Future Retro: Jody Watley
A TOUCH OF SHALAMAR
Singer, songwriter, and producer Jody Watley first boogied her way to fame at the age of 14 as a dancer on the legendary music program Soul Train. In 1976 the group Shalamar was created by Soul Train‘s booking agent, Dick Griffey, and R&B producer Simon Soussan. After a group of session musicians recorded the original hit “Uptown Festival” in 1977, Jody and her male counterparts took over as the official version of the group. For seven years Shalamar was a solid-gold hit machine, spinning off a string of disco, soul, and funk classics.
The group’s longest-lasting and most popular lineup consisted of Jody and singers Howard Hewett and Jeffrey Daniels: their success began when they signed with SOLAR Records and joined forces with producer Leon Sylvers III. Shalamar’s run of chart success kicked off with 1979’s “Take That to the Bank,” which reached #20 on the UK pop chart. Numerous pop and R&B hits followed, including “A Night to Remember” (#5 pop in the UK), “This Is for the Lover in You,” and “Friends,” and 1980’s million-selling smash hit “The Second Time Around” soared all the way to #1 on the U.S. disco and R&B charts and #8 on the pop chart. The album Friends achieved platinum status in 1982 by crossing over and reaching fans of pop, disco, and soul.
Shalamar kept the dance floor full through the early ’80s. However, problems behind the scenes with their record label led Jody and Jeffrey to dance their way out of the group by 1982; it was a new version of the group that recorded the hit dance groove “Dancing in the Sheets” for the Footloose soundtrack album in 1984. Meanwhile, Jody found her way to London and began recording demos with the Art of Noise before being asked by Bob Geldof to appear on Band Aid’s 1984 charity record “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” She was soon ready to walk the runway to her own solo career. Hasta la vista, Shalamar!
A NEW LOVE
A solo star was born upon the release of Jody’s self-titled debut album on MCA Records in March 1987. Collaborating with red-hot producers Andre Cymone (her future ex-husband), Bernard Edwards, Patrick Leonard and David Z. infusedÂ the album with a unique hybrid of driving dance, funky pop and smooth R&B. Kickstart single “Looking for a New Love” instantly caught fire and spent a month at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart, eventually racking up sales of 750,000 copes in the U.S..Â A set of sassy, funky-chic videos helped propel a stream of hits including second single “Still a Thrill,” (#8 Hot Dance Music/Club Play), “Don’t You Want Me” (#6 Billboard Hot 100), and “Some Kind of Lover” (#10 Billboard Hot 100).
The Jody Watley album peaked at #10 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums charts, #1 on the Top R&B Albums chart and eventually sold nearly five million copies worldwide. By the time the album had run its course,Â Jody was firmly established as a unique new presence on the music scene whose artistic style would continue to earn her millions of devoted fans. In 1988, Jody was nominated at the MTV Video Music Awards and the Soul Train Awards. The highlight was when the Grammys awarded her their Best New Artist award. She remains one of the few artists whose career did not go down in flames after winning the supposedly prestigious honor.
Jody became Larger Than Life in 1989 with the hotly-anticipated release of her follow-up album. Its title was more than fitting since the project was a huge hit and easily avoided the dreaded sophomore slump. It also helped ensure her ascension to pop/soul icon. Fans quickly fell in love with the album’s thumping first single and biggest hit, “Real Love.” It romanced its way to #1 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play charts and sold over 500,000 copies. Other major jams included “Everything” (#4 Billboard Hot 100) and “Friends” (#7 Hot Dance Music/Club Play) which featured a notable collaboration with Eric B. & Rakim. Larger Than Life reached # 5 on the Top R&B Albums chart and eventually sold over four million copies.
Affairs of the Heart is exactly what devoted fans were still having with Jody’s music in December of 1991 when she dropped her third studio album. R&B fans definitely wanted the album’s first single “I Want You,” and sent it to #5 on the Hot R&B Singles chart. Next up was the David Morales-produced house groove “I’m the One You Need” which made it to #19 on the Billboard Hot 100. Affairs of the Heart climbed to #21 on the Top R&B Albums chart but still sold less than 400,000 copies in the U.S.. It’s often considered her best set by fans but it seemed that mainstream music buyers were starting to cool their affair with Ms. Watley.
