The main reason we celebrate Jheri Curl June in June is because, let’s face it, we are only human, and are as susceptible to the siren song of alliteration as the next group of hack Internet writers. But there’s also a pretty good justification for the timing, because the birthdays of two of jheri curl music’s most important innovators fall in the first week of June. We covered the first of those innovators, Prince, in last year’s inaugural Jheri Curl June Special. So this time around, we’ll be discussing the other one: James “Jimmy Jam” Harris, born June 6, 1959.
If Prince was jheri curl music’s architect, then Jimmy Jam and his longtime musical partner Terry Lewis were the brilliant engineers who shaped the structure to its fullest potential. Their take on the “Minneapolis Sound” developed by their former mentor added a new level of polish and sophistication; and when Prince shifted his own music away from traditional jheri-curl and toward neo-psychedelia in the mid-’80s, Jam and Lewis went in the opposite direction, crafting ever-more-flawless pop-friendly tracks that kept JCM in the top of the charts and, ultimately, evolved into the next dominant R&B sound, New Jack Swing.
Jam and Lewis got their start playing, respectively, keyboards and bass in the Time: the first and most successful of Prince’s 1980s pet projects, formed from a rival Minneapolis band formerly known as Flyte Tyme–a name they would of course later adopt for their own production company. But their actual membership in the Time only extended to live performances; Prince, notorious control freak that he was, insisted on writing and performing the entirety of the band’s recorded material, save for frontman Morris Day‘s vocals. So the fledgling writer/producers looked elsewhere for studio experience, and found it under the wing of Leon Sylvers III, an established producer for S.O.L.A.R. Records. It was through Sylvers and S.O.L.A.R. executive Dina Andrews that Jam and Lewis were introduced to the music mogul Clarence Avant, who invited the pair to produce some sessions for the S.O.S. Band on his then-struggling label Tabu. The result of those first sessions was “High Hopes,” a funky cut on the S.O.S. Band’s 1982 album III that sounds like a richer, more tuneful outtake from the Time’s debut.
The S.O.S. Band ultimately launched Jam’s and Lewis’ careers in more ways than one. It was while recording “Just Be Good to Me,” the lead single from the band’s 1983 album On the Rise, that the duo now officially known as Flyte Tyme Productions were grounded in L.A. by a freak snowstorm, causing them to miss a Time concert in San Antonio opening for Prince. They were fired from the group immediately afterwards, but the song was a hit, and their reputation as a production team was solidified. Both “Just Be Good to Me” and “Just the Way You Like It,” the title track from the S.O.S. Band’s 1984 followup, stand as sterling examples of the style Jam and Lewis helped develop for their first major act: epic, midtempo yet subtly rhythm-oriented songs about romantic angst, driven by singer Mary Davis‘ dramatic vocals and multitextured swathes of synthesizers.
1984 saw Jam and Lewis lend their talents to other artists, as well. They achieved their first Number 1 R&B hit with “Encore” by Cheryl Lynn, an upbeat dance track with the producers’ trademark synthesizer whines and prominent use of the Roland TR-808 drum machine. They wrote and produced half of the Change of Heart album by the Italian/American transcontinental outfit Change, including the infectious title track. And they scored another moderate hit with “Lock and Key,” a funky, dynamic production for JCJ veterans Klymaxx.
As their esteem in the recording industry grew, the Flyte Tyme partners were able to launch a few new careers of their own. The first of these was Cherrelle, born Cheryl Anne Norton, whose 1984 Tabu Records debut Fragile was the most accomplished Jam/Lewis project yet. Listening to the percussive, hip-hop-influenced JCM of songs like the title track and “Like I Will”–especially with Cherrelle’s calm, controlled, yet ineffably sassy vocal delivery–the album even sounds a bit like a dry run for the duo’s starmaking work with Janet Jackson.
Later, in 1985, Jam and Lewis took on a more personal project with the eponymous debut of Minneapolis singer Alexander O’Neal. O’Neal had been the original frontman for Flyte Tyme and, later, the Time, before a 1981 dispute with Prince got him fired from the group (sound familiar?). The first half or so of his debut album is fairly uninspiring, Luther Vandross-lite balladry, of little interest to the jheri curl fan; things start to pick up, however, with lead single “Innocent,” a dense, multi-movement affair with backing vocals by Cherrelle and multiple synth solos by both Jam and fellow ex-Time keyboardist Monte Moir. And if all that is a little too overblown for you, there’s also the more concise, poppy followup “What’s Missing,” which reached Number 8 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart. At the very least, Alexander O’Neal is certainly of interest to Time fans: the album’s personnel list reads like a Flyte Tyme reunion, with contributions by Jam, Lewis, Moir, and drummer/guitarist Jellybean Johnson.
The producers continued to work with both Cherrelle and O’Neal through the 1980s, frequently pairing them for romantic duets like “Saturday Love” from Cherrelle’s 1985 album High Priority. But their fortunes in the rest of the decade would lie primarily outside of the Avant/Tabu family. “Tender Love,” written and produced for the Staten Island vocal group Force M.D.’s and originally released on the Krush Groove soundtrack, was a major hit both on the Hot 100 and on the adult contemporary charts. It’s a much more minimalist production than the usual Flyte Tyme joint, and is really only jheri-curl by association; indeed, it’s most notable for bridging the gap between the pre-JCM style of quiet storm and the soft ’90s R&B of acts like Boys II Men and Babyface.
But really, this rundown of the early years of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis can’t end with anything but Control: the smash 1986 album by Janet Jackson that, like Prince’s Purple Rain, simultaneously marked Flyte Tyme’s mastery of the jheri-curl sound and their ascension to the greater pop landscape beyond. Control clearly has far more than trace amounts of jheri-curl DNA: just listen to the arrangement for the title track, which sounds like a Time song with the keyboards pushed to the back of the mix and the programmed beats all the way up front. Or, for that matter, listen to sixth (!) single “The Pleasure Principle,” which straight-up is a jheri-curl song. Songs like “Nasty,” however, point the way toward Jam’s and Lewis’ future as innovators of “swingbeat,” or New Jack Swing, loading up the mix with hip-hop beats and orchestra hits that take the electro dabblings of jheri curl music to their ultimate conclusion.
It’s this sound, more than any other, that Jam and Lewis would ride to the top of the charts in the following decade and beyond, working with everyone from Janet (and her big brother Michael) to Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, George Michael, TLC, and Usher. Here at Dystopian Dance Party, however, it’s those early jheri curl years that we especially treasure. So today, on the eve of Jimmy Jam’s birthday, we commemorate his and Lewis’ invaluable contributions to the style that we love. Thank you, Mr. Jam. You have given us so much that we couldn’t possibly ask for more…except, maybe, for another Original 7ven reunion.
Relive Flyte Tyme’s history below with 15 more tracks on the Jheri Curl June Spotify playlist…see you Monday!