Key Tracks: Jimmy Jam on The S.O.S. Band’s Just the Way You Like It

The celebrated producer remembers the sessions for the album that revitalized the R&B group’s career.

By the mid-’80s, The S.O.S. Band had solidified its position as one of the elite acts in R&B music. After delivering a breakthrough hit record, “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” on their 1980 debut album, S.O.S., the group failed to capitalize on their success with their next two offerings, Too (1981) and III (1982). But during the making of III, the group recorded a noteworthy song, “High Hopes” produced by a burgeoning production duo, James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis.

Their relationship would strengthen and Jam & Lewis would construct three songs for their next album, On the Rise, and two of those songs “Tell Me If You Still Care” and “Just Be Good to Me” placed the group back atop the Billboard Music charts. As a result, Jam & Lewis contributed four more songs on their next album. In the late summer of 1984, Just the Way You Like It was released by Tabu Records, and spawned three hit singles: “No One’s Gonna Love You,” “Weekend Girl,” and “Just the Way You Like It.” Late last year, we spoke with James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III about the album’s construction.

Tabu Records was Clarence Avant’s record label that S.O.S. Band was signed to. How did you become involved with Avant prior to working with the S.O.S. Band?

Well, we were introduced to Clarence by Dina Andrews. Dina Andrews worked at SOLAR Records. The summer that Terry and I came to Los Angeles to write and produce songs, which was the summer of 1982, we met Dina, and we became good friends with her. Dina agreed to help us get demo tapes to people. She was very helpful in that regard. She had connections within her own company, SOLAR Records, which was part of the reason why we started working with Klymaxx back then. She introduced us to Dick Griffey.

He said, “Yeah. I know you guys didn’t produce it, but what would’ve been different about it, if you had produced it?” We told him, “We would’ve put the chili sauce on it.”

We actually met Leon Sylvers back then at a celebrity basketball game. He worked at the same studio we used to work at called Studio Masters out in Los Angeles. One of the songs on our demo tape was entitled “High Hopes,” and Leon heard the song and loved it. He said to us, “I want to use this song for the S.O.S. Band’s album.” I remember our thinking at the time that this was weird because Terry sang the demo and we said to him, “Is Mary Davis going to sing that?” He responded, “No. One of the guys in the group is going to sing it. I’m going to give it to Abdul Ra’oof.” We were like, “OK. Cool.” So, we didn’t have anything to do with the record other than writing it. Leon basically produced the track and did everything. I remember when he came back to LA, and he played it for us. I thought it sounded great. It sounded like a Leon Sylvers record; it was very polished and the vocals were immaculate, as his vocals always were. I thought he did a great job with the record.

The record, back in the day, turned into what was called a “turntable hit.” It meant that radio programmers loved it and played it a lot, but it didn’t necessarily sell that well, and it didn’t really ignite the S.O.S. Band, who at that time, were on their third album. But what happened was Clarence Avant loved the “High Hopes” record. He started asking around about who did the song and people told him it was these guys from Minneapolis named Jimmy and Terry, and he said, “I want to have a meeting with them.”

The S.O.S. Band - High Hopes

So – Dina Andrews set up the meeting, and we all went to Clarence’s office. I remember the first thing he said to Terry and I was, “You guys are dressed like thugs.” He said that because we had hats and suits on. He always used to call us “the two thugs.” [laughs] Clarence was very straight to the point, though. He said, “This record that you have called "High Hopes” is a good record. Would you like to work on the next S.O.S. Band record?” We replied, “Yes. We would love to, but you know that we wrote the song and didn’t produce it.” He said, “Yeah. I know you guys didn’t produce it, but what would’ve been different about it, if you had produced it?” We told him, “We would’ve put the chili sauce on it.” He asked, “The chili sauce? What does that mean?” We said, “We have the demo of the song. Do you want to hear it?” He responded, “Yeah.”

