Opening with just Aretha and the piano, “Jimmy Lee” starts out nice enough. Yet for some reason I’ve always struggled to wrap myself around it properly. Same goes for one of the other singles from 1986’s Aretha, “Rock-A-Lott”. I may not have been the only one who struggled with it. As a matter of fact, they held off on recording it for 1985’s massive Who’s Zoomin’ Who? As co-writer Preston Glass recalled to Alex Henderson in the liner notes for Aretha’s 2014 reissue on the funkytowngrooves label,
“When Narada Michael Walden got the call to work with Aretha Franklin in 1984, he was very excited, So we just started writing up a storm, and there were many leftover songs. Clive Davis narrowed it down to the songs that he wanted for the Who’s Zoomin’ Who album, but the basic tracks for ‘Jimmy Lee’ and ‘If You Need My Love Tonight’ were cut for Who’s Zoomin’ Who.
All that aside, the song isn’t bad by any means. It’s a sweet stroll down memory lane about a boy with the “number to (her) heart”, a slick pre-chorus, catchy hook and all, with a retro-esque vibe to match. It’s a foot stomper too. That beat is irresistible and demands you tap along, like many of the other percussion-centric cuts produced by Narada Michael Walden (for Aretha and other artists like Whitney) at this time.
Aretha even shot a cute video for the song. Opening with just Aretha at the piano, it weaves shots of Aretha performing the song in with flashbacks to the younger days depicted in the lyrics.
She’s also backed by a who’s who of names: Kenny G is on the saxophone, Randy Jackson is on the bass, and Walter Afanasieff (Celine Dion, Mariah Carey) is on the keyboards. And Aretha does all the vocals on this song, creating a fabulous wall of Ree around her lead vocal. A few dance mixes accompanied the release, which no doubt helped it perform well, and Aretha gave the song an electric live performance during a taped James Brown concert in Detroit.
“Jimmy Lee”’s retro feel benefitted Aretha, propelling her back to number 2 on the R&B charts in 1986. As Aretha’s brother Cecil described to David Ritz, “they were playing “Jimmy Lee” in all the dance clubs.” “Jimmy Lee” was a success, in no uncertain terms, Aretha’s next single though, a duet with a budding British singer, would prove to be Aretha’s biggest hit since “Respect”.
Listen to Aretha reminisce about “Jimmy Lee”: