…we don’t really want to be the hottest producers, we just want to be warm for a long timeJimmy Jam and Terry Lewis
photo by Marcelle Washington
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 Digital and 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.
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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.
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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.
Jimmy: And Prince would always read Billboard and we were like hiding his Billboard, right? Like any room we’d walk in and see Billboard magazine. We were like tucking it under our coats and like, it was crazy. But finally he saw it and we ended up subsequently getting fired. The good news of the story is the night we got fired, we went to the studio and mixed what ended up becoming our first big hit, which was “Just Be Good To Me” by The SOS band.
Kevin: I was going to ask if you remember the song.
Jimmy: Yeah, that was it. Steve Hodge was our engineer and we hadn’t even met Steve Hodge yet. We just knew his name from, he was Leon Sylvers III mix guy back then. And we saw his name on the liner notes of all the songs and we said, we’ve gotta get that guy to mix our song. So anyway, that’s how we got Steve Hodge to mix it. And we walked into the studio and he said, oh, nice to meet you guys. What’s wrong? And we said, oh, we just got fired from The Time. And he said, ‘well, I don’t think you guys have anything to worry about because this song you guys got here, this is a smash.’ And it was.
Kevin: And then they’re just coming off of Take Your Time (Do it Right), not too long before that. Were you nervous about that?
Terry: Not really, I was too young and dumb to be nervous. And actually we had a song on the previous album with High Hopes produced by Leon Sylvers III. So we didn’t produce it, but we had written it. So, you know, we thought it was pretty good, but we always thought we could have given it a little bit more life just in our production. Because the demo was really funky.
Kevin: Other than the song that came out?
Terry: Yeah. It was called the Bathroom/Bedroom demo.
Kevin: So after you guys got fired, did you ever make amends with Prince or did you, were you ever friends with him after that?
Terry: Absolutely. But you know, we were like brothers and I always like to say that I tell people all the time a relationship with a guy like Prince is always a little in and out. But he’s like your little brother, you know, you can talk about him, but nobody else can, that’s our relationship, we love each other, but we had to fight. And so the relationship was, as a mentor he was great just because he showed us so many different things and gave us all types of opportunities just by putting us on. But then when we tried to get our own stride, he never wanted us to be our own men so we kind of grew out of that part of the relationship, which caused friction. So when he fired us or freed us, as I like to say, it just gave us, you know, room to grow again, back together. And I talked to him all the time, spent a lot of time with him.
Kevin: So the best things can come out of the worst things. I mean, there was the night that you didn’t catch the flight but look at what happened. It was actually a blessing in disguise.
Terry: Yeah. Well it wasn’t even in disguise, it was right there before us. There’s nothing we could do about it. I’ve only missed two gigs in my life, one, I got in a car accident and the second one was the one we missed the plane in the snowstorm. And the feeling was excruciating because it wasn’t even about missing the gig as much as It was about letting the fellows down, you never want to let your bandmates down, you know, those are your brothers. You don’t want to not be there for them.
Terry: And that’s what felt so bad. You know, we knew the repercussions were we were going to get fired or whatever, we didn’t care about that, you know, not letting down your brothers down [was more important].
Kevin: So after, all that happened, you’re on a roll, you’re doing SOS. At what point did all the other work start coming in like right away? Were you consistently busy from that first SOS project?
Jimmy: Yeah, we absolutely were. When The SOS Band happened, literally I remember right after that, I know we did “Change of Heart” for the group Change. We went over to Italy and we did that. Then we did Cheryl Lynn’s “Encore.”
Kevin: Oh, I love Encore.
Jimmy: And yeah, that’s one of my favorite Terry Lewis baselines ever on that song. That’s funky. But yeah, we started doing that and then we started getting things even expanded because we started doing things like “The Heat of Heat” for Patti Austin. We did, of course, Alexander O’Neal and Cherrelle “Saturday Love” and those records. So yeah, I mean, we met Clarence Avant that was SOS band and then Cherrelle, and then, you know, we did “Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” with Cherrelle. So yeah, things ramped up really quickly, but it was interesting because there was a columnist in Minneapolis named John Breen who was, did kind of our first kind of interview.
