In her fifth decade as a recording artist, Jody Watley bears no marks of fatigue. The Chicago born (and later) Los Angelino’s intrinsic sense of cool and fashion-forward appeal pushed her from unforgettable ‘Soul Train’ dancer staple to one-third of one of the most beloved / influential R&B groups of its era, Shalamar.
After departing Shalamar in 1983, Watley relocated to the United Kingdom; there she found time to feature on the Bob Geldolf’s star-studded charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in 1984. Cutting with the pop visionaries The Art of Noise, Watley turned out “Where the Boys Are” and “Girls Night Out” in 1985. Both songs were edgy but didn’t find the larger audience they needed; undaunted Watley set about preparing for her return home with a goal of succeeding solo.
Her resulting 1987 eponymous debut, on the MCA label, became a genre-definer and spun off hard hitters: “Looking For a New Love,” “Don’t You Want Me” and “Still a Thrill” to name just three. Watley worked alongside her soon-to-be husband / Minneapolis magus André Cymone; Watley wasn’t just a production puppet. She and Cymone handled the three subsequent LPs that came in the wake of her Grammy award-winning debut. Getting right into the metallics of New Jack Swing, Watley’s second album Larger Than Life (1989) lived up to its bold title and kept her in step with her peers Janet Jackson, Vanessa Williams and Karyn White.
Watley’s third (Affairs of the Heart, 1991) and fourth (Intimacy, 1993) records saw a sales slide, but Watley’s mingling of neoteric and classic R&B wasn’t far off base from the neo-soul movement that gained traction as the 1990’s wore on. In particular, her single “When a Man Loves a Woman” (from Intimacy) fit right into the returning socially conscious scene in black music. Watley took it a step further on the alternate versions of the song (“When a Man Loves a Man,” “When a Woman Loves a Woman”); there she affirmed her connection to the GLBTQ fans that stretched back to her ‘Soul Train’ days.
After eight years at MCA Records, Watley departed the label. In one of her many career rebirths, she began her own indie-label Avitone Records; the imprint is still active today. Her fifth album Affection (1995) was the fruit of this labor. The title song continued her progressive streak at embracing all walks of life; she remained funky and fierce as ever on album sides “The Ways (Parts 1 & 2)” and “Pride & Joy”.
Watley returned, briefly, to the ranks of a major label (Atlantic) with Affection’s follow-up, Flower (1998). In her own words, Watley summarized how the Atlantic deal caused a slight creative detour for her, “I didn’t want to make another record that felt specifically more R&B at that point. I felt happy and wanted something groovy to reflect where I was, as always. I wanted to make a cutting edge international dance record, with soul and excitement, modern!”
Flower had Watley yet again rework her R&B roots with help from the likes of Malik Pendleton, Rahsaan Patterson and an old friend, Rakim. “Off the Hook” was the U.S. R&B Top 30 hit for the project; its D-Dot Remix had Watley and the aforementioned Rakim reunited for the first time since their groundbreaking partnership on “Friends” from Larger Than Life. Atlantic Records strangely shelved the LP Stateside and released it, sans promotion, in Britain.
Watley became disillusioned but found her muse again in the dance music of 4Hero’s Two Pages (1998) LP. Watley and dance weren’t strangers; her first hits were known for filling floors. Her early work with David Morales on the Intimacy single (and dance hit) “Ecstasy” even pre-dated his remix work with Mariah Carey. Dub, chill out and house were mixed in with her established urban flavors and birthed The Saturday Night Experience Volume 1 (1999), a Japan only release.
Modern, lavish and ambitious the record put her ahead of the curve. Later in 2003, Watley released Midnight Lounge in the United States as a way to bring her American fans up to speed with her fusion work. The album boasted features from Roy Ayers, Junior Vasquez and Masters At Work with Watley at the center of it all. This brave frontier Watley had been mapping influenced old peers (Janet Jackson) and new followers (Amerie) on their albums in the aftermath of Midnight Lounge’s release.
Jody Watley Through the Years
2006 was the year of The Makeover. Partnered with the now-defunct Virgin Megastore chain, The Makeover boasted new material with engaging covers of her own work and other artists that inspired her. Its British repackaging appeared in 2009 with several tracks reworked, removed and added. Since that time Watley has been hard at work on her 10th LP, tentatively and aptly titled Chameleon. Her new single “Nightlife” is a hot number that bears both a vintage and contemporary disco pace. Watley continues to define her artistic destiny unapologetically; it’s something in the reality television era of ‘R&B Divas’ that should be savored.
[Editor’s Note: For current information on Jody Watley, visit her official site. Her current single “Nightlife” is available on iTunes now.-QH]