November 1993 saw Jody exploring Intimacy, her fourth album. Partners-in-rhyme this time around are long-time collaborator and husband Andre Cymone along with killer producers Art & Rhythm, Philip Kelsey and David Morales. The beats that flow through the album are only slightly turned down in comparison to her previous releases which were usually bumpin’ from beginning to end. Intimacy overflows with solid, laid back tracks that groove down the middle and sometimes reflect a jazz influence. Everything that the album has going for it comes shining through on the grooving first single, “Your Love Keeps Working On Me.” The track became yet another dancefloor hit for Jody, topping out at #2 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart but did not make that much-needed pop crossover and peaked out at #100 on the Billboard Hot 100. Not a good sign for an ambitious album that was expected to further a once red-hot career.
“Workin’ on a Groove” starts the album spinning with its well-placed harmonica parts that make this the perfect jam for those long summer days (and nights). “When a Man Loves a Woman” (not the Percy Sledge tune) is a breathy, spoken word evdeavor about the AIDS epidemic that made a mild impression #11 on the R&B charts. However, a remix did manage to top the dance charts in the UK. “Are You the One?” is full of life and funk. “To Be With You” is a slow burner that’s perfect for a quiet storm-style radio station. “Too Shy to Say” is a heartfelt Stevie Wonder ballad that’s perfect “for the lover in you.”
Despite its best intentions, Intimacy never became truly intimate with music fans and maintained a relatively platonic relationship with the charts. It never went further than #38 among Billboard’s Top R&B Albums and sold only around 250,000 copies in the U.S.. Perhaps the grinding grunge and over the top hip-hop that was emerging at the time is what kept this album and many others like it from getting the promotion and airplay that they needed. Ultimately, Intimacy flirts with a lot of different musical styles and handles them very nicely. It is an album that still sounds hot, cool and surprisingly undated considering the time it was released in.
The real hidden treasure on the album, “Ecstasy” is an orgasmic house jam about finally finding the one person for you – and dancing about it. Co-written (with Jody and Terry Burrus) and produced by David Morales, it was released as a promo single to DJs and dance clubs. Despite the disappointing low profile of Intimacy, “Ecstasy” still managed to become one of the album’s most popular tracks.Â A David Morales remix was included on the U.K. single of “When a Man Loves a Woman” and the same remix was later included on Jody’s 1996 Greatest Hits collection.
In spite of a huge dip in record sales, Ms. Watley was still receiving plenty of Affection from devoted fans upon the July 1995 release ofÂ her fifth album. By this time she had parted ways with MCA Records where she’d enjoyed her greatest success. The new project was released through her own independent label Avitone Records and distributed by Bellmark Records. Created with writer / producer Derrick Edmonson, Affection takes a bit of a turn from her previous work by featuring light pop and slower, groovier, jazzier R&B. This new tactic was necessary but it did not serve to help her record sales or her profile among an increasingly crowded field of R&B wimps and wannabes. Jody has always been her own creation and skillfully uses not only her music but also her videos, clothing and photo images to set herself apart from everyone else. There was no question, though, that she’d taken a tumble from the charts and the pop culture menu.
Despite having no huge hit singles, the title track did manage to struggle its way to #28 the Hot R&B Singles chart. That, unfortunately , is as good as it got for this overlooked project. A few standout tracks include the cool, breezy “All Night Love Affair,” “The Beat Don’t Stop” which Jody delivers in her underused lower register and “The Way (Pts. 1 & 2),” a long, steamy opus that attempts to equal some of her earlier material. The special surprise of the album, and the track that makes this a must-have for true fans, is a simmering, stripped-down version of her signature song “Looking for a New Love.” Taken from a live performance, it rightfully closes out the album. It is this set’s true highlight and would lay the foundation for Jody’s future “makeover” of other classic pop and R&B tracks. Affection got very little love from record buyers and the affair ended abruptly at #59 on the Top R&B Albums chart.
