The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year will induct Eminem, Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie, Carly Simon and two guys in sunglasses who have scored more No. 1s on the Billboard Hot 100 than all of those other acts combined.
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are the rare songwriting and producing team to get into the prestigious hall, and they hope it will lead to more artists like them being inducted.
“Songwriters are like farmers,” said Jam. “When you go to a nice 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 doesn’t have any food to cook. And that’s the way songwriters are to me.”
The duo’s chart-topping pop hits include Janet Jackson’s “When I Think of You;” Mariah Carey’s “Thank God I Found You;” George Michael’s “Monkey;” Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee;” Janet and Michael Jackson’s “Scream;” and Mary J. Blige’s “No More Drama.” They have five Grammys and went into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2017.
“I don’t know if you could ever recognize songwriters enough. I mean, they are the fuel that fuels everything,” said Lewis. “There are great songwriters out there that never get the shine that they deserve.”
One song in particular might typify the Jam and Lewis range — “Got ’Til It’s Gone,” which combines a folk sample from Joni Mitchell, the hip-hop of Q-Tip and Janet Jackson’s R&B voice. “We’re kind of at a crossroads or an intersection of a lot of different music,” said Jam.
Jam and Lewis started out in competing bands and became part of Prince’s band, The Time, in Minneapolis. After parting ways with The Purple One, the duo established 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 induct Eurythmics, Duran Duran, Judas Priest, Harry Belafonte, Elizabeth Cotten and Pat Benatar. Jam anticipated that one act closely associated with the duo would be the one who inducts them but didn’t go into specifics, raising speculation that it will be Janet Jackson.
They credit music executive Clarence Avant and an earlier songwriting powerhouse duo, Gamble & Huff, for showing the way forward. They hope to do the same with their induction: “It’s wonderful and hopefully shines a spotlight on other people like us who do what we do that are deserving.”
They grew up listening to different genres. Jam was a pop fan, soaking in Seals and Crofts, America and Chicago. Lewis leaned more toward Parliament-Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire. “Terry liked the funky bottom. I like the pretty top,” said Jam. You can hear that combo throughout their career, starting with their first hit, S.O.S. Band’s “Just Be Good to Me.”
They’re 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 tailor the song to the artist and choose for themselves a non-nonsense wardrobe of black suits and sunglasses. Next year, they celebrate their partnership hitting its 50th anniversary.
“We’re kind of at a point of our careers where we don’t have anything to prove, but we still have a lot to say,” said Jam. “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 that are making music now.”
Turn on the radio and you will likely immediately hear the influence of Jam and Lewis. Famed Swedish producer Max Martin channeled the duo while crafting hits for Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. Charlie Puth is a fan, and Bruno Mars gave the pair a shout-out on the Grammy stage for paving the way when he won album of the year for “24K Magic.”
One thing Jam and Lewis would like to see change is more recognition for the folks behind the tunes. Lewis worries that music today is often seen like a utility, a faceless service like water or electricity that’s taken for granted. Jam misses the days when a record sleeve included tons of information about the music makers, like the name of the engineer and mixer.
“The reason we’re writers and producers now is because we could look at records back in the day and instantly see who produced it and who wrote it,” said Jam.
These days, it’s hard to find credits on streaming sites and the duo think that’s a problem. “What it does is it devalues the music because it communicates the idea that music just comes out of nowhere. It doesn’t come out of nowhere. There’s people in this,” Jam said.
After decades of making music for other people, Jam and Lewis last year made their debut album as artists, “Jam and Lewis, Volume One” featuring Babyface, Toni Braxton and Mariah Carey. They plan on more such albums and hope to perform live next year, too.
The goal then — as it always has been for these men who push the sonic envelope — is to build a musical bridge in this time of divisions.
“It’s all about taking people — young, old, white, Black, straight, gay, Democrat or Republican, whatever — and for the time we’re on stage, bring all of them together,” said Jam. “If you could do that, that to me is the magic of music.”
Image credits: AP/Lennox McLendon