(June 14, 2022). It was nearly 40 years ago that Prince legendarily fired band members James “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis from the group The Time after they missed a flight from Atlanta to a gig in Minneapolis while moonlighting as producers of an album by the S.O.S. Band.
Forty years later, maybe they should be thanking Prince for the favor (or maybe they already have, many times over).
That second job turned into an iconic career that has landed the partnership of Jam & Lewis in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They’ll be inducted later this year in the category of Musical Excellence. In a ceremony in Los Angeles this November, they’ll be welcomed to the RRHOF in a stellar class that includes the Eurythmics, Duran Duran, Pat Benetar and Neil Giraldo, Lionel Richie, Judas Priest and entrepreneur Sylvia Robinson, among others.
But it is Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis who arguably had more impact on music and the charts and touched more careers than any of those other artists. As songwriters or producers or both, they’ve had more than a hundred chart hits spread across multiple genres of music and spanning many decades.
And while most pop fans will be quick to point to their 1986 link-up with Janet Jackson as the musical marriage that propelled both entities to megastardom, readers should note that Jam & Lewis had several big hits BEFORE launching Janet into her chart-topping orbit with albums like Control, Rhythm Nation 1814 and janet.
Beginning in 1983 with classic hits like S.O.S. Band’s No. 2 R&B chart nugget “Just Be Good To Me,” and continuing with their first No. 1 R&B hit in 1984, Cheryl Lynn’s “Encore,” plus iconic top-10 R&B chart tunes by Cherrelle (“I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On”) and Alexander O’Neal (“Innocent”), Jam & Lewis were all over Black radio (as Billboard referred to it then) in the mid-1980s and were beginning to make inroads at pop.
The 1985 hip-hop film Krush Groove gave them their first crossover smash with Force MD’s ballad “Tender Love,” which reached the top ten on the pop chart—the Billboard Hot 100–in April 1986. Soon afterwards, Jam & Lewis were simultaneously climbing the charts with hits by the S.O.S. Band, Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal, and the newly liberated Miss Jackson. In fact, in a battle for the ages, Cherrelle and O’Neal’s “Saturday Love” and Jackson’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately” were duking it out in the top two positions on Billboard’s Black Singles chart, with the latter ultimately prevailing.
But Janet wasn’t the only beneficiary of the super production duo’s extraordinary talents. Soon, artists from every walk of life were topping the charts with their hits.
In 1986 alone, in addition to R&B hits by Jackson, Force MDs, Cherrelle, O’Neal, S.O.S. Band, and Patti Austin, the British synth-pop group Human League and Englishman Robert Palmer hit pay dirt with Jam/Lewis tracks: “Human” topped the Hot 100 and Palmer’s remake of “I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On” reached No. 2 within weeks of each other that autumn.
All this occurred while Janet was still charting with hits from Control. Her first No. 1 pop hit, “When I Think Of You,” was still in the pop top ten while Human League and Palmer were listed there. Not since the days of The Bee Gees nearly a decade earlier had one production and writing team had as many as three songs in the pop top ten simultaneously.
Jam & Lewis were on the forefront of a producer-led ‘80s movement in which the guys behind the board began to really matter. Along with other teams like L.A Reid & Babyface and later Foster & McElroy, producers like Jam & Lewis were forging their own styles and creating signature sounds with the evolving synth and percussion-heavy technology of the era. Jam & Lewis were also able to strike a perfect balance between embracing that technology and letting their artists’ vocals and unique personalities shine.
It was their unique sound and growing reputation in the industry that allowed the two former Time members to become virtuosos in every sense of the word, with a growing roster of clients and the chart numbers to prove it.
This article pays tribute to the forty years of hit music Jam & Lewis created, which not only provided the soundtrack of a generation during the 1980s, but helped launched the careers of many young artists along the way and left a musical legacy for generations to come… a legacy that is matched by very few others, as their Rock Hall of Fame recognition attests.
Here is DJRob’s ranking of the 100 greatest Jam & Lewis jams, songs that were either written or produced by the dynamic duo! Note this list is strictly the opinion of the author and readers are welcome to provide their own views of the rankings in either the comment box below the article or in any of the social media feeds where the article is posted.
How many of these greats do you remember? And remember to navigate all the way through the list using the arrow button at the bottom after you’ve scrolled through each group of 25 songs (there are 100 songs on this list!).
With a sample of Earth, Wind & Fire’s most ubiquitous single “September” in tow, Jam & Lewis lent their talents to ‘90s dance queen Crystal Waters. Not her best track by any stretch, but it’s her best track produced by Jam & Lewis. Became her third and final top-40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1997.
