The Secret History of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ Iconic Production Catalog
We kick off Black Music Month with producer Jimmy Jam as he shares never-before-told stories behind his and Terry Lewis’ most iconic hit records.
James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis are widely regarded as one of the greatest producing tandems in the history of music. While growing up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the trajectory of their lives changed when they first crossed paths at the University of Minnesota through the Upward Bound program in the early 1970s. Over the next few years, they remained friends and played in rival bands against Prince and Morris Day. By the early 1980s, Lewis finally convinced Harris to join his band Flyte Tyme. Soon thereafter, Day and Lewis mutually agreed to form The Time due to a deal Day had struck with Prince over the usage of a track Day wrote for his Dirty Mind album.
During this period, Harris and Lewis decided to spread their wings as producers and go to Los Angeles after The Time’s spot as the opening act on Prince’s Controversy tour was over. They began creating demos with a four-track recorder, utilizing Harris’s keyboard and Lewis’s bass. Through the assistance of producer Leon Sylvers and then-A&R Dina Andrews, their demos eventually landed in the hands of Dick Griffey at Solar Records. After missing one of their concerts while working with the S.O.S. Band in Atlanta, Georgia, they were terminated from the band by Prince.
Following their removal from the band, they fortified their union as a songwriting and production team. Since then, their seamless strokes of genius have produced seminal hits for pop, R&B, and gospel music royalty for the past three decades. During their partnership, Harris and Lewis have earned more than one hundred gold, platinum, multi-platinum, and diamond albums, and produced forty-one Billboard Top 10 songs, including twenty-six number one R&B and sixteen number one Hot 100 hit records. Recently, we spoke with Jimmy Jam from the iconic production tandem about the stories behind the making of 10 songs from their extensive catalog.
“Alright” by Janet Jackson:
The whole idea of this song was based on an Lyn Collins’ sample. It had been used a million times on a million different records. It was a song called “Think (About It).” I was just playing around with a bunch of different samples. If you remember on the Rhythm Nation 1814 album, we used Sly & the Family Stone for the actual “Rhythm Nation” song. There were a few other things that we had been using, but for me, anytime I had a chance to try to interject something that I loved like James Brown, that was always a great thing for me just to vibe off it and try to come up with something. So, that was the case with this song. I came up with the loop, but instead of using the part which you hear a lot, which is the, “Yeah. Eh. Yeah. Eh.” There was a little section where the record would come back in and she would go, “[scatting] Alright [scatting] Alright.” I just thought that was so dope. We looped that and then it became the basis for the beginning of the record. I put a couple keyboards and some different things on it. I played it for Janet, and she loved it.
She loved the groove and everything. I remember we talked about changing the key to it because the song was so low, but she was like, “No, I can hit those notes. I can hit those notes.” We had already established that she could pretty much sing anything we needed her to sing. She would just go for it at that point. During the recording of the second album, she had so much confidence, after the success of Control. She really felt like she could do anything. She was the one who came up with the concept, lyrics, and the melody. I came up with a little bit of the melody, but I knew what I wanted to end it with, [singing] “Alright with me.” That kind of thing. Then, she took the lyrics from there, and for us, it was always like a big jam session.
The way the record sounds is the way we did it. We weren’t really into sequencing. We would make a drum track, and we’d just play along with it. Even though there’s not really a musical change per se in the song, the feelings change as it goes on. It was like a jam. That was the feeling that we were looking for on the record. It was recorded at the original Flyte Tyme Studios. We mixed it at the new Flyte Tyme Studios, and there was a point toward the end of doing the record where, one by one, Terry [Lewis] would come and start taking things out of the studio. Back in that day, before plugins, we had all our effects gear in a big rack, and there was a big effects gear rack in the back of the studio. It had all the different gear and all the different echoes and reverbs, limiters, compressors, De-essers, and all these different things that you needed to do vocals.
I remember we came in to do vocals, and I walked into the studio and they had taken all the equipment out of there. I was like, “No, no, no. I got to still do vocals. I still need my vocal chain of effects and stuff.” The tech took it out of there, and he was like, “I’m sorry. I’ll bring it back.” I do remember a couple times when we had to wait until everything got hooked back up again before we did the vocals. The other thing I remember about that song was, there were sounds in that song. All those sounds, except for the horn staffs, were done on a keyboard called a Mirage. We used the Mirage on “When I Think of You” and a couple other songs on the Control album.
