Every successful songwriting partnership has it’s own distinctive personality. All collaborators have their own individual work ethics and creative philosophies that make their songwriting unique. Jimmy Jam Harris and Terry Lewis, who appeared on the cover of the Jan./Feb. issue of American Songwriter as the stop writers of 1990, definitely have a different approach to writing together-they write alone.Every successful songwriting partnership has it’s own distinctive personality. All collaborators have their own individual work ethics and creative philosophies that make their songwriting unique. Jimmy Jam Harris and Terry Lewis, who appeared on the cover of the Jan./Feb. issue of American Songwriter as the stop writers of 1990, definitely have a different approach to writing together-they write alone.
“We almost never write together, which is cool, because that we never step on each other’s toes,” explains Jimmy, the member of the duo who handles interviews and media relations. “We flesh out ideas as much as we can by ourselves. Then, we bring the ideas to each other.
“We wrote together a lot in the beginning. We were living in the bedroom of someone’s house, with a little four-track to put down songs. We did demo vocals in the bathroom to get a little reverb…The last time we actually wrote together was for Alex’s Christmas album (Alexander O’Neal’s My Gift to You, 1998. We had two weeks to put that project together, so we just went in the studio and hammered it out.”
Though their methods may be unorthodox, nobody can argue with their success. The Minneapolis-based duo has become one of the top writer/producer teams in the industry. They’ve won a Grammy as Producers of the Year. They have written and/or produced more than 30 singles and albums that have been awarded gold or platinum status. Three years ago ASCAP began bestowing awards for R&B Writer of the Year. The duo has won it every year. Their credits include the S.O.S. Band (“just Be Good to Me”), Gladys Knight and the Pips (“When You’re Far Away”), Cherrelle (“High Priority,” “Saturday Love”), Thelma Houston (“I’d Rather Spend the Bad Times With You Than the Good Times with Somebody New”), Robert Palmer (“I didn’t Mean to Turn You On”), The Human League (“Money,” “Human”), Alexander O’Neal (“Do you Wanna Like I Do,” “Look At Us Now”), Herb Alpert (“Keep Your Eye On Me”), Morris Day (“Fishnet”), New Edition (“Heart Break”) and Janet Jackson (“Control,” “The Pleasure Principle,” “When I think of You,” “Rhythm Nation”).
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, along with Prince, have made Minneapolis one of the country’s creative centers. Flyte Tyme, Harris and Lewis; organization that operates a record production company and two publishing companies (Flyte Tyme, ASCAP and Help the Bear, BMI) has made a tremendous impact on the national charts. At one point in 1986, Flyte Tyme had three projects in Billboard”s top ten and six in the top 100. According to Inc. magazine, their company has a profit margin of 75%. Earnst and Young and Inc. recently acknowledged their business savvy when Flyte Tyme was named runner-up in the National Entrepeneur of the Year Competition, making them the first music-oriented firm ever to be so honored.
These are pretty impressive accomplishments for two young men who just grew up wanting to make music. Terry was born in Omaha, Nebraska but moved to Minneapolis as a child. Jimmy was born and raised in Minneapolis. They met in their teens while attending and Upward Bound program at the University of Minnesota. Appropriately enough, they met over a piano, and though they discussed their mutual interest in music it was several years before their partnership began.
“I first started writing songs when I was 11 or 12,” Jimmy recalls. “Since my father played the piano, there was always a piano or organ around…I learned the piano well enough to write the songs I wanted.”
His high school counselor encouraged his songwriting. The counselor didn’t have an office, but saw students in the music room. So he and Jimmy began writing “a song a day.”
Jimmy began working as a DJ on the local club scene (where he got his nickname Jam) and Terry had formed a band, Flyte Tyme. Terry talked Jimmy into joining his band, but it was still awhile before their songwriting partnership blossomed. As a matter of fact, when they first tried to write together, it didn’t work at all.
“We went down into Terry’s basement and tried to write some songs together,” Jimmy says. “But our styles really clashed. Terry was into that Funkadelic, George Clinton kind of thing, and I was into a smoother, more melodic thing, more of a Philadelphia sound.”
The two continued working together in Flyte Tyme. At this point, Prince was putting together a band for his friend Morris Day. He recruited the core of Flyte Tyme and the group evolved into what became one of the hottest R&B bands of the 80s-The Time.
