DeepSoul "Behind the Scenes": James Mtume

Remember the 1983 hit "Juicy Fruit"? Writer/producer James Mtume was the man behind that song, but he also worked with R&B's most sophisticated singers.
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One of the classic early 80s R&B hits, "Juicy Fruit" has been sampled by numerous hip hop artists, most notably the Notorious B.I.G. (1994's "Juicy").  The group, Mtume, scored several soul hits until their 1986 breakup, but founder James Mtume boasted an impressive resume both before and after the group as a musician, songwriter, and producer.  He co-penned and produced hits for major artists such as Phyllis Hyman, Donny Hathaway, Stephanie Mills, Teddy Pendergrass, R. Kelly, and Mary J. Blige.  

While he made his name as an R&B dynamo, Mtume brought a jazz background to the genre. Born to legendary jazz saxophonist Jimmy Heath, Mtume was raised by his stepfather, Philadelphia jazz pianist James "Hen Gates" Forman (Mtume's real name is James Forman).  He played piano at a young age and hobnobbed with frequent visitors to his parents' home such as Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sonny Stitt, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Rollins. By his early 20s Mtume relocated to New York to pursue a music career full time, playing with Freddie Hubbard and Rollins before joining Miles Davis' touring band as a percussionist.  After five years studying under the jazz master, Mtume became an in-demand session musician, playing on Robert Flack's Blue Lights in the Basement.  Flack subsequently introduced him to guitarist Reggie Lucas, beginning a creative partnership that resulted in several hits for other artists.  Their compositions included Stephanie Mills' "Never Knew Love Like This Before," Flack's "The Closer I Get to You," and Hyman's "You Know How to Love Me."  

In a 2014 interview with Red Bull Academy, Mtume described the sound he and Lucas originated.  "What I called it was 'sophistifunk' and by that I mean the bottom is always there but what made the difference was the chords. Coming out of jazz, the pretty chords on top and the orchestration. But if you take the orchestration off, you can feel that's funk under."

By 1978 Mtume finally stepped in front of the microphone, forming his own namesake group.  They recorded several albums, but finally achieved success with the slinky "Juicy Fruit."  The 1983 hit represented the peak of his success as an artist; the group Mtume disbanded in 1986, and Mtume the artist soon dropped out of the music industry.  Thankfully he triumphantly returned in the 90s, working with Blige on her 1997 Share My World album as well as K-Ci and Jo-Jo's on Love Always.  

One song that particularly stood out for Mtume--and showcased his brand of "sophistifunk" with Lucas--was the 1979 track "Back Together Again."  The song marked Hathway's return to music after an extended absence.  He and Flack were recording another album of duets, hoping to repeat the success of earlier singles like "The Closer I Get to You" and "Where Is the Love."  Unfortunately Hathaway was still suffering from the effects of schizophrenia, and recording sessions proved difficult (amazingly, his voice remained intact).  "Back Together Again" proved to be the final recording Hathaway would ever complete.  "And as we're working on that song Donny's at the mic and he grabs his eye. He couldn't sing anymore because he was suffering from a nervous condition," Mtume told Red Bull Academy. "It was the Saturday night I said, 'Look, I'll see you Monday and we'll finish this' . . .   About five o'clock in the morning the phone rang and I hear crying. I said, 'Who's this?' 'It's Roberta. Donny's dead.'  He jumped that night."  

Despite being recorded during a traumatic time in Hathaway's life, "Back Together Again" exudes joy.  Horns blare, the synthesizer snakes through the track as a disco beat immediately kicks off the song.  While it may have a dance feel, "Back Together Again" still has a modern feel with its sophisticated chord changes.  The lyrics could address Flack and Hathaway's professional reunion as well as two lovers resuming their relationship.  "Seems we've weathered / Hard times we've been through," Hathaway sings in a clear, ethereal voice, implying that he was overcoming his demons.  "It's all come together / Problems we've defeated / And I'm here hand in hand," Flack responds.  As always, their voices blend perfectly, urging the other to amp up their performance.  For pure vocal delight, listen to Flack reach an impossibly high note as the song fades out.  She begins low, raising her voice like a bird taking off in flight.  She is a gifted singer, and "Back Together Again" effectively showcases her considerable talents.

The "sophistifunk" Mtume describes occurs in the bridge, the chord changes derived from his jazz background.  Listen to the smooth transition from the lines "Say you'll leave me never / We can truly feel (what you feel)" to the chorus.  The arrangement never overshadows the two incredible singers, instead matching their apparent enthusiasm at working together again.  "Back Together Again" seems to hint at Hathaway's personal and professional comeback; sadly, it was not to be.  

Mtume, along with Lucas, composed some of the 1970s and 1980s' finest R&B.  Smoothly blending contemporary sounds with vintage R&B, he gave some of music's most gifted singers sophisticated showcases for their talents.  Out of all his compositions, Mtume told Red Bull Academy, "Back Together Again" still holds a special place in his heart.  "I've been fortunate enough to write a lot of songs, but that one has a place that none of the others could," he said.