Jimmy Jam on Ralph Tresvant, Johnny Gill and Reinventing New Edition [INTERVIEW]
The New Edition Story mini-series begins tomorrow (Jan 24) at 9pm EST on BET, and music fans have been buzzing about the highly-anticipated television event. A big part of N.E.'s story is the legendary producers they worked with throughout their career; and Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds handled the film's music production, echoing the work they did for New Edition at various points in the collective's history.
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis became involved in New Edition's career after the dramatic departure of Bobby Brown; and with the addition of Johnny Gill, Jam & Lewis were faced with the task of turning these boys into men, musically.
"'If It Isn't Love' was kind of borrowed from everything they had done up until that point sonically--with 'Candy Girl,' 'Count Me Out' and all of those types of songs," Jam explains. "But then obviously we needed that next step, a familiar sound but a new sound. So 'Not My Kind of Girl' was the second single and the idea with that song was to bring Johnny’s voice into it a little bit. But also give them something that they could dance to because Brooke [Payne] was on me about the choreography."
Johnny's voice gave New Edition a more "adult" singer to counter Ralph Tresvant's youthful tenor, and Jam and Lewis took full advantage of the new vocal dynamic within the group.
"'Can You Stand The Rain' was the one where it was basically Johnny and Ralph on the leads together," Jam recalls. "And then the final thing would have to be the actual song 'Boys To Men'--which actually Johnny sang. But Johnny didn’t like the song when he heard it, and didn’t really want to sing it. He felt like ‘Why are you guys giving me this wack song?’ and whatever. And of course now it’s one of the staples of their shows and the name of another group, and so on and so forth. But that’s the evolution of how that all happened."
However, as seamless as the process sounds now, the addition of Johnny Gill didn't sit well with everyone at first.
"We had to get everybody on the same page," Jam felt. "Because all the guys didn’t buy into Johnny joining the group--obviously, Ralph wasn’t in favor of it. They all were pretty blindsided by it. As we were, too. But it was one of those things where it was a good problem to solve because we definitely felt like it got them back to five people--which they'd desired to have; and it also allowed us to expand the music that was done."
Despite the initial reluctance, Johnny's attitude played a big part in solving the group's problems and healing some of the early skepticism.
"We actually initially told Johnny that he wasn't going to sing any songs on the record at all because it was Ralph’s group," Jam says. "And Johnny’s reaction to that was pretty much ‘Hey I’m a team player so I’ll do whatever we need to do.' And I think the fact that he said that made all the guys buy in because they all felt like ‘Oh okay well if he feels that way and he’s able to put his ego aside then we are, too.'
"[Johnny] and Ralph became a mutual admiration society because they’d watch each other in the studio and really admire what each other did. So that made it easy to then create songs that worked."
After the Heart Break album and tour, the group splintered: In 1990, Ralph Tresvant was finally able to successfully release the solo album he'd been hoping to do for years; and Gill also released a multiplatinum solo album. And remaining members Ricky Bell, Mike Bivins and Ronnie Devoe were presented with the idea of forming their own group, Bell Biv Devoe. BBD would have never come to light without Jam & Lewis, as the three members of the group all had plans to do other things.
"Ricky said ‘Well, I might work on a record,'" Jam says. "And Ronnie said something like ‘I’m going to do some modeling.' And Biv said he was going to try his hand in managing some groups and all that. But me and Terry Lewis said 'Why don’t you guys put a group together?'" The three were into the idea, and although Jam & Lewis didn't produce their multiplatinum debut album Poison, they were the masters behind the plan.
"We originally called it 'Bell Bivins Devoe,' and they shortened it to 'Bell Biv DeVoe,'" says Jam. "And the rest is history. But we always saw that talent there. It’s like that in a lot of groups. In a really good group, there’s always the obvious talent, but the people that you don’t really know are normally very talented, too. Sometimes they just don’t get a chance to shine on their own but these guys were given the opportunity and made the most out of it. So it was very cool. And we were at least happy to have been something like the instigators of it."
Ironically, lead singer Tresvant had been the last member to do something individually. Jam was highly impressed with the energy Ralph exuded in the studio for his self-titled solo album, which would spawn hits like "Sensitivity" and "Do What I Gotta Do."
"Ralph is one of my favorite people to work with ever. He’s amazing," Jam shares. "And he just has incredible stamina--he can stay in the studio. You basically have to kick him out of the studio because he’ll just stay in there for hours and hours. Ralph just put in a lot of work. So making his solo record was really fun. Ralph was definitely ready and we came up with something that was very unique to him."
New Edition eventually came back together as a group in 1996; once again, they worked with Jam & Lewis.
“Everybody got their own identity outside of New Edition so when the group came back together, to me, everybody was stronger because everyone on their own had already paved their own path," Jam explained. "So it was just a blessing and an honor to work with these guys over the years in all of their endeavors, solo and group wise.”
The now six-man group dropped Home Again in 1996, and the album is still special to Jam because Jam & Lewis were the only producers that got all six guys in the studio at the same time, at the beginning and end of the project.
"At the very beginning of the project as we recorded in Minneapolis we had everybody there at the studio. First we put everyone in the conference room, and everyone got things off their chest and talked about what they wanted the album to represent, and then we went to work. And we got everyone back to Minneapolis at the end when we were mixing everything. So they gave us the ultimate respect. For us, it was a great experience."
Be sure to catch the three-part The New Edition Story mini-series, which airs January 24th through January 26th at 9pm EST on BET.