Today, I'm all about Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis:
The SOS Band, Borrowed Love. Arguably, The SOS Band was the purest vehicle for the "Flyte Tyme" sound developed by Jam and Lewis, not even so much a "sound" as a whole set of atmospherics, layered synths on top of driving, percolating beats. SOS Band had already enjoyed success with Take Your Time (Do It Right), but the three albums concocted with Jam and Lewis set a new standard, especially on the expansive side ones of each one, the first which featured Just The Way You Like It, and the second, Sands of Time, which featured Borrowed Love. Borrowed Love percolates sharply, whie reveling in the jazzy, slightly mournful lyric sung by Mary Davis, one of the great, undersung lead singers in modern R&B. This song, and much of the Flyte Tyme collaborations came to define "Quiet Storm" radio in the mid to late eighties, a late night jam of torchy ballads, smooth jazz, and acts like SOS Band and Loos Ends who kind of defied easy descriptions. Also, Borrowed Love shows the Flyte Tyme magic with a particular sub genre of Other Woman songs, the Love on the Side story.
Janet Jackson, Love Will Never Do Without You. Jackson's whole rebirth as an eighties pop icon is all about Jam and Lewis, who produced the 4 pivotal albums that define the backbone of her hits (Design of a Decade wraps the story up in a bow). Jackson, of course, ebenfitted mightily from their carefully controlled approach to sound production, and they make some of the best use of what might otherwise be dismissed as a thin, breathy approach to singing, making her into a latter day Diana Ross. The kitchen sink, extended length (in the album version) opus of Love Will Never Do is a big case in point: layered synths, layered vocals, and a propulsive rhythm track tend to mask the almost childlike vocals from Janet, giving the song an almost unearned maturity and depth. But it really, really works.
Herb Alpert, Keep Your Eye On Me. Jam and Lewis were so succesful at turning Jackson into a star for A&M records that it really did seem natural that the label's founder, Alpert (the "A" in A&M), would collaborate with them on a career reviving album. Alpert's role as a sixties star trumpeter who captured pop success was ancient history, but the jazzy revisionist approach to his classic sound was beyond refreshing; it was audacious and daring. Who knew he had it in him? And who, at that point, knew Jam and Lewis were that capable of an artistic leap?
Human League, Human. Turning the top English synth act of the eighties into the next SOS Band may seem easy and derivative, but the collaboration did work wonders for both sides: The League never had quite such an accessible hit, and the track is simply, sheerly gorgeous. The cascading synths of the open, the plaintive lyric (yet another "sorry for my love on the side" message), are indeed a compelling mix of man and machine. Just because it looks easy, doesn't make it so.
Cherrelle, Affair. Cherrelle's career was also built on Jam and Lewis and their effective presentation of Cherrelle as a lusty woman willing to cheat ("Saturday Love", "Everything I MIss At Home", "You Look Good To Me", just for starters). Affair's forthright lyrics - "I don't need commitment, I don't need a man to tell me how to feel" - spoke to a frankness in the sexuality of independent urban women that was impossible to deny.
Johnny Gill, Rub You The Right Way. I was reminded of the primacy of Jam and Lewis and their work when this track showed up on my Sirius XM "Nineties on Nine" station ("Eighties on Eight" is also pretty awesome). Gill never was the biggest R&B star, but this track is a showstopper, from its explosive opening (a shouted "Pump Up the Bass!" followed by a signature Jam/Lewis zig zag of synths) to its sexy close ("your every wish is my command"). Your average song about a sexy massage would seem pretty silly. Not this one.
Boyz II Men, 4 Seasons of Loneliness. Any of a number of their ballads would make the point, but I like the old fashioned, even gimmicky appraoch to a "4 seasons" song, subverted by BIIM's jazzy inventiveness in layered harmonies, and the Flyte Tyme magic in a sound curtain. The instrumentation is barely noticeable; it's the singing that really does the work, but even that is treated as a multilayered instrument in the Jam/Lewis mix, which gently softens what could be an overwrought lyric - "This loneliness has crushed my heart" - into a gentle, plaintive testament to love and loss.