The 808 Soul of Jam & Lewis

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (James Samuel “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Steven Lewis) are one of the most successful songwriter/producer duos of the last few decades. They’ve worked with some of the world’s biggest artists including Prince, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Chaka Khan, George Michael and Mariah Carey and churned out more Billboard No. 1 hits than any other production and songwriting team. 

However, for many soul and funk aficionados, the early/mid-1980s music of Jam and Lewis holds a particular place in their hearts. Jam and Lewis singles and albums from acts like Klymaxx, Change, Cherelle, Gladys Knight, The S.O.S. Band, Cheryl Lynn and Alexander O’Neal were era-defining as well as influential, both for soul music and the wider pop world too. They trail-blazed the marriage of digital synths and drum machines with live bass and keys, rewriting the musical vocabulary of R’n’B and creating what music writer Simon Reynolds in his book Bring The Noise described as “a new blueprint for dance pop, using drum machine beats and synthesised basslines to build angular, abrasive grooves.” It was a sound that hung over much of 80s soul and pop music, and which also put in much of the initial construction work for new jack swing and 90s R’n’B. 

Jam and Lewis have been working together since the seventies when they were bandmates in Minneapolis funk outfit Flyte Time. Prince adopted the band in 1981, added two members and changed their name to The Time. They played keyboards (Jam) and bass (Lewis) in the band while also pursuing outside writing and production roles. In 1983, it was one of these jobs, specifically producing an S.O.S. Band album, that caused them to miss a flight and miss a Time gig resulting in Prince firing them. One of the tracks on the album was the epic Just Be Good To Me which would go on to be a huge international hit, bringing their electronic soul sound to a worldwide audience while also kick-starting their production and writing career.

Jam and Lewis’ approach in the studio would be to play the bass and keys parts live to programmed drum rhythms, abandoning much of the traditional R’n’B band — the horn section, organ, bongos and congas — and replacing them with a cool, precise, sharp-edged and sophisticated palette of synths and drum boxes, particularly the distinctive thuds, ticks and clicks of the Roland 808 drum machine.

By the time of 1986’s massive Control from Janet Jackson, Jam and Lewis had mapped out a new soul landscape of simplicity and sophistication, rejuvenated the R’n’B market, and proved countless times that electronic instruments were every bit as valid, authentic and capable of generating emotion in the listener as any guitar band or piano singer-songwriter. The pair went on to deliver world-dominating hits for big artists over the following decades, but for many soul fans, their ’80s work remains a creative high point, a rich mine of top-end songwriting and a source of many glorious dance floor tracks, seductive electro-soul anthems and silky soul ballads.

Sands Of Time cover

Three years on from their career-defining hit Just Be Good To Me and the SOS Band’s Sands of Time again showcases the mid-80s Jam and Lewis sound which had by now solidified into a set of crisp, effective production techniques. At the centre of Sands… is a jewel of 80s R’n’B, the refined soul sophistication and cutting edge synths/drum machine beats of The Finest which provide the perfect backing for Mary Davis’ refined vocals. Elsewhere jams like Nothing But The Best and Do You Still Want Me nail a confident, restrained and uptown soul aesthetic and throughout the album, J&L repeat their career-defining trick of forging heartfelt, soul-filled songs from synthesised sounds, digital electric keys and drum box robot rhythms. 

Visions cover

A lesser-known GK&TPs album that is well worth a revisit, Visions features Motown’s finest female vocalist in reliably good form, that rich, warm, sweet-like-honey/gritty voice instantly recognisable on a succession of supa-tight post-disco soul jams and big-time quiet storm epics. If anyone can do justice to an orchestrated soul slow jam it’s Gladys Knight and she does it beautifully on the gorgeous ballads Just Be My Lover and Heaven SentVisions also delivers a succession of superb uptown boogie and synth-soul which Knight, frankly, absolutely owns. With its subtle orchestration and René Magritte cover, the whole project oozes class and sophistication. Visions is like the best of Motown and Philly repackaged in shiny new digital clothes for the 80s and is easily one of The Pips’ best album efforts. 

High Priority cover

Opening with an overblown (synthesised) orchestrated intro and ending with a Paisley Park-esque instrumental reprise, High Priority is the epitome of upscale, sophisticated 80s electro soul. First and foremost it’s home to Saturday Love, a song that is like the very best of 80s soul wrapped up in a single bittersweet paean, but High Priority is also a sister album to Janet Jackson’s Control album from the same year.

It’s filled with similar brash, angular beats and a more minimal production approach from Jam and Lewis than their epic SOS Band hits. There is space left between the musical elements, the synth and bass parts are tight and clipped so they can perfectly tessellate, the guitar licks slotted in carefully, restricted to tiny little strums every eight bars. Its digital synth palette may sound a little dated but that doesn’t detract from the multitude of quality funk and soul moments within these grooves.

On The Rise cover

The fourth album from the SOS Band was a change of direction from the consummate soul/post-disco sound of their previous album S.O.S. III. Enlisting Jam and Lewis who had worked on one song on III, they removed the horns and jazzy chord progressions and added the distinctive futurist boom and bap of the Roland 808 drum machine. On The Rise is mostly drum machine sweet soul and yearning electro funk, full of dense layers of interlocking keys and synths and of course includes perennial dance floor anthem Just Be Good To Me, a song so big it’s visible from orbit. 

