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.
“I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” by Cherrelle
“I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” is pretty interesting because we had been recording Cherelle in Los Angeles, and we had got a couple of songs done. She was still new. She’d always been a background singer, not really a lead singer. Being in L.A. at that point in time, studios were really expensive, and we were always looking over our shoulders at the clock because things were taking a long time. It wasn’t the most creative atmosphere, particularly for a singer who wasn’t that used to it. It was one of the reasons we decided to move back to Minneapolis. When we moved back to Minneapolis, the studio we ended up working out of was in the basement of a house. It was called Creation Audio, and it was run by a couple guys we knew that had put the studio up. The environment was this whole different environment because you just felt like, ‘Well, we’re just down in the basement.’
We had a board and a tape machine but it was very intimate and relaxing. Being in Minneapolis, there weren’t the same distractions that there were in L.A. So, we had Cherelle come up, and the very first day we went in the studio, everything just happened on that song. We did the track, and it might’ve taken an hour or two to do from start to finish. I can’t remember where the concept came from, but we thought it was such a cool concept. I didn’t mean to turn you on, like I know I look good, but I didn’t mean to turn you on. It certainly fit Cherrelle’s personality. I remember that it was so quick, and she sang it quick. Everything was so relaxed. I remember it was the record that was a turning point for us because it was the record that showed us we could make records in Minneapolis and be cool. We didn’t have to be in L.A. to make records. We didn’t have to be in a big fancy studio to make records. We could be in a basement studio and make a good record. When it ended up being a big hit, it just solidified our faith in being in Minneapolis and making music in Minneapolis.
It allowed us to exercise the theory that we’re more famously known for with Janet, where we could get to know the artist, without feeling the pressure of having to come up with songs and all that. It was more about having conversations and just hanging out, seeing what ideas we could come up with. The idea of working in a non-pressure situation was very appealing. Cherrelle was where that started and other people down the line, like Janet particularly, really benefited from it. I think a lot of the artists in the future really benefited from that approach, because once we worked with Cherrelle, we knew, ‘Okay, that’s the way should be making records.’ The other thing I remember about that record is funny because all the equipment that we made the record with were just two keyboards. It was basically an OB-8, which was my favorite go-to keyboard back at that time. The bass, chords, and all that is from that keyboard. Then, the other keyboard was called an ARP Omni. Both of those keyboards were my keyboards that I used in The Time. I was familiar with them and loved the way they sounded together when we did the records. Then, the drum machine was called the DMX, which was also an Oberheim drum machine. Once again, everybody thinks that it was sequenced.
The drum machine beat is sequenced, but there was a lot of freehand playing on that song and the actual music is. I just played the song from start to finish. The song is, I think, five or six minutes long. I played for five or six minutes and then whatever was on the tape. That’s what it was. There was nothing that was sequenced. Part of the magic of those records back in that day was the fact that it felt more like a jam session. I think I said that about “Alright” with Janet. But that was one of the things where we liked the idea of doing a performance rather than programming something perfectly. There were little moments on that record that only happened one time. It was part of the magic. Cherrelle’s attitude and singing were perfect. The icing on the cake was when Robert Palmer remade it and put his spin on it. It was the first time that we had one of our songs remade. So, that was cool. “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” was definitely a pivotal song for a lot of reasons for us.
“Ice Cream Dream” by MC Lyte
Well, that was for the Mo’ Money movie soundtrack. The inspiration for all the songs on that soundtrack really came from the dialogue of the movie. There was a lot of soundtracks that were coming out at that point where people were just doing songs. Then, a lot of times, you’d see on the cover, if you read the fine print, it would say music from and inspired by the movie. To me, now inspired by the movie meant, the music isn’t really in the movie and it doesn’t really have anything to do with the movie, but it’s a great way to package a bunch of songs together. While there was nothing wrong with that, that wasn’t what we set out to do. We really wanted to dig into the movie, and I credit Damon Wayans for allowing us to, not only be a part of the process of making the movie but also allows us to really live with the scenes and dialogue. The music was truly integrated into the movie, and then one of the things we did on the album was we got permission to use some of the dialogue from the movie to enter into each song. So, when you heard the song, you knew what inspired the song. If you listen to the Mo’ Money soundtrack, Damon talks about “my ice cream dream.” He was talking about Stacey Dash. She was the actress who played his girlfriend in the film. He was talking about that, and we just thought, ‘Okay. Ice Cream Dream. We like the way that sounds.’ That was the idea behind the song.