So, we put the demo in and the demo of the song was rawer, because it wasn’t well produced. We did it on a four track recorder in the bedroom of the house we were living in. Terry was playing the bass and it wasn’t precise; it was just real funky. So, when Clarence listened to it, he started laughing. He said, “OK. Yeah. I hear it – the chili sauce – yeah, I got it.” He thought it was hilarious. He said, “I’m waiting for this guy to call me back. If he doesn’t call me back by two o’clock, then you guys got the job. You’re going to produce some songs for S.O.S. Band’s next album.” We said, “OK. Great.” This was how we started working on our first album with them.

Being in The Time, we were under the influence of Prince a whole lot, so we understood the idea of how to approach a band and have influence.

When we started walking out of his office, he asked, “Who was that girl who was in here? Is she your manager?” I replied, “Her name is Dina Andrews. She is helping us out to do some stuff.” He said, “About your fee.” We responded, “Clarence, we can lower our fee, man, if that’s a bother to you, because we really want to do the project.” We were just starting out. We were obviously in The Time, but as producers we were totally unknown. And Clarence said, “No. No. No. Your fee is too low. She isn’t asking for enough money for you guys. Here’s what I’m going to pay you. This is what I think is fair, so this is what I’m going to pay you.” This was our first meeting with Clarence Avant. It was very enlightening because to have someone say this is what is fair; I’m going to pay you more than what you’re asking for was an education for us right there. It was also insight to why he is who he is, and why we’ve maintained a relationship with him over all these years.

You and Terry Lewis produced some hit records for the group’s On the Rise album from 1983. Coming off that successful album and going into the making of the Just the Way You Like It album, what was the mindset of the band at that time and your relationship with them?

I think our relationship was really good. Part of it was we were in a band. We were coming from The Time. We understood the band dynamic. Being in The Time, we were under the influence of Prince a whole lot, so we understood the idea of how to approach a band and have influence. You didn’t want to be a dictator, but you had your way of how you wanted to do things. First of all, the musicians in the band were amazing. It made things really easy. I think the fact we had the success before they even knew us indirectly, because we wrote “High Hopes,” and then working with us, they were very pleased with the results there.

The S.O.S. Band - Just The Way You Like It

After the successes of the singles from the group’s On the Rise album, did Clarence Avant or the group want you and Terry Lewis to duplicate the sound on those records for this particular album?

I think there was kind of an expectation that, if we had success the first time, we would certainly be interested in working with them again. Clarence never really gave us a direction to what he wanted. Clarence really stayed out of the creative part of it. We’ve always thought that Clarence spoiled us. He did tell us that the record company at that time, which was CBS Records, and his label was under the Epic [Records] side of CBS Records that there was some direction from them. They wanted a song similar to “Just Be Good to Me.” As a producer you have to wear a few different hats, but as a creative person, I don’t like being told to do that, because I feel like let’s see what’s going to happen organically.

Without any record company prompting, Terry and I would’ve came up with Just the Way You Like It anyway because that was the S.O.S. sound and there was nothing wrong with the way “Just Be Good to Me” sounded, and if I was a fan, I would want to hear the same sonics and ideas. We weren’t opposed to that at all. It was important to be consistent in a sound. We didn’t have a problem with it, and the band didn’t either. As a matter of fact, when we went down to Atlanta to start working on the record, they were like, “OK. We know you guys have another one of those hit records.” [laughs] It’s funny because, musically, we did have another one.

I remember before we even went down there, I put a track idea together of what I wanted it to be, but I wanted those guys to play on it. I didn’t have any clue what it would be lyrically. When we were down there working, we had the track, and the group loved the way it sounded. They asked us, “What is it called?” We said, “We don’t know, yet. We know what the melody is, but we don’t have a title.”

We were sitting down in front of the main door to the Waffle House and above it there was a sign that said, “Hot coffee served just the way you like it.” I remember looking at that sign and telling Terry, “I got it.”

Everywhere down in the South there are Waffle House restaurants. We always used to go to Waffle House because, being from Minnesota, Terry and I didn’t get to experience a lot of grits and eggs - that kind of eating. We loved Waffle House. We couldn’t wait to go there because they were open 24 hours, and we would go there after we’d leave the studio early in the morning. I remember we walked in there one night, and we were grabbing a bite to eat and sitting there talking. We were feeling good about the records we were doing, but we couldn’t figure out what the concept of this one song was going to be. We were sitting down in front of the main door to the Waffle House and above it there was a sign that said, “Hot coffee served just the way you like it.” I remember looking at that sign and telling Terry, “I got it.” So, the Waffle House gets the credit for inspiring that track. 

