ve created trailblazing sounds for numerous genre-bending artists and amassed a following only a few musicians can claim. Their production methods are legendary among their contemporaries and music aficionados alike. Through their ethereal talent and technical precision, they’ve influenced a new generation of musicians across different genres. During their partnership, Harris and Lewis have earned more than one hundred gold, platinum, multi-platinum, and diamond albums, and produced more than a hundred Billboard Top 10 songs, including twenty-six number one R&B and sixteen number one Hot 100 hit records.Their story of becoming the greatest producing tandem ever is truly awe-inspiring.
When you were growing up in Minneapolis, what was it like being the child of a famous local musician and how did it influence you to become a musician?
Jimmy Jam: Well, two things on that point. The fact that my dad was famous locally really didn’t have a lot to do with it once I got into my music career. I was around sixteen years old when I got serious in trying to produce records. So it didn’t really have anything to do with his fame. But growing up. there were always instruments lying around. My dad always had keyboards lying around the house, and it was very easy for me to be influenced by having access to those instruments. But my mom was also a big music lover. She was always playing records on the stereo. I never remember a day where music wasn’t being played. I remember my parents bought me a drum set when I was five years old. I used to bang around on that thing, and I know I drove them crazy. But what it led to was when I was twelve, my dad had a trio, and he would always have these different drummers come in every week. He could never keep a drummer in the band.
At one of the gigs, his drummer didn’t show up. So I ended up asking him, “Could I play a song?” He said, “Yeah, sure.” We played one song together. Then, the next week, he was still having problems with the drummer so I ended up playing a whole set. By the following week, my father’s band mate named Coffee told him, “Why don’t you let Jimmy go ahead and play the drums? He already knows all your songs.” So at the age of twelve, I was gigging every week at clubs playing with my dad. It obviously had a big influence on me getting a chance to play professionally. He tried to get out of paying me, but my mom was my agent. She told him he had to pay me just like any other drummer he would have in his band. I started a nice little savings account, so that was cool. His influence was huge to me in many, many ways. But the fact that he was famous really didn’t play a part, but him giving me the chance to play, and inheriting his musical genes was an important part of me getting to where I am today.
Who were some of the people you grew up with in your neighborhood that helped you along your musical journey?
I think the number one person would be Terry Lewis. I met Terry when I was thirteen, and we’ve been together ever since. He was a huge influence on me. When we met, he was a couple years older than me. He was a like a big brother figure and definitely turned me on to a lot of music. Growing up in Minneapolis, I grew up listening to a lot of pop music like America, the Carpenters, and all that kind of stuff. Terry was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and had relatives in Chicago and other places. He was up on all the really good music. He was the first one to turn me on to Earth Wind & Fire, Tower of Power, and all those kind of bands. He was a major influence when I first met him. Then, it was the circle of musicians that were around me during that time in Minneapolis. All of us were in competing bands together. Prince had his own band. Morris Day was in that band with Prince back then. Alexander O’Neal was in our band back then too. Cynthia Johnson, who went on to sing “Funkytown” for Lipps Inc., was one of the singers in our band for quite a while. People like Sonny Thompson, who is probably the best musician to ever come from Minnesota, and André Cymone, who is actually a distant cousin of mine.
So there were a lot of great musicians up there, and everyone was competing to get ahead. I had my own group called Mind and Matter. It was a singing group modeled along the lines of Blue Magic. The Philadelphia sound was my favorite once I got into my teens. So whatever I would try to write would sound like Gamble & Huff or Thom Bell. They were my big influences. My group Mind and Matter consisted of guys who were older than me. I was like sixteen, and one of the guys in the group was a counselor at my high school. I was able to get out of class, and we would go write songs all day. These guys were a big influence on me, because they were in their twenties, and they were great singers. I just had a great musical environment growing up.
When and where did you meet Terry Lewis, and when did you decide to join forces in creating a band, and later a production duo?