Then, we knew that we wanted to have, not only R&B, but we wanted to have some rap on the album. At the time, MC Lyte was one of our favorite rappers, and she was someone who Janet really loved also. When Janet talked, we would always listen. She’d go, ‘Lyte would sound great on this.’ It was like, ‘Okay.’ because Janet was involved with the song, “The Best Things in Life Are Free” with Luther Vandross from the same album. That was where the idea of using Lyte came from. Then, the idea was to just make something that was a hip-hop track, so that we could have a songbook. Now, the girl that did the hook on “Ice Cream Dream” is Lisa Keith, who you would know from the song, “Making Love In The Rain.” She did her own solo album and done backgrounds for us on a million different songs. She was the one that did that. We recorded some of that at the Apollo Theater. We recorded Lyte’s vocal at the Apollo Theater. There was some show that was happening, and we were able to get her and Big Daddy Kane, and maybe someone else, but I remember those sessions all happened at the Apollo Theater which was pretty cool. Lyte loved it right away. She said, ‘I love this track, it’ll work really well for the movie.’ That’s a record I haven’t talked about [before] but I love that record. I love the track. I love Lyte on it.
“Money Can’t Buy You Love” by Ralph Tresvant
Well, once again, it was very similar in the origin of the other songs, which stemmed from a conversation and dialogue that happened in the movie. We thought, ‘That’s a good subject to write a song about, particularly in a movie called Mo’ Money.’ Ralph was and remains one of our favorite artists to work with because he’s just so good in the studio.
He’s just so efficient and works so hard and the result is always an amazing one. He has one of the most unique voices ever to me. The song was really made for him, and we were trying to establish a sound with Ralph. There was this ethereal bumping on the bottom and over the top. It was kind of the way that Leon Ware would arrange for Marvin Gaye and for other records that Leon Ware was involved with. That kind of vocal style where you’re singing with yourself and then against yourself and adding harmonies and singing along.
Ralph got the concept of that. He was really good at doing it. He knew exactly what we were trying to achieve. The end result was “Money Can’t Buy You Love.” The same things that happened with “Ice Cream Dream.” Once again, if you listen to the album, you will hear the dialogue in the movie that was the inspiration for the song. I just think having that thread is one of the things that made the soundtrack very pleasing to listen to. We recorded “Money Can’t Buy You Love” in Minneapolis at the new Flyte Tyme Studios. We recorded mostly everything on that album at Flyte Tyme, with the exception of Big Daddy Kane and MC Lyte.
“Nasty” by Janet Jackson:
“Nasty” had a lot of similarity to “Alright” in that “Nasty” came from the fact that I just bought a new keyboard which was called the Mirage. As I was going through the sounds on the Mirage, the sounds were all on a floppy disk. I was flipping through sounds, and I came up with this combination of sounds that I thought were pretty cool. This is where the music idea came from for this song. Lyrically, we had gone to a club, and we were hanging out before we really got started recording. There were some guys that came up to her and started talking to her. Terry and I were on the other side. We were just watching her, and people were coming up to us and saying, ‘Don’t you think you should go to Janet?’ We were watching her, and we replied, ‘She’s going to be fine.’ Anyway, I remember around 10 minutes later, she came over to us and she goes, ‘I can’t believe what those guys were saying? They were so nasty. I hate nasty boys.’ We were like, ‘Really?’
She said, ‘Yes. Why didn’t you come over and save me or whatever?’ We were like, ‘Well, obviously, you saved yourself. You’re over here by us. Everything must be okay.’ It was like, ‘Oh yes, I guess so. I guess I am okay. Okay, yes.’ For her, that was a breakthrough moment. ‘I don’t need a bodyguard. I don’t need whatever. I’m going to be okay.’ The idea of the Control album really came from conversations and from hanging out. “Nasty” came from that idea. The idea of the track was to do something. I always explain to people that the thing that was missing, in our estimation from Janet’s first albums, was the feisty attitude that she had when she was a kid.
If you go back and look at the Jackson Five specials, their variety show, The Carol Burnett Show, she always, as a little girl, had her hand on her hip and just had all this attitude. When she made her first two records or albums, there was none of that attitude there. It was just nice songs and great production. She sounded good. But what happened to that attitude? Where was that feisty attitude? “Nasty” was the song for us to say, ‘Let’s see if we can get that attitude out of her.’ We wanted to give her a track that was aggressive so people wouldn’t think a woman could sing on it. Think about the songs back in that day. If you were a black woman, you were Whitney [Houston], Patti Labelle, or Anita Baker.
Those records were all huge records, but it was obviously different than what we were trying to do with Janet. This was an 18-year-old girl who’s gone out on her own. She had something to say, and it had to have the same attitude, almost like the way a rap record or a rock record would have had. We felt she could handle it against a sonic background like that. She could handle it with her attitude, vocally. We were right because she absolutely killed “Nasty.” If you listen to the vocal on that song, one of the things that I love about Janet’s vocals when she sings is, her vocal is very rhythmic in the way she takes her breath. Her brother, Michael, was very similar. The way she takes her breath, it almost becomes like she is an instrument on the record. It was the way we treated this record. It was almost like her vocal delivery and the funkiness of her vocal delivery matched the energy of the track, the aggression of the track, and the feistiness and the attitude of it.