The S.O.S. Band - No One`s Gonna Love You

Can you discuss your studio interactions with the band members during the recording of this album?

I thought they were killer musicians. I ended up doing a lot of the keyboard stuff just because I knew what the parts were, but Jason Bryant, who was the keyboard player, had a gospel influence to the way he played, which I thought was very cool and something that I didn’t have. One of the cool things if you listen to the records we did with them, is that there is an organ in the background of a lot of the stuff, in particular with “Tell Me If You Still Care” and “Weekend Girl,” too. He had this big [Hammond] B3 organ, and it wasn’t our first thought to put a B3 organ on the songs, but the way he played added a haunting tone to the records. He is still one of the best B3 organ players. (This is coming from someone who has worked with Big Jim Wright.)

I’ve been around many good B3 players, but it was something about Jason’s playing technique and his technique of changing the Drawbars on the organ to make the chords sound a little different than they should sound. I absolutely loved Jason as a musician. The other musician that blew me away in that group was the guitar player, Bruno Speight. On one of the records, he came up with so many great parts, but we had to cut some of them from the record and decided to use them for other records. I mean, literally, you could turn the tape on and he would come up with these little lines and they would be simple, but they would be effective.

If you were to create a blueprint of what a mid-tempo record should sound like, that would be it.

We didn’t use any of the horn section. They had a different bass player from the first time we played with them to the second time, but a lot of the bass was done on keyboard, so we didn’t use the bass player a whole lot, although I remember he did the solo on “Just Be Good to Me.” The other bonus was we didn’t know that Abdul Ra’oof was such a great singer and that led us to doing “Tell Me If You Still Care” from On the Rise and “Weekend Girl” from Just the Way You Like It, because we thought he and Mary [Davis] together made a great duet team. And coming from working with Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal, we loved the idea of putting men and women together as duet partners. Creatively, there was a lot to work with. We worked out of Master Sound Studios for this record. We recorded “Break Up” at Creation Audio Studios in Minneapolis. The other three songs we recorded in Atlanta at Master Sound Studios. Mary came to Minneapolis alone to record her vocal parts for “Break Up.”

The S.O.S. Band - Break Up

What was your and Terry Lewis approach in crafting new songs for this album?

Initially, we took the blueprint from the very first S.O.S. Band record that we heard which was “Take Your Time (Do It Right).” In that song, it was funky but quirky. It was very sophisticated, and I remember it had the glockenspiel in it. I always loved that combination of instrumentation. One of the things we’ve prided ourselves on, particularly with a group that’s been established, is to make them sound like themselves. That was our approach. We didn’t want them to sound like Jam & Lewis; we wanted to give them their own sound and help them rediscover it. If you listen to “Just Be Good to Me” with the bells and repetitive chorus, the same thing occurred in “Take Your Time (Do It Right).” It had a distinctive bassline and “Just Be Good to Me” had the same thing. Those were the kind of cues we took when crafting the songs and the way the production sounded.

It’s funny, the other day my son was listening to ASAP Rocky, and I said to him, “You know that’s my song, right?” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “The little bassline in that record is from the S.O.S. Band.”

As I talked about earlier, we added Jason’s gospel organ influence and a little bit of Minneapolis funk due to the fact I did a lot of basslines and that kind of stuff, and the Roland TR-808 drum sound, which became pivotal to their sound. I think the mindset going into this album was to sonically keep those cues intact, because those were S.O.S. Band cues as far as we were concerned and then build songs around that. For me, “No One’s Gonna Love You” is my favorite record on the album, and my favorite S.O.S. Band song. There is just something about the balance of it. If you were to create a blueprint of what a mid-tempo record should sound like, that would be it. It also had a big influence on the United Kingdom’s soul sound. If you listen to 52nd Street or Loose Ends, you can hear it. The songs on this album have been sampled by hip-hop artists.

