by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
In a strange way, getting fired may have actually been the best thing to ever happen to James Harris III (or Jimmy Jam, as he’s more commonly known) and Terry Lewis. The former members of the legendary Minneapolis funk group The Time were dismissed from the band by Prince after a blizzard trapped the pair in Atlanta while they were producing a record for the disco group The S.O.S. Band (of “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” fame) and prevented the pair from making it to their own concert on time. The incident inspired the duo to get more serious about their occasional dalliances into production and make a full-time career of it, and it ended up being perhaps the smartest decision either man ever made. Soon, Jam and Lewis found themselves in high demand writing and producing hits for some of R&B’s greatest talents of the late ‘80s, including Alexander O’Neal (“Fake”), Cherrelle (“Saturday Love”), and the Force M.D.’s (“Tender Love.”) That was nothing compared to what happened next: Janet Jackson, a huge Time fan, approached the pair about producing and co-writing her third album. The resulting disc, Control, made Janet Jackson a household name, ultimately selling ten million copies and yielding six Top Twenty hits, five of them Top Five hits. [Impressively, the album’s lone Number One hit, “When I Think of You,” was in the Top Five simultaneously with Robert Palmer’s “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On,” itself a cover of an R&B hit that Jam and Lewis had written and produced for Cherrelle.]
Though the pair would eventually branch out into pop as well, teaming up with such unlikely collaborators as George Michael (producing the single version of his Number One hit “Monkey”) and The Human League (whose second chart-topper, the ballad “Human,” was written and produced by Jam and Lewis), no one was a more unexpected addition to the pair’s resume of clients than a trumpet player best known for fronting the ‘60s instrumental group The Tijuana Brass. [Though their music is sadly very seldom heard on FM radio today, the Herb Alpert-led band was nonetheless a commercial powerhouse in their time, regularly competing with such heavyweights as The Beatles, the Supremes, and the Monkees for pole position on the album charts, Herb and his band scoring five Number One albums that sat at the top of the survey for a combined total of twenty-six weeks, while the group also amassed a total of fourteen Top 40 singles, the biggest being their chart-topping version of the Bacharach/David standard “This Guy’s in Love with You,” a rare vocal outing by Alpert.]
But, in fact, Alpert was already very much in the duo’s orbit via his role as the founder and co-owner of the legendary imprint A&M Records, home to both Janet Jackson and the Human League (as well as countless other ‘80s superstars from Sting to Bryan Adams). As a recording artist, however, Alpert wasn’t exactly red hot at the time, having just reached the Top 40 on three occasions since topping the charts with “This Guy’s in Love with You” nearly twenty years earlier. With the help of his nephew Randy, Alpert scored a very unlikely comeback hit in 1979 with the chart-topping disco-tinged instrumental, “Rise” (later sampled prominently in the Notorious B.I.G.’s Number One hit “Hypnotize”) and would return to the Top 40 as a solo artist with two more instrumentals: the incredibly hypnotic and chill-inducing follow-up single to “Rise,” entitled “Rotation,” and the 1982 feel-good single “Route 101,” a longtime favorite of Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon (who’s raved about the track on his show) and the standout track on the well-received Fandango, which found Alpert returning to the heavily Latin-and-mariachi-influenced sound of the earliest Tijuana Brass albums to delightful artistic results. But the hits would dry up again after Fandango, and Alpert was savvy enough to tap Jam and Lewis for 1987’s Keep Your Eye on Me – neatly divided into one side of uptempo cuts and another side of ballads – to try and help him reverse his downward commercial slide.
The choice of the album’s nearly-instrumental title cut as the lead-off single was a stroke of genius; though it missed the Top 40, it didn’t miss by much – it stopped at #46 – and its raw, sparse arrangement nonetheless had something for everyone. The synthesized funk beats – an even funkier variation on the rhythm track Jam and Lewis had concocted for Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately” – guaranteed that the cut would get heavy club play and introduce Alpert to a whole new generation of listeners, while the song’s simple trumpet melody and the marimbas in the track’s bridge were a throwback to Herb’s days in the Tijuana Brass, making it a fun listen for older fans who had first been introduced to Alpert through cuts like “The Lonely Bull” and “A Taste of Honey.”