We met at the University of Minnesota. We weren’t in college at the time. We were in a summer school program called Upward Bound. The course we were in was called Peer Teaching. What it was is you would learn math and, then, teach it to a kid who was a grade underneath you. So I was going into eigth grade and I was teaching seventh graders how to do math. I was good in school generally, but I wasn’t good at math. Interestingly enough, we met through education, which was cool. At this program, we stayed in dorms. I remember walking by Terry’s room, and he had this red, black, and green bass. He had this Kool and the Gang record just blasting. He was playing the bass part with Kool. I said to myself, “Who is this dude?” I was instantly attracted to him. I thought he was just cool. He was the older brother I didn’t have. He was a couple years older, and had the girls.
Later on, I found out he was a great athlete, but I didn’t know anything about him. We just hit it off. I used to play the piano in one of the lunchrooms, and Terry would hear me play. One day, he came up to me and said, “Hey man, I’m putting this group together to play at the end of the summer party. I want you to play keyboards.” I told him, “Terry, I don’t play keyboards. I play the drums.” He said, “No. But you play keyboards. I’ve heard you play before.” I said, “No, I just dabble with the keyboards. I don’t really play.” He said, “I already have a drummer.” I said, “But I play drums.” As it turned out, his drummer was Jellybean Johnson. So when I heard Jellybean Johnson play the drums, I said to Terry, “Yeah, let’s go get them keyboards.” We went and got my dad’s keyboards. And we ended up playing at this end of the summer function for the Upward Bound program. We didn’t have a singer, so we played everything as an instrumental.
After that, we kept in touch with each other. For a while, were trying to be in the same band, but Terry was trying to do a funk type of thing, and I was thinking more along the lines of doing a Philadelphia sound. We tried to write some songs together at that time, but it didn’t work. He would come up with this funky beat and I would put a pretty melody over top of it. Or I would come up with a pretty melody and he would put some funk thing down on it. It just wasn’t working. So we decided to keep being friends, but be in rival bands. I had my band Mind and Matter and he had Flyte Tyme, which was totally Parliament-Funkadelic-based. We used to do battle of the band shows where I would beat his band, and the next week he would beat mine.
For Terry and me, it was always about mutual respect and camaraderie. At some point in Terry’s mind, he knew we were going to get together at a certain point and time. Let’s fast forward from the Upward Bound thing to six years later when I’m spinning records at this club called the Fox Trap. I’m upstairs spinning records, and he’s downstairs playing live music with his band Flyte Tyme. He came upstairs to the DJ booth and he said, “Hey Jam, you ain’t no DJ. You need to come downstairs and check our show out.” I said, “Okay, what’s going on?” He said, “I have this new keyboard player, and he sings really good.” I said, “Okay, cool. I’ll be down there in a little bit.”
So I put on “(Not Just) Knee Deep” by Funkadelic. “(Not Just) Knee Deep” was a seventeen-minute record. I knew this song would give me enough time to go downstairs to see what was going on. I walked in and they’re playing “What You Won’t Do for Love” by Bobby Caldwell. I can hear the singer, but I can’t see him because he’s buried behind a bunch of keyboards. I was like, “Yeah, he does sound good.” I poke my head around the corner to see who it is, and it’s this little White dude. I’m saying to myself, “Who is the dude who is singing? It can’t be this White dude singing like that.” But it was. I was like, “This little White dude is bad!” So, I went back up to the DJ booth, and after the show, Terry came back up to me. He asked me, “What did you think of the keyboard player?” I told him, “Oh man, I loved it! It was great. I’m glad you found yourself a keyboard player because now you can quit chasing me and leave me alone.” [laughs]
By the way, the keyboard player was Monte Moir, and he ended up being in the Time. Terry told me, “We need two keyboard players. That’s the new thing. We’re going to have two keyboard players. You still have to join us.” I told him, “No, T. I’m just going to do my DJ thing. I’m done with making music right now.” But then, of course, there is a girl in every story, right? So, I was seeing this older girl. She was thirty, and I was eighteen or nineteen at the time. And it didn’t work out. I was literally walking home from her place and I heard this music playing from a recreational center, and I poked my head in the door and it was FlyteTyme. I walked in, and I said, “Hey, Terry, what’s going on, man?” He said, “Nothing, man.” I said, “What are you guys doing?” He said, “They’re letting us use this as a rehearsal hall. They let us rehearse here, and we play on the weekends.” I said, “You guys sound really good.” Terry asked me, “What are you up to?” I told him, “Nothing. I just broke up with this girl.” Terry said, “Well, this is the perfect time to join the band!” I said, “No, T. I’m not with it.” So the next day, Terry called me. He said, “Alright, Jam. What do we need to do to get you to join the band.” I told him, “Terry, I don’t even have my keyboards anymore. I sold all my keyboards. I got all DJ equipment.” He said, “We can get you keyboards. What kind of keyboards do you need?” Terry bought the keyboards and told me to just show up to their next rehearsal.
