The recent passing of James “Mtume” Forman brings to a close the life one of the most fascinating, significant and underrated musical figures whose body of work spanned 8 decades.
Mtume came from a family rich in jazz with uncles being the drummer Albert Heath, bassist, Percy Heath and father, the saxophonist Jimmy Heath (died 2020). Mtume was raised by his mother and stepfather, jazz pianist James Forman.
Mtume has long been recognised chiefly for the 1983 hit R&B single “Juicy Fruit”. Yet his contribution to the music business was far more pivotal long before and after that hit song transformed his musical career and legacy.
The group he formed in the mid-1970s was called Mtume at the suggestion of a music executive. Mtume himself was not so keen on the band name but his fellow band members were happy to go along with the idea.
The first time I across the name Mtume was in 1980 when their single “Giving It On Up” landed on our turntable in central Jamaica thanks to the shrewd ears of my brother who had this habit of turning up with the coolest records not played that much on the 4 local radio stations available.
The next time I came across Mtume’s name was indeed “Juicy Fruit” and then on “You, Me and He” a year later. But I thought Mtume was a band name and not the name of any one person.
By the late 1980s I started to take a deep interest into jazz and in particular the works of Miles Davis and his former band members such as John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock.
Part of that rummaging through the 2nd hand basement store at Honest Jon’s record shop on Portobello Road, West London led me to a jazz-rock fusion live album by Miles called “Agharta” which was recorded in Japan in 1975. I saw Mtume’s name in the credits as the percussionist. Even then I was not even sure it was the same person that was part of the R&B band.
I had no clue Mtume was a percussionist but as a now big Miles Davis fan I was so taken by his work on “Agharta” and the other albums he did with Miles going back to the explosive “On The Corner”. This was during Miles’ transition to fusing jazz with other musical genres such as African, funk and rock music.
Miles became Mtume’s biggest influence in music. Mtume admired how Miles kept pushing jazz to newer levels and not playing the same form of jazz repeatedly.
Mtume would share in interviews some of the advice he was given by Miles:
- “stop playing what you know, play what you don’t know”
- “silent is sound”
- “clichés are death traps”
- “when you hear the right direction it goes through your body”
- “stop using the same street to go where you are going, use another avenue”
- “sometimes when you cross a bridge, burn it. You can always look back.”
Mtume too was so highly regarded by Miles that the latter named one of his tracks after the percussionist on the jazz rock feast album “Get Up With it”.
In his autobiography, Miles Davis said of Mtume
“Mtume was a freak of history, and I knew him from his Father, so we used to talk a lot. I’d tell him old stories and he’d tell me about things that happened in African history, because he was really into that. I remember one time in 1975, Mtume had a knee operation and was laid up in the hospital. I told him we had to play and that he had to get out of there. He said he didn’t know if he could make it.
So I tell him I am going to take him to Jamaica and nurse him back to health. I send a limo to get him and we take a plane to Jamaica and swim and stuff like that for ten days. I knew this Jamaican healer through a friend who had turned me on to him for my own hip problems. It got Mtume back together and he was able to make the gigs. I felt toward him like a son because I had watched him grow up.”
Mtume was a key member of the jazz fusion phase of Miles output which included on
- electric guitar (Pete Cosey, Reggie Lucas)
- horns (Carlos Garnett, Sonny Fortune, Azar Lawrence, Bennie Maupin, Dave Liebman)
- drums (Al Foster, Billy Hart, Jack DeJohnette)
- electric keyboards (Herbie Hancock, Lonnie Liston Smith, Cedric Lawson)
- electric bass (Michael Henderson)
This group dynamic of Miles’ fusion band would go on to reshape music beyond jazz with Mtume playing an integral part of that journey. Mtume and Reggie Lucas later formed band “Mtume” and recruited Tawatha Agee on vocals after watching her sing at Howard University.
Mtume himself eventually broke up the group of the same name when he realised the band’s music got stagnant and not evolving as his mentor Miles had drilled into him.
Lucas went on to produce the first album of a certain Madonna and composed her hit song “Borderline”. Agee became one of the most prolific backing singers especially with Roxy Music.
During the late 1970s Mtume and Lucas co-wrote and arranged the hit songs “Closer I Get to You” and “Back Together Again” for Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack.
According to Mtume, Ahmet Ertegun (owner of Atlantic Records) hated “Closer I Get to You” and wanted to drop it from any release and felt it would never be a hit.
Mtume described how for the second half of “Back Together Again” Hathaway’s vocals was literally cut and paste from the first half of the song as Hathaway had committed suicide before the song was completed.
Mtume witnessed Hathaway’s mental health challenges first hand and marvelled at his brilliance in the studio.
In the 1990s Mtume then found a new audience when he provided the soundtracks to the Dick Wolf hip TV cop serious New York Undercover where each week he provided a platform for veteran and younger R&B artistes to showcase their work.
When “Juicy Fruit” became a hit for Mtume and his band in 1983 they faced a possible lawsuit from the owners of Wrigley’s chewing gum. Can you believe that?
At the first meeting, held in Japan, between Mtume and the lawyers for Wrigleys the former was asked for the meaning of the lyrics in the song “You can lick me everywhere”. “Oral sex” was Mtume’s response. Any talk of lawsuit ends.
Who can forget the impact “Juicy Fruit” had on hip hop with Notorious B.I.G. sampling of the track “Juicy”? Mtume had said that he only composed “Juicy Fruit” as a last-minute addition to the album that was all but completed.
Mtume must be one of those rare artistes who can say they have worked with the likes of Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, Phyllis Hyman, Stephanie Mills, Nancy Wilson, Miles Davis, Gladys Knight, Bobby Womack, Duke Ellington, D’Angelo, Dee Dee Bridgewater,Aaliyah, SWV, Teena Marie and Fela Kuti.
Like many young black people living in the 1960s Mtume was drawn to the civil rights movement and Pan-Africanism and became an integral founding member of The Us Organisation which amongst many initiatives created Kwanzaa.
With the advent of podcast and You Tube we have been able to hear the likes of Mtume provided detailed serious interviews about their career, their life, their challenges. Without these interviews we would not have been the wiser as to how much of a fascinating life the likes of Mtume led in making their mark on society.
Mtume in Swahili means prophet and the man from Philly but raised on the west coast certainly lived up to his name in spreading the music in an evolutionary way.
My favourite Mtume production is “Theme for the People”
(Rest in peace funk singer and songwriter, Betty Davis, ex-wife of Miles who also transcended recently. Without her influence on Miles during the 1960s – introduced him to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and other black rock music – Miles may never have gone done down the fusion route which eventually gave us Mtume.)