And first thing he said was, you guys are the hottest producers out there, whatever. And it might’ve been around the time when Janet Jackson’s “Control” happened. And I said, “Well, we don’t really want to be the hottest producers, we just want to be warm for a long time.” And I reminded him of that fairly recently and we just celebrated the fifth anniversary of Unbreakable, the last Janet album that we did with Janet.
And I remember he interviewed us when that album came out. And when the album debuted at number one, he said, you guys realize you’ve had number ones over four decades now. And I said, do you remember what we told you the first time you interviewed us? We said, we just wanted to be warm for a long time, that was our goal.
Kevin: That is a great philosophy.
Jimmy: Well, it worked for us because what it did is it made our decision-making process. It was never about the immediate but it was always about what the bigger picture and what it could lead to. So, you know, in working with Patty Austin, that’s the thing that introduced us into Quincy Jones’ orbit.
You know, The SOS Band and Cheryl And then we brought Alexander O’Neal to Clarence because he had sent us to do a project with a different singer and we thought the singer was just, okay. And we said, Clarence, we got this guy Alexander O’Neal, can we put him on? And he says, Alexander O’Neal, what kind of name is that for a black man, is he Irish? And I said no, he’s not Irish he’s a black guy. But we put him on the record and Clarence immediately signed him. He was like, oh, this is the guy and he signed it. Oh, there were all kinds of things, some of it was planned, some of it obviously is just fate and things that happen. But we knew kind of what we wanted to do and kind of the way we saw things in the big picture. And one of the things was, we always wanted to give each artist their own sound. We didn’t want there to be like a Jam and Lewis sound. We wanted it to be a sound that was tailored for each artist.
Okay. You know, Janet sounded like Janet, Mary J. Blige sounded like Mary J. Blige, Cheryl sounded like Cheryl, Patti LaBelle sounded like Patty LaBelle so on and so forth. And that philosophy has, I think, contributed a lot to the longevity of our careers.
Kevin: You did a lot of recording in Minneapolis, right?
Jimmy: Yeah. We did everything in Minneapolis. And it was funny because that was Terry Lewis’ genius, when we had moved to LA, one of the first things Clarence told us was “Don’t look at the Hollywood sign when you’re driving, you know, because you’re going to crash.”
Jimmy: And what that meant as a metaphor is don’t get caught up in all this stuff. He said he felt like we weren’t mature enough. Couple of guys from Minneapolis, which is basically a small town compared to LA, a couple of small town guys trying to do music and being in LA with all the parties and all the different stuff but that wasn’t going to work for us.
Jimmy: We need to go back where it was quiet and just put our nose to the grindstone and just make music.
Kevin: Which can also be dangerous though. Right?
Jimmy: Well you mean, you mean not being in the middle of everything?
Kevin: No. I’m saying being successful and going back to your hometown to live, that’s rather risky, isn’t it?
Terry: Oh, well, at that time we weren’t successful Like you might think, I mean, we were beginning to blossom and things were beginning to happen.
Terry: Because you know, you, at that point in your early twenties, mid-twenties, you’re fighting, you know, you get all the girls when you got a little something going on.
Kevin: Everything’s coming your way. Yeah.
Terry: All the things coming at you, you start losing interest in a lot of other things and after a while you’re not working. Even you start reading your own press.
Kevin: Right, right.
Terry: You know, going back home was the safest thing because at home they just recognized us basically for the people that we are.
Kevin: Okay. Right.
Jimmy: As opposed to, for what we do.
Jimmy: And the other thing too that was important was that we were working with Cherrelle on the first Cherrelle record and we were in LA and you know, the studio costs were crazy. And that was the other thing there, she felt a lot of pressure because she’d been a background singer, not so much a lead singer and we felt like if we could get her in a comfortable environment that would be great. So going to Minneapolis, we started working in this little studio in a basement of a house, but it was just this very little studio, but there was no pressure of, oh, we got to get stuff done. And I remember the very first record when we walked into that studio. The very first record we did was ‘Didn’t Mean To Turn You On.
Jimmy: And once that happened, all of a sudden Cherrelle felt at ease, she felt great about everything and then we were able to go in and make the rest of the record. So it was the right place to be at the right time for sure.
Terry: The difference between a $1000 a day and $80 a day or $100.
Jimmy: Yeah, exactly.
Kevin: Well that leads to another question I’ve always wanted to ask. Alexander O’Neal I’ve heard before he was originally the lead singer of The Time, is that correct?
Terry: Yes. Flight Time actually.
Kevin: It was called flight time?
Jimmy: Before The Time. Yeah.
Kevin: Okay. And then what happened with that?
Jimmy: Well, there was a dinner and the story was, basically there was a song that Prince had called Party Up and Morris was the one that actually wrote that song. And what happened was Prince had, you know, he had gone on the Dirty Mind album. He had gone a lot more, more rock and roll, more kind of New Wave and that kind of thing. And I think Warner Brothers, the label was a little bit like, no, we need another, you know, funky song or whatever. So Prince basically just took “Party Up” and said, that’s going to be my song. He took it. But then he said to Morris, put a band together and I’ll get you a record deal. I think he offered Morris, some money. Like he said, I’ll either give you, I don’t know, 50 grand or whatever, or I’ll get you a record deal if you put a band together and Morris said, no, I’ll take the record deal.
And then he came to our band, which was Flight Time which was already together as a band and then basically said, I’m going to join the band. But he was joining us as the drummer of the band. So we had this whole meeting and Alexander O’Neill was at the meeting and basically, before Prince even starts telling us, here’s the plan, he goes, well, you know, Prince, a few things we need to talk about first because you know, and he always talks about himself as a third person, you know.
“Alexander O’Neal, I need a new house, I need a car, you know, Alexander O’Neal cause you know, this is all cute and everything, Prince, you know, this record deal that you’re talking about, but you know, I need paper.” Meaning he needed the money and everybody’s looking at Alex like, what the hell are you doing, man?
We don’t even have a deal yet like what are you doing? And then the restaurant served the steak and after they put the stake down he goes, “Now I’m going to go ahead and throw down on this Steak.”
And he starts eating it and so Morris and Prince are like, they’re done, they walked out and it’s like, uh, oh, we’re done. And literally the next day, I don’t know whether it was Morris that called Terry or Prince called you Terry and just said “Alexander O’Neal is out.” Jellybean Johnson is the drummer, Morris is the lead singer, we’re going to start rehearsing tomorrow or whatever.
Like he already had in his head, he had already laid it out and that was it. And when we said to Alex, though, if we make it, we’re going to come back and get you and we did, once we got going with the time and we started producing, we went and got Alex.
Kevin: He’s a phenomenal singer. But you know, it’s almost like where you were just imitating him, reminds me of Morris day.
Jimmy: Yeah. Well that’s the thing. He had a lot of that kind of swagger, but it would have been a different thing. You know, we actually cut songs, there’s actually The Time’s songs with Alexander and O’Neal singing.
Terry: In the beginning, the name of the band was going to be called The Nerves.
Kevin: Like N- E- R- V- E, nerve?
Terry: The nerves, yes.
Kevin: Okay. Another question I’ve always wanted to ask my absolute favorite song. Well, I have several favorite songs by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. But my absolute favorite song is Human. That is not just a song that is like a movie score production. I mean, if The Human League didn’t even sing on it, I would have still loved it. It’s so powerful, it’s some of your absolute best work, in my opinion. What do you think about that?
