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 Threefor 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.
At a Glance …
Born January 30, 1959 in Chicago, IL; father a minister and gospel disc jockey; married Andre Cymone, a musician and producer (divorced 1995); children: Lauren and Arie.
Soul Train television program, featured dancer, mid-1970s; Shalamar, disco vocal group, member, 1978-83; recorded and worked as model in Europe, 1983-85; MCA label, recording artist, 1987; Avitone label, founder, 1995; Atlantic label, recording artist, 1997; Ford Modeling Agency, model, 199(?)–; Shanachie label, recording artist, 2002–.
Grammy award, Best New Artist, 1988.
Label—Shanachie Entertainment Corporation, 37 East Clinton St., Newton, NJ 07860.
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
"Watley, Jody." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/watley-jody-1
"Watley, Jody." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved May 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/watley-jody-1
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“I know what I like and don’t like,” vocalist and performer Jody Watley told Rory O’Connor in Vogue. “I fight for what I want—and I get it.” A dancer on the television show Soul Train, Watley sang with the popular rhythm and blues trio Shalamar before making her way to solo stardom in the late 1980s. An award-winning recording artist, Watley designed a successful marketing strategy that has netted multiplatinum-selling albums and numerous Top Ten singles. “Some performers are great singers, some can dance, some have a great look, and others project a lot of energy,” Watley, who wanted to be a fashion designer once, disclosed to O’Connor. “But I’m all those things rolled into one.”
Born in Chicago, Illinois, Watley is the daughter of a radio talk show evangelist. As a child, she met several prominent black entertainers, including Sam Cooke and Joe Tex, through her father’s program. When Jody was eight years old, her godfather, “Mr. Entertainment” Jackie Wilson, invited her to perform live with him onstage. She recalled to Anthony DeCurtis in Rolling Stone, “It was really funny—I didn’t freak out or anything. Once I was out there, I became Little Miss Excitement.”
The Watley family moved frequently throughout Jody’s childhood because of her father’s schedule. She revealed to DeCurtis that although her mother sang in church choirs, “it never interested me. It always seemed like too many people to be in the midst of.” Instead, Watley remained in her room “dancing up a storm” in front of her mirror to the secular strains of James Brown and Motown. Her parents made no objection to her musical taste. “I started finding myself through short stories and little poems I wrote as a kid,” Watley recounted to David Ritz in Essence. “I always loved writing. And dressing up. My mother has wonderful taste in clothes. She’d dress me for school so immaculately that I’d get run home.”
After her family moved from Kansas City, Missouri, to Los Angeles, Watley landed a spot on Soul Train, beginning her dancing career at the age of 14. When Jeffrey Daniel became her television dance partner, the pair devised eye-catching routines. “We started doing things that would make us stand out,” Jody divulged to DeCurtis. “We’d do stuff that none of the other dancers would have the nerve to do.” The couple enhanced their act using such things as roller skates and oriental fans. When Watley was 17, she was encouraged by Soul Train producer Don Cornelius to start a singing career. The high school graduate, who had received her diploma with honors, confided to Ritz, “It wasn’t
For the Record…
Born January 30, c. 1960, in Chicago, IL; daughter of a radio evangelist; children: Lauren.
Singer and songwriter. Dancer on television show Soul Train at age 14; member of trio Shalamar for eight years; released self-titled solo album on MCA Records, 1987; producer of exercise video Jody Watley: Dance to Fitness, 1990.
Selected awards: Grammy Award for best new artist, 1988; two multiplatinum albums.
Addresses: Home —Los Angeles, CA. Record company —MCA Records, 70 Universal Plaza, 3rd floor, Universal City, CA 91608.
easy deciding not to go to college, since learning’s important to me. But deep down, I knew this was my destiny.”
Cornelius persuaded Watley and Daniel to form a trio with Howard Hewett called Shalamar, marketing the single “Uptown Festival,” which Cornelius had previously made with studio musicians. Although Shalamar produced numerous successful albums, songwriter Watley was disillusioned during her eight years with the group since Shalamar recorded only two of her songs. “Spiritually, creatively, artists must grow,” Watley told Ritz. “After a few years, it was clear that my artistic growth was stunted. I was stuck.... I couldn’t stand being treated like a brainless doll. It wasn’t a matter of money, it was a matter of happiness. Success isn’t being rich; it’s being happy.” Watley left Shalamar to launch her own career in 1984.