The disco garden that Jody’s career had become by 1998 produced one beautiful Flower in the form of her major label return on Big Beat/Atlantic Records. At this point it seemed as though Jody was having to approach each record as ifÂ it were a comeback despite the fact that she had never really left. A number of old and new collaborators helped Jody tend to her latest project and make it fit into the then-contemporary R&B music scene while still retaining her unique style. Among the all-star lineup were the returning Derrick Edmondson as well as Phil Galdston, Masters at Work, Malik Pendleton, D’Wayne Wiggins and Bryce Wilson.
Flower is perhaps Jody’s most mature-sounding record, laced with thoughtful songwriting and smooth, slinky urban workouts that de-emphasize the typical dance/pop of her previous albums. Jody’s vocals are the most refined and confident that they’ve ever been. This is one diva who actually gets better the more she relaxes into her own sound. Proof of this is the single “If I’m Not in Love” which glides along on a percolating groove and Jody’s assured, seductive purring. This helped the song become a huge hit on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart. Unfortunately, this did not help the album’s fate. Big Beat Records was folded into Atlantic Records, which in turn pulled the album from a much-needed release in the U.S.. The good reviews it received in other countries did little to keep Flower from wilting before if ever got the see the light of day.
“Off The Hook” (download)
If any song ever had the right title, it’s this one. Honey sweet with a thumping beat, it was wisely picked as the first single. This Malik Pendleton-produced slow jam starts off slinky and doesn’t let you go. It’s a funky, laid back track with a lilting beat that gets better with every listen. Jody’s still looking for a new love and this time she’s found one whose off the chain and . . . well, off the hook. That’s ’90’s R&B group Changing Faces laying down the sultry backup. This track had the distinction of being Jody’s first #1 Hot Dance Music/Club Play hit in nine years. There is also aÂ D-Dot remix of this track that appears on the album.
SATURDAY NIGHT EXPERIENCE
Are you experienced ? November 1999 found Jody resurrecting her own label, Avitone and unveiling Saturday Night Experience. Rodney Lee, Derrick B. Edmundson and Lati Kronlund join forces with Jody to produce a gorgeous intermingling of experimental club styles. Released as a Japanese import, this set finds the dance diva immersing herself with sounds that are further removed than those that she’d been previously known for. Represented here are tracks in the underground, downtempo, deep house, trip hop and drum n bass styles. Despite the numerous producers and types of club workouts, it is all mixed together with taste, soul and an easy-flowing hand. All of this speaks to the direction that Jody’s future projects were heading towards. Jody is to be commended for always pushing her work forward and trying to introduce her listeners to new audio journeys that they may never have heard before. That’s the real “experience” of this album.
Welcome to the Midnight Lounge, please wait to be seated. Album number eight finally arrived in 2001 in Europe and Japan via Avitone Records and Universal Music Group. A new lineup of craftsmen were brought in to assist including Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez, King Britt, Rodney Lee, Ron Trent, Little Louie Vega and Dave Warrin. Continuing to expand in new musical directions, this album shimmers with a dreamy, sophisticated blend of her trademark jazzy, soulful pop and club hooks. This is combined with the talents of her new collaborators, deeper and more complex lyrics and a brave, experimental attitude.
At this point, Jody’s popularity had unfairly declined so much that getting U.S. distribution for her projects did not happen automatically. Midnight Lounge was able to garner enough good reviews from both critics and fans in its original countries of release that it received some limited U.S. exposure via Avitone and Shanachie Records in 2003. In a way, having lost a certain amount of her mainstream success has helped to set Jody free. No longer expected to be a hit-making machine, she is left to her own devices and can do as she pleases as an artist. All of this makes for a richer, more multi-layered listening experience.
The swirling title track got a single release in the U.S. in 2003 and made its way to #19 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart. Another single titled “Photographs” managed to become a decent hit in Japan and other countries. It eventually became an “underground” hit in the U.S.. That means you’ve probably never heard it. In the end, none of the acclaim or midly successful singles managed to launch the album any higher than #13 on the Top Electronic Albums chart. The Midnight Lounge closed earlier than expected.