Jimmy: It was an interesting experience because there was a lot of shock. I think on the Human League’s part and really on both of our parts, because that was once again, John McClain, the person that hooked us up with Janet initially.
And Human League was making a record and the record that they were trying to make, basically they were trying to make a Jam and Lewis record. And John McClain said, well, if you’re trying to make a Jam and Lewis record, why don’t you just get Jam and Lewis to do it? And so he was the one that put us together and they were from Sheffield, England.
Kevin: Oh yeah.
Jimmy: So they came to Minneapolis in the middle of the winter and cold weather which was a shock. But then it was just kind of a lot of culture shock or whatever you want to call it.
It was interesting, but they were good that we enjoyed it but when it came to Human, it was interesting because we had done the track. Terry did the amazing vocal with Phil Oakey, who was the lead singer. And the whole thing, if you knew any of The Human League music before Human, it was very robotic, right? Like “Don’t You Want Me,” which was a big hit.
Kevin: It was very New Wave
Jimmy: And the whole idea was to do something that sounded human like, you know, with some soul to it. And I remember Terry worked on that lead vocal for probably a week, every day he just was in there, grinding, grinding, grinding, he finally played the lead vocal sounds great. So then Terry did the backgrounds, you know the part Ooooooooh huuuuuuuuuuman, that’s Terry doing that.
Kevin: Oh wow. Okay.
Jimmy: Mr. Background. But then we had a girl named Lisa Keith, people may know from this song “Making Love In The Rain.’ She’s the lead singer on that and she also had her own album, but anyway, she was our background guru also. So she put this nice little texture and stuff on the vocal so we played it for the group. And when we got done playing it, there were two girls in Human League and one of them said, “Who’s the other girl singing on the track.” And we said, oh, that’s Lisa Keith, that’s our girl, you know, whatever.
“I don’t think we liked the other girl singing on the track.” Oh the other girl, we don’t like the other girl. Okay. We don’t like the other girls, so anyway, whatever the next day we come to the studio, Phil walks into the studio, the lead singer, he walks into the studio, he’s got a funny look on his face. And we said, what’s up Phil? He goes, “I just have to say we don’t like the other girl on the track.”
And Terry and I kind of looked at each other like, huh? Terry and I repeat it .. you don’t like the other girl on the track? And he says, yes. I just have to say, and we turn around and say, “Oh, you just have to say you don’t like the other girl, we get it. But the reason he had to say that is because he was seeing one of the girls in the group.
So we already knew what that was. We were like, okay, we get it we get it. Okay. So anyway, we called the record company and we were basically like, we’re just going to pull the song off the record because if you’re not going to do it the right way, then we just won’t do it.
And what we ended up doing was we said the songs we write and we’ll finish the way we want them. The songs that you guys wrote, you finish them the way you want them and we’ll call it a truce because the record company was like, “No, you to take that song off there. Oh my God, that’s the single, no, you can’t take it off.”
So anyway, it turned out really good, but here’s the brilliant thing to me about the record. So, because the girls were, you know, didn’t feel like they were included in the making of the record.
Terry came up with the idea to have the spoken word part that one of the girls say, but lyrically it’s the whole brilliance or whatever you want to call it of the song to me is, here’s a guy basically laying it out on the line that he was human and I’m sorry. And you know, whatever, please forgive me, blah, blah, blah And then she just goes while we were apart, I was human too. Oh shit. You were human too?
Oh man. I mean that changes everything, right and I love that. I remember when I heard that the first time, cause Terry said I got something for the girls to do. And I’m like, okay, cool. And he put that vocal on there I was like, that’s the song right there.
Kevin: That’s an absolute, amazing piece of music and like I said, they don’t even have to sing on it. I mean, I just love the production, another song that I really liked and the singer didn’t really go too far was Rhonda Clark. ‘State of Attraction.’