The album’s second single, in contrast, jettisoned Herb’s usual sound almost completely in favor of a more contemporary urban-R&B vibe, to the extent that you might not even recognize the cut as a Herb Alpert song at all if not for the occasional trumpet fill. But both the song and its production were among Jam and Lewis’ very best, and the pair had the savvy to recruit their most famous client, Janet Jackson, to sing lead vocals on the cut alongside newcomer Lisa Keith. (Jackson and Keith sing in unison throughout the cut and, as Jam and Lewis have pointed out in interviews, are technically mixed equally high in the mix, but because Jackson’s voice is the more familiar, she deceptively seems to drown out Keith.) The cameo from “Miss Nasty” is an inspired one, as Janet’s feisty delivery fits perfectly with the song’s cynical lyric (highlighted by the brilliant line “You gave me some candy / It melted / Nice try”), and the infectious and incredibly funky cut deservedly returned Alpert to the Top Ten for the first time since “Rise” – and would even top the R&B charts, a first for the legendary trumpeter! [Though the song sadly rarely ever pops up on the radio these days and has become something of an obscurity, Janet delightfully included the song on her 2009 best-of package Number Ones and performed it regularly on that disc’s accompanying promotional tour.]
Even more overlooked than “Diamonds” is the fact that Alpert actually scored a second Top 40 hit from this album. Like “Diamonds,” “Making Love in the Rain” featured a guest appearance from Jackson, though Janet’s role here is mostly limited to sharing lead vocals on the choruses, Lisa Keith taking center stage on the song’s verses. Though much lesser-known than the single that preceded it, “Making Love in the Rain” is one of the most wildly underrated singles in the entire Alpert catalog. Though Alpert is once again limited to supplying fills rather than lead lines, his muted trumpet here provides the perfect atmosphere for this very slow and incredibly sultry cut. Jam and Lewis work wonders here in crafting a sensual number that lyrically stays well within the lines of good taste yet still manages through its stark rhythm track and the shimmering trumpet and synth fills that pepper the arrangement to be subtly sexier than just about anything the pair ever produced for any of Janet’s own and far more lyrically frank albums.
The last of the three vocal cuts included on the disc, “Pillow,” another Jam/Lewis-penned slow jam and a rare duet between Alpert and his longtime wife, former Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 vocalist Lani Hall, is a bit more playful and not quite as downright steamy as “Making Love in the Rain” but is no less appealing, and it’s great fun to hear the couple sing together. But Alpert’s savvy enough to realize that not all his longtime fans are likely to respond equally well to his excursions into R&B here, so he’s also included a generous helping of his trademark instrumentals to highlight his trumpet chops, and cuts like the breathtakingly pretty “Our Song” would fit in almost effortlessly on virtually any of his prior solo platters. He also closes the disc with a fine cover of one of the most famous instrumentals of the ‘60s, “Stranger on the Shore,” an American Number One hit in 1962 for British clarinet player Mr. Acker Bilk.
With all this success, you might expect Alpert to bring back Jam and Lewis for the follow-up and attempt to repeat the pop and R&B crossover success of “Diamonds,” but the trumpeter, seemingly now content with his legacy on the pop charts, instead gracefully opted to delve back into his Latin-jazz instrumental sound of old on 1988’s Under a Spanish Moon and has largely stayed within jazz-pop territory in subsequent years. (1991’s Midnight Sun even features an instrumental duet between Herb and the legendary Stan Getz on the Alpert original “Friends.”) But the association with Jam and Lewis would continue in other ways: the pair would recruit their boss to play trumpet on “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” and “Someday Is Tonight” on Janet Jackson’s next album, Rhythm Nation 1814, and in 1991, Alpert would give the pair their own A&M subsidiary, Perspective Records, which would sign and score hits with the likes of Mint Condition, Lo-Key?, and Keep Your Eye on Me vocalist Lisa Keith, who’d at last have a hit to call all her own in 1993 with the lovely “Better Than You,” which she penned with frequent Amy Grant co-writer Keith Thomas.