Thankfully, Jody Watley has never heard the phrase “don’t make me over.” Tribute or “remake” collections are a dime a dozen (depending on your rate of exchange) but in this case fans will find that they have hit the old-school jackpot. In August 2006, Jody revealed the Avitone Records release The Makeover, where everything old is new again. The groundwork for this idea possibly started in 2005 when Jody memorably remade her own signature tune “Looking for a New Love.” Co-conspirators along for the timewarp are King Britt, Chris Brann, DJ Spinna, 4hero, Mark De Clive-Lowe and Rodney Lee. They pay lavish, loving tribute to some of their major musical influences. Trance, house and ambience remodels are applied to help give everything a modern sheen. The overall atmosphere of the album is that of an after hours lounge but filled with a modern, eclectic vibe. Smooth, sleek, sometimes jazzy, often revealing, always respectful of the glorious past.
The Bob Marley cover “Waiting in Vain,” is brought back by Ron Trent who provides the song with a hushed house groove, light piano and percussive instruments that perfectly envelop Jody’s vocals. “Bed of Roses” is a nice little drum n bass concoction. “A Beautiful Life” is reminiscent of The Brand New Heavies and is a song about survival. Mark de Clive-Lowe offers a remix of “Midnight Lounge,” the title track from her previous album. Jody also reveals a seemingly unlikely influence with her medley of Carpenters songs that have been given a basic R&B backdrop. A real highlight of the disc are remakes of the classics “Don’t You Want Me” (by King Britt) and “Friends” (re-titled “Friendz”). This album could easily have been called The Comeback since in 2007, Jody was ranked the #5 Billboard Dance Play Artist of the year.
Honey, don’t you fool around. The album’s surprise first single is a lush, shimmering take on Madonna’s early hit “Borderline.” Composed by Reggie Lucas and originally released in 1984, it became one of what’s-her-name’s most beloved songs.Â Jody’s version is performed as a quiet, yearning ballad that reveals the hidden poignancy behind the lyrics. Fans of both Madonna and Jody were pushed over the borderline themselves and sent the track to #2 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart in January 2007.
“I Want Your Love”
Tres Chic! Second single “I Want Your Love” is a faithful throwback to the 1978 Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers disco classic. DJ Spinna brings new life to the track by keeping much of the original arrangement but adding in a creamy dance beat that is perfectly catered to Jody’s gorgeous vocals. That’s none other than Nile Rodgers himself on guitar, giving this version his personal seal of approval. Aided by a fierce group of remixes, it went to #1 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart in June 2007.
She’s got the sweetest hangover – and so will you. Who better than Ms. Jody to do a sizzling remake of the Miss Ross disco-fied extravaganza throwdown opus ? Written by Pamela Sawyer and Marilyn McLeod, it was originally dropped like a glittering bombshell onto unsuspecting ’70’s dancefloors. The 1976 single went all the way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, the Hot Soul Singles chart and the Hot Dance Music/Club Play charts.Â It was an instant, sprawling classic with a delicious dark side waiting behind the dance beat – and that was just the two hour intro. Jody was the latest dance diva to wrap her well-manicured fingernails around this track. You can thank Mariah Carey (or not) for starting the trend. Jody brings a funky chill to her own version and scores. If there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it.
FUNNY HOW TIME FLIES . . .
As I watch days turn into years. Fashionista. Video Vixen. Groove Goddess. Fans began their love affair with Jody Watley over three dancefloor-shaking decades ago. She and her music continue to evolve and are thrilling fans to this very day.Â This has earned her a fierce devtion that many artists will never achieve. Jody has sold over twenty million singles and albums all over the world. The planet is her own personal discoteque. She is one of the few Best New Artist Grammy award winners in recent memory whose career continued to thrive and proved that she had earned the early praise that she had been showered with. Billboard magazine ranks her as #144 on their list of the most successful R&B artists of all time. Her groundbreaking videos have made her one of the most nominated artists at the MTV Video Music Awards alongside the esteemed company of Janet Jackson and Madonna. She is a still-reigning icon of dance pop, R&B and electronic soul. In 2008, Billboard magazine honored her with a Lifetime Achievement award.
To fans, Jody stands out among the crowds of bland, generic female artists, all struggling to be the latest dance diva and to have their 15 seconds of fame. When she came of age with her own solo career, she proved her talent, uniqueness, class and style. She also displayed her respect for those who came before her and who helped to make her own success possible. She used her music, videos, fashion and unwavering (and unsung) social activism to carve out her own unique place in music history and in the hearts of those who continue to love her.
Jody Watley, you’re still a thrill!