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Old-school producers still making fresh music

Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis taking studio talents to movies now
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ever the sports fanatic, Jimmy Jam uses football and basketball to put his two-decade music collaboration with Terry Lewis in perspective.

Jam notes that Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs is back with the NFL’s Washington Redskins and that 70-year-old coach Hubie Brown has turned around the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. “All of a sudden people realize, well, wait a minute, they have knowledge and experience that really can’t be taught. You have to live it. And we’ve lived a lot of musical lives,” Jam says.

Jam and Lewis are executive producers of Janet Jackson’s new CD, “Damita Jo.” It’s the latest installment in a partnership with Jackson going back to her 1986 breakthrough album, “Control,” which netted Jam and Lewis their first and — despite numerous nominations since then — only Grammy as producers of the year.

Jam and Lewis also had a hand in Usher’s new album, “Confessions,” which sold an astounding 1.1 million copies its first week out, as well as Usher’s last album, 2001’s “8701,” which sold more than 3 million copies.

As Jam, 44, points out, he and his 47-year-old partner are old school but also current. Their producing credits stretch back to the S.O.S. Band, Gladys Knight and Alexander O’Neal and up to Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men and Heather Headley.

“I do feel we are elder statesmen, I absolutely do,” says Jam, who generally speaks for the pair (Lewis declined an interview request). “And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

On “Damita Jo,” Jam and Lewis took an executive producer role. Besides tracks produced by Jam, Lewis and Jackson, there are others produced by Dallas Austin (TLC, Madonna), Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Kanye West (Jay-Z).

The goal, Jam says, was not to compromise Jackson’s sound. “We made sure that the record sounded like Janet,” he says.

Jam calls Jackson “the ultimate muse.” Her 18-year working relationship with Jam and Lewis has resulted in big-selling albums such as “Control” and “Rhythm Nation 1814” and a string of hit singles. “We love each other. We get along great,” Jam says. “The fun that we’ve had making the records has always shown through on the records.”

Singer Patti LaBelle says she likes working with Jam and Lewis because of their laid-back style and attention to the artist. “It makes me come alive, and it makes me produce more, and they get a better Patti,” says LaBelle, whose work with Jam and Lewis includes the singles “The Right Kinda Lover” in 1994 and “When You Talk About Love” in 1997.

Jam (real name James Harris III) and Lewis have been friends for 32 years. The two met in 1972 at the University of Minnesota in a program for promising students from urban schools.

Known for wearing fedoras and sunglasses, the two were part of The Time before Prince booted them in 1983 after they missed a gig because of a snowstorm in Atlanta. Jam and Lewis then turned to producing full-time, first in Minneapolis, then in the suburb of Edina.

After winning Producer of the Year (non-classical) Grammys their first time out, Jam and Lewis have been nominated for that award eight more times — including the last four years straight — but have gone home empty-handed. (They did snag Grammys along with Janet Jackson for Best R&B Song for 1993’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” and for Best Dance Recording for 2001’s “All For You.”)

Jam says he loves the Grammy nominations. “It costs me a lot of money, though, because every year that we get nominated, that means my wife has to find a new dress to wear to the ceremony.”

In the last two years, Jam and Lewis have been doing more movie work in Los Angeles, spending about 75 percent of their time there. They did the soundtrack for last year’s “The Fighting Temptations” and are working on the upcoming “Bridget Jones’s Diary” sequel. They’ve set up temporary shop in a Beverly Hills studio (dubbed “Flyte Tyme West” after their Twin Cities-based production company) and have bought a building in Santa Monica, Calif., a couple of blocks from major movie studios.

It’s easier being closer to the artists in Los Angeles than flying them to the Twin Cities, Jam says. For example, singer Gwen Stefani of No Doubt stopped by for a meeting that led to their writing two songs, he says.

“Really, the coolest thing about films is simply that it’s something different,” he says. “It’s just moving on to a different thing.”