Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are synonymous with music industry history and success and as a result, iconic status. The pair is certainly the most recognizable production team that have masterfully created hits for more than 30 years for everybody from The SOS Band to Janet Jackson to Usher to New Edition and even on the pop side for The Human League.
Their list of industry contributions is way too long to mention. Now the duo is switching sides and becoming artists themselves for a new project with the first single “’He Don’t Know Nothin’ ‘Bout It’” by combining efforts with another stellar producer and prolific songwriter Babyface.
In the many years that I have been doing Radio Facts it is rare that you come across a great interview like this. It’s usually very straightforward and many times routine and basic but Jimmy and Terry have some amazing nuggets to share from their days producing hits that I could have talked with them for another few hoursJimmy has a way of telling a story that is second to none. You literally feel like you were in the room. We hope that you enjoy this interview as much as we enjoyed doing it.
Kevin: So the first thing I want to ask, something I’ve always wanted to ask who came first, the blues brothers or Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis?
Jimmy: We were the Blues Brothers first.
Kevin: So how did you come up with the whole look?
Jimmy: I mean, really the look was when we were growing up, we always tried to dress kind of sophisticated but we couldn’t afford suits. So we would go to thrift stores and get old suits, cost like $10, $15, and then we’d have a tailor or somebody, you know, tailor them up a little bit for us. I have a picture in the studio. Matter of fact, there’s a picture of Terry. When I met Terry, he had a red, black and green base and literally there’s a picture in the studio. I think Terry may be 16 years old with his red, black, and green base, fedora, a suit.
Terry: I have it. I will pull it up. Hold on.
Jimmy: You have it, okay. Because that to me is the thing, like everybody said, well, you know, how did you get the style? And for us, it was just a matter of trying to afford stuff. We couldn’t afford anything, but you could go get nice hats and you could get a nice little suit and you could have a nice little look; you know? And so that was our thing back when we were kids, that’s what we always did. So that’s kind of where the look came from. And then we just got known for the hats and the sunglasses, cause we just kind of continued with it. We liked the look of it and that’s just us, it’s our superhero outfit, you know.
Kevin: Okay. So I’ve noticed over the years, it’s kind of like you’re stars, but then you’re not, is that intentional?
Jimmy: Yeah, our intent was never to be known necessarily, I think we wanted to be respected for what we did. And I think we were cognizant of the fact that producers’ importance in making records maybe wasn’t recognized. So our circumstances will be coming out of The Time, coming out of a group that was very well recognized and very popular. We thought that that was kind of cool. You know, because it gave visibility to record producers And so we thought that was kind of cool, but we weren’t like, know people joke like, Oh, you’re going to be all up in every video and all that. We never did that. You never really hear like the Sonic identifiers where every record that we make comes on and we go Jam and Lewis and that kind of thing. Our thing was always artists… our job was to make the artists look great.
Kevin: And I have no idea who you might be referring to, but go ahead.
Jimmy: Various people- I’m not knocking it. I mean, that’s absolutely fine, but that was not what we set out to do. But we do like the recognition that it shines on people behind the scenes, the record producers, the people that write the songs as songwriters. I mean, that was always our thing. So I think that part of it is a great thing.
Terry: The best way to stay in the picture is to get out of the way. Like we try to stay out of the way of the artists and let the artist shine through and support them in any way we possibly can. And, you know, occasionally we might show up in the video, but very seldom that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to just do what was supposed to do behind the scenes.
Kevin: So at this point after so many years are you glad you did it that way? Or were there times that you wanted more recognition?
Terry: No, I’m not glad or happy, that’s just our way. I mean, that’s how we feel comfortable. That’s the most comfortable way for us. We never did anything that was out of character. You know, we can do the stage thing though, I can be helpful on the stage, that’s fine. But truly like behind the scenes is where it all gets done anyway. That’s where the nuts and bolts are.