The bass and the chord sounds were all done on a keyboard called an M1, which was a Korg keyboard. That was a brand-new keyboard I had just bought. Whenever I would get a new keyboard, I’d go through it, and that was where a lot of the creativity as far as inspiration for songs that came from it. I’d hear a certain sound that I hadn’t heard before because it was on a new keyboard and then, I’d be like, ‘Oh.’ Then, a song would pop in my head. I do remember that was probably the first time we used that keyboard extensively, because like I said, it was a newer keyboard that we had just gotten. So, that was unique to this song.
“Can You Stand the Rain” by New Edition:
A lot of people I know have seen the mini-series on BET. There was a lot of truth, but some of that was obviously was made for Hollywood. Some of those things didn’t happen. Actually, if things happened the way they really happened, it would’ve been pretty boring. It was good that they tried to make fittings. When there was tension, it could’ve been tension over a five-day period, but they would put it all into one meeting, so-to-speak. The thing on that record was, in our minds, we knew, even though we told Johnny Gill in a meeting that he wasn’t going to sing any of the songs on the album because it was going to be Ralph [Tresvant]’s album, we knew the way to introduce Johnny was to do a song with him and Ralph together. “Can You Stand the Rain” was one of the songs that we recorded in the middle of the sessions. At the beginning of those sessions, we did “If It Isn’t Love” and the songs that were a little more Ralph-centric. Then, as Johnny got to know and feel more comfortable with his role in the group and the group got more comfortable with him, then we started interjecting a little more Johnny into songs like, “You’re Not My Kind of Girl.” We knew that we needed a song that really put them together and introduced Johnny.
“Can You Stand the Rain” came from conversations about being on the road. This was a common theme in our conversations with them because some of them had girlfriends and some of them didn’t. There were always conversations about whether people were with them because they were famous, or whether they were with them because they were really down with them no matter what. Maybe their girls had been there from the beginning or whatever. There was a lot of that theme on the album overall. “Can You Stand the Rain” was just a way of saying, ‘When everything’s good, you’re there for me but what about when things start going bad?’ “Can You Stand the Rain” was basically the metaphor for that. In our minds, the song we wanted to write was along the lines of, “You Make Me Feel Brand New” by The Stylistics. If you remember, the low singer came in, [singing] “My love—’’ and then Russell Thompkins Jr. came in, [singing] “Only you—” That was the idea, sonically, was to do something where Johnny started the song and then take it into Ralph singing. Obviously, it couldn’t have worked any better. Even the way that the singles were released, the record company let us choose them which was great.
The first single, “If It Isn’t Love,” was really Ralph’s thing, and it was the New Edition sound that people knew. “You’re Not My Kind of Girl” showcased a little more of Johnny’s voice in there. It was a little more mature sounding. Then, “Can You Stand the Rain” was like the cleanup. It all came together, and Johnny was part of the group. People accepted him. The group accepted him and fans accepted him at that point, and that was the gateway to do it. It was an important song for a whole lot of reasons above the fact that of ‘Hey, we need a song.’ We really needed a song to bridge the gap between where New Edition was and where New Edition was going in the future. I think, if you watch the New Edition movie, we did not record the record with all of them in the studio at the same time.
But it was the record that, as we were recording it, everybody was around. Everybody was in the room. I thought the mini-series did a great job of capturing the feeling of the group because it was the first time, if you remember, you see the group, and everybody is appreciating what each other does. That was very true in the sessions. You couldn’t film that over four days or five days, and we did the vocals. They put it all into one scene that wrapped it up. They knew when they were done with that record that, ‘Okay. We’re good. We got a record, and we’re now a group.’ It was a pivotal, pivotal record for what we needed to do with New Edition as they went to the next chapter.
“HIStory” by Michael Jackson:
He knew that the album was going to be called HIStory. So, the idea was to have an actual song called “HIStory” because he didn’t have one. This was toward the end of the recording sessions. The idea of “HIStory” was to create a song that was really big, over-the-top, and had a lot of different elements sonically and lyrically. Michael always thought very big and out-of-the-box. That’s what we tried to give him. The song was written in pieces. We came up with the first little groove at the beginning because Michael [Jackson] wanted something funky. He always wanted something he could dance to. It was always his mandate. We thought about the song in movements. We thought the first movement would be this really funky part. Then, it would go to these chord changes that were very Michael-esque on the B sections. Then, on the chorus, it would be the same thing. The idea of the chorus was to make it big because it was talking about history.
History is big just as a thought. Michael said, “It’d be great to put somebody else on here.” We talked about our favorite artists, and how we had worked with Boyz II Men. He mentioned how much he loved them. We said, ‘Well, they would be great.’ Not only would they be great, but as we were moving toward the end of the project, we were dealing with deadlines. So, we not only needed people who were talented, but we also needed people who we knew were going to show up and kill it. I remember when they came to the studio. I actually called them and asked, ‘Hey, are you guys in town? Come to the studio.’ They couldn’t believe it. They were like, ‘Oh, Michael Jackson.’ I replied, ‘Yes, come on down.’ We were working at either the Hit Factory in New York or Record Plant in L.A. I can’t remember which place we were recording in. I’m going to just say Hit Factory for now.
