Chicago-born and Los Angeles-bred Jody Watley was always drawn to the stage, having performed at age 8 with her godfather, the legendary Jackie Wilson. She would start dancing on the seminal television dance show “Soul Train” at age 14, becoming one of the most popular dancers on the series with her sense of style and dance moves taking center stage. “Soul Train” creator Don Cornelius took notice and selected her and Jeffrey Daniels, another popular dancer on the show, for a project that evolved into the music group Shalamar. After going through vocalists Gary Mumford, then later Gerald Brown, Howard Hewett was paired with them as vocalist and Leon Sylvers III as producer. It was at this point that Shalamar was poised for a successful run in the industry with their most notable lineup.
Listen to five essential tracks by Jody Watley.
1. “Make That Move”
“Make That Move” is the maxi extended rework mix, from the album “Three For Love.” Watley would remain with Shalamar from 1977 to 1983 as the trio topped the charts with numerous seminal dance classics such as “The Second Time Around,” “For The Lover In You,” and “A Night To Remember.” However, Watley would leave in 1983 amid conflicts related to the artistic and financial direction of the group.
She would move to England where she did guest vocals on reggae group Musical Youth’s “Different Style” album and release a couple of U.K. singles under the mononym “Jody,” all the while conceptualizing who she would become as an artist – sonically, artistically and aesthetically. After living in England for a couple of years, she returned to the United States, secured a record deal with MCA, and was eager to unleash a new musical identity and artistic statement on the world-at-large.
Work ensued on what would be her debut album, with Watley co-writing six of the tunes. Gone were the trademark clean-edged soul grooves of the Shalamar sound, replaced with an infectious mix of hard dance, sophisticated funk and urban pop. The release was lightning in a bottle and took the dance world by storm.
2. “Don’t You Want Me”
Along with “Don’t You Want Me,” other tracks such as “Looking for a New Love,” “Some Kind of Lover,” “Still a Thrill” and others populated the top of the music and dance charts, putting her in rarified air among 1980s artists. Watley would win a Grammy Award for best new (solo) artist and the album would go on to help define the club and dance genres of the mid-1980s. The album also reestablished Watley as an emerging global fashion icon and dance choreographer with her photogenic aesthetic and telegenic moves that dominated MTV video playlists.
She would further galvanize her synthesis of music, artistry, fashion and dance on subsequent releases such as “Larger Than Life,” “Affairs of the Heart” and “Intimacy,” but with more personal artistic commentary on mature themes and social issues. But as was indicative of the times, her record label didn’t know what to do or how to market an artist who was evolving from being a dance diva into a more multifaceted presence. By the time Watley released her fifth studio album “Affection,” she had parted ways with MCA and started her own label, Avitone Records, to better facilitate her expanding creativity and artistic expression. The album incorporated mature thematic subjects and more diverse music with jazz, adult contemporary and R & B textures. Her 1998 release “Flower” would continue a similar trajectory of growth.
3. “Saturday Night Experience”
Watley’s ear was tuned into the global electronic sounds of deep house as she kept up with many of its most notable artists and producers. She was particularly inspired by the duo 4Hero and began work on her 1999 release “The Saturday Night Experience.” The album would combine deep house, drum and bass, broken beat and atmospheric dance grooves into a completely reimagined sound, signaling the next phase of her musical evolution.
Using her label Avitone Records to release the project in Japan, the title song for the album was licensed to pioneering label Giant Step, who included it on their compilation “Giant Sessions Volume 1,” but with a remix from noted Chicago-based deep house star Ron Trent.
Watley unveiled what was a new direction for her music career with “Saturday Night Experience.” The release represented a pendulum shift in her growth but was also a major risk. It was very rare for an artist of her stature to completely recalibrate her sound and to do so without incorporating the generic commercial music formulas. But she pulled it off – graduating from her clubland diva days to a more mature, adult, sultry, smoky vocal and production aesthetic.
4. “Midnight Lounge” (Mark De Clive Lowe mix)
Watley would release what many music pundits would cite as possibly her most complete musical and artistic statement with “Midnight Lounge.” The album saw an initial release in Europe and Japan and then later in the U.S. The project blended soul, jazz, R & B and electronica into a beautiful audio mélange. It would also continue her penchant for introducing the gatekeepers of the progressive global electronic underground to worldwide audiences. The title track of “Midnight Lounge” got the remix treatment from electronic/deep house artist and producer Mark de Clive Lowe.
5. “Sanctuary” (Soulpersona Raregrooves remix)
“Sanctuary” features a collaborative remix from another of electronic music’s top underground producers, Soulpersona.
Watley has proven to be the prototype and blueprint on how a global songbird can evolve while staying true to her art. She would release more albums most notably “The Makeover,” in addition to various EPs that further explored musical excursions into electronica. She continues to impact music and garner recognition for her works. She received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Billboard magazine, was recognized by Black Music Honors TV as Crossover Music Icon Honoree for her groundbreaking achievements and influence, and was recently named the First Ambassador of the National Museum of African American Music.
Watley has shown a special resiliency throughout the ages. When she left Shalamar, she used that as an opportunity to forge an identity as one of the pioneering artists of the 1980s. When the record industry didn’t know how to promote her music, Watley took control of her career, starting her own label and blossoming into the next phase of her artistry.
When she changed the direction of her sound, Watley collaborated with and adopted the architects of the progressive electronic global music underground, using her platform to introduce their art to a worldwide audience while they helped to mine and cultivate her ever-evolving sound.
In recent years, Watley has toured nonstop with a rebranded Shalamar, dubbed Shalamar: Reloaded, a group of artists that incorporates classic tunes she helped to popularize along with her solo hits of the 1980s and 1990s, paired with her modern classics of today. As a result, her global fan base continues to grow as new generations discover her music – past and present.
Watley has enjoyed a special longevity grounded in rejecting the narrow definitions of success that are often hallmarks of the music industry and instead bringing a storied history and generational impact to the independent music community – a pioneering legacy indeed.