My DeepSoul salute to the production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis moves into the 1990s this week with an unjustly overlooked cut. By 1992, Soul II Soul vocalist Caron Wheeler had departed the band and was launching a solo career; that same year, Jam and Lewis were producing the soundtrack to the Damon Wayans vehicle Mo' Money. The comedic film may not have been a box office hit, but the top ten-ranking soundtrack featured a full roster of R&B's biggest stars to date. Wheeler's mid tempo track "I Adore You" serves as the movie's main love song, but also manages to entice listeners to the dance floor with its heavy beat.
In the early 1990s, Jam and Lewis had firmly established their reputation as hitmakers, and they had paved the way for the newest sound: New Jack Swing. Their winning collaboration with Janet Jackson had produced the across-the-board successes Control, Rhythm Nation 1814, and janet. In addition, the duo oversaw projects that proved they could adapt their style to seemingly incongruous artists like Herb Alpert and the gospel choir Sounds of Blackness. Thus Jam and Lewis were at the peak of their powers when they oversaw the soundtrack, and assembled an all-star roster: Jackson, Luther Vandross, Ralph Tresvant, Bel Biv Devoe, and Public Enemy, to name a few. Hailing from England, Wheeler was a lesser-known addition to this talented list, but she was no music newcomer.
Wheeler's career officially began as a member of Afrodiziak, a vocal group who sang backup for some of the early 1980s best-known artists, including Madness, the Jam, Howard Jones, and most notably on Elvis Costello's 1983 single "Everyday I Write the Book." She finally moved to center stage in 1988, when she joined the influential British R&B band Soul II Soul. Their blend of soul, hip hop, dance, house, and world music brought a new sound to contemporary R&B and pop, and their UK debut album Club Classics Vol. 1 (released as Keep on Movin' in the US) produced two classics: "Keep on Movin'" and "Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)," both featuring Wheeler's sultry lead vocals. "Back to Life" garnered a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, earning Wheeler acclaim for her talents. Emboldened by her success with Soul II Soul, she departed the band in 1990 to embark on a solo career. Her debut album, UK Blak, spawned the moderately successful single "Livin' in the Light," but did not reach the same heights as her work with Soul II Soul. Her vocals were still very much in demand, leading to her collaboration with Jam and Lewis.
"I Adore You" provides an effective showcase for Wheeler's multidimensional voice. At one turn soft and sensual, at another gospel-drenched, the singer reveals her experience with adapting her voice to fit the song's mood. Wheeler co-wrote the track with Jam and Lewis, composing lyrics that reflect the blooming relationship between Mo' Money's main characters. Two elements render the song a stellar groove: the drums and Wheeler's vocals. The drums never overshadow Wheeler's soulful vocals, a hallmark of the Jam and Lewis touch. Instead, the percussion simply places the song within the then-contemporary R&B landscape. Wheeler's warm voice wraps itself around the words, emphasizing romance and sensuality: "Being with you is amazing / Affection you display does the right thing to me," she coos in the first verse. But as the song progresses, Wheeler's voice increases in intensity, growling as she reaches the song's climactic moment:
Vision of life laying here beside me
Diamond in the raw glowing oh, so brightly,
Knowing who I am, and believing in who you are
We surrender our love to the highest star.
As the electronic drums pulsate (accented by a funky bass line), the keyboards are subtly interwoven among Wheeler's voice. Cleverly, Wheeler's backing vocals meld with the beat, with additional samples lending the mid tempo jam a little edge. In other words, "I Adore You" transcends the "love theme" typical of many films. Instead, it combines several forms (even a touch of jazz, courtesy of Wheeler's scatting) that make the track both danceable and romantic. While not a huge hit--"I Adore You" peaked at number 12 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart--it still proves how Jam and Lewis allow the artist to rightly assume center stage, never overshadowing her sound with excessive production. The duo continued their winning streak throughout the 1990s both with and without muse Jackson, and this era will be further explored in the next DeepSoul.