Sticking with the sampling theme, Jam & Lewis borrowed from another former No. 1 song for this New Jack track by former Soul II Soul vocalist Caron Wheeler. Their source this time? Sybil’s 1989 smash “Don’t Make Me Over.” “I Adore You” is the first of two tracks on this list from the 1992 ‘Mo’ Money’ soundtrack.
Of Boys II Men’s five No. 1 pop hits, one was produced by Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff (“One Sweet Day”), two were produced by L.A. Reid & Babyface (“End of the Road” and “I’ll Make Love To You”), and two were produced by Jam & Lewis: “On Bended Knee” and this one, which wound up being their last No. 1 Hot 100 hit.
Even as late as 1996, Jam & Lewis were producing signature ballads in the same vibe that brought them fame a decade earlier. New Edition rolled a couple of sevens with this second single from their 1996 reunion album. “I’m Still In Love With You” reached No. 7 on both the pop and soul charts that year.
The Minneapolis gospel group Sounds of Blackness have an unfortunate acronym for their initials, but their music is undeniably uplifting. They were the first act signed to Jam & Lewis’ Perspective label in 1990. Their second single was this dance classic that reached No. 16 on the Billboard R&B chart and No. 1 on the Dance chart in 1991.
With Johnny Gill’s self-titled 1990 album, Motown split the four big singles between the two hottest production teams of the era. “My, My, My” and “Fairweather Friend” were produced by L.A. Reid & Babyface, while “Rub You The Right Way” and “Wrap My Body Tight” were the work of Jam & Lewis. Interestingly, the heavily new jack “Wrap” was Gill’s last song to reach the R&B top ten (peaked at No. 1 in early 1991).
The first of many Janet Jackson songs on this list (36 in total, brace yourselves!) was a No. 1 smash in 2000 from ‘The Nutty Professor’ (starring Eddie Murphy) soundtrack. It was Janet’s penultimate No. 1 single on the Hot 100 (all ten are on this list) and contained many of the pop-friendly elements that Jam & Lewis had mastered by this point (particularly for their hits with Ms. Jackson).
It’s been written that the song that got Jam & Lewis fired by Prince was S.O.S. Band’s “Just Be Good To Me” (that one’s much later in the countdown). But it was their “High Hopes” that became the group’s first chart single under the Flyte Tyme Productions banner. It reached No. 25 on the Billboard Soul chart in the fall of 1982.
Another classic ballad by Jam & Lewis was this metaphor-filled song about a girl whose features are likened to that of the sun. It’s an unmistakable Jam & Lewis ballad brought to life by O’Neal’s patented vocal from his biggest LP, 1987’s ‘Hearsay.’
Janet has enough hits to fill a 100-song list by herself, especially if you count some of those great album cuts that never saw an official single release, like this rapidly sung, industrial funk jam from the critically acclaimed 1997 ‘Velvet Rope’ album. Janet leveraged the song’s unique, unrelenting energy to come up with some of her most elaborate live performances during the ‘Velvet Rope’ tour in 1997-98 (click the arrow for a videoclip). Yes, Jam & Lewis were still firing on all cylinders fifteen years into their legendary production career at this point.
Natchez, Mississippi’s Alexander O’Neal was originally part of the Time (when they were still known as Flyte Tyme). Prince ultimately changed the group’s name, replaced O’Neal with Morris Day and the rest, as they say, is history. O’Neal has nine songs on this list (plus a few more songs on which he provides uncredited backup vocals). The last chart success among them was “All True Man,” a top-5 soul chart hit in 1991.
This uptempo jam by Johnny Gill was meant to do one thing: get butts out of seats and onto the dance floor. It succeeded with a little help from Jam & Lewis protégés Mint Condition (signed to J&L’s Perspective record label). The guys from Mint Condition provided the “Floor” chants heard throughout the song. Yes, Johnny Gill is a singer’s singer, but he’s also delivered more than a few club bangers in his career, thanks to Jam & Lewis.
When Virgin Records released “Because of Love” as the fourth single from the ‘janet.’ album in 1994, Alan Jones from ‘Music Week’ gave it four out of five stars and presciently noted: “not a number one, but bound for the upper reaches.” He was right. “Because” became the first Janet single to miss No. 1 on any of the major Billboard charts (pop, soul, dance or adult contemporary) since beginning her affiliation with Jam & Lewis eight years earlier. This sweet-sounding shuffler did, however, reach the top ten on the R&B, pop and dance charts.
This is the first of seven songs on the list by Cherrelle, which puts her in a tie with S.O.S. Band as the third-most represented artist here behind Janet Jackson (36 songs) and Alexander O’Neal (9). “Artificial Heart” had enough special effects to give it the inauthentic feel that Jam & Lewis were likely aiming for to match the song’s lyrics. It was the third single released from Cherrelle’s ‘High Priority’ album and reached the top 20 of the R&B chart and top five of the dance chart in 1986.