Jimmy: Oh, wow.
Kevin: Yeah, that was when I first started in radio and I remember we played it a lot. We were in Columbus, Georgia. Great record, but never heard too much more from her after that. She did like, I think a ballad after that or something?
Jimmy: Oh, ‘Stay here, Stay near.’
Kevin: That was a great record. Did you have like a rule that you would only do, like one project per artist after a while? Because I know you did a lot of things with SOS and a lot of things with Janet, but as far as other projects was it just like one time you would work with an artist?
Like something that I would’ve never known that you did was Tender Love by the Force MDs which was a huge hit and you wrote and produced it. I would’ve never known that was Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. How was the sound so different from your usual sound for that record? How’d you come up with that?
Jimmy: Well, part of the reason was, it was for a movie. It was for the movie Krush Groove and the idea was that that’s basically the love scene of the movie, like the one kind of quiet moment of that movie. And they sent us the scene of what they wanted the song written to.
So basically the inspiration, if you will, was really from watching the scene and just kind of figuring out what kind of music to put with it. And it was interesting because we actually lyrically matched, the lyrics came from the scene, like when he says in the song candles that light the dark, like literally in the scene, there were candles being lit and we laid this thing out.
Like the song was totally laid out to the way the scene was, right. And I remember being so disappointed when the movie actually came out that they had cut that scene down because I guess they figured nobody wants to see a love scene in a hip hop movie.
I guess, I don’t really know, but anyway, they had cut the whole thing down so then the scene was only like a minute long so it was like, it doesn’t go with the scene anymore. But what that song did for us, it was really great as you said, people didn’t know, that’s Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but it was great because what it did is once that song became really successful, then all of a sudden it changed the asks that we got to do things.
Because people realized it was more than just doing a funky song that we could actually do other things. So that was great. I mean, that was a pivotal thing and Force M.D’s were great. I mean, they were, because when we did the song, we didn’t know who we were doing it for. It was literally written for the scene of the movie and then I think the movie company was the ones that said, we’ve got this group Force MD’s, that’s going to do it. And we’re like, okay, cool.
Kevin: Okay. And so Terry, I want to ask you a question. You know Clarence very well?
Kevin: You saw the movie, the Black Godfather?
Kevin: One thing I was telling somebody recently they had a conversation that I did not get. He gave a lot to everybody and that I guess was the lesson of the movie but what did he get in return? That part was missing.
Terry: First of all, I don’t think Clarence is a transactional person, personally, I don’t like people who are just totally transactional. Clarence gives from his heart and trust me, the blessings come back in other ways.
Terry: Yeah. And for me he’s been probably the number one person in my life that’s not my blood that loved me unconditionally, taught me unconditionally, gave me unconditionally, opportunity and both of us actually and taught us to give that way. And so what he got out of it was whatever he needed out of it, because that’s what you do when you give you give.
Terry: So I think he helped black people do things that they ordinarily wouldn’t have done. Like he said, you know, he never went to college. He was taught by people in high places how to navigate the system. He was given access to things that as he calls it, we as ordinary black people were not given and he shared those things with everyone and allowed people to come through him to get to things that they can never reach. I mean, you got a man that managed and helped Bill Cosby helped Quincy Jones.
And we just talked to him, just those two alone, that’s not enough, then he helped Jam and Lewis and dealt with others like Babyface and LA Reid and everybody else, he helped Berry Gordy. He helped so many people in this way.
Jimmy: Yeah. And eventually he helped, you know, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and Kamala Harris. I mean, it’s crazy his reach, but one of the things was when we sat down with him for the first time he told us basically everything that we needed to know, right. He told us that our manager wasn’t asking for enough money for our services, number one which was great.
But he asked us a couple of questions. He said, what are you guys going to be doing in seven years? And we said, oh, we’re going to be making hits. And he said, no, no, no. But besides that, what are you going to be doing? And he said, I’ve got to think about who’s going to be running these companies right now.
