Interview with Jimmy Jam
James Harris III is the gregarious half of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the influential architects of some of the most lasting R&B, pop and soul sounds dating back to the ‘80s.
Jam and Lewis will join the Songwriters Hall of Fame 2017 class along with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Berry Gordy, Jay Z, Max Martin, and Robert Lamm and Jimmy Pankow of Chicago. Also to be honored at the celebration tomorrow (June 15) are Ed Sheeran, Alan Menken, Caroline Bienstock and Pitbull.
Here’s Harris in his own words on writing for Janet Jackson, coming up with Prince and plans for a live Jam and Lewis experience.
You and Terry have had a longstanding relationship with Janet Jackson. Is there a song you wrote for Janet that’s particularly meaningful?
“That’s the Way Love Goes” [released in 1993]. My viewpoint is the root of hip-hop and rap music is sampling. I wanted to do a track that was hip-hop inspired but had the chord structures and verses and bridges and additional things songwriters would do. "That’s the Way Love Goes," for me, ended up being that song. By the time I was done with the track, I was pretty inspired, and couldn’t wait to play it for Janet. So, I play for her what I think is this amazing track and she goes, “Yeah, it’s OK.” I said, “What do you mean it’s OK?” So I left it. If a track doesn’t speak to the artist, it’s not worth doing. We were going to take a holiday break, it was around Christmas, and she was going to Anguilla, which was one of her favorite places to get away to. I made her a cassette of everything we were working on to take with her, and I put the track on it. Two weeks later she came back into the studio and said, “I want to work on that track. I love it.”
We thought it was the first single, a perfect introduction to the album. We think we’re done. We’re recording in Minneapolis, and she goes to L.A. for a marketing meeting… and they talk her into “If.” So fast-forward a month, the last song we worked on is “New Agenda,” and we’re doing it with Chuck D from Public Enemy. We finish the session, it’s 3 in the morning, and we play the songs we’re thinking about for the single and ask, "What do you think?" Chuck D goes, “‘If’ just sounds like Janet’s back. It’s that Janet Jackson thing.” Janet’s looking at me like, I told you so. But then Chuck goes, "That other song, 'That’s the Way Love Goes,' reminds me of Sade, you know when Sade puts out a record there’s not a lot of fanfare and people go, 'I just heard something new.' There’s just something about it. I like that -- that’s the one.” That was what ended up finally persuading her. And we were proven right, because it was the prefect introduction to the album.
Your work with Janet and so many other artists is rooted in your hometown.
For me, Minneapolis was all I knew. It’s where I was born and raised, and the influences on me were very much pop influences. There wasn’t really urban radio up there so I grew up listening to a lot of pop music. For me, it was Seals and Crofts, and America and the Carpenters. The things that had really beautiful harmonies was kind of what drew me. Later on it was the Philadelphia sound and Gamble & Huff and that kind of stuff.
And of course Minneapolis is where you met Prince.
I met Prince, think I was in seventh grade and we were in a piano class together, which was ironic since we both already knew how to play piano. So it was a way to get us out of class for an hour, which was pretty cool. And the teacher would give us some sheet music, "Mary Had A Little Lamb" or something real simple -- "London Bridge" -- and would say, “Go ahead and learn that song.” And of course as soon as the teacher went out of the room we’d start jamming on the keyboards and having a lot of fun. And I was always blown way with Prince’s talent. I thought I was pretty good at keyboards, my dad played, but he could play rings around me. And then I remember that I didn’t know he played any other instruments. There was a school play and they needed a band put together to play for it and so they said, “What do you want to play?” And I said, “I’ll play drums.” And Prince looked at me kind of like, “I didn’t know you played drums,” and he said, “I’ll play guitar.” And I looked at him like, “Wow, I didn’t know you played guitar."
So we put this little band together and we started working and the thing that blew me away is Prince gets on the guitar and the first thing he does is he plugs in and plays the solo from “Make Me Smile,” the big Chicago record, and one of those solos where if you can play that solo you really know how to play guitar. So he kills this solo, just absolutely rips it. We take a break and I go to the bathroom, and I hear someone on the drums and I’m thinking it's probably the music teacher at the time and I walk out and it’s Prince on the drums and he’s absolutely lighting the drums on fire. I come back in and he hands me the drumsticks and I’m like, “ Oh my God, I’m so done now.” This dude was just amazing. He could play any instrument better than people who actually played that instrument, and that was a theme that continued through the local band scene when were in competitive bands and when we started working with him, when we put the Time together, and started recording with him. He would take the bass and show Terry a bass line and hand the bass back to Terry and Terry looked at it like he’d never seen a bass in his life. Just his musicianship was on a level of really nobody else. The way he played with so much aggression and force and emotion, was really unparalleled. When people say they knew at an early age he was going to be really good, I can really say it because I saw it, I heard it.
It sounds like you’re also a big Chicago fan?
It’s ironic to me that we are going in [to the SHOF] with Chicago because Chicago was one of my favorite groups growing up, certainly one of the most influential groups for me. I was probably as excited about that aspect of it, as I was of us going in -- getting a chance to go in at the same time but also getting a chance to meet them because I’ve never met them and they were my very first concert my parents ever took me to.
You and Terry are at work on the first volume of a new Jam and Lewis album series. How’s the experience going for you?
It’s going great. And one of the other things on our bucket list is these songs in our catalog, and of course our new songs that are forthcoming, have never been performed in a live environment that’s a Jam and Lewis environment. That’s another thing we are talking with some people about doing, particularly now that so much of touring is festival-based. We think it’s a lot of fun to do it. I love the whole idea of experiencing the music. That’s something we haven’t been a part of and were looking forward to doing some of that too. We actually have been approached about it and it’s like, OK that could be really good, particularly with a new album coming. And the other thing is you want to make sure it's something you can do when a lot of the artists we’d like performing are still alive and are still performing and still have great voices. Because at a certain point you never would have the opportunity to do that, there is a window. It’s not an infinite window, it’s a finite window. We’re looking into doing that, but first thing first… we have to get our album finished and get it out there.
What’s something you know about Terry Lewis that many of us don’t know?
The thing I know about Terry… the thing I always think of is that he is the most unselfish person I’ve ever met. And I mean that in so many ways. Just the fact that this whole kind of destiny thing we’re living was so much due to his stubbornness, even in pairing us up together. When we first met, I fancied myself as a drummer at the time and he said, “Oh no. You’re a keyboard player. Your dad plays keyboards so you’re going to be a keyboard player.” He just told me that and I was like, “OK man, cool, but I don’t have any keyboards.” And he was like, ”I’ll get you keyboards,” and he went and got me keyboards to play and I joined the band, and it turned into The Time.
And then a couple years after that he said, “Hey, I’m going to L.A. Who’s coming with me?” And everyone said, “No way man, you’re crazy.” I said, “I’ll go. Where are we going to live?” And he says, “I don t know.” “Where are we going to get the money? Where are we going to get the equipment?” And he said, “We’ll figure it out.” I just had this blind faith in Terry, you just kind of felt like, I guess this brother knows what he’s doing. So through all of that what I learned was just his unselfishness. He’s always looking at the other person first, what he can do for someone else.
[Edited 6/15/17 5:00am]
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