We started playing, and we just instantly clicked. We picked up right where we left off a few years prior. And we’ve been together ever since. Flyte Time literally turned into the Time within three to four weeks of me joining the group again. This is when the whole thing happened. Prince told us he would give us a record deal and wanted us to make a record. I guess it was all meant to be. I thank Terry to this day for his stubbornness.
You said within a three- to four-week time period, Flyte Tyme turned into the Time. How did Terry come up with the name Flyte Tyme, and how did the group transform into the Time?
The name for the group came from a Donald Byrd album. We used to play their music all the time. The transition from Flyte Tyme to the Time happened like this: I joined the group, Alexander O’Neal was the lead singer, Jellybean Johnson was on drums, Monte Moir and me were on keyboards, and Terry Lewis was on bass. We didn’t have a guitar player at that time. That was basically the band. Prince was looking for a bass player because André Cymone quit his band. This was right after his Dirty Mind album. So Prince put out an ad for a bass player. Jesse Johnson answered the ad. He went and auditioned for Prince. Prince told him he was really good, but he needed a bass player, and not a guitar player. Jesse asked him what he should do. Prince basically told him he should stay around, and join one of the local bands. Jesse stuck around town and he joined Morris Day’s band called the Enterprise Band of Pleasure. A couple people came up to us after our gig one night and told us about this guitar player that Morris’s band had. They were telling us he was like Jimi Hendrix, because he would have twenty-minute guitar solos.
We decided to go check him out, and he was amazing. After the show, we went up to him and we asked, “Hey man, what is your name?” He said, “Jesse.” We said, “Our group is called Flyte Tyme, and we’re better than the band you’re with. No offense to anyone who is in the band with you. You should come join our band.” He asked us, “Where are you guys playing at?” We told him, “A place called the Nacirema.” He said, “I’m going to come and check you guys out.” We said, “Cool.” Jesse comes over, and checks our band out, and loves us. He said, “I’m going to join your band.” We said, “Okay, cool.” So he went to Morris and told him, “Hey man, I just talked to Terry Lewis, and I’m going to join Flyte Tyme.” And Morris said, “That’s cool. Go ahead and join them because pretty soon we’re all going to be in one band.” Jesse asked, “What do you mean?” Morris said, “Don’t worry about it. Go ahead and join them.” Jesse joined our band.
A week later, Prince calls a meeting, and he wanted all of us to come. The deal was Morris called Terry and told Terry that Prince wanted to meet with us and put our groups together as one. Terry was cool with it. Terry asked him, “How did this happen?” Morris told him, “There was this song called “Party Up” on the Dirty Mind album, and I came up with the track for it, and Prince took credit for it, and to return the favor, he said if I put a band together, he would get us a record deal. Y’all are the best band, so I’m just going to join your band and that’ll be our band. Let’s make a record.” We were all friends anyways because we all grew up together. Terry went to school with Morris, and we knew each other really well.
The weird problem we had is we had our band altogether. Jellybean Johnson was our drummer, but Morris was a drummer as well. So it was like wait a minute, if Morris is going to be our drummer and Alexander O’Neal is going to be our lead singer, then unless we’re going to have two drummers, that means Jellybean is out of the group, and that’s really messed up. So anyways, we go to this restaurant called Perkins, and we have this meeting with Prince. Prince sat down and started explaining what we were going to do. Alexander O’Neal was sitting there and he said, “First of all, Prince before we get started with the meeting, I have a few things I want to say. Alexander O’Neal needs paper.” Prince replied, “What do you mean, paper?” Alex said, “I need paper. This whole music thing is all fun and everything, but Alexander O’Neal needs to get paid. I need a new pool, a new car, and a new house.” He’s saying this and we’re sitting there saying to ourselves, “Are you nuts? What are you doing?” After that, they give him a steak and he said, “I’m going to go ahead and throw down on this steak? Y’all go ahead and talk.” So Prince and Morris get up and walk out. We said to him, “What did you just do? We’re trying to get a deal here.”Alex responded, “You have to give me some paper.”
We’re thinking the whole thing was off. A day later, I can’t remember if Morris called Terry or Prince called Terry, but I remember the conversation was real short. It was basically said that Alexander O’Neal was out, Jellybean is the drummer, Morris is going to be the singer, and we’re going to rehearse tomorrow at five o’clock. That was the conversation. Terry called everyone and told them that Alex was out of the group. This is how the Time was born. Alexander O’ Neal literally talked himself out of the group. It solved the lead singer and the drummer problem.
I didn’t hear you mention Jerome Benton. Where does he enter into the picture?
Jerome Benton was basically our roadie. He would set up our equipment and basically do all that type of stuff. The way Jerome got in the band was we were rehearsing at this same community center. It was called the YAASM, which stood for the Young African American Society of Minnesota. The guy who ran it was an older gentleman named Weaver. He was really nice to let us do it. He wanted to have an environment to keep the kids off the streets. It was a nice building he had there. At one of the rehearsals, we were working on one of our songs, and Jerome was sitting there listening. Prince was sitting there watching the rehearsal. When Morris told someone to bring him a mirror, Jerome grabs this huge mirror, and holds it in front of Morris. And Morris starts primpin’ in the mirror, and Prince falls out of his chair laughing. And Prince said, “That has to be in the show!” From that moment on, Jerome was part of the band.
When and where did you first meet Prince since he factors heavily into the equation regarding the beginning of your career?
For me, I went to school with Prince. We lived on the Southside of Minneapolis. Jellybean, Terry, Monte, Morris, and all those guys lived on the Northside of Minneapolis. They all went to North High School. Prince and I went to Central High School, but because of busing I was bussed to Washburn High School. But, during junior high, we both went to the same junior high school called Bryant Junior High. What we did was we took a music class together. Both of us already knew how to play, but we took this class because we were able to get out of class for an hour. The teacher would give us this song to learn how to play. One of the songs was “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” The teacher would tell us to learn it, and then come back an hour later. Of course, we knew how to play it. During the hour he was gone, we would put our headphones on at the keyboards, and we would just jam away.
By the way, Prince used to be a really good basketball player. People still laugh about this, but Prince could really play. He was a great ball handler. He had an older brother named Duane. Duane looked just like Prince, but he was six-three. They played together on the same teams, and they were really good basketball players. A lot of people knew Prince from basketball before they knew him as a musician. The thing that was cool about it was I remember that class was going to put a band together to play at this school play. I told them I would play drums and Prince said, “I’ll play guitar.” I looked at him because I didn’t know he could play guitar. I thought he only played keyboards. He said, “Yeah, I play the guitar too.”
So we get into our first rehearsal and Prince plugged his guitar in and he was unbelievable. He played “Make Me Smile” by Chicago, and the song had a guitar solo. And, if you played the guitar, it was like the go-to guitar solo. It was a great way of showing someone that you could really play the guitar. Prince ripped the solo note-for-note, and I was like, “Oh, my God!” I had no idea he was that good. I said to myself, “This is the baddest dude I’ve ever seen.” We took a break from the rehearsal. I went to the bathroom, and I heard someone playing the drums and they’re tearing them up. I was thinking it was the music teacher Mr. Hamilton. Mr. Hamilton was really good. So I walked out, and it was Prince sitting at the drums. We were twelve or thirteen at this time. If I remember correctly, Prince got his record deal when he was fifteen. We did the whole gig, and I remember a few years afterward someone told me that Prince played all the instruments on his demo. I told them I bet he did because I saw him do it before.
Terry got to know him through playing in different bands, battle of the band shows, and outdoor summer festivals. Everyone who was a musician knew each other. There were only a few places to rehearse in Minneapolis. One of them was called the Way, which was a community center in North Minneapolis. We got to know everybody. Prince’s band was really good. They were called Grand Central. Morris was his drummer, and he was an incredible drummer. Prince’s and Morris’s drum styles are almost identical in the way they play. André was his bass player and his sister Linda Anderson was his keyboard player. It was a tight little band that was really good. At one point in time, I auditioned for Prince’s band when he was about to go on tour. Honestly, I wasn’t good enough. He chose Doctor Fink and Lisa, and they could play circles around me. I was just happy for the opportunity.
I’d like to transition from the early days of your career to learn the background stories for the hit records you produced with Human League, S.O.S. Band, Change, Klymaxx, Janet Jackson, Cheryl Lynn, and how you began to work with each of these acts and your interaction with each one?
During the first Controversy tour, the Time opened for Prince. This was from November 1981 to June 1982. So we ended up going to Los Angeles after it was over. It was weird because everyone went back to Minneapolis, and Terry said he was going out to L.A. He asked me to go with him. We lived with some friends. We bought a four-track out of the paper. We had a little keyboard that I used to carry around with me, and Terry had his bass. We started producing demos. We would do demos all day, and then, we would put them in the hands of Dina Andrews. She used to work at Solar Records. She was able to put them into the hands of Dick Griffey. We ran into Leon Sylvers, who was a big producer back in the day. We were able to get the songs to him, because we played in a celebrity basketball game with him. On this tape, everyone liked different songs from it. Dick Griffey called and said he wanted us to do one of the songs on Klymaxx’s album. We told him we would love to do it. We went into the studio with Klymaxx. We gave them a really low budget. We told them we could do the song for five grand. So we went in the studio with the girls.
The story with Klymaxx is interesting. We respected the heck out of them because they were a band. Forget that they were women, they were a band, and they were really good at what they did. The thing we did different with them was we identified Joyce Irby as their lead singer. They had a lead singer named Lorena, and Lorena was a great singer, but Joyce’s voice had a character about it that was different. When we wrote the song, we had Joyce sing the lead on it, and it really changed the direction of the group a lot. If you think about some of their later songs like “I Miss You” and “I’d Still Say Yes,” Joyce Irby sung lead on those songs. It really put her out there as a unique voice. The other thing was Bernadette Cooper, who was their drummer, had a great personality. We called her “Bernaday” because she reminded Terry and me of a female Morris Day. She would demo their songs with Lorena singing the songs and we’d asked her, “Why don’t you just sing them?” She responded, “No, I’m not really a singer.” We said, “But you have the attitude, and attitude sells records.” We were the catalyst for her coming up with that idea of her demoing the songs herself. If anything, that’s what we contributed to the group more so than a hit record. We kind of gave them a little direction for what they were doing. This was our first time getting our feet wet with production work.
Around the same time, Leon Sylvers put us in the studio to work with a group called Reel 2 Real. I’m not sure if the record ever came out, but that was a great experience. It taught us about doing vocals. Leon taught us the most about really putting in the work to make the vocals sound correct. He always used to tell us you’re not producers until you can produce a great vocal. It’s not about producing a great track; it’s about producing a great vocal. So he was really instrumental in teaching us how to do that. This experience led us to working with Gladys Knight and the Pips on a record called “When You’re Far Away,” which was real cool. He had a group called Dynasty. We did a song with them called “The Only One.” It’s a song no one has probably heard, but it was a nice little record. We were getting our feet wet with a lot of records like that. Leon was the one who heard the demo of “High Hopes” and we ended up recording it with the S.O.S. Band. This is what led us to Clarence Avant.
Clarence Avant called us into his office one day and asked us, “Would you guys be interested in doing some stuff on the next S.O.S. Band record?” We replied, “Yeah, of course we would.” So he told us to fly down to Atlanta, and we scheduled our Atlanta trip in the middle of the Time tour. And, of course, as the legendary story goes, we got caught in a snowstorm, and we ended up missing the next Time concert in San Antonio. By the time we finally got to town, it was too late. Consequently, Prince found out about it and he fired us. And literally, the night he fired us, we went and finished the songs we did with the S.O.S. Band in Atlanta, which were “Just Be Good to Me” and “Tell Me If You Still Care.” These two songs ended up being our first big hits as producers. That was the path that led to that opportunity.
I don’t remember where the opportunity came from working with Change, but we went to Italy to record that song with them. From there, we produced Cheryl Lynn’s song “Encore.” Every time we came up with a record that became a hit, record companies wanted us to give them that same sound. But we told them we wanted to give everyone a different sound. They asked us, “What do you mean?” We told them, “S.O.S. is going to sound like S.O.S. Cheryl Lynn is going to sound like Cheryl Lynn.” We made a conscious effort to do that on our early records. It really helped us, because we didn’t get pigeonholed into doing one type of thing. By the time we rolled into Thelma Houston, Patti Austin, Cherelle, and Alexander O’Neal, we were able to make songs for each one of them. We were lucky enough that people gave us the freedom to make different kinds of records. And by the time the S.O.S. Band came back around the second time, we were able to make a record that sounded more like the S.O.S. Band.
I think this started us on the path of longevity, because people weren’t going to burn out on one sound. This helped us in our early days to establish that we wanted to make the artists sound like themselves, and not like us. It wasn’t about the producer making the record; it was about the artist having a great record. I think the early batch of our records went gold.
The reason we worked with Human League was because of John McClain. John McClain was at a studio called Studio Masters in L.A. He was good friends with Leon Sylvers. I sort of remembered him, but not really. But he remembered Terry and me. I remember he called us, and he said, “Hey, this is John McClain. You guys met me with Leon Sylvers over at Studio Masters.” We were like, “Okay.” And he said, “You probably don’t remember me, but I remember you guys. You guys came in and played a tape for Leon. And afterward, he was blown away. He asked me, ‘Are these guys for real?’” And he told Leon, “You better sign these guys right away.” John was a big fan of ours, and that was really nice. He told us he was an A&R at A&M Records and [was] working with an artist named Howard Johnson. He asked us if we had heard of him, and we told him we had. He asked us, “Would you guys be interested in working with him on his new record?” We said, “Yeah, we would be interested.” So we did three songs with him, but none of them were big hits.
But the relationship between us and John was really good. He had an artist on the label, and I won’t name who it is, but he had an artist around that time that was going to do a solo record, and she was with a big group on A&M. He asked us if we wanted to work with her on it. We told him we wanted to. Fast forward about a week, we asked John, “When are we going to get started?” John responded, “Well, I’m kind of embarrassed to say this, but she doesn’t want to work with you guys.” We said, “Oh, really? That’s not a problem. No big deal.” He said, “I’m embarrassed by it and I don’t understand it. But listen, is there anyone else on our roster that you’d like to work with because I’d like to do a record with you guys.” I said, “Send us the roster.”