You’ve got Berry Gordy. You got myself, you got Dick Griffey, you got Lonnie Simmons, you’ve got different people that are black executives that are running these companies. Who’s going to be the next ones to do it? Think about that. Who’s going to get on the boards of companies to run things? Who’s going to get involved with organizations like the Grammy’s and ASCAP and BMI and these types of organizations?
Who’s going to get involved politically? Who’s going to get involved? You know, so those are the things he was putting on our minds. And then the other thing he said was if you ever come across somebody who’s really talented for some reason, maybe their business is messed up or something’s not right, introduce them to me. And I remember not that long after that we met LA and Babyface and LA said, would you introduce me to Clarence Avant? And we said, absolutely. We called Clarence.
We said, Clarence, remember you told us if we see somebody that might need some help, these guys, LA and Babyface, he said, okay, and he met him. And of course the rest is history on that side of things. And, you know, and even myself, I remember when I got asked to be on the ASCAP board and I said, what do you think Clarence? He said, “Got to get in there man, got to do that man.
We need to be in that room, there’s none of us in that room. Like, okay and I did it. And then, you know, probably five, six years later, I became the chairman of the recording Academy. And I was the first African American to run the recording Academy and it was 50 years after it started.
And those kinds of things wouldn’t have happened without Clearance’s guidance. Simple as that. And answer your question, the one thing that Clarence did get, I know because we gave it to him a Rolls-Royce Corniche.
Kevin: Whenever you produce songs have you always done it from your perspective first. I mean, I’m sure people have come in and said, we want it to sound like this, or we want it to sound like that. How did you deal with those kinds of things?
Terry: Well, first of all, we’re fans of all the people that we worked with over the years. And so we kind of take a running tally of what we think as a fan we will want to hear and then we try to create that scenario. But everybody comes in, you know, the saying that I hear all the time is a barber can’t cut the back of his own head, so an artist can only see so much of themselves.
And we’re experiencing that right now as artists, because we’ve never had to see ourselves as artists. So, you know, somebody has to tell me, okay, so am I doing this right? But I can only see my line in the front is kicking, but my kitchen is really messed up back here. I need somebody to kind of guide me in this and tell me, am I missing something. Is that okay? Because you get a little unsure as an artist.
That’s why artists always jump around from sound to sound from producer to producer, trying to figure out who they are. And the number one question is okay, if you were an artist and I say, okay, Kevin, what’s the number one important ingredient to a Kevin Ross record and you would say?
Terry: Yeah. You say the beat or whatever, whatever, whatever and that’s what the artists do. But truly the number one ingredient in a Kevin Ross record that makes it different from all other records is Kevin Ross.
Kevin: Well, I could work that part out. You just give me a track and I figured that out.
Terry: What you see is like you dynamically, you think outside of yourself, you don’t even think of yourself, but you’re the most important ingredient in whatever you do.
Jimmy: Terry, who’s the one person that said themselves. Was it Usher? Who was it that got that answer, right? One person did but I just can’t remember who it is.
Terry: Somebody recently.
Jimmy: Somebody recently we said, what’s the most important ingredient and they said, me. And it’s like, dam, you got it right. We were shocked because he had gotten it right over all the years we had asked the question.
Terry: Yeah. Because it’s one of those things because you are looking outside of yourself to be saved. So, you know, you try to get all the answers somewhere else, but the answers lie within you.
Kevin: You know, and I kind of look at it just a bit differently because like, I’m looking at a scene right now. I’m in Palm Springs, I’m looking at the mountains and I’m also a painter that inspires me to paint that. So the fact that I can see something, I have a visual inspires me to create something.
So that’s why I say, if I hear the percussion, I can say, okay, how can I work around that? That would be me. Somebody else might be, oh, it’s my vocals or whatever else, but I get what you’re saying, you’re coming from, because of course you have those experiences.
