I had the joy, privilege and honour to know James Mtume over many decades, starting in 1978 when we met up – along with his friend and musical partner Reggie Lucas – on the occasion of the then-impending release of the band MTUME’s first album for Epic Records. We forged a friendship that endured: we shared wisdom, laughter and an innate understanding of each other’s lifelong commitment to the preservation and appreciation for Black music. In recognition of his personal contribution to my own Life journey, I celebrate Mtume who moved to the other side of the veil on January 9, 2022, ever present through his incredible musical and cultural legacy by reprinting this 2004 feature for SoulMusic.com…
MTUME & LUCAS…REMINISCING….A PERSONAL APPRECIATION By David Nathan
Had to be the autumn of 1978 when I got the call. As the resident U.S. correspondent for Britain’s “Blues & Soul” based in New York City, it was inevitable that the release of a new soul-related album would prompt a call from the active record company publicists pitching for a story in B&S. It wasn’t that said album would necessarily be released in the UK, more that having a feature in a British music magazine was considered prestigious while at the same time a clear indicator that said publicist was doing his/her job! Of course, the artists in question loved the notion that a European publication was interested in the work, occasionally prompting them to think that their music was way more popular on the other side of the Atlantic than it actually was!
So it was that I found myself heading just a few blocks from my 56th St. apartment in Manhattan to Columbus Circle to the Gulf & Western Building which happened to be the home of Famous Music where I would have my first of many encounters with the loquacious team of James Mtume and Reggie Lucas. The two former Miles Davis sidemen were about to release their first Epic album under the group name “Mtume.” Prompted by the success of “The Closer I Get To You,” a song they had co-written for Roberta Flack (with whom they had been touring as musicians) which became a massive duet hit for Flack with Donny Hathaway in February ’78.
Our first meeting, we hit it off. There was something particularly irreverent about Mtume in particular and I loved the vibe and energy of these two skilled musicians. You only had to check the credits of their first Epic set, “Kiss The World Goodbye” to discover that the group – headed by Mtume and Lucas but also featuring female vocalist Tawatha, keyboardist Hubert Eaves, drummer Howard King and bassist Basil Fearrington – had a little ‘tongue-in-check’ attitude towards the music biz: Mtume himself played “cosmic congas” and “concussion” on the album which included the single “Just Funnin’” but tracks like “Metal Flake Mind” and a hilarious musical take on the Floaters’ astrologically-themed “Float On” via the album’s title cut with lyric lines like “my sign is spinach”!
Fast forward: during our very first meeting, I told Mtume and Lucas about my own songwriting efforts and set up to meet again a few days later. It was at this meeting that the duo excitedly revealed that they were submitting demos in hopes they would be producing Stephanie Mills, then fresh off her award-winning role as “Dorothy” in the Broadway musical, “The Wiz.” Hitless from an album with ABC and two with Motown, Mills was in need of a hit and Mtume & Lucas were confident they could provide one. They were also confident – after listening to a few of my songs – that they could actually produce a record on me as a vocalist! Much to my amazement and surprise, Mtume in particular felt that I had a unique sound as a singer and want to explore the option of us working together musically after I shared my own passion for singing…
It would take a while before we would make it to the studio. In between, I saw the group Mtume perform at Rutgers University in New Jersey and with a good deal of theatrics and much energy, they were highly entertaining. Once the deal was done with 20th Century Records, Mtume invited me to come down to the Sigma Sound studios on Broadway but a few blocks from my abode while they laid down some of the tracks for Stephanie. I remember well hearing “Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin’” and being positive it would be a hit for the petite powerhouse singer. None of us knew it would also be the start of her run of success as a very popular recording artist – or that Mtume & Lucas would become in-demand for their mix of soul, funk and pop with a slightly jazz edge.
No sooner had Stephanie’s first few records taken off than Clive Davis, then head of Arista Records was calling to ask the duo to work with the label’s soulful diva Phyllis Hyman. It was around this time that Mtume told me that he felt he could actually get something going with Arista for me. The duo had cut a rock-oriented track for a song on my original demo, “Chained To A Melody.” They had even put on background vocals, courtesy Tawatha, and it was just a matter of laying down my lead vocals before Mtume would take it to Davis.
Our first attempt did not go well. The track was in a much higher key than I could sing it in and standing there at RCA Studios, trying to push vocally, we all knew we would have to re-group. It took more than a minute: in between, Mtume & Lucas did get to work with Phyllis and since I knew her well and had developed such a good rapport with the two producers, they invited me down to the session for what would be the massive 1979 Hyman hit “You Know How To Love Me.” It was very memorable: as I described in the 2003 liner notes for the reissue of the Arista album of the same name, Phyllis was getting more and more upset the more times Mtume asked her to sing a long note in the bridge of the song. She finally lost it! “I’m doing one more and that’s it!” she screamed adding an expletive that had something to do with maternal sexual relations! That one take turned out to be the perfect one and she left to take a break: upon her return, Mtume had placed a rose in the mike stand and Phyllis melted!
Mtume decided we’d try my song “Chained To A Melody” once more not longer after the Phyllis session. This time, with the track changed to fit my vocal range, I remember singing in a Manhattan studio: I had a habit of singing with my hands in my pockets and from the control room Mtume grinned: “Could you please stop playing with your ‘johnson’ – or is that the only way to get you to sing?” Red-faced, I explained that it was just a habit for me to sing with hands in pockets but that I would oblige! We did finish “Chained To A Melody” but it never did see the light of day: while Mtume & Lucas would work on a Gary Bartz project for Arista and continue to record themselves for Epic, their own collaborative efforts would finally cease after the 1983 success of “Juicy Fruit.” By that time, I had put my own singing dreams on hold as “Blues & Soul” went through its own set of changes with the marriage of magazine owner and founder John Abbey to singer Tamiko Jones and his subsequent move to Atlanta.
It would be some years before I’d see James Mtume again: the most recent occasion was a 2002 tribute to Dionne Warwick in New York where we mused on the state of black music, his own work with “New York Undercover” and reminiscences on the good ol’ times. The recent release of the Expansion Records compilation “The Best Of Mtume & Lucas” with tracks by Mills, Hyman, the group Mtume, Bartz, Lou Rawls, The Spinners and gems from Marc Sadane, Sunfire and Rena Scott is a reminder that when they were hot, they were hot, making music with a signature sound that was at once distinctive and accessible.
A 2022 PS: It is for sure no accident that the very first release on SoulMusic Records, the label I created for reissues in 2010, was a double CD of the band MTUME’s first two Epic albums, “Kiss This World Goodbye” and “In Search Of The Rainbow Seekers”; and that one of the most successful in the series of SoulMusic Records’ 2CD anthologies is “Mtume: Prime Time” for which he, Reggie Lucas and Tawatha Agee contributed quotes for my liner notes.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that, in addition to our decades-long connection, James Mtume was the conduit for the gift of enduring friendship with another talented member of his family, his younger brother JEFF FORMAN, a kindred spirit someone I am so proud and grateful to call a true heart-t0-heart, soul-to-soul friend, with whom I have spent literally hours and hours and hours talking Life & Music…
MTUME – SOULMUSIC RECORDS REISSUES