This is the 69th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
James Samuel “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis first met as teenagers while participating in a University of Minnesota summer school program called Upward Bound. They kept in touch, and eventually, they were in a band called Flyte Tyme. Soon after Jimmy Jam joined Flyte Time, Prince merged the band with Morris Day’s band called the Enterprise Band of Pleasure. The new band was called Morris Day and the Time.
Though Jimmy Jam and Lewis were playing with Morris Day and the Time, they also had their own projects writing and producing songs for other artists. The two ended up on a new career path after they were asked to produce “Just Be Good To Me,” a song they had written for The S.O.S. Band. They recorded the single in Atlanta while on a two-day break from touring with Prince, but they ended up stranded because of a blizzard. Prince punished them by dismissing them from the band.
But the two ended up being in demand thanks to the success of “Just Be Good To Me.” They eventually worked on albums for several big names, including Gladys Knight, Patti Austin, Thelma Houston, Klymaxx, and Janet Jackson.
One of the first projects that they worked on was the debut album for R&B singer Cheryl Norton, who performed under the stage name Cherrelle. Cherrelle’s “Fragile” came out in 1984 to neutral-to-decent reviews, in part because of its second track, “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On.” The song became a Top Ten R&B hit and landed on the Hot 100.
“I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” told the story of a woman who had gone out for the evening with someone who expected the night would veer in a different direction:
Now you bring me home and tell me
Good night’s not enough for you
I’m sorry, baby
I didn’t mean to turn you on
Later, she laid it out, unfazed that the other person seemed to not take no for an answer:
I know you
Were expecting a one night stand
When I refused
I knew you wouldn’t understand
I told you twice
I was only trying to be nice
Only trying to be nice
Ooh, I didn’t mean to turn you on
Cherrelle never addressed the person by gender, leaving the song open to interpretation. But given the time period, it’s likely that audiences assumed she was singing to a man.
A year later, Robert Palmer covered the song for his eighth solo studio album, “Riptide.” Palmer’s “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” charted both in the US and the UK.
Compared to Cherrelle’s version, Palmer’s “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” was not as funky, as it abandoned the Prince-esque keyboards for a smoother sound. When sung by Palmer, the lyrics of “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” took on a different tone. Whereas Cherrelle sounded like a woman addressing a forceful man, Palmer appeared less threatened. That perception, of course, has less to do with how Cherrelle or Palmer delivered the song, and more to do with the gender of each singer.
Palmer’s version went to Number 2 on the pop chart, and has been critically praised. On Popdose’s list of “The Greatest Cover Songs of All Time,” Palmer’s cover came in at Number 53. In an AllMusic review, Tim DiGravina said “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” was “perhaps [the “Riptide” album’s] most daring track, with its fractured jittery notes, funky basslines, and pounding drums matching Palmer’s bothered, sweaty vocals to create a yearning song that drips with passion.”
Mariah Carey covered the song for the soundtrack for her 2001 movie, “Glitter.” The movie was a failure, but the cover was not. Carey used the same backing track that Cherrelle had used, but her “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” was no knockoff. Carey’s delivery is distinctively hers, and in this version, the narrator was no meek wallflower. She didn’t mean to turn you on, but she also was not apologetic in the slightest.
A slowed-down version of the track, under then name “Slowriah Carey” was later uploaded to YouTube. It appeared to simply be the same cover by Carey, just slower. But it still held up.
In 2005, House music DJ and vocalist Colette recast “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” as a sunny house anthem worthy of a summer dance party. The song’s previous incarnations were never slow, but in Colette’s hands, the song was decidedly more of dance-y club track than funky jam.
And the Kaskade remix was even clubbier.
Italian DJ and producer Dino Lenny released an EP in 2009 with four remixed covers of “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On.” This was just as dancetastic as Colette’s version, but it was not as sunny or shimmery, as it had a harsher edge to it. The almost-robotic delivery were reminiscent of Palmer’s version, but on this track, Lenny featured female backing vocals.
Because of societal expectations about gender roles and relationships, “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” can sound different depending on the gender of the singer, in part because our default assumption of heterosexuality. Much like “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off,” the song sounds more vulnerable when sung by a woman, in part because we hear the lyrics in a different context. Jermaine Stewart’s version of “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off” sounded like a tongue-in-cheek dance track, but it took on a more serious mood when it was slowed down for Ella Eyre’s version. Stewart’s version sounded silly, whereas Eyre sounded like a woman pushing back against rape culture and societal expectations. Similarly, as I mentioned earlier, “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” can sound different depending on the gender of the singer — and the presumed gender of the other person.
When the song is sung by a woman, it’s easy for us to imagine that she’s singing to a man, even if we know nothing about the orientation of the singer. We don’t have to know that Mariah Carey is straight to be able to envision her version of “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” is being delivered to a man. The image of a pushy person not taking no for an answer sadly fits squarely with the image of aggressive male sexuality that we have seen reflected in (and perpetuated by) songs, movies, and television shows.
In addition to covers, Cherrelle’s “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” has been ripe for samples and remixes. In 1998, Queen Latifah sampled the song for “Turn You On,” on her album, “Order in the Court.” Jimmy Jam’s and Lewis’s production is most noticeable in the chorus, though Latifah took some liberties with the lyrics, changing them to:
I took you out, I was only tryin’ to be nice
Let you touch it once or twice
Oh, I didn’t mean to turn you on
Kinda changes the whole premise of the original, yes?
Japan-based remixer and mashup-maker Initial Talk has made a niche for himself remixing songs from the ’80s and ’90s into modern pop tracks. In 2014, he remixed Gwen Stefani’s “Spark The Fire” to feature the backing track of Cherrelle’s “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On.” It was loud and brash, but in a strange way, it worked.
That Initial Talk, Queen Latifah, and Carey would all use Jimmy Jam’s and Lewis’s backing track from Cherrelle’s version speaks to the quality of the original track. Palmer’s version was more successful on the charts, but that should not suggest that Cherrelle’s “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” was not popular in its own right. For as much love as Palmer’s version has received, not all critics have agreed that it worthy of such praise. Elliott Wilson, a past editor of XXL, once offered this summary of the difference between Cherrelle’s and Palmer’s versions of the song: “One sounds good, and the other one sounds terrible.”
…Both versions sound pretty good in incredibly different ways. Cherrelle’s has steam, expressiveness, movement, and richness. Palmer’s sounds buttoned-up and desiccated, stiff and edgy. My emotions go completely different directions when hearing them. Neither direction feels wrong.
Abebe went on to offer a more cynical but probably realistic musing as to why Palmer’s version was more successful on the charts: Record execs probably saw Palmer — a white Englishman who had some name recognition — as more palatable to audiences than a black woman who was releasing her first song. The industry as a whole, Abebe argued, put more stock in white artists at the time because record companies thought that is what audiences wanted. In other words, they justified a racist bias by passing throwing the consumer under the bus.
But history has since shown the folly in thinking audiences would not want songs from black artists or producers: Robert Palmer only had one song top the US charts, whereas Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis went on to have more than a dozen.