In Advance of Janet Jackson’s Concert at the Q, Producer Jimmy Jam Talks About the R&B Singer’s Legacy

click to enlarge In Advance of Janet Jackson’s Concert at the Q, Producer Jimmy Jam Talks About the R&B Singer’s Legacy
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James Samuel “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Steven Lewis, the American R&B production team that worked behind-the-scenes to turn Janet Jackson albums such as Control and Rhythm Nation 1814 into monster hits and reunited with Jackson for 2015’s Unbreakable, first met in the early ‘70s at a summer program at the University of Minnesota called Upward Bound.

“We were studying to be peer teachers,” says Harris during a phone interview to promote Jackson’s tour that comes to Quicken Loans Arena at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 3. “The concept was that if you learned math you would teach the grade below you math, and it would be easier for the kids to understand. I was always a good student, but I was horrible at math, and I had no clue why they chose me for the program. I was happy that they did. It gave me a better understanding of math. Even better, I met Terry."

The two stayed in the dorms, and Harris says when he walked into Lewis’s room, he saw his bass guitar and immediately thought they would become friends.

“I think I was 13, and he was 15, and he was that cool kid that everybody wanted to know,” says Harris. “We definitely talked music. I was really into pop music big-time. I was waiting for the Chicago VI album to come out. I said something about it to him. He said, ‘What about the new Earth Wind & Fire album?’ He introduced me to them. I remember the first records. It was Earth, Wind & Fire, Tower of Power and a group called New Birth. He totally turned me onto that. That was our conversation. We went back and forth about music.”

A few weeks later, the two launched the Time, a terrific R&B/funk band that drew from many of their inspirations. Jackson came to one of their shows in Long Beach and initiated what would become a long and creatively fruitful relationship.

“[Jackson] was in the front row [at the Long Beach show] with her mom and couple of other people,” says Harris. “I remember our show as a little bit risqué, but she was jamming and loving every minute of it. Afterwards, we got a chance to meet her. She was super sweet. She was a huge Time fan and that was very cool to us. That was the first time we met her and then we met her again in the summer of 1982.”

Harris and Lewis would come on board to produce 1986’s Control, an album that fused rap, funk, disco and rock. It would become a huge breakthrough for the singer.

“We did [the record] in Minneapolis, which was great because it was away from the craziness of L.A. and the whole recording scene,” says Harris. “Nobody really cared. It was made in a vacuum. When we asked her to come to Minneapolis, there was no hoopla. The record company wasn’t paying attention, other than John McClain, who did A&R. It was a great way to make a record and a great way to get to know her. And it was a blueprint we’ve subscribed to with any artist. As producers, our best thing is to make the artist sound good and stay out of the way rather than try to dominate with a certain sound and all that. That’s never been our thing. We want to make the artist sound great and give everyone their own sound.”

The duo would also produce 1989’s Rhythm Nation 1814, another huge hit for the singer.

When Jackson reunited with Harris and Lewis for last year’s Unbreakable, the producers insisted that they work together like they had in the past without any interference from the record label. Jackson agreed.

“We all wanted that,” says Harris. “A lot of time had passed between us working with her. I don’t by any means disown any Janet record that we were involved with, even the ones we weren’t involved with. They all have their place and their influence. I feel like the Janet records that were done in the way we would prefer to do records with her stopped at All for You, which was 2001. We were talking 14 or 15 years. In that sense, hindsight being 20/20, it was easy to have conversations and look back at the past potholes, speed bumps and detours and see that we needed to be on a different smooth road. Once it was agreed upon, it was a no-brainer.”

Unbreakable tracks such as the shimmering “Burnitup!” find Jackson embracing a funk and hip-hop-inspired sound. There are still plenty of slow jams (“The Great Forever” and “After You Fall”), but Jackson sounds re-energized on the album.

The highly personal songs refer to various experiences over the course of her life, including aspects of her childhood and the death of her brother Michael.

“She’s lived a lot of life,” says Harris. “She’s in a place where ‘wise’ is the word I would use. There’s a point in your life when you think you know everything and you’ve learned everything you can learn. We all go through that. It’s not true. She’s been through that enough times where her viewpoint on things is that she’s still learning and growing and hasn’t figured it out. There’s no shame in that. I am wise about knowing what I know and don’t know. I think that’s the viewpoint that the album takes. With that as the overall theme, it’s easy to craft songs in that way."

Harris doesn’t tour with Jackson, but he says he’s come out to “tweak a few things.” He says the singer has put together one of her best shows.

“She has a killer band and amazing singers and dancers,” he says. “When she opened in Vancouver, I went there for a few days to work through a few things. Because I played everything I can walk up to the keyboard player and go, ‘This is the lick.’ It’s actually kind of fun. I think it’s the best ensemble creatively that she’s ever had. They’re amazing."

Janet Jackson, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 3, Quicken Loans Arena, One Center Court, 888-894-9424. Tickets: $55-$135,

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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