Musician-songwriter James Mtume dead at 76

The legendary percussionist, producer and crafter of hit songs, including "Juicy Fruit," died less than a week after his birthday.

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Legendary musician, producer, percussionist and songwriter James Mtume died this weekend, less than a week after he turned 76.

Word of his death Sunday was initially questioned on Twitter, but was confirmed to Pitchfork by his son, Faulu Mtume. 

Mtume, the band of musician James Mtume (above), also had a hit with “You, Me and He” in 1984 off the album by the same name, as well as the LP cut “COD (I’ll Deliver).” (Photo: Screenshot/YouTube.com)

Born James Heath Jr. in Philadelphia, the son of musicians, Mtume changed his name in the 1960s as he aligned himself with Black empowerment organizations. His chosen surname — which means “messenger” in Swahili — also became the name of his acclaimed R&B group. 

His group, Mtume, was founded with Reggie Lucas and Tawatha Agee, and together, they released five albums through 1986. 

Their 1983 album, Juicy Fruit, spawned a No. 1 single by that name, which would be sampled for the 1994 Notorious B.I.G. single, “Juicy,” ranked as one of the most important hip-hop songs of all time by dozens of outlets, including the BBC — which put it at the top of its list. The band also had a hit with “You, Me and He” in 1984 off the same-titled album, as well as the LP cut “COD (I’ll Deliver),” plus “Body & Soul (Take Me)” in 1986, a jam from their final album, Theater of the Mind

This photo from July 1973 shows American musician James Mtume (left) and iconic jazz trumpeter Miles Davis arriving at Heathrow Airport in London. (Photo: R. Brigden/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A native of South Philadelphia, Mtume was raised by his mother Bertha Forman and his stepfather, pianist James “Hen Gates” Forman, who played with Charlie Parker. His father, Jimmy Heath, was a famed jazz saxophonist, and his uncles were bassist and drummer Percy and Albert “Tootie” Heath

In 2014, Mtume told Red Bull Music Academy how much of an influence growing up in a musical household had on his life: “Just imagine, you’re nine, ten years old, and there’s Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins.” 

“I never was hip enough to know just how brilliant a situation that was,” he said, “but what I did know about jazz musicians were they were an extraordinary group. Witty, funny. There was nothing like sitting around a table of jazz musicians.”

As a songwriter and producer, Mtume crafted hits for an array of Black music icons, among them Phyllis Hyman, Donny Hathaway, Teddy Pendergrass, Stephanie Mills and, later, artists such as Inner City and Mary J. Blige. 

He started his career playing with jazz legend Miles Davis’ group between 1971 and 1975. Of Davis, Mtume said, “One thing that I learned about standing next to him for those years is that you can’t be afraid. The one thing that people give Miles too little credit for is the courage. It takes courage to change. If you don’t create music that forges your imagination forward, then that’s where you lay.” 

Mtume also went on to collaborate with Yusef Lateef, Carlos Garnett, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Lonnie Liston Smith, McCoy Tyner and more. In addition, he crafted the 1986 soundtrack for the film Native Son, adapted from the novel by Richard Wright

“If my music has inspired anybody, the thing I would want them to be inspired to do is pick up the baton, because this race is not finished,” he told journalist Jeff “Chairman” Mao back in 2014. “All you need is to have your imagination excited.”

Mtume is survived by his two children, Faulu Mtume and Damu Mtume — both music producers. 

His passing is still trending on Twitter, where fellow musicians and fans alike are sharing their remembrances. Mills — who lifted “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” the 1980 song Mtume and Lucas wrote, to radio heights across America — shared on Twitter: “I am saddened to hear of the passing of my dear friend and producer #JamesMtume. He was so brilliant and an amazing music mind. The work chemistry we had was second to none. I will continue to lift you up through our music.” 

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