Forty years after making their first record, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are recording under their own names for the first time.
In the interim, the Minneapolis-launched duo produced 16 No. 1 pop songs, collected five Grammys and landed in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In 1981, they were members of the Time, the hit-making Minneapolis R&B band. Then they became producer-songwriters extraordinaire, the most successful production duo in the history of popular music. Last week, the longtime friends released “Jam & Lewis: Volume One.”
No, they don’t sing. But they play on every song and, of course, wrote and produced the material as well as handpicking all 10 featured artists.
The singers are familiar to any- one who has followed Jam and Lewis and have produced 26 No. 1 R&B singles — Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men, Usher, Sounds of Blackness and, of course, Morris Day of the Time.
What? No Janet Jackson?
“The obvious answer is the album is called ‘Volume One,’ “ said Jam. “We’re already working on ‘Volume Two.’ On our wish list, you’d probably have Janet, S.O.S. Band, Alexander O’Neal and Cherrelle, New Edition. There are a lot of people we enjoy working with. Bruno Mars is on our wish list; we’d like to work with H.E.R.”
This project for their label, Flyte Tyme Records, is modeled after successful producer-as-artist albums by 28-time Grammy winner Quincy Jones, including 1981’s blockbuster “The Dude.”
The “Jam & Lewis” concept was for each selection to make listeners remember the moment they fell in love with a particular artist like Toni Braxton or Baby-face “and also have the artists fall back in love with themselves.”
“Volume One” features Jam and Lewis’ signature midtempo meditations on love lost and found, with scintillating vocal turns and seductive instrumentation. There is a big, Broadwayish ballad with Boyz II Men, an effervescent party jam with Charlie Wilson and a spinning out of control drama that Mary J. Blige actually resolves to her satisfaction. In other words, the songs sound familiar yet fresh.
“I call the album newstalgia,” Jam said.
Speaking from their respective Los Angeles-area homes via Zoom last month, Jam, 62, and Lewis, 64, wore their casual uniforms — matching black “Jam & Lewis” ball caps, unmatching black tops and eyeglasses — instead of the usual fedoras, suits and shades. Jam was surrounded by barren white walls while Lewis was ensconced in his home office among books, Grammy Awards and platinum-record plaques.
The pair, who met in junior high at a University of Minnesota summer program, talked about a variety of subjects, including their beloved Minnesota Timberwolves and their mentor, Prince.
On conceiving this album
Jam said they contemplated making an album in 1983 “when we got fired — or freed as Terry likes to say” from the Time by Prince (because they missed a Time gig after going to Atlanta on a day off to produce a song for the S.O.S. Band and got snowed in).
Back then, one particular track for their album caught the ear of Janet Jackson, whom they were producing. Jam and Lewis obliged. Good move, since that tune, “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” sent her career soaring and put their own recording project on hold. Until now.
On when work (re)started
In 2017, when Jam and Lewis were inducted into Songwriters Hall of Fame along with Baby-face and others, someone asked the pair: “What haven’t you done that you wanted to do?”
“We never got around to doing something with Baby-face,” said Jam. “We never got around to doing our own album. We never toured our own songs.
“We got two of those accomplished [now]. When COVID lifts and things are safe, we want to tour and do our own songs with various singers. Doing festivals is very attractive to us.”
On being a recording artist
Even though they made re- cords with the Time and as the reconstituted Original 7ven (all original Time members) in 2011, they forgot what was involved as artists.
For instance, after Jam and Lewis played their songs for officials at BMG (which is distributing the album), they were asked about making videos, doing TV appearances and touring.
“It’s all new to us,” said Jam. “Even doing this interview on Zoom. We’re learning as we go.”
For the first time in their long career, the duo has their own publicist and own manager. And even an agent.
“We have all these things,” declared Jam. “It’s weird. It’s fun. I’ll convince myself it is.”
Also new: Jam and Lewis paid the singers to appear on their album as opposed to the usual arrangement where singers hire them as producer/songwriters.
On Sounds of Blackness
The Sounds, the mighty Twin Cities choir, were the first act on Jam and Lewis’ Perspective Records 30 years ago, so they merited the first track on “Volume One,” titled “Til I Found You.”
“We thought of them as our foundation, and the foundation of the next chapter of our career as being artists,” said Jam. “We bookended [the album] with the last song with Morris. Terry said, ‘It’s like the beginning and the beginning.’ “
On the Morris Day track
“Babylove” features Jerome Benton, Day’s valet in the Time, as well as Roots drummer Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson, “who always wanted to play with the Time.”
“Morris was important to us, convincing Prince that we are the guys he should have in his band,” Jam said. “It’s full circle.”
The song talks about “grown folks” yet 60-something Day, the eternal Lothario, is chatting up a young woman, asking if she’s 21 yet. Is this appropriate?
“For us, it is the Morris persona,” Jam said. “It’s very tongue-in-cheek.”
“It was all in fun,” Lewis said. “It’s odd to me in the current state of the world, people get offended by everything.”
On promoting this album
“Everything we’re doing is kind of a first. Our first music video, with Baby-face. First time performing when we did [Jimmy] Fallon,” Jam said of their taped January appearance with Baby- face. “It’s all exciting. We appreciate every bit of it — and that we’re still around to do it.”
On not chasing hits
“Because it’s our own label, we didn’t have to worry about algorithms, analysis and trends,” said Jam. “What’s the best Toni Braxton song we can make without worrying about how to market it or chase it up the charts? We have nothing to prove at this point, but we still have a lot to say.”
Moreover, it’s hard to chase the youth-oriented pop charts when all the artists on “Volume One” are over the age of 40.
On being hot producers
“When we did our first ‘local boys do good’ interview with you, Jon Bream, you said, ‘Your hot producers.’ We said, ‘No, we don’t want to be hot; we just want to be warm for a long time,’” Jam recalled.
“We’ve been warm,” Lewis piped in.
Consider their goal of longevity achieved.
On the Billboard Awards
The duo introduced Sounds of Blackness singing their 1991 hit, “Optimistic,” at Paisley Park in late May in a taping for the Bill-board Awards.
“It felt so substantive, so full circle at the right time,” Jam said. “Music is a way to heal. Minneapolis is a town that needs healing. A song about moving forward, about optimism no matter what you’re facing in life, to honor that song and to do that at Paisley Park — we hadn’t been there since Prince passed — it was a surreal, bittersweet moment.”
“In the Prince organization, we had the greatest mentor of all time,” Lewis explained. “He taught us so much about work ethic and music and writing and being quick. The things we learned about management from Prince —sometimes you learn what not to do, sometimes you learn what to do. We are of that school. We’ll always be of that school.”
One difference: Jam and Lewis have wills. “We got serious about wills when we had kids,” Jam pointed out.
On the Timberwolves
Despite their widely publicized interest in purchasing the NBA team in the 1990s, these two courtside fans have no regrets about not being involved.
“Our goal was to keep the team in Minnesota; whether we were owners or not was secondary,” said Jam, who with Lewis moved to Los Angeles in 2004. “It would have been nice financially, but the headache of doing it would have taken a lot of time away from our families and our first love, which is music.”
Lewis admits to being “sad at the time. But never looked back. The journey is the most important part.”