Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are hitmakers who’ve been heard around the world with No. 1-charting tracks like “On Bended Knee” by Boyz II Men and “Escapade” by Janet Jackson to their credit, but the death of Prince hit close to home for the producing duo, who Jam says is responsible for giving them a shot at a career in the first place.
Jam opened up about first meeting Prince, who died Thursday, in 1973, telling EW the pair met in junior high as young, aspiring musicians who later collaborated for Jam’s then-band the Time, who, along with Prince, defined the the Minneapolis sound of the late-70s and early-80s. He says he first noticed Prince’s overwhelming talent during a music class, where he discovered the late singer’s early abilities across a wide range of instruments. “There was a keyboard room set up, and the teacher would give you ‘London Bridge’ or ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and ask you to learn it. When she’d leave, we’d put on the headphones and rip through these keyboards. I was always blown away by his talent level,” he says. “I didn’t want to get behind the drum set again! He was nuts. That was my awakening to his talent and genius.”
Despite initially being intimidated by Prince’s musical prowess, Jam says he bonded with the “Sexuality” singer just as his star began to rise. Seven years after meeting him, in 1981, he and Lewis were touring as the Purple One’s opening act. They performed together during Prince’s Controversy Tour, which ran through 1982, and the 1999 Tour, which began shortly thereafter ahead of its conclusion in 1983. “It was competitive. We were trying to kick his butt off stage… [but] he was the person who gave us our break. We owe our careers to him,” he says, though landing the gig wasn’t easy. “I auditioned to be a keyboard player in his first band… I didn’t get the gig. But, I loved the experience because his band was so cool. He had a female keyboard player, which was awesome. It was racially mixed… everything was so forward thinking,” he says.
Still, Jam was able to see past the monolithic talent and appreciate the drive that pushed the legend forward. “What really rubbed off on me was his work ethic; he out-talented everyone by so much. In sports, it’d be like Michael Jordan. He walks into the gym and he’s the most talented player; that’s how prince was. He walked in and he was more talented than everybody,” Jam says. “He’d come to rehearsal, work with us, go work with his band, then he’d go to his studio all night and record. The next night he’d come to rehearsal with a tape in his hand and he’d say, ‘This is what I did last night!’ and it’d be something like ‘1999.’ As a boss, he was very demanding, but you never minded that because he was never more demanding on you than he was on himself.”
While Prince’s career spiked shortly after touring with Jam and Lewis, Jam isn’t sure the musician’s goal was always to dominate the mainstream. “I don’t know if he ever wanted to make the perfect pop song, but it was his quest to make a bunch of great songs,” Jam says. “He wasn’t a guy that took a week or two to make a song… He knew what he wanted [a song] to be… He made everybody better at what they did. He’d take [Terry’s] bass and play it and then say ‘play it more like this,’ and then he’d hand the bass back to Terry [who would] play it like Prince, but you’d realize he taught you something, and you’re the bass player!”
As producers of hits like “All For You,” “U Remind Me,” and “Thank God I Found You” for international artists like Janet Jackson, Usher, and Mariah Carey, one of Jam’s biggest regrets, he says, is the fact that he and Lewis never made tracks for Prince prior to his death. “Terry and [Prince] were in touch quite a bit… one of the things we’d discussed was doing a bucket list of [ours]… we wanted to produce Prince,” he says. “Terry’s theory was, ‘A barber can’t cut the back of his head.’ Sometimes, no matter how good you are, you need someone else’s perspective, and we were hoping he had enough respect for us to do that for him. There was never anything solidified in that sense, but there was definitely a sense that he was amenable to the idea.”
Reporting by Kevin O’Donnell