That was the idea of “Nasty.” We just tried to make a record that was nasty. We used to make a face that would always be the nasty face. If something was really funky that we were playing, she’d get this look on her face and we all would [join in]. “Nasty” was that record. The beat on “Nasty” ended up having a great influence on what later became New Jack Swing because it was a swing beat record with the snaps on it and even the sounds. Those Mirage keyboard sounds in that song were in some of Keith Sweat and other records that came after it. We were all very directly influenced by “Nasty.” Once again, it was a pretty pivotal song, but certainly one with a lot of attitude. It was the one that set a tone for an independent, young woman being out there. It changed the way that radio sounded and the way that women could make records.
“Rub You the Right Way” by Johnny Gill
As the record was happening, it was an interesting thing because we were doing half the record and L.A. [Reid] and Babyface were doing the other half of the record. We heard some of the records L.A. and ‘Face had done. When we heard “My, My, My,” we thought it was absolutely a killer record. Johnny didn’t even like it for some reason. He didn’t hear it, but he was not the best judge of his stuff. He didn’t like the song “Boys to Men” either, but he does now. In hearing that, we knew that “My, My, My” was the quintessential ballad. We were not going to do a better song than that. We were like, ‘We’ve got to give him an up-tempo, aggressive record.’ I think Terry came up with the concept for “Rub You the Right Way.” As a matter of fact, I know he came up with the concept for it because I didn’t know what it was called. I just did the track and gave it to Terry. I said, ‘Here, try this. See if something like this works for Johnny.’ I wanted to do a real funky track. At that point in time, Teddy [Riley] had really solidified the New Jack Swing sound and that feel which was amazing. That was a big inspiration to me. It was about doing something with Johnny that was almost like a New Jack Swing version of what Teddy Pendergrass would do.
Teddy always had the vocal aggression in his tracks. We were trying to do a modern-day New Jack Swing slash Teddy Pendergrass record because we knew Johnny had the voice to pull it off. Johnny, who never really danced a whole lot, but because he had been with New Edition now for a couple years, and had done the Heartbreak tour, he felt confident in his dancing. So, we also wanted to make sure we did something up-tempo that he could dance to. If you remember the video, it was all about him dancing and doing his thing, which is the way we hadn’t seen Johnny before. I think those combination of things were what made this record work. It was a great way to start his solo career because it sounded nothing like a New Edition record. It was reintroducing the public to Johnny Gill, the solo artist, which was important in marketing the artist. Obviously, “My, My, My” was a great follow-up to “Fairweather Friend.” I think, three out of his four singles went to number one, and he was solidified at that point in time as a solo artist. But “Rub You the Right Way” set the tone for him.
“Saturday Love” by Cherelle and Alexander O’Neal
“Saturday Love” was our way of introducing Alex [O’Neal] because Cherrelle was already established with “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On.” I call the first Cherrelle album the guinea pig album. We had an engineer walk out on us in a dispute, and we ended up having to engineer the record ourselves, which meant learning from scratch on how to be an engineer. We lucked out that Cherrelle was the artist because Cherrelle loved us. She was one of our favorite people, and she was very cool about it in the studio. We were like, ‘Hey, sorry, Cherrelle. Take your headphones off because this is probably going to buzz or something.’ She’d just say, ‘That’s okay, baby. No problem. Figure it out.’ This was at the first Flyte Time Studios. As we were trying to figure out how to get stuff working, we were writing songs and recording and just figuring it out as we went along, but almost in a way it just made the record a good record because there was no pressure. The pressure we felt was trying to get the record recorded, not to come up with a song. The songs just came to us.
“Saturday Love” was interesting because I remember I came up with the idea for “Saturday Love.” I came up with it at my first little apartment. It was this penthouse apartment in Minneapolis, and I had a Yamaha CP-70 which was an electric piano because I couldn’t fit a real piano in my place. It was a small little grand electric piano. I came up with the chords, and for some reason, I came up with ‘Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday [part].’ As I was doing it, I was thinking, ‘This could be dope. This could be really good.’ Then, I went to the studio, and I said to Terry — I remember I was excited — I said, ‘Terry, I came up with this idea.’ He said, ‘Let me hear it.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ But I didn’t play it, and he said, ‘What is it?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s sort of like the days of the week.’
