When it comes to talent and influence in multiple genres, they didn’t get much bigger than James Mtume. As musician, producer and songwriter, he was responsible for all-time classics in both soul and jazz. Today we say a sad goodbye to Mtume, who has died at age 76.
Born in Philadelphia the son of jazz saxman Jimmy Heath, Mtume changed his surname in college from Forman (his stepfather’s name) to Mtume, which means “messenger” in Swahili, and he certainly followed with a career as a messenger supreme. He was a world class swimmer, but his real love was music, and he excelled at it from an early age.
Mtume recorded two early 70s albums that expressed his intended melding of jazz and black identity, and he quickly established himself as an artist worth watching. A multi-instrumentalist, over the course of the 70s, Mtume worked with many of the jazz greats of the time, from Miles Davis to Gato Barbieri to McCoy Tyner.
But Mtume’s fame increased dramatically when he began to focus more on songwriting and production for R&B artists, alongside frequent collaborator Reggie Lucas (d. 2018). Their song “Never Knew Love Like This Before” was a monster for Stephanie Mills, and opened the door for production work for The Spinners, Phyllis Hyman, Teddy Pendergrass and many more. It also won a Grammy Award.
Another Mtume/Lucas product, 1977’s “The Closer I Get To You,” turned into a #1 smash for Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, becoming Hathaway’s last big hit. Mtume continued to be in demand as a producer through the end of the 90s, with credits including hits from Mary J. Blige, K-Ci and Jojo and R. Kelly.
Mtume also created a series of hit albums as a bandleader of his eponymously named act, which also included noted singer Tawatha Agee. The group’s biggest album was 1983’s Juicy Fruit, a tasty melding of adult soul and jazz, the title track of which became a #1 hit, but they also won over fans with the popular albums In Search of The Rainbow Seekers, Theater of The Mind, and the top 5 You, Me and He.
In his later years, Mtume became a frequent public speaker, and hosted a popular radio show in New York that touched on important issues of the day.
A musician’s musician and a true intellectual, Mtume garnered respect from every quarter, and his loss to the music world is immense. Rest in peace, sir.