Tribute: James Mtume went from jazz virtuoso and activist to “sophistifunk” creator who made hits for some of the most tragic figures in Black music history

(January 19, 2022).  He couldn’t have predicted this fate at the time, but legendary soul/funk producer James Mtume, who got his start in jazz, would eventually write for, produce, or have his songs sampled by some of the most tragic figures in R&B/Hip-Hop history.  He was responsible for hits by artists like Phyllis Hyman, Donny Hathaway, Teddy Pendergrass and, unwittingly, the Notorious B.I.G., all of whom had tragic life stories with sad endings.

James Mtume (1946-2022)

Mtume, the music virtuoso best known for his own 1983 hit “Juicy Fruit” and, for those of us true ‘80s R&B heads, the followup “You, Me and He,” died on January 9 in South Orange, NJ.  He was 76.

This is the blog’s remembrance.

Born James Heath, Jr. in South Philly and raised by his mother Bertha and stepfather James Forman, Mtume grew up surrounded by music.  His biological father Jimmy Heath was a jazz saxophonist and his stepdad James was a pianist.  His paternal uncles Percy Heath (bassist) and Albert Heath (drummer) were renowned musicians as well (the three elder Heaths recorded as the Heath Brothers in the mid 1970s, with Mtume later joining them).  Thanks to his famous dad and uncles, the young James was often surrounded by jazz greats who would often stop by, legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk and Sonny Rollins.

To say that Mtume got it honest would be an understatement.  He was a multi-instrumentalist who took up guitar, keyboards and percussion.  Having been around jazz musicians practically all his life, he eventually made it pay by performing with other jazz greats like Herbie Hancock, Don Cherry and Miles Davis, scoring his big break when he joined the latter’s band in 1971.

During his four years with Davis, Mtume—whose chosen name was Swahili for “messenger”—appeared on some of the jazz icon’s landmark albums like 1972’s On The Corner and ‘74’s Big Fun.  On the latter—a double album whose four original vinyl sides contained only one (very long) song each—Mtume played African percussion on the track, “Ife,” which took up side two with a running time of 21 minutes and 34 seconds.

In his young adult life, Mtume was also a strong advocate for Black empowerment and related causes.  He joined the Afrocentric group US Organization and was an active member when they created the first specifically African-American holiday, Kwanzaa, in 1966.  Mtume left US Organization three years later as tensions rose between that group and the better known Black Panther Party, tensions that led to a deadly clash between the two groups in 1969.

Musically however, the multi-hyphenate continued embracing his African roots—both in his contributions as a sideman for other people’s albums (Davis’ Dark Magus, Carlos Garnett’s Black Love), and as the leader of his own band.  Notably in 1972, he and his Mtume Umoja Ensemble released the album Alkebu-Lan: Land of The Blacks, further reflecting his love for brothers and sisters everywhere.    

But it was in 1978, three years after he left Davis’ band, that Mtume would get his first real taste of mainstream commercial success and begin a path of producing or writing for some of Black music’s most tragic figures.  

That year, he and creative partner Reggie Lucas, who had collaborated with Mtume on albums by Davis and others, co-wrote the classic ballad that would return the legendary Roberta Flack to the top of the charts after a three-year absence.  Her comeback smash “The Closer I Get To You,” a duet with Donny Hathaway, reached No. 1 soul and No. 2 pop in early 1978 and established Mtume and Lucas as forces to be reckoned with in the industry.

Mtume (upper left) and his band’s breakthrough album, ‘Juicy Fruit’

Buoyed by that success, Mtume, who had now formed his eponymous band that included Lucas and which would bring us “Juicy Fruit” years later, began producing for upstarts like Stephanie Mills and Phyllis Hyman.  In 1979, Mtume and Lucas wrote and produced the breakthrough classics for both women, with Mills’ “What ‘Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin’” (No. 8) and Hyman’s “You Know How To Love Me” (No. 12) both reaching the soul top 15 within months of each other.

A few months afterwards, Roberta Flack released what would become Mtume’s first brush with tragedy, musically speaking.  More than a year earlier (hot on the heels of their smash “The Closer I Get To You”), Mtume and Lucas brought Flack a new song, “Back Together Again,” to record with Donny Hathaway.  They recorded it in January 1979–with Mtume as arranger—as part of a new Flack album that would feature Hathaway.  

Unfortunately, beyond “Back Together Again” and the Stevie Wonder-co-written “You Are My Heaven,” the duets album never fully materialized.  On January 13, 1979, after a recording session with Mtume and producer Eric Mercury (co-writer of “Heaven” with Wonder) had been aborted due to Hathaway’s erratic and paranoid behavior, the singer committed suicide by jumping from a 15th-floor hotel balcony in New York City.

