Jody Watley’s Self-Titled Debut Announced Her As a Dance and Style Icon
The 1980s were a renaissance of sorts for a new generation of black female vocalists. The dawn of the MTV era produced a slew of iconic soloists that dominated the R&B and pop charts throughout the decade. Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Sade and Anita Baker may be among the first that come to mind, but a star with a similarly seismic impact as those legendary performers is Jody Watley. Making her debut as a solo artist in 1987 with her self-titled solo album, Jody Watley may have been considered a new artist by the Grammy committee, who gave her the award for Best New Artist in 1988, however, she’d already been making her mark on dance and music for more than a decade.
Born on Jan. 30, 1959, in Chicago, Illinois, Jody Watley got her start in music at an early age, making her debut performance alongside godfather Jackie Wilson, one of the many musical stars that would stop by her father’s gospel radio show, at age 8. Three years later, she would form Black Fuzz, a three-girl dance group, but her first true foray into the entertainment industry came after her family moved to Los Angeles, California, where a chance encounter with a Soul Train dancer would result in her becoming a regular on the iconic show. Initially getting her foot in the door as a stand-in for another dancer, Jody would go to extreme lengths to make her presence known, eventually finding a kindred spirit in Jeffrey Daniel, another Soul Train dancer whom she would team up with to create some of the more indelible moments on the show.
“We started doing things that would make us stand out,” Jody recalled in a 1987 interview. “We`d do stuff that none of the other dancers would have the nerve to do, like dancing with fans or on roller skates.” The pair’s exploits would pay off in a major way, with Soul Train host Don Cornelius handpicking the two to join Shalamar, an R&B group he was establishing on he and his partner Dick Griffey’s newly-minted Soul Train Records, as backup dancers/singers. Cornelius’ decision was largely influenced by Watley and Daniel’s distinction as the two most popular and recognizable dancers on the show, having added to the show’s allure and flare with their head-turning looks, stylish outfits, and innovative dance routines.
Joining the group in 1977, Watley and Daniel would first backup Gary Mumford, then Gerald Brown, before being paired with Howard Hewett, the lineup that would see the most commercial success. The trio would score multiple hit singles, including “Take That Back To The Bank” and the platinum certified “The Second Time Around,” as well as the UK smash “I Owe You One,” but would reach their peak with their 1982 album, Friends. Spawning the hits “A Night To Remember” and “There It Is,” Friends would be the last Shalamar album to include contributions from Watley or Daniel, as both would depart from the group due to creative and artistic differences.
Watley would lament her issues with Solar Records (which Soul Train Records became after Don Cornelius sold his stake in the company to Dick Griffey) in an interview with the LA Times in 1987. “They controlled us,” the rising superstar said of Solar executives. “They felt more comfortable keeping us away from the creative decisions. They refused to accept the fact I had become a young woman, that I wasn’t a girl anymore. I had ideas I could have added to the group.” A huge part of Watley’s displeasure was her limited presence on songs and as a songwriter; only two of the countless songs she’d written while a member of Shalamar made it onto the group’s albums. This caused friction between her and the group’s handlers.
With the birth of her first child and a desire to spread her wings, Jody Watley would negotiate a release from her contract with Solar Records and leave Los Angeles for the UK, moving to London–which would prove to be the perfect source of inspiration for the singer. Taking a year away from the music scene to enjoy her new home and connect with photographers, which led to her dabbling in modeling, Watley would begin to get the music bug again after numerous requests by UK artists to write and record with her. Getting her feet wet again with an appearance on British Jamaican roots reggae group Musical Youth’s Different Style album, Watley would also develop concepts and songs with Gary Langan, a singer/songwriter with the group Art of Noise, but her most notable appearance while in the U.K. was pn Bob Geldof’s Band Aid recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” The success of the song, which included Bono, Boy George, Sting, George Michael, Phil Collins, Status Quo, Paul Weller, Bananarama and other prominent UK artists, and her building buzz as a solo artist would prompt her to return to Los Angeles, secure a deal with MCA Records, and craft her solo debut album, Jody Watley, throughout 1986.
Working with Bernard Edwards and former Prince bassist Andre Cymone during the making of the album, Watley would also be a major contributor, co-writing five of the nine songs on the LP. “Jody is the epitome of the ’80s artist,” Jody’s then-manager, Bennett Freed, shared in a 1987 interview. “Back in the Phil Spector / Ronettes days in the early 1960s, women artists were manipulated and told what to do. Today’s artists, like Jody, Janet Jackson and Madonna, have more control. For instance, when she (Watley) signed with MCA last year, she immediately hired the Rogers & Cowan public relations agency so she could work with them and be in charge of her public image. She choreographed her three videos. She helped design her album cover. She is in control. I work for her, she doesn’t work for me.”