Jimmy: Yeah. But the idea of inspiration though, is part of the reason that we choose to work with an artist. There’s a lot of great artists that we have no thought of that we can do a great song with them or we have a desire to do a great song with.
I was telling somebody the other day they were playing something that we were listening to and I, my opinion of it was that I either have two strong thoughts. I either have a thought of, I love this so much I can’t wait to go into the studio with this person and create something.
Or sometimes I feel like I love this so much I’m going to stay away from it so I don’t ruin it. And then there’s this kind of a middle ground where it’s just like, it doesn’t inspire a song. When John McClain, when I’d bring his name up one more time he gave us a list of the whole, A&M records roster. This was back in 85 and he said, who on the roster do you guys want to work with? And our fingers went down the roster and they both stopped at Janet Jackson, and we said Janet Jackson.
Kevin: Not Jeffrey Osborne, not Vesta Williams?
Jimmy: No, that’s what we want to do because it was like, and he said, oh cool. You want to do a couple of songs, three songs? We said, no, we want to do the whole album. He was like, huh? Really? It’s like, yeah, because we knew and you know, it’s just, that’s, that’s the way we feel.
So the thing is that there’s inspiration in all this stuff that we do. In some way, the artists have inspired us to do something. You know, if you think about our classic songs, like you mentioned, Human. Human wouldn’t have been written without the humanity that inspired that song to be written.
You know? I always think about New Edition, because they’re like our favorites, but the challenge of integrating Johnny Gill into the group, he not only knew that we needed to first come out with something that sounded like New Edition in people’s minds, which was, “If It Isn’t Love.” We knew “You’re Not my Kind of Girl,” which was the second single we could bring Johnny into it a little bit and then “Can You Stand the Rain? We could split them up.
We could do, basically “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” by the Stylistics, which was the kind of thought process where you have a low voice come in first and then hear Ralph’s voice and go, oh, it’s New Edition. Oh shoot. Who’s that singing? Oh, Johnny Gill. Oh really? There was a whole master plan to that.
So, it’s all just inspiration. And so like you say, you look at the mountain and you go, how I am going to paint that I’m going to do that. That’s the way we look at the artist. If we don’t have that feeling like we can do a great job with it, we don’t do it. The other piece of it is we don’t do it, but we also will recommend who we think can, do you know what I’m saying?
Like, we’ll say we’re not the people for this job, but you should, you know, or sometimes we just say, we got four words for you and they go what’s when we hear what they play and said what’s that? “Put that shit out.” That’s what we said to Pink when Pink played us, her record, she was up there trying to do songs with us. You put that shit out. I just want to go by that. I don’t need to do anything on that record. And so there’s all kinds of examples of that, man but it is inspiration, you brought it up. It is absolutely inspirational.
Kevin: Have you ever done something that you didn’t feel real good about? And it was still a massive hit?
Jimmy: Yeah. We were talking about it earlier today, as a matter of fact, Saturday Love.
Jimmy: It always comes to mind.
Kevin: I probably would’ve thought that too.
Jimmy: Yeah. When I came up with the initial idea, I just got this little apartment overlooking the city and stuff. I had a little piano and I just kind of came up with a little music thing. And I just was like, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday.
And in my mind I was like, oh yeah, this is cool. This is really cool. Literally from the time I left my place, went to the studio and I was all excited. I said, Terry, I got this idea, man. And as I’m explaining it, I’m kind of feeling like, oh, this is really stupid. “How’s it go?” I said, it’s kind of like the days of the week. I said, no, it’s kind of like Sesame Street. It’s like, nah, I was like I’m not even going for it.
And Terry was like, ‘No man how’s it go? So then I was like Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturdaaaay love. And he was like, that’s hot, I love that. I love that. I love that. And so he started writing lyrics to it and we got Cherrelle writing and then to come sing it right away.
But the thing that happened was, people don’t notice this about the song, but when we went in, Cherrelle came in and sang her part. Right. ‘When I think about you.’ Right. She sings her part. Meanwhile, Terry’s trying to come up with lyrics for Alex to sing and never comes up with anything.
Right. So we’re like, well, what are we going to do? And Terry goes, just give the same lyrics to Alex. Right. It’s like, okay, cool. So then you give the same lyrics to Alex and Alex says, “When I think about you.” like, he’s just singing them in a totally different way. And we were like, cool. And I think at one point we thought, we’ll go back and change it but then we just left it.
Kevin: Right. You really didn’t even know it was that good.
Jimmy: People even until this day they’d never realized that. But then the funny thing about it was we had the single on that album was a song called, ‘You Look Good To Me.’ And so “Just Be Good To Me” was heading up the chart, we’d done a video for it. The whole deal it’s heading up.
The chart gets around like 32 or something like that. It’s on the hot 100. It gets like to 32 and it starts kind of coughing and losing momentum and losing the bullet. And we’re like, what the heck is going on? And we talked to the promotion guy and he said, “Oh, radio, they’re playing the other song.” I’m like, what’s the other song? “Saturday Love.” We were like Saturday Love? And that thing went straight to number one. We were like, okay, so radio knows better than us.
Kevin: Who’s the most phenomenal singer? Now give me like three singers that you’ve worked with that absolutely blew you away in the studio.
Terry: Patty Austin, Alexander O’Neal and Michael Jackson. That’ll be my three.
Kevin: What about you, Jimmy?
Jimmy: Well, Michael is the one that pops into mind when you say blew us away in the studio, it’s got to be Michael. Matter of fact not to try to get out of your question, but I’ll tell you a quick Michael Jackson story. So when we were going to meet with him and Janet together, we had written the song, everything was cool.
We played him a bunch of tracks. Janet already predicted that’s the one he’s going to like out of the tracks we came up with. So anyway, we go into the studio and Michael’s very kind of, you know, kind of subdued and kind of like just kind of walking around, like “everybody doing their thing.”
He’s jingling and he’s got all kinds of jewelry on and he’s got like boots on and he’s got like, just all the things in a studio it’s supposed to be quiet. Right. You’re not really supposed to have you know, bangles on and all that kind of stuff. Right.
So he goes in and we go, Mike, can you hear everything? Okay. And he goes, “Yeah. Yeah, everything sounds good. Just go ahead and play the track for me.” So we go, okay. And Janet is sitting like right behind us. Right. So the idea was, Michael’s going to sing the song and then Janet’s going to go in and sing her part. And we’re in New York. By the way, we’re working in New York at the Hit factory, I think it was a studio.
So we press play and all of a sudden it’s like the Tasmanian Devil comes out. Michael’s singing and dancing and we’re sitting there like, and we were just like fans, like we were just totally fans. And so he goes in, he sings the whole song start to finish and when it goes off, there’s like just silence because we’re like stunned.
What was that? And we’re like, yeah, yeah, Mike yeah, that’s good. He goes, “You want me to do it again?” Yeah. Yeah. Go ahead and do another take. Yeah, that’s cool. So we’re getting ready to play it again, Janet leans in over our shoulder and she just goes, cause we’re in New York, remember? And she goes, “okay, I’ll do my vocals in Minneapolis.” — following Michael? You just couldn’t do that no.
So then the funny thing was we went to Minneapolis, we did the vocals with Janet. We sent it to Michael and Michael said, “Wow, Jenet sounds really good.” And I said, oh yeah, thanks Michael, she killed it. “She sounds really good.” Yeah, Mike. Yeah, she did a good job. “Yeah. She sounds really good. Where did she record her vocals?” and we said Minneapolis. He said, “Oh, I want to come to Minneapolis and do my vocals.”
You know, it was great. But there was like sibling rivalry, you know, they loved each other, but you know, Michael was very competitive.