After a brief sojourn in England making pivotal professional contacts, Watley returned to Los Angeles where she paired up with ex-Prince bassist Andre Cymone. Cymone, producer Bernard Edwards—who had worked with Diana Ross—and Watley developed songs, while Watley put together “the design, the details, the videos, the concept as a whole,” she told Vogue’s O’Connor. Her 1987 multiplatinum, self-titled debut album was carefully calculated to present Jody as a savvy femme fatale in the same league with her late eighties competitors Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston. Although High Fidelity posted “warning signs” about Watley being an “all watered-down Janet Jackson,” Rolling Stone asserted the artist was a worthy rival whose “vocals establish her as a serious pro.” The magazine continued, “She gets to the song’s emotional point.” Watley’s profile appeared in several magazines, including Vogue, Essence, Rolling Stone, and Harper’s Bazaar. Winning a Grammy Award in 1988 for best new artist, she devoted the next years to making herself a headliner.
Watley’s second release, 1989’s Larger Than Life, went platinum, convincing critics the singer was durable. People’s David Hiltbrand declared that the young star is “likely to be with us for a while if she continues to put out strong, sassy, records like [Larger Than Life].” The reviewer commented that her “voice, though limited, has a sultry edge,” but her “music throughout is rich, crisp and clear.”
In 1991 Watley’s third album, Affairs of the Heart, received accolades from Arion Berger in Entertainment Weekly: “Affairs may be unserious dance fluff, but Watley’s commitment to the music is real. She sings love songs as if they matter, and the record turns out to be another solid collection of heavy-breathing dance workouts.” Diane Cardwell in Rolling Stone and David Hiltbrand in People noted Watley lacked the vocal strength to carry off the numerous ballads on the album, but Hiltbrand stated, “Watley still furnishes abundant reasons to move” on her “dance grooves.”
A single mother, Watley balances a career and raising her daughter, Lauren, in Los Angeles. Renowned for her fashion sense, she favors Japanese designers but donned a $40 thrift shop bargain when she attended the 1988 Grammy Awards. Watley told Lynn Hirsch-berg in Vanity Fair, “I style myself.... It drives the record company crazy.... But I know my goals better than anyone—I want to be megafamous and I want to do my own grocery shopping.”
Watley’s early 1990s plans included worldwide tours and acting roles. An advocate of charities for AIDS victims, she sang composer Cole Porter’s “After You, Who?” on the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Blue. The multitalented performer told Larry Flick in Billboard, “We all have an obligation to lend a helping hand to people in pain. It’s all about compassion and humanity. What good is there in success if you can’t use it to help people who need it?”
On MCA Records
Jody Watley, 1987.
Larger Than Life, 1989.
(Contributor), “After You, Who?,” Red Hot + Blue, Chrysalis, 1990.
Affairs of the Heart, 1991.
You Wanna Dance With Me?
Billboard, November 30, 1991.
Ebony, February 1988; April 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, December 13, 1991.
Essence, July 1982; May 1988.
Glamour, June 1988.
Harper’s Bazaar, September 1989.
High Fidelity, September 1987.
Interview, December 1991.
Jet, June 22, 1987.
Musician, July 1987.
People, May 22, 1989; July 1, 1991; January 13, 1992.
Performing Arts, 1983/1984.
Playboy, October 1989.
Rolling Stone, May 21, 1987; June 18, 1987; August 24, 1989; January 23, 1992.
Vanity Fair, October 1991.
Vogue, September 1987.
"Watley, Jody." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/watley-jody
"Watley, Jody." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved May 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/watley-jody
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Jody Watley is the rare performer who measures success in terms of happiness. As a singer, dancer, songwriter, and producer, she typifies the complete artist of the 1990s. Watley was already a 15-year veteran of television, recording, and performing when she won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1987.
Watley was born in Chicago around 1960. Her family lived for a time in Kansas City, Missouri, but Watley was raised for the most part in Los Angeles. She was born into a family with show business ties. Her father was an Episcopalian radio evangelist and a disk jockey; her mother was a piano player and singer. Among her family’s most cherished friends were popular performers Joe Tex, Sam Cooke, and Jackie Wilson. Wilson, in fact, was Watley’s godfather.
During the early 1970s when Watley was only 14 years old, she landed a steady job on the Soul Train television show. On Soul Train, Watley partnered with Jeffrey Daniel, who later joined Watley as a member of the R&B trio Shalamar. The two worked well together, choreographing their own wild and daring dance routines. Cornelius was so impressed that he encouraged Watley, a 17-year-old high school graduate, to pursue a career in the performing arts. Watley, who graduated high school with honors, fully intended to enroll in college, but knew instinctively that her future was in songwriting and singing. With the endorsement of Cornelius, she was hard-pressed to ignore what she perceived as her destiny. Also with Cornelius’ encouragement, Watley was instrumental in establishing Shalamar. The group consisted of Watley, Howard Hewett, and her Soul Train partner, Daniels. Watley remained with Shalamar for seven years during the late 1970s and into the 1980s. In 1984 she left the group to expand her personal artistic talents. She was concerned about her stereotypical function in the group as a “sexy girl” instead of a serious singer, and she aspired to write and perform her own songs.