The last two tracks — an ill-advised cover of Johnny Taylor’s 1968 hit Who’s Making Love which isn’t so much bad as just entirely out of place, and Steppin’ The Stones, a song which suffers from an identity crisis — don’t measure up to the rest of the quality on show here, but neither ruin what is a very fine album indeed. 

Change Of Heart cover

Italian disco outfit Change teamed up with Jam and Lewis for their 1984 album and after getting the obligatory quiet storm ballad that was required of any soul album in the 80s out of the way, confidently launched into a set of irresistible churning 808 funk and soul. Jam and Lewis in ’84 had pretty much perfected their blend of synthesised instruments and live playing and there are plenty of examples of their synth-soul aesthetic that would go on to define much of soul and pop throughout the 80s. 

Final track It Burns Me Up packs in distorted atonal guitar soloing à la Prince and liquid Stevie-esque synth bass to create a track with veers between cool, stark minimalist R’n’B and comforting synthetic strings and tinkling digital keys wrapping you up in a warm and very clean sonic blanket. With hooks galore, precise, economic machine rhythms and a pristine sound palette, ‘Change Of Heart’ is classic mid-80s dance floor soul. 

Girls Will Be Girls cover

Klymaxx were one of the first projects Jam and Lewis took on after Prince fired them from The Time. Unsurprisingly his influence hangs over this album and there are plenty of Minneapolis funk licks present. By the time of its 1982 release, disco had died and the soul and r’n’b tradition was taking a number of different directions including boogie, electro, quiet storm, hip hop and Latin freestyle. All these genres heartily embraced the latest studio technology as did Jam and Lewis here, enthusiastically blending live bass and keys with shiny digital synths and stringent drum machine rhythms. Girls Will Be Girls is probably Klymaxx’s best album, packed with quality street soul and boogie, classy and funky in equal measure.

Control cover

The opening trio of killers that begin this album — ControlNasty and What Have You Done For Me Lately — would be more than enough to build an album around for lesser artists but Jackson, in league with producers Jam and Lewis, also delivers plenty more big hitters like the hook-laden The Pleasure Principle, the simply gorgeous light touch of When I Think Of You and the exquisite balladry of Let’s Wait A While

Both massively successful and equally influential, Control’s triumphant cross-over success paved the way for new jack swing and the 90s R’n’B wave. With its big, pile-driving beats sharply defined, Jackon’s vocals effortlessly moving from dreamy to utterly uncompromising and a rigid, highly efficient musical aesthetic, Control is lean and taut, with grooves that act as a clarion call to the dance floor, and songs with unavoidable hooks around each corner. 

Alexander O'Neal cover

Alexander O’Neal’s Jam and Lewis produced 1985 debut album includes a classic 80s high-romance soul jam in the shape of If You Were Here Tonight. Over thirty-five years on from its release and the gentle swell of the synth chords on the pre-chorus still sound simply divine. The classic 80s synthesised soul sound on show here is often described as clinical or leaden in contrast to more ‘authentic’ rock or acoustic music. But it’s more accurately described as effective and efficient, polished and glistening; maybe the production sounds a little brash in places, overconfident perhaps, but if so it’s a confidence which is justified. This album has all the right elements in place — strong songs, high-end vocal performances from O’Neal, peerless studio playing perfectly melded with carefully programmed and sequenced elements — and stands up as a great example of 80s synth-soul. 

Fragile cover

Another high-end 80s Jam and Lewis soul album, this time from LA vocalist Cherrelle and home to the peerless original version of I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On, a song that in terms of melding machine-generated rhythms with live synth bass playing has rarely been bettered.  J&L’s technique was to lock down a drum machine rhythm, programme some synths and play all the keys and bass parts live, producing precise, exacting grooves that managed to feel organic too. Fragile is a great example of this technique and serves up electric-R’n’B head nodders, creamy-soft ballads and some slick pop moments too. The mournful 808 soul of When You Look In My Eyes does a better job of summing up the music policy of UK provincial night clubs and local radio Friday night soul shows circa 1984 than any documentary could ever do. 

Meeting In The Ladies Room cover

Klymaax’s third album serves up a single acoustic guitar/piano tear-jerker and the very pretty nostalgic Ask Me No Questions but the rest of Meeting… is all about the dance floor. Updating the sound of their previous two albums on Solar by cutting down the live instrumentation and eliminating the orchestration, Meeting… is largely characterised by Jam and Lewis-produced drum-machine Minneapolis-funk, the guitars tinny and tiny, the fabricated percussion, synth stabs and pads looming large in the mix. 

I can’t think of a song intro that better encapsulates the aesthetic of a decade than album opener The Men All Pause. First a torrent of syn-drum rolls and synth bass set the scene and then within seconds a voice is name-dropping ‘Kenneth Cole shoes’ and ‘my Gianni Versace blue leather suit’. Meeting… sits in a funky, party-friendly sweet spot between peak-80s Pointer Sisters and Control-era Janet.