This year, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame will induct Eminem, Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie, Carly Simon and two guys in sunglasses who scored more No. 1s on the Billboard Hot 100 than all of those other acts combined.
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are the few songwriting and production teams to enter the prestigious hall, and they hope this will lead to the induction of more artists like them.
“Songwriters are like farmers,” Jam said. “When you go to a good restaurant, the chef is like the artist and you thank him for the meal. But where did he get the food from? Without the farmer, he has nothing to cook. And that’s how songwriters are to me.
The duo’s chart-topping pop hits include Janet Jackson’s “When I Think of You”; “Thank God I Found You” by Mariah Carey; “Monkey” by George Michael; Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee”; “Scream” by Janet and Michael Jackson; and “No More Drama” by Mary J. Blige. They have five Grammys and were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2017.
“I don’t know if you could ever recognize songwriters enough. I mean, they’re the fuel that powers everything,” Lewis said. “There are great songwriters who never get the shine they deserve.”
One song in particular could typify the Jam and Lewis lineup – “Got ‘Til It’s Gone”, which combines folk sampling from Joni Mitchell, hip-hop from Q-Tip and R&B vocals from Janet Jackson. “We’re kind of at a crossroads or intersection of a lot of different music,” Jam said.
Jam and Lewis started out in competing bands and became members of Prince’s band, The Time, in Minneapolis. After parting ways with The Purple One, the duo set up a recording studio and production company. Their collaboration with Janet Jackson on her monster albums “Control” and “Rhythm Nation 1814” solidified them as hitmakers.
The Rock Hall on Saturday will also introduce Eurythmics, Duran Duran, Judas Priest, Harry Belafonte, Elizabeth Cotten and Pat Benatar. Jam predicted that an act closely associated with the duo would be the one to induct them, but didn’t go into specifics, suggesting it would be Janet Jackson.
They credit musical director Clarence Avant and former powerhouse songwriting duo Gamble & Huff for leading the way. They hope to do the same with their induction: “It’s wonderful and hopefully shines a light on other people like us who do what we do and deserve it.”
They grew up listening to different genres. Jam was a pop fanatic, soaking up Seals and Crofts, America and Chicago. Lewis leaned more towards Parliament-Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire. “Terry liked the funky bottom. I like the cute top,” Jam said. You can hear this combo throughout their career, starting with their first hit, “Just Be Good to Me” by SOS Band.
They are responsible for more than 50 Billboard No. 1 songs on the pop, R&B and dance charts for everyone from Rod Stewart and Sting to Patti LaBelle. They adapt the song to the artist and themselves choose a no-frills wardrobe of black suits and sunglasses. Next year, they celebrate their partnership on its 50th anniversary.
“We’re kind of at a point in our career where we have nothing to prove, but we still have a lot to say,” Jam said. “We just want to leave music in a better place, whether it’s through technology, whether it’s through the songs we make, whether it’s the people we influence who are making music now.”
Turn on the radio and you’ll probably immediately hear the influence of Jam and Lewis. Renowned Swedish producer Max Martin channeled the duo while creating hits for Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. Charlie Puth is a fan, and Bruno Mars paid tribute to the pair on the Grammys stage for leading the way when they won album of the year for “24K Magic.”
One thing Jam and Lewis would like to see changed is more recognition for the people behind the tracks. Lewis worries that music today is often seen as a utility, a faceless service like water or electricity that is taken for granted. Jam misses the days when a record cover contained tons of information about the creators of the music, like the name of the engineer and the mixer.
“The reason we’re writers and producers now is because we could look at the records back then and instantly see who produced them and who wrote them,” Jam said.
It’s hard to find credits on streaming sites these days, and the duo think that’s a problem. “What it does is it devalues music because it communicates the idea that music comes out of nowhere. It doesn’t come out of nowhere. There are people in there,” Jam said.
After decades of making music for other people, Jam and Lewis last year released their first album as artists, “Jam and Lewis, Volume One” featuring Babyface, Toni Braxton and Mariah Carey. They are planning more such albums and also hope to perform live next year.
The objective then – as it always has been for these men who push the limits of sound – is to build a musical bridge in this time of divisions.
“It’s about taking people — young, old, white, black, straight, gay, Democrat or Republican, whatever — and for when we’re on stage, bring them all together,” Jam said. “If you could do that, that to me is the magic of music.”
Image credits: AP/Lennox McLendon