Black History Month: I Wrote Hit Songs With The Late James Mtume, But More Importantly I Had His Mentorship | Opinion
By Tawatha Agee
When I first met the late James Mtume in the mid-1970s, he was wearing a tie-dye t-shirt, bell bottoms and a long jacket. He and his partner, fellow producer Reggie Lucas, were looking for a musical number to produce.
Around this time, Mtume and Lucas were on a roll with hit songs. They wrote and produced songs for Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway like “The Closer I Get to You” and “Back Together Again”, and Stephanie Mills, “Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin'” and “Never Knew Love Like This Before ,” and “You Know How to Love Me” by Phyllis Hyman.
When it came time to pursue a college education, I applied to only one institution, Howard University, where I studied music.
When I returned to Newark with my bachelor’s degree in hand, I applied for a position as a full-time music teacher, but the only jobs available in that field were as a substitute instructor. At the same time, I contacted Mtume.
Soon I was hiring background vocalists for sessions, filing papers with the musicians union, writing songs like “Two Hearts,” a duet with Stephanie Mills and Teddy Pendergrass, and making sure the vocals in the studio were paid.
I learned all of these roles working with Mtume and how to adapt to each session and situation when it came to making music. At that time, Mtume formed his band, of which I was the lead singer.
Other artists wanted to hire me to sing backing vocals on their recordings – which Mtume had encouraged me to do. This flexibility was a rarity for many production companies who frowned on the idea of accepting “outside work”.
I also started cutting vocals for jingles I heard on radio and TV. Still, the Mtume Group was my home base, and they continued to advise me on matters ranging from contract negotiations to taking care of me when I was not on the road or in the studio.
Every member of Mtume’s band has written songs. The competition was fierce since an album could only contain eight to ten songs.
I was on the road as a backing vocalist for Bryan Ferry’s Roxy Music band when Mtume called and told me he had a song he needed to record for the album. So I came back to New York, cut the lead vocals, then hit the road again.
At first, Mtume got some grief from the Wrigley Corporation for using the name ‘Juicy Fruit’ as it was also the name of their most popular chewing gum, but when he met the advice of Wrigley’s administration and explained that the song wasn’t about chewing gum, they caved.
In 1983, “Juicy Fruit” went to number one on the R&B charts and stayed there for eight weeks early that summer.
After “Juicy Fruit”, as well as other hits I wrote such as Mtume’s, “You, Me & He” and “COD (I’ll Deliver)”, I continued to work and tour with many iconic artists like David Bowie. , Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, the Dave Matthews Band, Lenny Kravitz and Luther Vandross, to name a few. I’ve recorded over a thousand songs over the years.
I learned so much from Mtume about the music business, which stays with me to this day. He supported me while I was in his band and even attended concerts where I was a backing vocalist.
James Mtume was my mentor, my guide and, above all, my friend. In an industry that can be somewhat ruthless and promote self-centered behavior, he was quite the opposite and an example of how one can make a difference in the lives he touched – something we need more of our days.
When I was updating my website, Mtume wrote the following about me, which I had posted –
“Everything I’ve accomplished in my musical stint, and it’s been pretty good, from jazz to R&B to funk, the thing I’m most proud of is that I was able to be the vehicle that helped expose you to the world – and the world embraced who you were.–James Mtume.
Thank you Mtume. You will always be my sunshine.
Originally from Newark, Tawatha Agee has recorded over 1000 songs, many with James Mtume. She continues to record and perform to this day.
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