Jody Watley Biography
Recruited for Shalamar, Popularized Hoop Earrings, Felt at Odds with Gangster Trend, Selected discography
Vocalist Jody Watley has had a long-lasting presence in the R&B and dance music genres, beginning with her membership in the disco group Shalamar in the late 1970s and continuing into a solo career that saw her rise to the top of the pop scene in the late 1980s. More than most other African-American female artists, Watley has been adamant about keeping hold of the reins of her own career. That approach hasn't always brought her commercial success, but it has resulted in a unique body of work consistently appreciated by her international corps of fans.
Watley's father was a minister and gospel radio show host. She was born in Chicago on January 30, 1959, but the family moved to Los Angeles when she was a child. Her talent at dance was encouraged by her family. The television music program Soul Train was at the height of its popularity, and Watley won a place as a dancer on the show after her father set up an audition for her. She and her partner Jeffrey Daniel soon became featured dancers on the show; their matching costumes and their routines, using such props as roller skates, were often imitated by other dancers.
As the lush dance music known as disco rose to popularity in the late 1970s, Watley got another big break. Soul Train host Don Cornelius was one of Watley's early show-business champions, encouraging her to pursue a music career instead of following through with her plans to go to college. The show's booking agent, Dick Griffey, worked with British producer Simon Soussan on a medley of disco-ized Motown songs titled Uptown Festival in 1977. The recording featured a variety of unknown studio vocalists, including Watley, under the group name Shalamar. After Uptown Festival became a minor hit, Griffey decided to take Shalamar to the next level by recruiting a fixed membership. He turned to the telegenic Watley and Daniels, who were joined by Howard Hewett in 1978.
Shalamar notched several hits, including "Second Time Around" (1980), with Watley singing close harmonies and sometimes lead in expert arrangements that bridged the gap between disco and the dance pop of the early 1980s. The group hit its peak with the Three for Love album of 1980, which featured the dance hit "Make That Move" and the ballad "This Is for the Lover in You," later covered by Babyface. Shalamar remained radio and club favorites in both the United States and England for several years, but Watley, apart from a few co-writing credits, had little creative input. Dissatisfied and hoping to pursue new career avenues, she left the group in 1983.
For the first but not the last time, Watley stuck to her guns and resisted the advice of industry veterans. "It was predicted I wouldn't make it solo,…" she told Mary Campbell of the Chicago Sun-Times. "No record company would give me a deal. I had a lot of confidence in myself in spite of what people tried to fill me up with." Watley headed for England in 1984. She kept her name in the music headlines there by dating John Taylor of the chart-topping British dance-pop band Duran Duran and by recording a 12-inch dance single with the group Art of Noise. She was also heard on the "Do They Know It's Christmas?" single recorded as part of the BandAid hunger-relief project helmed by Bob Geldof.
Popularized Hoop Earrings
Watley returned to the United States in 1986 and was signed to the MCA label. A fresh yet familiar face, she succeeded in lining up top-notch producers—Madonna associate Patrick Leonard, Chic's Bernard Edwards, and Prince bassist Andre Cymone—for her 1987 debut release, Jody Watley. The result was state-of-the-art dance pop, exemplified by the chart-topping single "Looking for a New Love" and its "hasta la vista, baby" catchprhase. Jody Watley notched platinum-record sales and brought Watley, who already had 15 years of show-business experience behind her, the Best New Artist Grammy award in 1988. Her hoop earrings set a late 1980s fashion trend.
A solidly successful followup, Larger Than Life, came next in 1989, spawning another major dance hit, "Real Love." The video for the song was directed by David Fincher, who later made Seven and The Fight Club, and the dance-savvy Watley generally ruled the MTV cable video channel during these years. Larger Than Life was produced exclusively by Andre Cymone. Watley and Cymone married in 1991, a banner year in which Watley also performed at the White House for President George H.W. Bush. Watley and Cymone had two children; daughter Lauren was born in the early 1980s and son Arie was born in 1992.
