Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis talk about their Minneapolis roots and Super Bowl Live dreams

Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis, Minneapolis Sound icons (Publicity photo courtesy of the artists)

Last week, it was announced that the Minneapolis Sound icons Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis will be returning to Minnesota this winter to curate 10 days of free concerts in downtown Minneapolis during the Super Bowl, providing headlining entertainment for the “Bold North” Super Bowl Live festivities taking place on Nicollet Mall from January 26 through February 4. A Prince tribute is reportedly in the works, as are appearances by Jam and Lewis associates from throughout the past several decades, including the likely participation of their most frequent collaborator, Janet Jackson.

All of this news got me thinking about the producer duo’s deep roots in the Minneapolis scene, where they got their start playing in rival North Minneapolis bands back in the 1970s. While they were making the rounds to promote their upcoming Super Bowl events, I caught up with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis by phone to ask them more about their local history, the Minneapolis-Janet connection, and what their plans are in their hometown this winter.

Andrea Swensson: Thank you so much for taking some time. I guess we should start with the big news of the day. They’ve just announced that you’re going to curating these 10 days of Super Bowl Live concerts. What made you guys say yes to doing this?

Jimmy Jam: First of all, I always told people when we left that any excuse to come back to Minnesota is a good one, so this is a perfect excuse to come back. But also we looked at it not so much as the Super Bowl, but more what an incredible opportunity, while the eyes of the world are on our state, to really celebrate the amazing legacy of Minnesota music, the people that make it. And for all of those reasons it just made a whole lot of sense. So that was our initial thought about it —how fun would it be to get involved and really be able to shape an experience, not only for visitors coming into town to learn about the great Minnesota music, but also make an experience for the local folks who, when big events come to town, a lot of times don’t have a way to participate. So what better way to bring people together than music, and what great price point to bring them together as free?

How often do you visit Minnesota these days?

Terry Lewis: During the year I visit probably 3-4 times. My family is still there – my mother and my son and my grandson and nieces, nephews, sisters. So I’m there quite often.

I’m wondering if you guys would be willing to go back in the day with me for a little bit, thinking about the Minnesota music scene and the Minneapolis Sound. I want to talk about your roots here and where you got started — Jimmy, when you were in Mind and Matter, and Terry, when you were in Flyte Tyme. How did those early days shape you, coming up in the North Minneapolis scene?

Jimmy Jam: Those were incredible times, looking back. They were the moments that Terry and I bonded over, because we were certainly friends at that point, but we were also in competing bands against each other. We formed a mutual respect and a mutual admiration, because Terry loved what I did with my band and I loved what Terry did with his band. We would go back and have those battles of the bands, you know, my band would come out on top one day, and then the next time Terry would go back and re-fortify his band and he’d come and kick our band’s ass. But we would always look at each other not as enemies, but I always looked at Terry like — I love Terry; Terry’s great. You kicked my ass, but I love him because he’s killing it, and it made us each have to do better. So those were, for us, the formative years. That period of time – the Mind and Matter and the early Flyte Tyme days — that was our bonding. That was where we actually grew to love each other from afar, so to speak, before actually being together.

Terry Lewis: And that’s pretty consistent with the whole Minneapolis music scene, as far as I remember from the North Side, because there were always rival bands, there was always musical competition, but the competition didn’t go so far as to be detrimental to development. It actually inspired development. We were rival bands. Sonny Thompson was in The Family, but Sonny Thompson was very instrumental in my development. He helped me with just understanding some musicianship principles, in terms of scales and that kind of thing, and it really helped my musical intelligence. Sonny was all over that, back when pretty much no one was. We just played. But Sonny was into scales and developing things that other people weren’t into.

Jimmy Jam: And by the way, Terry, we were all scared of The Family.

Terry Lewis: Oh yeah. Everybody.

Jimmy Jam: They were so amazing that we were all scared. And a funny thing, too, is that you talk about North Side, because I grew up on the South Side, but I ended up spending my whole teenage years on the North Side playing. Because Mind and Matter rehearsed on the North side, and we were literally right up the block from where Flyte Tyme rehearsed. We were always at The Way and those things, so I grew as a South Side kid, but my teenage years I was in the North Side. To this day people will say to me, “I know you’re from the North Side,” and in a way I guess I am. My house wasn’t there, but my life was definitely there.

I wonder if coming from different parts of the city helped to bring different musical backgrounds together. Do you feel like you were exposed to different things growing up in South Minneapolis?

Jimmy Jam: I was exposed to different things just living in Minneapolis, period. My early years of growing up, I remember listening to AM radio – KDWB, WDGY – it was all pop music. There really was no R&B music happening on the radio. When I met Terry, he was the one who turned me on to really funk music. Terry introduced me to Earth, Wind & Fire and New Birth and Tower of Power and all these bands I’d never heard of. I would go to the store to get the new Chicago album, but he was like, oh yeah, Chicago is cool, but let me turn you on to this Earth, Wind & Fire, and I was blown away by that. A lot of my musical education came through Terry, as far as the funk thing.

Terry, I wanted to ask you – you had such an eye and ear for seeking out talent really early on. In Flyte Tyme, thinking about the musicians that performed with you, you had Cynthia Johnson and Alexander O’Neal. What do you look for in an artist that you want to work with? How do you seek out people?

