HARRIS AND LEWIS--TWO GUYS FIRMLY IN CONTROL
Joe Jackson, the father of the Jackson clan that features Michael and Janet, is known around the music business as an intimidator. The word is that Poppa Joe knows what he wants and invariably gets what he wants.
Jimmy (Jam) Harris and Terry Lewis, noted R&B; producers and composers, also do things their way--or not at all. When these two forces clashed, something had to give.
It turned out to be Jackson.
But it was probably the happiest “loss” of Jackson’s life: Harris and Lewis turned his daughter Janet into a superstar.
They wrote and produced her A&M; album “Control"--the best album of last year, in my opinion--which has sold over 3.7 million copies and yielded four Top 10 singles: “Nasty,” “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” “When I Think of You” and “Control.”
The success of Jackson’s album was the highlight of a fairy-tale year for this pair. In one week in late October, three of their singles were in the Top 10--Jackson’s “When I Think of You,” the Human League’s “Human” and Robert Palmer’s “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On,” a 2-year-old composition resurrected by Palmer. The pair also produced and composed Force-M.D.'s Top 10 “Tender Love.” Their total number of Top 10 singles in the last year--seven--is remarkable. Their efforts recently earned them a best producer Grammy nomination.
To do their best work, these producers contend, they need to be in complete charge. So their issue with Joe Jackson, who’s also Janet’s manager, was control over the young singer. Her father wanted the album recorded in Los Angeles, where he could keep his eye on the project and his daughter.
But Lewis and Harris--who had been recruited by A&M; executive John McCain--refused. That was a gutsy move considering that, in 1985, they didn’t have the clout they have now. They were hot in the black music and dance market because of their work with the S.O.S. Band, Klymaxx, Cheryl Lynn and Cherelle, but weren’t well known outside that circle.
Still, they were adamant about doing things their way. The plan was to take Janet back to their hometown--sedate Minneapolis--far from the glitter and distractions of Hollywood and the interference of manager-fathers.
“It was hard for Joe to let go of her,” Harris recalled. “We required that they put her in our hands. We had to do it on our turf, with no bodyguards, no star trips and none of Joe Jackson’s people hanging around making suggestions.”
Previously, she had recorded two unsophisticated, kiddie soul albums. If you listened carefully to that kid stuff, there was a grown-up singer there somewhere struggling to get out. Harris and Lewis liberated the real Janet Jackson.
Part of their method was simply getting to know her and making her feel comfortable with them. “We spent a week getting her to open up to us,” Harris explained. “With artists, you sometimes have to be a psychologist, a counselor, a masseur--anything, even a chef. Terry cooked her some home-cooked meals because she was sick of eating hotel food.”
Lewis added: “We got into her head. We saw what she was capable of, what she wanted to say, where she wanted to be, what she wanted to be. We put together some songs to fit her as we saw her, as she revealed herself to us. It was as simple as that.”
Harris, 27, is heavyset, rather soft-spoken and somewhat reserved. Lewis, 30, is the more aggressive of the pair, but is still pleasant and low-key. Both are very likable.
Producing and composing used to be just secondary activities for Harris and Lewis, who have been working together on and off for 10 years. In the early ‘80s, most of their time was devoted to playing in the Time, a band of merry funksters that Prince discovered and nurtured. Lewis was a bassist while Harris played keyboards.
They started producing and composing in earnest while they were with the Time, which they had joined in 1981, fresh from a band called Flyte Tyme. “In the back of our minds, we were interested in producing and composing as long as we can remember,” Harris noted.
Lewis added: “We started doing this as fun. Working on material for the Time albums wasn’t enough for us. We had millions of songs left after a Time album. We decided to do something with them outside the Time.”
However, the band’s managers wanted them to work exclusively for the Time. Harris and Lewis defied their bosses and were eventually fired. It turned out that they didn’t miss much. In late 1984, the Time split up. But Harris and Lewis, full-time producer-composers by then, were on the brink of a lucrative career.
With all those Top 10 hits to their credit, Harris and Lewis are in incredible demand. “We turn down 99% of the requests,” Harris reported.
What are their criteria for selecting projects?
Money, they insisted, isn’t one of them--particularly since they have so much of it now. They turned down fat fees when they turned down artists like Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick. One project they rejected would have guaranteed them a small fortune--producing and writing a song for Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling” album, which has sold over 3 million.
“He was just looking for a black song so that he could reach that black audience better,” Lewis pointed out. “The song he needed was a security blanket for him to cover all the bases. We didn’t want to be part of that.”
Need, Lewis added, is a primary factor in choosing projects: “We just ask ourselves if we can contribute to an artist’s career or could they have a hit with or without us. Lionel’s album was going to sell millions with or without us.
“We’d rather work with people who are talented but need something extra to make them really click--like Alexander O’Neal and Patti Austin. We want the artist who is doing moderately well but needs a change--like Janet Jackson. Or the artist who was hot at one time but had some flops--like the Human League. These people needed us. Working with them offered us a real challenge.”
Their preference is working with black artists. “It’s the black artists who need the breaks,” Harris pointed out. “We would never take a song or a big block of time away from a black artist to benefit a white artist.”
But there are exceptions. The Human League, whose album, “Crash,” they produced and partially composed, is a white English band. “They had done some very funky stuff,” Harris explained. “They are very into black music. That’s why we could work with them.”
How do they explain Herb Alpert? They produced and wrote four primarily instrumental tracks for his album, “Keep Your Eye on Me,” due out in early March. Skeptics will undoubtedly contend that Harris and Lewis accepted this project because Alpert is one of the big bosses at A&M; Records, home of Janet Jackson and the Human League.
“Herb is a jazz artist and basically an instrumentalist,” Harris countered. “That’s the reason. He owns the company, but so what? He’s white, but so what? We had never worked with someone like that before. It was interesting and different. We did that in the name of versatility.”
Their latest project is working with the Secret. An album by the Secret--apparently their own band--will be out by June and there won’t be a tour. All other details, they insisted, are a secret.