So Terry and I go down the roster and, at the same time, we stopped at the same name and said “Janet Jackson.” He said, “You guys want to work with Janet?” And we said, “Yes, we would.” He asked us, “How many songs do you want to do? Three or four.” We told him, “No. We want to do her entire album.” He said, “You do?” We said, “Yes.” It was almost like he was asking us why. [laughs] At that time, she released two albums that really didn’t do anything on the charts. There are a lot of talented people, but certain names inspire ideas. And with Janet, Terry and I knew exactly what to do. We knew what was missing in her records. And obviously, the rest is history. It’s been well documented. Janet is an incredible artist. At the height of the whole Janet thing, John was a huge cheerleader for our first record with her. At that time, the joke with A&R people is they would ask you for one more record. No matter what you did, they would ask you for one more record.
I remember getting this call from John McClain, and he tells us, “Everything sounds great. You guys really killed this album. This is at least a double platinum record. This is amazing. But I still need this one record.” We asked him, “What one record do you need, John?” He replied, “I just need one record, man.” At the time, Terry and I were doing our own album. I remember when we were in our car, and we played some stuff we were working on for him. One of the tracks we put on for him to hear ended up becoming “What Have You Done for Me Lately.” When he heard the track, he exclaimed, “That’s the track I’m looking for. That’s the one!” We told him, “No. That is for our album.” He said, “You have to let me play this for Janet. No. Here is what we’ll do. You guys play it for Janet. If she likes it, let her have it. If she doesn’t like it, it can go on your album.” The next day we got to the studio, and she was sitting on the couch. We just turned the song on. She’s sitting on the couch, looks up, and gets this nasty look on her face, and asked, “Who is that for?” We said, “For you, if you want it?” She said, “I want it.” The song ended up being her first single and set the tone for all the records that came after it. So John was right about that. He had our utmost respect at that point. He already did, but he did after that, because he was absolutely right.
After that, he told us he had this group called Human League. We told him we knew about them. He asked us if we wanted to produce their album. We asked him, “What sense does that make for us?” He said, “If you listen to their records, they’re trying to make funky synth records, which is what you guys do well. They’ve already written a bunch of songs, but if you produce them with your ears, and make them a little funkier, then that will be exactly what they’re looking for. Those are the kind of records they’re trying to make anyways.” We were hesitant about it because we were unsure. He said, “I haven’t steered you guys wrong yet with Janet or anyone.” We said, “Wait a minute. We were the ones who told you we wanted to work with Janet.” He said, “Okay, but I did deliver for you guys.” We said, “Okay, let’s meet the group to see what they’re like.” So we met the group and they played us some of the tracks they had and they were cool. We decided we could work with them.
Human League came up to Minneapolis, and I would say, for the most part, we got along really well. Obviously, there was a little bit of a culture shock and a little bit of a weather shock, because it was in the middle of winter. The thing that happened toward the end was we wrote the song “Human.” Phil Oakey was the lead singer, and he had always sung in a kind of robotic manner. It was his style. And I remember Terry worked with him on his vocals for about a week. Terry told him he wanted him to sing with more feeling. I will say this: Phil worked his tail off, and did a great vocal. When his vocal was done, we were thinking about who should do the backgrounds because both of the girls in Human League were good singers, but they didn’t have the texture that went with the backgrounds we were doing. So, Terry came up with the idea of them doing the talking part on the song and him doing the background vocals. Terry did the bulk of the background vocals on “Human.”
Then, we had a girl named Lisa Keith. Lisa was our go-to background singer. She could sing anything. We asked her to go through what Terry did, and fill in the harmonies. I remember we got the record done, and we were all so happy. When we played the record for the group, they had no reaction to it. We asked them what they thought of it. We told Phil that his vocals sounded really good. One of the girls said, “Who is the other girl singing on it?” We said, “What other girl?” She said, “The girl singing on the backgrounds.” We said, “Her name is Lisa Keith. She was doing the backgrounds on it.” She said, “I don’t like the idea of another girl being on our song.” We said, “Really. But doesn’t it sound good?” So we finished up that day.