Jimmy: It’s interesting too, because Richard Dreyfus was the actor back in the day, he had a way that he talked about sort of the idea of fame. And he said, the perfect balance to him is where you have enough recognition where you can get a table at a restaurant, maybe a full restaurant, but you can get a table based on that. But then once you get the table, when you get your dinner, you can actually get through the dinner without being bugged, because nobody’s going to really bother you.
And I think that’s a good metaphor for kind of, Terry and my fame or whatever you want to call it. Is that we can get into a nice restaurant and that’s cool, but then people are very respectful to us. I always thought it would be really hard, you know, in working with Janet obviously, but working with Michael. Like to have a conversation with him, he couldn’t even have a conversation with people because when people come up to you and they’re going, oh my God, Oh my God, you can’t have a conversation with somebody like that and that’s too bad.
And I think people, when they see us, they come up and they’re very respectful and they just go, you know, Hey, I like what you guys do and now we can have a conversation And I love that. I love that people feel like they have something in common with us and that we’re just guys, hey, we’re just here, we do what we do. So we love kind of where we’re at, I don’t think we would really change anything.
Kevin: So a late night run to the 7-Eleven, no glasses, no hat, no jacket. Do people recognize you?
Terry: Yeah. Sometimes.
Jimmy: It’s the most unlikely thing too, because a lot of times it’ll be like a grocery store or something like that. We’re usually in baseball caps. If we’re not in our hats, you know, we’re in our baseball caps at least but people will recognize me and the other thing is, probably it’s been a little bit of time now. But probably five or six years ago, we both had sons that were playing AAU basketball. So we’d go to all these AAU games and people would recognize us there, but we wouldn’t be dressed up. I mean, we’d be like just in the gym all day. And people would go isn’t that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and we go, no, we’re Tyler’s dad or Max’s dad or Terry’s son Taylor, you know, I’m just Tyler’s dad. And it was great because people would go, oh, your sons are playing. Oh, that’s cool. That’s cool. And so we had that in common, you know, so it was great.
Kevin: So let me go way back. I want to ask a couple of questions. I’ve always wanted to ask. It has been said, and I want to make sure I’m clear on this, that you guys were fired from The Time when you were late for a session. Is that the truth with Prince?
Jimmy: Better than late for a session, we missed a gig.
Jimmy: The story goes that we had gotten asked to produce some songs for The SOS Band. And so we were in New York, we had four days off in New York and we thought we’d take those four days and go down to Atlanta and do the The SOS Band and before the next Time concert, which was going to be in San Antonio, Texas. So we go down, we work with The SOS Band, driving to the airport to catch the flight to San Antonio, it starts to snow, but we’re from Minneapolis so the snow is not like snow to us.
Kevin: I’m from Buffalo. I don’t want to hear it. I’m from Buffalo.
Jimmy: I got to tell you, Buffalo is weather was the most like Minnesota is where we were on tour back in the days I thought Buffalo, totally reminded me of Minneapolis. So anyway, but we also share the fact that we’ve had football teams that have lost in the Superbowl for us.
Kevin: Yeah. Yeah.
Jimmy: Unfortunately we share that in common. But anyway, so we go to the airport. The way the Atlanta airport is, for people that don’t know, like there’s huge terminals, right? We were booking any plane we could get. We were just like, if we could just get out of town, because they just shut the airport down. And then we even thought maybe we’ll drive. What’s the closest place we could drive to and catch a flight out of there if it’s not snowing and this was before, you know, GPS and all that other stuff that could have figured it out for you? And we ended up missing the gig and the story was that Prince thought we had gone down there to see some girls.
So when we saw him afterwards, he said, that’s what you get for going down and seeing girls in Atlanta or whatever and we were like, ah, yeah. So then the thing that busted us was Billboard magazine, right, used to come out every week, have all the charts. So the next week Billboard came out and there’s a picture of Terry and myself with the SOS band.
Kevin: Oh wow.