Would Twin Cities super producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis fade gracefully into retirement?
They had talked about hanging up their hats before the end of the century and chasing after golf balls and kids. Last year, their luck seemed to be running out, as collaborations with the Spice Girls, Shaggy and British stars Cleopatra fizzled.
Then along came "the Franchise" -- their pet name for longtime partner Janet Jackson -- once again.
In September, her single "Doesn't Really Matter" -- produced and written by Jam and Lewis -- reached No. 1. They were again nominated for a Grammy as producers of the year, the music business equivalent of being named all-pro. They produced Sting's Oscar-nominated song from the film "The Emperor's New Groove."
Now their latest Jackson hit, "All for You," has set an industry record: It was the first single to be added in its first week to 100 percent of the pop, R&B and rhythm radio stations reporting to Radio & Records, a trade publication. And it's been at No. 1 for the past four weeks.
More significantly, it puts the Twin Cities producers in extraordinary company: Having produced 15 No. 1 singles on Billboard's pop chart, they rank third on the all-time list, chasing after the guys who worked with Elvis Presley (Steve Sholes with 16) and the Beatles (George Martin with 23).
Thanks largely to Jackson -- who accounts for 10 of those hits -- the Flyte Tyme production team has landed at the top in the 1980s, '90s and '00s. Such continued success by producers is rare in pop music.
How have Jam and Lewis, who this year celebrate their 20th anniversary as producers, managed to stay in the game? They balance art and business, draw from a broad palette of musical sounds and, as Jackson puts it, "there are no egos involved." In short, they have the ears, instincts and attitude for musical success.
Fedoras, sunglasses and sharp suits are Jam and Lewis' signature, but they have no signature sound. Their approach is to tailor tunes for each artist. Patti LaBelle's big Diane Warren ballads don't feel anything like Jackson's steamy bedroom ballads. They can do minimalist jazz with Sting or pop polka with Jordan Knight.
As with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, how these songwriters/producers collaborate is a bit of a mystery. On Jackson's new CD, "All for You," Jam did the bulk of the work. Lewis' principal contribution was writing about 10 percent of the lyrics.
Typically, they work separately and then critique each other's efforts. On a recent night at their Flyte Tyme Studios in Edina, Lewis worked with a staff drum programmer on a track for Latin pop star Enrique Iglesias while, in another studio, Jam dealt with guitar parts for a tune by soul balladeer Luther Vandross.
No matter who does what, it's a true partnership. Jam and Lewis always share the credit -- and the profits.
Yin and yang
Fast friends since meeting at an Outward Bound program in junior high, James Harris III and Terry Lewis are as different as Kevin Garnett and Terrell Brandon of the producers' beloved Timberwolves. Jam is outgoing and tends to speak in endless paragraphs. Lewis is introverted and speaks in concise sentences. (Not surprisingly, he's the lyrics specialist.)
Last weekend at a gala party at Flyte Tyme to preview Jackson's new album, Jam chatted up the British-accented bigshots from Virgin Records while Lewis hung with his daughter Ashley, 8, and homies like Next's R.L., who wanted advice about his forthcoming trip to Africa.
Lewis, 43, who is twice-divorced with three children (ages 8 to 20), tends to be straight-faced and philosophical, doling out advice like a soft-spoken minister. Jam, 41, who is married with three children (ages 1 to 4), tends to be smiley and emotional, the bespectacled teddy bear who is everybody's big brother.
In the studio, Lewis is likely to have an NBA game on the TV while he works. Jam often can be found plowing through trade publications or surfing the Internet to hear the latest hits from overseas or to read what fans are saying about Jackson.
Both are practical enough to acknowledge that luck has been a major factor in their sterling stretch of hits. They try to create gold dust in the studio, they say, but it's up to the record labels -- and the public -- to turn it into magic.
Even though Virgin Records reportedly shipped 2 million copies of Jackson's "All for You" to stores last week, Jam is not certain the album is going to be successful.
"We did what we do," he said, "and then it's out of our hands."
In 1998, they made their most ambitious -- and arguably their best -- album, the soundtrack to the Angela Bassett-Whoopi Goldberg romantic comedy, "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." Recorded in three countries with such stars as Stevie Wonder, Wyclef Jean, Big Pun, Shaggy and, of course, Jackson, the CD had blockbuster written all over it.
It went gold (500,000 sold) but not platinum (1 million). Jam blames it on a management change at MCA Records; the label didn't have a committed marketing campaign for the project, he said.
Last year, Jam and Lewis produced the first single from Shaggy's "Hotshot" CD. "Dance & Shout," built around a Michael Jackson sample, scored big in the clubs but not on the radio. It was the success of two non-Flyte Tyme tracks ("It Wasn't Me" and "Angel") that made Shaggy's album a 5-million-selling hit.
Busier than ever
You can't win 'em all. But this year Jam and Lewis have booked more races than ever.
They are putting the finishing touches on the soundtrack to Mariah Carey's first movie, "Glitter," due in theaters around Labor Day. They have done five tunes with R&B heartthrob Usher and seven diverse tracks (from doo-wop to Asian to hip-hop) for a new album by Knight, formerly of New Kids on the Block. Also in the works are sessions with Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Deborah Cox, Pink and Faith Evans.
And there's Morrison Slick, the first act signed by Jam and Lewis to their new imprint, Flyte Tyme Records. In August, they finalized a three-year contract with Arista Records for the new label. After inking a similar deal in '96 with Universal/MCA, they indicated that they might retire when that arrangement ended.
They spoke too soon.
Jam says he's having "too much fun" to retire, although he's tired of banging heads with label executives about promotional campaigns. He likes to teach the tools of the trade to newcomers, so he's running for vice chairman of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the organization that administers the Grammys.
Lewis says he won't retire as long as he's motivated."With the artists we have this year, I'm motivated," he said.
Working in different genres is one key. They've spanned the spectrum from gospel (Yolanda Adams) and country (newcomer Rissi Palmer) to jazz (Sting) and pop (Carey). They recently climbed to the top of the Japanese pop charts with Hikaru Utada, whose album sold 4 million copies in two weeks.
Still, it's Jackson -- whose Flyte Time-produced albums have sold more than 40 million copies -- who is the Franchise. Can she conceive of making an album without Jam and Lewis?
"I could, but I don't want to at this point of my life," she said. "It's not that I feel I need them; I want them."
Even if Jam left the studio behind to devote his time to golf and his wife and kids, he says he would -- without hesitation -- come out of retirement to produce a Jackson recording.
"It's the highest high," he said.