Another genius has made his transition. Or how do you call someone who played on the freaky 1972 Miles Davis LP “On The Corner” and then five years later started an amazingly successful and productive career in soul music circles, being responsible for co-writing and producing some of the most precious tunes in soul music between 1977 and 1982. James Mtume just turned 75 last Tuesday and moved on yesterday.
James Forman, who later changed his name to Mtume, studied percussion early on. His father was the great jazz saxophonist Jimmy Heath. Mtume moved from his home Philadelphia to New York in the early 70s and soon played and recorded with artists like Buddy Terry, Art Farmer, or Harold Land. He then started to work with Miles Davis from 1971 to 1975. During that time, he also started to work under his own name and recorded a couple of albums for the avantgarde/experimental label Strata East. In the early to mid 70s, he also played on albums by McCoy Tyner, Lonnie Liston Smith, Abbey Lincoln, Pharoah Sanders, Sonny Rollins, Ronnie Foster, or Gary Bartz. With Reggie Lucas, who played guitar in Miles’ band, he started a songwriting and producing relationship which would change the soul and funk landscape of the forthcoming years.
In 1977, Lucas and Mtume wrote “The Closer I Get To You” for Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. This started his fruitful career as writer and producer of some of the most brilliant soul/funk tunes of the late 70s/early 80s. In 1979, he worked with Phyllis Hyman for “You Know How To Love Me”. The same year, he came up with “Back Together Again” for Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, one of my all-time favorites. Also that year, he started a four-album relationship with Stephanie Mills which yielded masterpieces like “Never Knew Love Like This Before”, “Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin'”, “I Believe In Love Songs”, “You Can’t Run From My Love”, or “Don’t Stop Doin’ What ‘Cha Do”. One of his trademarks was his way of arranging superb backing vocals, usually working with Gwen Guthrie, Tawatha Agee, Brenda White, Lani Groves, and Ullanda McCullough. Just listen to them, for example, on “Still Mine” from 1980 singing “my heart skips a beat”. Pure bliss.
It was with Tawatha Agee and Reggie Lucas when he also started his own group simply called Mtume. Their third LP in 1983, “Juicy Fruit”, went through the roof. The title track still resonates deeply up until today. The follow-up album “You, Me And He” included brilliant sparse funk tracks like “Prime Time”, one of my favorite Mtume tunes. During those years, James also graced album by Lou Rawls, Marc Sadane (“One Minute From Love”), The Spinners, and Sunfire. After the 1986 Mtume LP “Theater Of The Mind”, he more or less stopped working in the writing and producing business, but worked occasionally for soundtracks and a drama series. In the 90s, he produced Mary J. Blige. He also continued to work as a radio host and an activist after retreating from the music business.