Terry Lewis: I don’t know if I’d necessarily call it a talent, especially at that time, because I didn’t know what that would mean. I just pick what I like, and I pick who I like, and there’s a certain innate thing that comes with a musician that I like. They’re proficient at what they do. I like show people; people who want to put on and entertain with a show. From there I guess it could go a lot of different places – how do the personalities mesh? I can get along with pretty much a wide variety of people. But it always seems that the hardest people to get along with would be singers and keyboard players.

Really?

Jimmy Jam: Thanks a lot.

Terry Lewis: And lead guitarists would fall in there, too. Lead guitarists would be second, because they have to have a certain arrogance to themselves — so fingers and lead guitar players. Keyboard players were very difficult to find back in that era – just a very difficult commodity. And so they were always solid and really good people, but they were always getting pulled from different directions because everybody wanted one in their band, and so everybody would just kind of borrow and steal from each other. But fingers and lead guitar players have the same attitude, pretty much, about music.

When did you guys first meet Janet?

Jimmy Jam: I think the first time we met her she actually came to watch The Time perform with Prince. We played at Long Beach Arena, and I remember she was sitting in the front row with her mom, and we had sort of a risqué show, I guess you could say. And it was kind of funny, the whole time we were kind of looking at her and she was gorgeous. At the end of our show – I can’t call it anything else – let’s say we grabbed ourselves at the end of our show. That was one of our antics that we did, and we kind of felt like, should we do that tonight, with Janet sitting in the front row with her mom? We still got to do our show that we do anyway. Afterwards, she came to our dressing room and we got to meet her backstage and the whole thing. She was absolutely gorgeous and couldn’t have been nicer. She talked about what a big fan of the band she was and all of that. That’s what I remember, the first time meeting her. I know we saw her one year at the American Music Awards, because we were nominated one year, but I don’t know that we ever got a chance to actually talk to her. So after The Time show in Long Beach – that was ’81, when that happened.

So how long after that did conversations start about actually working together?

Jimmy Jam: That would be probably three years later. We had kind of kept in contact with her. She was working with a producer named Leon Silvers III, who was also one of the people that mentored Terry and myself and got us studio time, and allowed us to do records with them teach us the production, to be honest. We actually got to see her in the studio and actually work with him, with Leon, so we kind of had a feeling we knew a little bit about what she would be like to work with. And then after that, probably a year later, we were asked by John McClain, who was the A&R person at A&M Records, to produce a different act on the label – a different female act. As it turned out, that female act didn’t want us to produce them, so Leon was embarrassed and said, “Who else on the roster would you like to produce?” He sent the roster and Terry and I looked at it and both came to the same name – Janet Jackson. We felt like we had great ideas for her, but also, songwriting’s all about inspiration, and there are a lot of great artists, but not all of them make you feel like you want to write a song for them, or that you could write a great song for them. Janet was one of those that we instantly thought – a million ideas came to our heads instantly. So that was it. We let him know, and a few months later she was winging her way to Minneapolis to start working on Control. So that was like ’85.

For the younger generation that maybe doesn’t get how integral being in Minneapolis was for that period of Janet’s career, can you tell me a little bit about the time she spent here? How do you feel that Minneapolis helped to shape her at that time?

Terry Lewis: I think Minneapolis represented freedom for her. It was the first time in her life that she had gone and spent time away, probably unsupervised. There were no bodyguards. There was just hang out with Jam and Lewis and create. So I think Minneapolis represented just freedom, and therefore the music felt free and she had an opportunity to just kind of find herself in all of it.

I know you probably can’t say quite yet if she’s going to be involved with what you’re working on —

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis: [giggling]

But I’m wondering if you can give us any hints for what we can expect for these ten days of Super Bowl concerts.

Terry Lewis: Well, we can give you a great hint: Minneapolis music, Minnesota music I should say – even better – Minnesota music will be what we will put on display for the world.

Jimmy Jam: [laughs knowingly]

When you think about the Minneapolis Sound, do you identify that as this particular era or particular artists, or do you see it as something more fluid? Is it still evolving today?

Jimmy Jam: For me, the Minneapolis Sound — you can sum it up with Prince. It’s obviously much more than that, and particularly when you talk about Minnesota sound, because then you got to talk about Hibbing and Bob Dylan, it’s a whole broader thing. But I think for the world, as a kind of microcosm, Prince is a great ambassador for the Minneapolis Sound. Really, sonically, that particular Prince sound was very much about synthesizers — up to that point synthesizers were used more as sound effects type things. It wasn’t used in such a musical way, as he did. And it was also about the combining of funk elements with rock guitars. To me that also speaks to the spirit of Minnesota – that melting pot of so many musical styles, from folk music to R&B to rock to jazz, really kind of a fusion of all of those things. Prince was really that, kind of in one person.

So certainly the easy answer is that the Minneapolis Sound is Prince, and that absolutely explains it in a great way, but obviously it’s much bigger than that. As you asked earlier, we really want to explore all of those things and put, as Terry said, the spotlight on all of those different musics from the different eras, and also showcase the up and coming talent, the new talent. Because Minnesota, to me – I got to say, just growing up – I grew up in the era when mom used to take me to the Children’s Theatre and the Walker Art Center, and see the Minnesota Orchestra perform, and the Guthrie Theatre. Then later on, Mixed Blood Theatre, Penumbra, you name it. St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. It’s always been such an art-centric community. And that remains today. So we really want to showcase all of those great things, and then people will come away with their own impression of what the Minneapolis Sound or the Minnesota sound is. We welcome the opportunity to shine the spotlight on that.