Though they learned a lot from their association with Prince, the situation made them realize they wanted to make their own music, so they began getting involved in projects outside The Time. They tried writing together again and things started to click.
“That was when things really started,” Jimmy remembers. “We got into it and realized the contrasts in styles made for a great blend.”
One winter night in 1983, Jam and Lewis went to Atlanta to cut “Just Be Good to Me” with the S.O.S. band. A snowstorm hit and made the duo miss a gig in Texas on the Prince/Time tour. Needless to say, Prince was not happy and fired Jam and Lewis -partly for missing the show and partly for working on outside projects. Ironically, the song that got them fired became their first big hit. (The song was remixed and released in the U.K. last year and went to number one for six weeks.)
After their initial success the duo became one of the most sought after songwriter/producer teams in the industry. At first they recorded in Los Angeles, but soon decided to move their operations to Minneapolis, where they’ve established a musical dynasty.
“We look at our songwriting as a pure partnership,” Jimmy says. “No matter how much of one song is mine or is Terry’s it’s always a 50-50 split…I think we are a team always. We wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing today without each other.”
Jam says they both do most of their composing at the keyboards. “My strength, I think, is the melodies. Terry’s is in the lyrics and working with the vocalist,” Jimmy says. “Terry calls me the Tracks Master and I call him the Vocal Master.”
The duo is always writing. “Right now we’re on a roll,” Jimmy says. “I don’t know how many songs we’ve written in the last month. When that happens you just want to keep writing, keep the roll going as long as possible. For me, what gets me on a roll sometimes is a new piece of equipment. Like I get a new keyboard, and it has sounds, and that seems to open up a creative roll that inspires several songs.”
Jam and Lewis work with a wide variety of artists and they give each entertainer individual attention. They put ideas together for each artist before they arrive at the studio, then spend as much time as possible with the artist before actually writing the songs.
“You spend time with the artist and maybe something they say over dinner gets you going, actually inspires a song,” Jimmy says.
“We write songs specifically for the artists. I think you can hear it. Like the songs we write for Janet sound right for Janet, but you wouldn’t think they’d sound right for Cherrelle or someone else. The songs we wrote for Johnny Gill wouldn’t have worked for Ralph Tresvant. We like to think of ourselves as custom tailors. We don’t just pull a song off the rack, and say ‘we’ll take a little in here and a little in there and it’ll fit.'”
When writing and producing an album for an artist, Jam and Lewis develop a “rough” cut. The artist goes in and sings to what Jam refers to as the “skeletal track.” Then Jimmy and Terry decide what they need to embellish the song and how it can be presented in its best possible light. Most often the mixing process is when the two work “together” on the song.
When asked how they know when a song is finished, Jimmy replies, “It’s an instinct I guess. But we tend not to overdo songs. The fact that we write so many songs might be part of the reason. You can work and rework songs and music but you can never recapture that first day of inspiration…spontaneity is important in music.”
Their talent for writing and producing songs that best showcase a singer’s talents have made Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis two of the busiest individuals in the music industry and they show no signs of slowing down. In addition to their writer/producer projects they reunited with The Time last year for the filming of Prince’s movie Graffiti Bridge. They recorded a comeback LP, Pandemonium, which spawned a number one R&B hit and top five pop hit, “Jerk Out.” The album was recorded mostly at Flyte Tyme and Jimmy and Terry really enjoyed having more creative control than they did on previous Time projects.
Jam and Lewis have their own record label, Flyte Tyme, which is distributed by A&M. King’s English and Mint Condition are two dance groups singed to the label, in addition to a gospel group, the Sounds of Blackness.
At press time, Jam was excited about the Sounds of Blackness project and about a recently completed album for Alexander O’Neal, not to mention a hot new project they did for Ralph Tresvant (the latest New Edition member to release a solo LP). They will also be executive producers for Karyn White’s next LP.
Though they are both accomplished musicians and performers as well as Grammy winning producers, songwriting is what gives the duo its greatest satisfaction.
“Write,” encourages Jimmy. “If only one out of a hundred will be good, then write a hundred…Songwriting is something you’ve got to want to do. Money isn’t what it’s about. It’s a God-given talent you have to use.”