I got embarrassed, because all of a sudden when I was going to have to sing it for him, I just felt like, ‘Man this isn’t very good.’ He asked, ‘How does it go?’ I started singing, ‘Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday Love.’ I started singing that, and Terry just started laughing. I asked, ‘Man, is it corny?’ He said, ‘No, it’s dope. I love it. I love it. It’s the shit.’ He said, ‘I’m going to write this up right away.’ We came up with the verse and the lyrics, and Terry’s like, ‘Okay, cool.’ Then, we go in and do the vocal, and they’re both there at the studio at the same time. We were saying, ‘Okay. What’s the second verse going to be?’ We were like, ‘We don’t know. We’ll figure it out. Alex just sing it your way but just use the same lyrics, and then we’ll figure out what the second verse should be later.’
The interesting thing about this song is that we never changed it. Cherelle’s lyrics in her first verse are exactly the same lyrics as what Alex sings in the second verse, but you’d never know it because they do it so differently. Once we figured that out, we were like, ‘Wow, that’s actually cool,’ because when people are in love, they say the same things to each other, but they may say them in a different way. The man is going to say it from his perspective, and the woman is going to say it from her perspective. But we thought it was cool that they were both saying the same thing to each other. We also liked the blend of their voices. We were totally thinking Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. I learned about Tammi Terrell from Marvin Gaye because I already knew who Marvin Gaye was. But when they did the record together, it introduced me to Tammi Terrell. We felt this was a great way to introduce Alex.
It was the perfect way to do it. Now, it wasn’t the first single from the album. We released “You Look Good to Me” as the first single. “You Look Good to Me” was doing well and going up the charts. Suddenly around the 40s on the charts, it started stalling a little bit and we were like, ‘Oh, man. What’s happening?’ I remember we called Clarence [Avant] because it was on Tabu Records, which was his label, and we asked, ‘What’s happening with the record?’ He said, ‘Man, I don’t know, but what is this “Saturday Love” song, man?’ I said, ‘Oh yes. “Saturday Love” that’s on the album.’ He said, ‘Everybody’s jumping off wanting to play “Saturday Love.” Everybody’s telling me it’s a smash.’ We were like, ‘Okay. Cool. We’re not going to fight that. Do what you got to do.’
Radio picked “Saturday Love” as the single and the rest is history. It ended up being a huge record. Then, what we wanted to do was introduce Alex and Cherelle as a duet. That was the story, and it also was the song where we learned how to work our soundboard and record. It was important because that taught us that we were never going to be dependent on anybody else, and whenever we would sign other writers and producers to our camp later, we would always make sure they knew how to run the soundboard. We would always say, ‘Learn how to run this yourself. Don’t depend on an engineer.’
The other thing I’ll just mention while I’m thinking about it is, the thing that all these records have in common is they were mixed by Steve Hodge, except for “The Coldest Rap.” He is the ultimate, underrated creative person in our career. When you talk about the sound of Control, Rhythm Nation 1814, or any of those records, remember there was the production that went into it, but there was also a mix that finished it off. Steve was the one that showed us how to mix, how to record, and basically made our mistakes sound innovative and good, when they were just flat-out mistakes [laughs].
“The Coldest Rap” by Ice-T
It’s a pretty short story. We never met Ice-T. We went through a period in L.A. when we first came out as guns-for-hire. We were the guys that everybody wanted in the studio because of the way we played, the sounds we had, and all of that. Everybody was trying to figure out what the Minneapolis thing was and what synthesizers we used and the sounds, with the drum machines we used. There was this whole fixation on that. So, this record was one of those things where we went in the studio and cut the track. I can’t remember the guy’s name who hired us, but we might have made $500 bucks for doing this song. It was basically like, ‘Come in the studio and just do this track, or hook this track up for me,’ It was that kind of thing. We were like, ‘Okay, cool.’ We came in, basically put synth parts, drum parts, and all that kind of stuff together, and that was it. That was our involvement.
We didn’t produce it, really. Ice-T put his rap on there but we weren’t there when that happened. I’d say we didn’t even meet Ice-T until maybe 10 years after that because we certainly knew who he was. He was already kind of a West Coast legend. At that time, I guess he was kind of more underground, but we were like, ‘Wow. Okay, cool. Ice-T. Hell yes, we’ll do that.’ We did another record around that same time called “Bad Times” for the same label, Saturn Records. It was the same exact thing. We went in the studio and just played, and a guy named Captain Rapp rapped on it, but they ended up not using the rap. They ended up using the instrumental of it with the girl singing, ‘I can’t stand it. You can’t stand it,’ and that ended up becoming a classic. But we got $500 bucks for that, too [laughs] and that was it. This was during our early struggling days in L.A. We were trying to get on people’s radar for doing stuff and getting a reputation for knowing our way musically around the studio a little bit.
Chris Williams is a Virginia-based writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Red Bull Music Academy, EBONY, and Wax Poetics. Follow the latest and greatest from him on Twitter @iamchriswms.