With Shalamar in her past, Watley spent some time working as a model in England. On her return to Los Angeles, she became professionally involved with André Cymone, a bass player, and former band member with The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. Watley and Cymone established a working relationship with former Diana Ross producer, Bernard Edwards. She wrote and collaborated with Cymone in a creative effort that resulted in several albums and hit singles. Watley’s brother, John, was also involved as her tour manager. Watley signed a contract with MCA, and the success of her debut solo album Jody Watley won her the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1987. Among the selections on that album was the number one “smash” hit “Looking for a New Love.”
Born January 30, c. 1960, in Chicago, IL; married André Cymone; divorced; one daughter, Lauren; one son, Arie.
Soul Train dancer, c. 1970; member of Shalamar, late 1970s; MCA records solo artist, 1987-1993; established Avitone record label, 1995; Atlantic Records, 1998-; established Divine Management.
Awards: Grammy Award for Best New Artist, 1987.
Addresses: Record company —Atlantic Recording Corp., 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104.
Watley’s next album, Larger than Life in 1989, featured the ballad “Real Love” which earned gold record status. The album also included a collection of dance tunes with a rousing beat. Herthird album, comprised of an assortment of ballads, was the vehicle that established Watley as a serious singer. The soulful selections silenced those skeptics who compartmentalized her style and labeled her a songstress of the faded disco era. By 1993, Watley had released five albums on the MCA label, including her fifth and final MCA release, Intimacy, on which she co-wrote seven of the album’s ten songs. Watley’s solo career completed its metamorphosis in the 1990s. She shed her image as a “disco-dolly” and “pony-girl,” diverging exclusively toward introspective and romantic moods. In 1991 President George Bush extended an invitation to Watley to sing at a White House ceremony at the Kennedy Center in 1992. Watley accepted, and she used the opportunity to voice her opinions on racial bigotry.
After leaving MCA, Watley launched her own record label, Avitone, and went on to produce her own album, Affection, in 1995. Additionally she directed and released a video for Affection. She signed with Atlantic Records in 1998, and by 1999 her solo career credits entailed six top ten singles and two platinum albums. Watley was heard singing along with a collection of other popular artists on the Dr. Dolittle movie soundtrack. She also sang on various soundtrack recordings for Beverly Hills 90210, White Men Can’t Jump, and the AIDS benefit album Band-Aid. She appeared live on Black Entertainment’s (BET) Planet Groove and made a round of talk show visits in anticipation of her first Atlantic release. With the release of her first album from Atlantic Records, Watley also established a management company called Divine.
It came as a surprise to many who followed Watley’s career that her working relationship with Cymone transcended their professional life. The couple was married for three years before they revealed that fact to the public. According to Watley, the secrecy was intended in part to protect Cymone’s privacy in the wake of her own soaring stardom. The couple has two children—a daughter, Lauren, born in the early 1980s, and a son, Arie, born in 1992. Watley and Cymone were married for approximately ten years. They divorced near the end of 1995.
Watley confronts the issue of a pending reunion between herself and the other Shalamar singers from time to time, but her attitude suggests that the group is a thing of the past and should not be resurrected. Motherhood demands much of hertime, and her career outlets continue to unfold. Svelte and health-conscious, she filmed a fitness video in 1990, entitled Jody Watley: Dance to Fitness. In 1996, she signed with the famous Ford Modeling Agency and accepted an exclusive contract to model Sack’s Fifth Avenue’s Winter Coat wardrobe. Two years later she modeled for a (partially nude) six-page spread in the April 1998 issue of Playboy magazine.
Jody Watley, MCA, 1987.
Larger Than Life, MCA 1989.
You Wanna Dance with Me? 1989.
Affairs of the Heart, MCA, 1991.
Intimacy, MCA, 1993.
Remixes of Love (Japanese release), 1994.
Affection, Avitone/Bellmark, 1995.
Greatest Hits, 1996.
Flower, Atlantic, 1998.
Billboard, December 20, 1998.
Ebony, November 1993, p. 36.
Essence, March 1994, p. 62.
Jet, August 7, 1995, p. 34.
People, October 16, 1995, p. 96; March 11, 1996, p. 116; May 25, 1997, p. 21; April 6, 1998, p. 23.
“Jody Watley Discography,” and “Jody Biography” available at http://www.americamodels.com/jodywatley/ (May 25, 1999).
"Watley, Jody." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/watley-jody-0
"Watley, Jody." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved May 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/watley-jody-0