Jimi Stewart…A Motown Sensation
Jimi Stewart’s list of accomplishments are nothing short of sensational, touting a history of musical collaborations with brilliant masterminds such as Teena Marie, Debarge, Miki Howard, Billy Preston, Syreeta Wright and many others. Jimi’s musical genius soared and he became a world-renowned, sought-after keyboard player that has worked with many legends like G.C. Cameron from the Spinners, Al Wilson, and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Bo Diddley. In addition, Jimi worked on several blues recordings for Leon Hayward and the Motown group High Inergy.
From Middletown, Ohio to Los Angeles, California, Jimi’s love for music as a child catapulted him straight to Motown where he found his greatest achievements. Those piano lessons Jimi’s mother funded afforded him the opportunity to become one of the best keyboard players in the business.
We caught up with Jimi to get the scoop…
The Lyfe… What instruments are you fluent in?
Jimi… I play the keyboard which includes piano, clavinet, acoustic piano, and electric piano. I played guitar a little bit, enough to write but not well enough to perform.
The Lyfe… When did you know you wanted to do music?
Jimi… When I was a kid I used to look at album covers, examining them from front to back, looking at the pictures and listening to the music. I knew I was talented. When I was 13, something clicked in me and I said to myself that all I would have to do is get to California. I knew I couldn’t get where I wanted to be in the small town of Ohio where I lived.
The Lyfe… When did your journey begin?
Jimi… When I turned 22, I left for LA, four years after I graduated high school. Before I left, however, I played locally with a few bands and then eventually formed my own group called “The Precisions”. It was about six or seven of us. In 1976, I moved to Nashville, Tennessee and formed the group “Ozone” with three other band members. Shortly after, we decided to move back to LA to gig in clubs. It was there we found a manager who connected us with Motown which led to a recording deal in 1978 where we produced five albums in five years. Our first album was entitled, “Walk On”. We got a soundtrack in a movie called, “Fast Break”. It was a basketball movie. During that time we hooked up with Billy Preston, Syreeta Wright (Stevie Wonder’s ex-wife) and did a European tour in 1979. While at Motown, I met Teena Marie. The first album I played on for Teena was from the “Lady T” album. I became her band leader and toured and recorded with her from 1979-2003, 24 years. She and I became very close friends over the years. I looked at her like a little sister.
The Lyfe…What was your initial interaction with Teena like?
Jimi… It was during our very first rehearsal with Teena. I asked my manager, “Where’s Teena, when is she coming?” He pointed at her across the room, “She’s been here the whole time.” I replied, “The little white girl?” He said, “Yeah.” I had never heard a white girl sing like that ever in my life. They didn’t put her picture on her album because it was an R&B album and they didn’t know how people would react to it. Then, my manager introduced us. She immediately asked me to play so I played a couple of her songs from the “Wild and Peaceful” album and we had instant chemistry like one of her songs, “It must be magic”. It was just magic. She dug the way I played and I loved the way she sang.
The Lyfe… Tell us something about the late but great Teena Marie that we may not know.
Jimi… She played a little guitar and also piano. She would play something and then I would take it and enhance it, add more notes and make it sound good.
The Lyfe… Since working with Teena for so many years, is it safe to assume you’ve met Rick James?
Jimi… Oh yeah. We also became friends. He would come to the studio sometimes. I recorded with him on some of Teena’s songs like “Fire and Desire” and then we would all go on tour with Teena and perform together.
The Lyfe… When you heard of her passing, where were you?
Jimi… I was in Ohio. A friend called me and said Teena died. I thought he was talking about Tina Turner. I said, “Tina who?” He said Teena Marie, who do you think, why do you think I’m calling you?” I was just like “Wow.” I couldn’t believe it! It was a total shock. I still remember that day, December, 26th 2010.
The Lyfe…What kinds of experiences did you have working with Debarge?
Jimi… It was a great experience. When I first met El, the leader of the group and lead singer, we also had instant chemistry but the whole group is multi-talented. At the first rehearsal, their mother was there. I started playing a gospel song and she came over and started singing. We had vibes like that. In 1984, I went on a year-long tour with them for their second album, “All This Love”.
The Lyfe…What is your greatest accomplishment in the industry?
Jimi…I would say playing on Teena Marie’s hit records like “Square Biz”, “I Need Your Lovin”, “Portuguese Love”, “Irons in the Fire” just to name a few but there were so many.
The Lyfe…Did you have a personal relationship with any of the aforementioned artists or was it strictly professional?
Jimi… Oh yeah, we were all friends. I was at Teena’s house every day because she had a studio in her house. I actually moved in with her for a couple of years because I was over there so much.
The Lyfe…Name all the hats you’ve worn in the industry?
Jimi… I produced, arranged, wrote and now I’m a born-again Christian and am the organist at my church which takes most of my time.
The Lyfe… What do you see is the real difference between music from your era and the music of today?
Jimi… There are no real self-contained bands anymore like “Kool and The Gang”, “Earth Wind and Fire” and “Cameo”. We played our own instruments and we sang. I don’t know why it’s not as popular anymore.
The Lyfe…What would you say to an aspiring musician who wants to break into the industry?
Jimi… I honestly wouldn’t know what to tell them, things have changed so much. Back in my day, we had 33’s, 45’s and cassettes and then CD’s came out. You had to physically go to the store and purchase a product and play it on your boom box or turntable or CD player. Now, I don’t know the new way of doing things, it has just evolved so much. Now they have streaming and everything is digital. Instead of a band, you’ve got one guy sitting at a computer. You don’t need guitar players or anybody playing instruments for that matter and if the vocals aren’t right, you just use auto tunes. When the artist sings live you can definitely hear the difference in their performance and their songs on the radio.
The Lyfe… Have you written any songs for any artists?
Jimi…Yes, I wrote a couple of songs for Teena. One called, “The Sugar Shack” from her ninth album “Ivory” and “Somebody Just Like You” from her twelfth album “Sapphire”.
The Lyfe…What are you doing these days?
Jimi… I just quit a band called “Soul Pocket” in Cincinnati, Ohio who I had played with for the last ten years. We gigged at clubs, festivals and outdoor events. I just decided that I didn’t feel like making the commute anymore. So, playing for my church is now the extent of my music.
The Lyfe… Would you consider doing any musical mentoring?
Jimi… That’s already happened. I taught my nephew, Tony Moore how to play the keyboard and he really is awesome. Now, he’s actually better than I am. He got hired to play for a big church in Chicago recently.
The Lyfe… Were you married during your industry years and if so did it take a toll on your marriage?
Jimi… I’ve been married 19 years to Verlena and it was one of the best things I have ever done. My touring didn’t affect us because when my wife had free time she came on tour with me.
The Lyfe… We’ve talked a lot about Jimi the artist, now let’s learn about Jimi the person. What is your favorite food?
Jimi… Short Ribs.
The Lyfe… How do you spend your free time?
Jimi… I like movies. I’m a sci-fi, action/adventure movie freak. My all-time favorite movie is Gladiator with Russell Crowe.
The Lyfe… How did you get the nickname Jimi Fingers?
Jimi… Because I like to tickle the ivories. The keys on the piano used to be made of ivory until the animal rights people stepped in and passed a law that elephants couldn’t be killed anymore.
The Lyfe… How did you get your start playing the piano; did you grow up with one in your home?
Jimi… We always had a piano in our home growing up and my mother took all of us kids to piano lessons.
The Lyfe… Who is your favorite all-time musician?
Jimi… Jimi Hendrix. To me, he is the greatest guitar player ever. Some people say Prince but my preference is Jimi. My biggest regret is I never got to see Jimi Hendrix live.
The Lyfe… Share something with me that you’ve never shared in an interview before.
Jimi… Since I’m going bald I stand in the mirror every morning and count the hairs on my head.