I know we mixed in L.A. Anyway, they came in and did their vocals and absolutely killed it. I loved Michael’s face because one of the things about Boyz II Men was, we never had to arrange their backgrounds. They knew exactly what they were going to do, and they would just fall into place. When they heard the song, they looked at each other and went, ‘Okay. You go here and you go here,’ and then they just sang the chorus of the song perfectly without hesitation or anything. Michael was just blown away by how well they could do that. Terry and I were blown away by it, even though, it was something they could do but we were blown away also. While the Boyz II Men part was happening, the other thing that was happening was, Michael wanted to put an orchestra on the song.
When we had done orchestral sessions in Minneapolis, we would get players from the Minnesota Orchestra or the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and we would have maybe 16 strings total, something like that. Of course, this is now Michael Jackson. Michael said, ‘No, I want an 80-piece orchestra.’ We were like, ‘Who’s going to do that?’ He said, ‘I really like Elmer Bernstein.’ Elmer Bernstein is one of the all-time great composers, conductors, and arrangers. Of course, once again, Michael was aiming big and into the sky. I remember literally a week, maybe less than a week after we had sent the song to Elmer, we did the song at Capitol Studios. We were on this huge soundstage with an 80-piece orchestra. It sounded overwhelming to hear that, but also, we were not dealing with Pro Tools in that day. We were still dealing with analog tape. Literally, we had one whole tape with just the music. We had another tape with the orchestra. We had another tape with all the Boyz II Men vocals, then, we had another tape with all of Michael’s vocals.
Normally, what we would do is, we would bounce all those vocals and other things down. Let’s say Boyz II Men had 20 vocal tracks. We’d bounce them to two tracks and then that would be what we’d mixed from. We’d agree on what the blend was and that was the way we were used to doing it. Michael wanted to keep everything separate. When it came time to mix the record, we transferred everything to digital recorders. We were using the Sony recorders, which I think were 48-track recorders. We literally transferred everything to these 48-track reels. Then, we had to hook four machines together to get everything the way he wanted it, without separating anything, so that if there was one thing that he wanted to change on a vocal or on a string, on a horn or a harp, or anything, he could do that.
Now, there wasn’t a board that was big enough to handle that. We went to Larrabee North Studios. It was called Larrabee North at the time. I don’t know if they still call it that but it’s in Burbank, California. Literally, we had one full SSL board in one of the studios and then we timelined it to another SSL in another studio. We had to walk between the studios to find the instrument he wanted to be turned up or turned down, and the vocals he wanted turned up or turned down. It was the most tracks I’ve ever had to mix in my life. It was crazy and somehow, we got it down. The other funny thing was, it was the last mix that we did because we had spent four or five days on another song called “Tabloid Junkie,” which I think should have been the easiest mix ever. For some reason, that mix was taking four or five days, and we were like, ‘No, no. We got to do this ‘HIStory’ mix. That’s the one we should be spending four or five days on.’
The last piece of this is, we got what we thought was a pretty good mix of the song. It had the funky part where we needed it to be. It had the orchestral sections and the marching band sections. We put sounds mics in with old radio shows. We recreated a lot of those things and tried to make the track historic, along with old recordings, news footage, and all those kinds of things. We spent a whole lot of time doing that. I remember we were done with the mix and then, we were up all night. I think, it ended up being a one-and-a-half day mix, but we were up the whole night and then into the afternoon. Then, it was time to take the record to mastering, and that was the last step before everything started. I remember going to bed and thinking, ‘Wow. That was crazy, but I think it came out good.
I think Michael was really happy with it.’ The most important thing is if the artist is happy. I did not hear the song again until the album came out. When I heard the song, Michael had gone in at some point and there were these handclaps on the song that he really liked, but they were only supposed to be in one section of the song. He put them through the whole song. The loudest thing on the song were these handclaps. It was almost like, “If I knew you were going to turn the hand claps up, we wouldn’t have been so anal about all these other little moves.” [Laughs] The hand claps are covering everything up. They’re the loudest thing on the record. Anyway, he was happy with the way it turned out. We went to the HIStory Tour when it was in Hawaii, and I remember him playing the song. It was such a thrill to hear it in a stadium, with people singing along to it and the whole thing. Technically, that was the craziest mix we’ve ever done. Of course, after that, things turned to digital and Pro Tools, so that never happened again and probably won’t happen again. This is the way the song was done.