This mellow, understated jam was from S.O.S. Band’s 1984 album ‘Just The Way You Like It.’ Jam & Lewis created it in the vein of other popular mid-tempo grooves of the day by euro-soul groups like Change and Loose Ends. “No One’s Gonna Love You” peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard Black singles chart in 1984.
Jam & Lewis released their own album (finally) in 2021. Although it was critically acclaimed, it failed to dent the charts in Billboard. That’s ok though. Because it’s represented here by two songs, the first by chanteuse Mariah Carey. “Somewhat Loved” was the third single released from the album and did respectively well on the now much smaller R&B chart, reaching No. 10.
Even though Mariah Carey has had more Hot 100 number one singles than anyone other than the Beatles, people still analyze her song catalog for those they believe should’ve also hit No. 1 (but didn’t). “Never Too Far,” a song from her ‘Glitter’ movie, is often included. It’s a sweeping ballad that she couldn’t promote while recovering from an emotional breakdown suffered just weeks before the tune’s release in 2001. After failing to chart, it saw new life as part of a medley with her previous hit, 1994’s “Hero,” the proceeds of which would go toward 9/11-relief efforts.
Janet Jackson’s A&M label boss Herb Alpert saw the value in both Janet Jackson’s newfound superstardom and Jam & Lewis’ production prowess when he enlisted both entities for this single from his 1987 album ‘Keep Your Eye On Me.’ “Diamonds” topped the soul chart and reached No. 5 on the pop chart in spring 1987, creating another chart comeback for Alpert, one that would be the legendary trumpeter’s last to date.
When they released “Jerk Out” in 1990, The Time included Jam & Lewis who had reunited with their former bandmates for the ‘Pandemonium’ reunion album. That album served double duty as a tie-in to Prince’s ‘Graffiti Bridge’ movie and “Jerk-Out” was resurrected from a tune Prince had written a decade earlier. In that sense, it was sort of a reunion between Prince and Jam & Lewis, whom The Purple One had fired for missing a flight to a Time gig eight years earlier.
There are 15 songs on this list that were released in the 21st century. This stellar tune by Janet from her 2015 ‘Unbreakable’ album is one of the more recent. It’s also the most recent song by the pop icon on the list. “Shoulda Known Better” revisits the same global issues that plagued earth when JJ recorded ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’ nearly three decades earlier, only from a more thoughtful mature perspective. “How dare Janet believe she could help change the world through her music?” seems to be her self-critical theme here. Its reflective tone easily makes “Shoulda” the album’s best track in an LP full of nostalgic gems.
Usher put his macking skills on full display in this funk gem that is perhaps the most played song on Usher’s 2004 ‘Confessions’ album that wasn’t officially released as a single. The Diamond-certified album is among the best sellers of the 21st century and is the last non-hip-hop R&B album to reach that 10-million sales plateau, thanks, in part, to this Jam & Lewis groove.
The boutique Tabu label had three main artists in the 1980s: S.O.S. Band, Alex O’Neal, and Cherrelle. Jam & Lewis were the primary producers and songwriters for all three acts, which qualified them as Tabu’s “in-house” music creators. In all there are 21 songs from the Tabu label on this list, including this uptempo tune that kicked off Cherrelle’s fabulous ‘High Priority’ album in 1985.
“You Want This” was the sixth official single released from Janet’s self-titled fifth album. And like all of its predecessors, the song reached the top 10 of both Billboard’s pop and soul charts. The colorful video featured Janet hamming it up with “her girls” as two seemingly unfazed guys became targets of their ire. One of those girls was rapper MC Lyte who provided a memorable rap in the single’s remix.
Who said melody doesn’t exist in music anymore? This 2021 album track from Jam & Lewis’s first album was arguably its best. Well, at least I dug it enough to put it way up here at No. 77, amongst a bunch of classics recorded years and decades before it. Toni Braxton’s sultry contralto/tenor sings the melody perfectly!
While “Never Knew Love Like This” is often thought to be a vain attempt to recapture the magic of Cherrelle and Alex O’Neal’s prior hit duet “Saturday Love,” it actually wasn’t so vain. “Never Knew” practically duplicated the chart success of “Saturday Love.” Both songs peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Black singles chart and both reached the top 30 on the pop chart. Not bad for a song considered by some to be a second-rate followup.
If you didn’t see all 100 songs, navigate to the next group of 25 songs by clicking the little arrow to the right (above). You can’t stop until you get to Number One!
DJRob (he/him/his) 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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