Putting all of the chips on the table, Watley would come up all aces once her self-titled debut hit the shelves, as it instantly became one of the hottest releases on the market and reintroduced the one-time backup singer as a dance-floor stalking sex symbol, able to deliver hit singles at will.
“Looking for a New Love,” the lead-single from Jody Watley, is a funky, upbeat affair that finds Watley searching for a replacement to treat her while lamenting her former lover’s missteps and heartache caused. Produced by Andre Cymone and David Z, “Looking for a New Love,” which doubled as the intro cut on her album, would be a breakaway hit, landing at No. 2 on the Hot 100 and spending four weeks atop the R&B charts, thrusting Watley into the limelight as one of the hottest r&b acts of 1987.
“Still a Thrill,” Jody Watley’s second selection and the follow-up single to “Looking for a New Love, failed to mirror the crossover success of its predecessor, but reached the Top 10 of the R&B and Hot Dance charts, respectively, and continued to raise Watley’s stock. Andre Cymone’s Prince affiliation is evident on “Still a Thrill,” an offering in the vein of the Purple One’s more erotic compositions. With the contrast of success of “Looking for a New Lover” and “Still a Thrill,” MCA and Watley’s team decided to take another stab at the pop charts, unleashing the Bernard Edwards produced heater “Don’t You Want Me,” a drum, guitar, and synth laden ditty that is among the more addictive tunes on Jody Watley. Peaking at No. 6 on the pop charts, “Don’t You Want Me” would confirm Jody Watley’s arrival as one of the leaders of the new school.
Completing her trifecta of mega singles with “Some Kind of Lover,” the third single from Jody Watley to peak in the Top 10 of the Billboard 200, leading critics and fans alike to begin mentioning the talented beauty in the same breath as other female hit-makers Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson, the latter of which Watley was accused of jacking her style from, an assertion that the singer herself denied during an interview with Rolling Stone. When asked about Janet Jackson and the similarities between Jackson’s 1986 release, Control, and Watley’s own self-titled debut, Watley emphatically shot down any comparisons of the two, stating “I didn`t try to sound like Janet Jackson,” adding “I`m very annoyed by that. That was the last thing on Andre`s mind, or anybody who worked on the album.”
Although Watley treads familiar terrain to that of Jackson’s breakthrough album on deep cuts like “Do It to the Beat” and the George Micheal collab “Learn to Say No,” the track from Jody Watley that adds the most fuel to those whispers is the album’s fifth and final single “Most of All.” Co-Written by Patrick Leonard and Gardner Cole, and produced by Leonard, “Most of All,” would be the least successful single released from Jody Watley, peaking outside the Top 10 of the Hot Black Singles chart, but continued the singer’s dominant showing on the dance charts, where she had proved to be a constant presence throughout 1987 and 1988. By the end of 1988, Jody Watley had emerged as a household name, trumping the success she had seen as a member of Shalamar and evolving into one of the faces of pop and dance oriented r&b.
Peaking at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 and selling more than four million copies worldwide, Jody Watley would be one of 1987’s more memorable releases, and would remain a hot long player well into the following year. Watley, who would become a trendsetter with her dance-centric music videos, would spend 1988 on an award tour, garnering multiple nominations at the Grammy’s, the MTV Video Music Awards, as well as the Soul Train Awards, capping off one of the more successful debuts of the decade, solo or otherwise. The release of Jody Watley’s sophomore album, Larger Than Life, would see Watley increasing her role as a songwriter, penning 11 of the album’s 12 songs, and would match the success of her debut with over four million copies sold, but would be her last album to dominate the charts, as Watley’s desire to expand her artistry in the ’90s in an attempt to shake her reputation as an artist reliant on the dance-friendly singles would result in a drop in popularity and sales, with her most notable musical moments behind her.
Twenty years after the release of her self-titled debut, the singer was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2008 Billboard Awards, proof of her distinctive influence as a musical, style, dance, and fashion icon. Jody Watley remains a musical icon of the highest order and a legend in the eyes of many, and her monster of a debut is an undisputed classic and one of the definitive R&B albums of its era.