Felt at Odds with Gangster Trend
In 1990, Watley contributed a Cole Porter ballad, "After You," to the AIDS-research benefit album Red Hot & Blue. After issuing the successful exercise video Dance to Fitness and becoming perhaps the first black artist to release a fitness video, she tried to broaden her appeal beyond dance pop. Her next two albums, the ballad-heavy Affairs of the Heart (1991) and the introspective Intimacy (1993) were praised by critics but had only modest commercial success. Although Watley had been ahead of the curve in fusing R&B with hip-hop sounds in "Friends," her 1989 collaboration with Eric B. & Rakim, she was now swimming against commercial tides. "I can't bring myself to sit down and try to turn myself into one of those new-jill-swing girls or a gangsta [woman]. It's not me," she told Larry Flick of Billboard. She got moral support from her daughter, Lauren, who asked her why so many women's behinds appeared in music videos.
Watley was dropped by MCA, missing the late-1990s rise of female neo-soul vocals by just a few years. Her Intimacy album, for which she wrote or co-wrote much of the material, focused on the ups and downs of relationships, and she and Cymone divorced in 1995. It was a series of setbacks that would have sent many artists into retirement, but Watley hung on and took steps to plot out a midlife career that, even if she didn't occupy the spotlight the way she did in the late 1980s, offered her various outlets for her creative energies.
Forming her own label, Avitone, Watley released Affection in 1995. Appearing as Rizzo in the Broadway musical Grease the following year, she also signed with the Ford Modeling Agency. Even in her late 30s, Watley, whom both People and Harper's Bazaar had ranked among the world's most beautiful women, had no trouble lining up modeling jobs, including a partially nude six-page photo feature that appeared in Playboy in 1998. An album called Flower that Watley recorded for Atlantic was eventually shelved in the United States but was released in Europe and Japan and generated singles that were successful among Watley's strong fan bases in those areas. Her 2002 release of Midnight Lounge, an eclectic, high-tech vocal collection, put her back in the U.S. dance top 20 with the single "Whenever." In addition to her continued recording schedule, Watley sought out live performances as well. In 2005, an appearance by Watley at the Compound nightclub in Atlanta was recorded for broadcast on the VH1 cable channel. With her continued fan appeal, Watley's career had a lot of life left in it.
Albums with Shalamar
Disco Gardens, RCA, 1979.
Big Fun, Solar, 1980.
Three For Love, Solar, 1981.
Go for It, Solar, 1981.
Friends, Solar, 1982.
Jody Watley, MCA, 1987.
Larger Than Life, MCA, 1989.
Affairs of the Heart, MCA, 1991.
Intimacy, MCA, 1993.
Affection, Avitone, 1995.
Greatest Hits, MCA, 1996.
Flower, Atlantic, 1998.
Midnight Lounge, Shanachie, 2002.
Contemporary Musicians, Volume 26, Gale, 1999.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 31, 2005, p. 27.
Billboard, November 13, 1993, p. 26.
Business Wire, October 22, 2004.
Chicago Sun-Times, May 26, 1992, section 2, p. 4.
Curve, November 2003, p. 40.
Ebony, April 1994, p. 16.
Essence, March 1994, p. 62.
Fresno Bee, July 12, 1998, p. H3.
Jet, June 9, 2003, p. 35.
People, November 8, 1993, p. 24; March 11, 1996, p. 116; April 6, 1998, p. 23; March 17, 2003, p. 41.
"Jody Watley," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (August 3, 2005).
"Jody Watley," America Models, www.americamodels.com/jodywatley/_bio.htm (August 3, 2005).
"Jody Watley Profile," And We Danced, www.and-wedanced.com/artists/watley.htm (August 3, 2005).
"Profile," Jody Watley, www.jodywatley.net (August 3, 2005).
"Shalamar," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (August 3, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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