A distraught Roberta Flack would go on to release the album Roberta Flack featuring Donny Hathaway a year later in tribute to her late friend and singing partner.  The album’s second single, “Back Together Again,” became a top-10 R&B and top-50 pop hit in mid 1980.  It would be Hathaway’s last chart record.

James Mtume and Reggie Lucas had concurrent top ten hits with two of their songs in June 1980

At the same time “Back Together Again” was charting, Stephanie Mills was in the R&B top ten with the title track from her second album, also written and produced by Mtume and Lucas, “Sweet Sensation.”  The partnership of Mills with Mtume and Lucas proved to be even more fruitful when that album’s second single, “Never Knew Love Like This Before” became her first top-10 pop hit and only million-selling single in the fall of 1980.

Continuing their musical marriage, Mtume and Lucas would team with Mills for her third studio album, Stephanie, in 1981.  That album’s lead-off single, “Two Hearts,” was a duet with Philly Soul legend Teddy Pendergrass that reached No. 3 on the R&B chart (becoming Stephanie’s fourth top-10 soul hit) and No. 40 on the pop chart (her third top-40 hit there).

Tragedy struck again, however, when just months after “Two Hearts” exited the chart, Pendergrass, whose career as R&B crooner and No. 1 sex symbol was in its prime, was involved in a car accident in Philly that left him paralyzed and wheelchair bound for the rest of his life (Pendergrass would go on to have other hits afterwards but died in 2010 at the age of 59).

Mtume charged on with his career, with his group Mtume on the verge of having their biggest chart success yet.  In Summer 1983, their minimalist soul/funk ballad “Juicy Fruit” grooved its way to No. 1 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, where it remained for eight weeks.  It ended the year as the chart’s third-biggest hit, ranking behind only Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and just ahead of classics like Rick James’ “Cold Blooded” and George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog.”

Billboard’s top “Black Singles” (as the R&B/Hip-Hop chart was called then) for 1983

The following year, Mtume continued his unique blend of “sophistifunk” with the followup single “You, Me and He,” his group’s second-biggest hit that reached No. 2 R&B.

A decade later with Mtume’s blessing, a Brooklyn rapper on the come-up named Christopher Wallace, a/k/a The Notorious B.I.G., borrowed the groove from “Juicy Fruit” to create his debut solo single, “Juicy.”  It became a gold-certified classic that kicked off one of the most legendary careers in hip-hop history.  Biggie’s debut album, Ready To Die, propelled largely by “Juicy” and follow-up single “Big Poppa,” was certified platinum and still ranks as one of the most important and critically acclaimed debut albums in rap history.

Sadly, The Notorious B.IG. was gunned down in Los Angeles at the age of 24 in March 1997, just weeks before his second album, Life After Death was due for release.

Just two years earlier, another of Mtume’s protégés, Phyllis Hyman, committed suicide after years of depression and substance abuse battles.  She was only 45 at the time of her passing.

Mtume’s death earlier this month immediately brought to mind the many artists he worked with who sadly left us way before their time…artists who largely benefitted from Mtume’s musical genius and whose careers might not have been the same without him.  In an interesting twist, Mtume is survived by the two uncles Percy and Albert who, with his father Jimmy, formed the Heath Brothers nearly half a century ago, a group that was a large part of Mtume’s own come-up.

It’s not hyperbole to say that James Mtume was responsible for some of the most memorable R&B and soul classics of all time, songs that are forever etched in Black music’s tapestry decades later and likely will be for generations to come.  

For those needing a refresher, here are a dozen of Mtume’s greatest creations as songwriter/producer, followed by a Spotify playlist including each one.

  1. “Juicy Fruit” – Mtume (1983)
  2. “You Know How To Love Me” – Phyllis Hyman (1979)
  3. “Never Knew Love Like This Before” – Stephanie Mills (1980)
  4. “The Closer I Get To You” – Roberta Flack (1978)
  5. “Back Together Again” – Roberta Flack (1980)
  6. “What You Gonna Do With My Lovin’?” – Stephanie Mills (1979)
  7. “Two Hearts” – Stephanie Mills (1981)
  8. “Put Your Body In It” – Stephanie Mills (1979)
  9. “Juicy” – The Notorious B.I.G. (1994)
  10. “You, Me & He” – Mtume (1984)
  11. “Sweet Sensation” – Stephanie Mills (1980)
  12. “Under Your Spell” – Phyllis Hyman (1979)

Submitted respectfully in tribute to the super-talented and highly underrated James “Mtume” Heath Forman (1946-2022).  May you forever rest in power with the many ancestors who preceded you.

R.I.P. James Mtume (January 3, 1946 – January 9, 2022)

DJRob 

DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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