The next day we got to the studio. Phil was seeing one of the girls in the group named Joanne. And she was the one raising a stink about the other girl being on the song. Phil walked in and told us, “I have to say. I don’t like the idea of another girl being on our record.” We said, “What?” He repeated, “I have to say. I don’t like the idea of another girl being on our record.” We said, “Oh. We get it. We got you. You just have to say it. We got it. Perfect.” We called the record company and told them, “We either have your first single or a record that is off the album. And you guys can figure out how you want to handle it.” I told Jordan Harris, who was the Virgin/A&M Records A&R at the time that, “We think the song is perfect the way it is. We don’t want to change anything about it. And by the way, the songs we wrote, we’re going to finish them the way we want to finish them. That’s the way it should be. The songs they wrote they can finish them however they want to, but our songs we’re going to finish them the way we want to finish them.” And he said, “That sounds fair. It makes total sense.” I said, “So we’re not taking the girl off ‘Human’ because we think the song sounds perfect the way it is.”
The way it was characterized back in the day is that we didn’t get along with Human League, and that was absolutely not the case. We went through the whole process of recording, and that was the only disagreement we had, but because it involved what was potentially a first single from the album, it probably became a bigger deal than it needed to be. The song ended up coming out the way we wanted it to. It ended up being a huge record for them and us. We won a Grammy for Producer of the Year that year. Anything that we read from Phil about us has always been positive, and we feel that way about them too.
Let’s transition to Minneapolis and the music born during your era. Can you put into words the construction of the Minneapolis sound?
I always equate the Minneapolis sound to Prince. To me, it was the thing that came from him. It was unorthodox to mix rock guitar with funk, but Sly had done it before him obviously in the ’70s, but in the ’80s, that was kind of different. I think synthesizers up until that time had been used more as solo instruments rather than instruments that you actually created chords from like horn parts. For a lot of bands, they had horn sections. Coming from Minneapolis, both our band and Prince’s band, didn’t use horns. We used synthesizers to play the line of licks that horns would play. I think that has a lot to do with the Minneapolis sound. It also has to do a lot with growing up in Minneapolis, and the idea of combining rock and funk into one kind of thing. It was just a natural thing. We weren’t doing what everybody else was doing. We didn’t have a direct New York or L.A. or Southern influence, it was a melting pot of a whole bunch of different sounds. If I were to pinpoint it, it was a synth-driven rock sound on the top with a lot of funky bass on the bottom. The architect of the sound was Prince. He had the blueprint for it in his earlier records. He was the architect, and we were the contractors.
As one half of one of the most important producing tandems over the past thirty years, tell me some of your reflections of working side-by-side with Terry Lewis.
First of all, the thing I like most when we’re mentioned with being the best is the word team comes after the acknowledgement. It’s totally a team effort between Terry and me. I’ve never had a number one record without Terry, and he’s never had a number one record without me. All of our success has been linked together. I go back to the comparison to Gamble & Huff. Gamble & Huff are my guys! To be mentioned as one of the most successful teams, that’s what I really like. It has the most significance, because no one really does it by themselves. We started our partnership with a handshake. Early on in our career, we made one of the most pivotal decisions. We decided that we were going to split everything fifty-fifty no matter who writes or produces. If I do it all by myself, Terry would get fifty percent. If Terry did it all by himself, I would get fifty percent. We knew we would have times where one of us would get writer’s block, and there would be certain projects where Terry could adapt to more and vice versa. At the end of the day, it all worked out. It takes all the arguments out of the relationship, if you split everything equally. That is the advice I would give to someone coming into the industry today. If people look at us as role models, this is the advice I would give them.
Responses from Facebook
Leave a Response