Jam & Lewis

Prince turned 50 last week, but there is another significant (if less recognized) anniversary related to Mr. Nelson this calendar year. Back in 1983, he bounced Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis from the Time. Snowbound in Atlanta while working with the S.O.S. Band, Jam & Lewis were unable to make it to a San Antonio gig. They were fined, and upon the tour's completion, they were no longer members of the Time -- not only for missing the gig, but for what they were doing off Prince's watch. Though the duo had their career apart from the Time in motion, having also worked with Klymaxx and Captain Rapp by that point, one could refer to 2008 as the 25th anniversary of Jam & Lewis' creative liberation.

A thorough collection of Jam & Lewis' output as session musicians, songwriters, arrangers, and producers would be unwieldy. You would probably hurt your back carrying it in vinyl form. When EMI Music Publishing celebrated the duo in the form of a promotional four-disc box, the compilers crammed 78 songs onto four discs and had to use several abbreviated edits in order to make it all fit. That set, put together in the mid '90s, did not allow key album cuts, and a few hits involving the honored in lesser capacities were not considered. Despite its shortcomings -- and, in some ways, because of them -- The Hit Songs was physical proof of Jam & Lewis' dominance during most of the years it covered. The duo's work since then has been less distinct, practically undetectable, or even thought to be the work of others (ask the late J Dilla's mom about that), but it has continued to be successful. A compilation of nothing but the number ones, spanning the early '80s through the present, would be three discs long.

The tracklist for this imagined single-disc compilation concentrates on the duo's first several years, when their material was at its most prolific, distinct, and innovative. They specialized in pop-funk with swagger and sophistication that coaxed a whole lot of feeling out of machines. Swift synthesizer-bass patterns acted as melodic anchors. Layers of keyboards alternately seared and sparkled. Drum machines thumped, strutted, and stuttered with unmatched grace. Often assisted by associates like Jellybean Johnson (who co-wrote and co-produced "Why Should I Cry"), Monte Moir (who wrote and co-produced "The Pleasure Principle"), and the late Randy Ran (who also collaborated with Jam & Lewis torch-carrier Dallas Austin), they either enhanced or made the careers of dozens of vocalists and groups. The selections might seem dated, since so many elements signify that specific period, yet they are no more traceable to their era of release than the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" or the Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together."

Anyone who is the least bit familiar with the duo will spot problems with the track sequence. It's representative, but by no means is it intended to be definitive. The value of the Force MDs' "Tender Love" has been diminished by its number of imitators, from New Edition's "Helplessly in Love" (itself a Jam & Lewis production) to Trina's "Here We Go," so it's not here. Herb Alpert's "Making Love in the Rain," featuring Janet Jackson on the hook, also hit the Top Ten of the R&B chart, and it's just as effective at demonstrating the composers' ability to pen strong ballads. It is missing as well. The Human League griped about "Human" sounding like Jam & Lewis instead of the Human League (meaning Dare! producer Martin Rushent, perhaps), so in went Howard Johnson with an album track that should have been a single. And, of course, Janet Jackson could have appeared here in any number of ways, but "The Pleasure Principle" sounds too good after "Why Should I Cry" to be left out. What's missing as well? Patti Austin's "The Heat of Heat" ("In the heat of heat, the heat is hot" is up there with the B-52s' "There's a moon in the sky/It's called the moon"), Dynasty's "The Only One," the extended mix of George Michael's "Monkey," and something by the Time -- like "Cool" or "777-9311." Only so much ground can be covered in 80 minutes.

Similar motifs and themes that spring up from track to track -- like the skittering drums streaked across "You Used to Hold Me So Tight" and "If It Isn't Love," or the various stages of a bad relationship covered by the S.O.S. Band -- make it evident that, during the years covered here, Jam & Lewis conceived a massive song cycle spread across piles of albums. Many women are heartbroken, a few men are horny, and the relationships do not often work out, but the music is always sweet to some degree, whether in sugary or bitter ways. With the S.O.S. Band, for instance, they came up with the baddest sad club hits of the '80s. Throughout "Just Be Good to Me" ("I don't care about your other girls/Just be good to me"), you want to tell Mary Davis to snap out of it, but when "Just the Way You Like It" came out ("Whenever you get bored/I will give it to you, just the way you like it"), you were ready to hijack the S.O.S. Band's blimp and whisk her away, or write a song titled "Please Do Cramp My Style" (even if you were in grade school and completely lacking in anything that could be cramped).

Here is the tracklist of the desired compilation, including labels of release, R&B chart debut dates (or years of release), peak positions, and YouTube links.

Klymaxx - "Wild Girls" (Solar; 11/06/1982; #78)
Captain Rapp - "Bad Times (I Can't Stand It)" (Saturn, 1983; did not chart)
Cherrelle - "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On" (Tabu; 04/28/1984; #8)
Howard Johnson - "Knees" (A&M, 1985; did not chart)
Cheryl Lynn - "Encore" (Columbia; 12/10/1983; #1)
The S.O.S. Band - "Just the Way You Like It" (Tabu; 07/21/1984; #6)
Cherrelle & Alexander O'Neal - "Saturday Love" (Tabu; 01/25/1986; #2)
Alexander O'Neal - "What's Missing" (Tabu; 04/29/1986; #8)
Nona Hendryx - "Why Should I Cry" (EMI; 04/11/1987; #5)
Janet Jackson - "The Pleasure Principle" (A&M; 05/23/1987; #1)
Change - "Change of Heart" (Atlantic; 04/14/1984; #8)
Thelma Houston - "You Used to Hold Me So Tight" (MCA; 11/10/1984; #13)
New Edition - "If It Isn't Love" (MCA; 06/04/1988; #2)