Percussionist, songwriter, and producer James Mtume was a major force behind some of the most advanced and commercially successful jazz and R&B released during the '70s and '80s. His career has encompassed pioneering acoustic and electric avant-garde jazz, quiet storm classics and post-disco club hits, and compositions for film and television. Born James Forman, he was raised by pianist James "Hen Gates" Forman and is the biological son of saxophonist Jimmy Heath. Into his teenage years, the native Philadelphian played piano and percussion and was also a star swimmer. After he moved to California to attend Pasadena City College on an athletic scholarship, the younger Forman joined the U.S. Organization, the black nationalist group whose Maulana Karenga created the pan-African holiday Kwanzaa. Forman's activism greatly informed his first recording. Although that album, the acoustic avant-garde set Kawaida (1970), was led by his uncle Albert Heath, four of its five compositions were credited solely to Mtume, who also contributed percussion. Mtume made his recorded debut beside not only his uncle and father, but also Herbie Hancock, Don Cherry, and Buster Williams.
Soon thereafter, Mtume moved to New York and quickly demonstrated his aptitude as a premier percussionist with work for the likes of McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, and Lonnie Liston Smith, among many others. Most prominently, he spent much of 1971-1975 performing and recording with Miles Davis, documented on landmark releases such as On the Corner, Agharta, and Pangaea. During this period, Mtume also led the dates Alkebu-Lan (Strata East, 1972) and Rebirth Cycle (recorded in 1974 but released three years later on Third Street). Approached later in the decade simultaneously by Weather Report and Roberta Flack, Mtume opted to work with the latter and brought along fellow Davis associate Reggie Lucas. Mtume and Lucas co-wrote Flack and Donny Hathaway's hit duet "The Closer I Get to You," which topped the Billboard R&B chart in 1978. Across the next few years, Mtume and Lucas worked with a slew of high-profile R&B artists and scored major hits with Phyllis Hyman and Stephanie Mills. "Never Knew Love Like This," written and produced for Mills, won a Grammy for Best R&B Song.
From the late '70s into the latter half of the following decade, Mtume also led his band of the same name, which featured Lucas for the first two albums and another long-term collaborator, powerful vocalist Tawatha Agee, through all five full-lengths. Released on Epic, these albums documented James Mtume's creative evolution from orchestral soul to lean machine funk. They generated hits such "Give It on Up (If You Want To)," "Juicy Fruit" (which topped the R&B chart), "You, Me & He" (number two R&B), and "Breathless" (number nine R&B). In 1986, the year the band's final album was released, Mtume himself continued behind the scenes by providing the soundtrack for the drama Native Son. Mtume went on to write and/or produce material for Agee and acts such as Nu Romance Crew (which included son Faulu Mtume), Mary J. Blige, K-Ci & JoJo, and Bilal (whose 1st Born Second was executive produced by son Damu Mtume). Furthermore, he provided music for the drama series New York Undercover and produced much of its soundtrack. Meanwhile, "Juicy Fruit" reached broad younger audiences when the song became the basis of the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy," after which it was sampled and referenced by dozens of other producers and vocalists. Mtume eventually retreated from the music industry and co-hosted the WBLS call-in program Open Line for two decades, through 2013, and continued activist work. ~ Andy Kellman