It’s funny, the other day my son was listening to ASAP Rocky, and I said to him, “You know that’s my song, right?” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “The little bassline in that record is from the S.O.S. Band.” He replied, “No. I didn’t know that.” My kids are always trying to turn me on to new stuff, and they think I don’t know anything. They were trying to turn me on to ASAP Rocky, and I had to tell them I cleared the sample for him to use in the record six months earlier.

The S.O.S. Band - Tell Me If You Still Care

As far as the members within the group, who came up with most of the creative ideas in regards to melodies and arrangements?

They were all involved in collaborating on the records. Abdul Ra’oof was the main person to me, but also Jason. By the way, we used to call Jason “Pimp Daddy” because he always dressed to the nines. He would always be clean and have his big pimp hat on. That’s why we called him “Pimp Daddy.” Besides being a great B3 player, he was a really good vocal arranger. He worked on a lot of the vocal arrangements for those songs.

It was really all of them who came up with the creative ideas. Most of the time, Terry and I would stay out of it when they were doing their creative thing. I wouldn’t say there was necessarily one leader, but if I had to choose one, it would be Abdul Ra’oof because he seemed to be the one to combine other group members’ ideas. He had a very cool, calm demeanor, and he was the one in the group to get everyone on the same page. That’s not to undersell Mary’s influence, either. If Mary didn’t like something, it wasn’t going to happen. [laughs] She had to approve it.

Earlier you mentioned the usage of the Roland TR-808 drum machine, what were some of the other instruments and equipment you used in constructing the songs on this album?

The main one for me was the Oberheim OB-8 keyboard; it was my go-to keyboard. When I listen to the records from the album like “No One’s Gonna Love You,” the Chord pad and the bassline is from the OB-8. I used the Yamaha DX7 on the opening of the record. Seventy-five percent of the keyboards on there were coming from the OB-8. On “Just the Way You Like It,” it was the same idea. We also used an ARP Omni, which was a string machine. Both of those instruments we used when we were in the Time in totally different ways. We used a Hammond B3 organ, guitar, a glockenspiel, and bass. One of the things we did, which was a tradition for us, is we would always do ping and zing tracks. And what the ping and zing tracks would be is we would always have live percussion, particularly, if we did something on a drum machine to still give it a live feel even with a drum machine. We would overdub cymbals a lot of times and then we would put on wind chimes and sometimes a vibraslap.

The S.O.S. Band - Weekend Girl

Can you delve into the making of “Weekend Girl”?

“Weekend Girl” came from a conversation about the life you live in a band versus the lives that people have in being away from each other and having to work every day at a nine to five job. And how you could see somebody on the weekend, but you can’t really see them during weekdays because of the way your days are laid out. I remember that we were going for the same type of “Tell Me If You Still Care” feel. I think Terry did background vocals for this one. We used to call him “Mr. Background.” It was one of the nicknames we had for him. [laughs] Because rather than showing someone how to do the background vocals, he would do it himself.

As you look back 30 years later at the fact the songs from this album have been sampled so heavily, how do you feel about its impact on popular culture as a whole?

It’s tough to say that it’s been underappreciated, but it probably has been a little bit, which is not by any means a problem of any sort. I think, and not to sound too full of myself, but I believe “Hanging on a String” by Loose Ends doesn’t happen without the influence of “No One’s Gonna Love You.” Maybe the song happens, but the 808 drum pattern idea, does that even happen? And if it doesn’t happen, do we know who Loose Ends are? I love Loose Ends. I’m a big fan of theirs and their records. I love Carl McIntosh and those guys. “No One’s Gonna Love You” was a direct influence on them, which was then a direct influence on 52nd Street and a lot of the soul records that were coming out of the UK at that time. If you take just that one song, then yes, the album was influential. The 808 drums being used in R&B music and hip-hop music was a major influence on all the records that are out today. To me, Just the Way You Like It stands up to anything we’ve done in our careers.

By Chris Williams on January 11, 2015

On a different note