It’s true. Prince really did drive over to Jimmy Jam’s house and yell out his car “Can you make it funkier than this?!”
In the midst of an interview about his friend and high school classmate Prince, Jam chuckles when asked about this situation. At the time of the interview, Prince’s passing was fresh: only one day. But the memories went back decades. We talked a bit. Remembering.
“Yeah, he said something like that,” recalls Jam, laughing. “He did drive to my house. Listen, Prince was very competitive but he was also very proud of what Terry [Lewis] and I had done as producers. Prince fired us (once) and how do I feel about it? Obviously it was a life-changing experience, but it was certainly for the better. Our wings were the knowledge we learned from him. It was very pivotal,our working with him.”
To catch you up on this – especially if you weren’t at least 12 years old in the 1980s – Jimmy Jam was an original member of The Time, the group that Prince made with Morris Day as the lead singer. At the time, Prince had a whole catalogue of artists who worked with him, kind of like how Jay-Z works with Kanye, Rihanna, Beyonce and J.Cole. Jam went to high school with Prince and eventually Jam and Terry Lewis, who was also in The Time, would combine to become two of the most storied songwriters and producers in music history.
It was Prince who pushed Jimmy and Terry to initial excellence while they were members of The Time. Remember how Jimmy would pull out a handkerchief and mop his brow while playing the keyboard, dancing and singing? That whole interchange came about because Prince was acting like somebody’s existential daddy. He didn’t tell people what to do; he led them down the path to self-realization.
Here’s the story:
“The one thing I took from Prince was really his work ethic. He outworked everybody. We were doing 777-9311, and we were rehearsing it and Prince was watching our rehearsal and we finished the song and he always called me Jimmy Jam even though others called me Jimmy. And he said, ‘Jimmy Jam, what are you doing with your left hand? And what that meant was I was playing the keyboard with my right hand and not my left hand. So he told me to play with the left hand, then he says ‘Jimmy Jam, what note are you singing on the hook?’ I said I’m not singing the hook, it’s a three-part harmony. So he said, ‘Make it a four-part harmony.’ So I made it a four-part harmony and sang it.
The next day, he said, ‘How are you doing the choreography Jimmy Jam?’ And I said, ‘I’m not.’ Next day I walk into practice for 777-9311 and not only am I singing, playing with both hands and hitting that choreography, but I’ve even worked in the handkerchief out of my pocket, patting my face and putting it back in. He saw greater things in me than I saw for myself. He said ‘you’re gonna play the part, add a note and do the choreography.’ He could also see it in you and instill it in you and make you a better performer. Oh, he was the boss.”
Prince’s work ethic had him running The Time and Vanity 6 to perfection and then going home to write his own music. And rewrite. And tweak it.
“He would come to our practice for four hours and work us, then go to his own practice for four hours and work them,” says Jam. “Then he’d walk back into our practice with a cassette and put it in. ‘Lady Cabdriver’ and ‘1999.’ It could be any of his great songs. He just did it overnight when he wasn’t rehearsing…”
Adds Jam: “He was the most talented one in the room and when you already have all the talent in the world and [he] outworks you? That’s how the Jordans become Jordan.”
Prince also has new music that will soon be released, Jam says.
“He really was the soundtrack to many people’s lives and I think the impact is still new, it’s still fresh,” reveals the producer, who also hails from Minneapolis. “He also has a lot of songs that were unreleased in his vault that I’m sure will see the light of day; that will show another picture of his greatness. Hopefully you get a chance to hear all the great music that he still has in store for us.”
Adrienne Samuels Gibbs is a Chicago-based writer. Follow her @adriennewrites