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JODY WATLEY APPRECIATION FEATURE
JODY WATLEY BY MERVIN MALONE, JR., (C) 2008, SOUL MUSIC.COM, LLC
It's 1987 and she is being broadcast across the airwaves. Introduced by a sultry voice, as well as a Spanglish phrase, "Hasta la vista, baby", Jody Watley makes her solo debut with her chart-topping single, "Looking For A New Love". In a market already saturated with dance- pop divas, Watley perseveres. Amidst a flurry of unfair comparisons to the likes of Janet Jackson and Madonna, Watley is identified as an original. Upon her arrival to the scene, an ignored audience has been treated to a wondrous woman of vast talent. In Jody Watley, we behold the personification of all the things in a diva we hold dear. Beautiful yet somehow humble, Jody Watley is so supremely talented that she has evolved from being just a dance- diva, to being a stylish, multi-genre songstress. Easily adapting to all of black music’s offerings, Watley has performed funk, disco, house, soul, R & B and jazz effortlessly. In terms of style, many of the dance/soul divas of the time were largely street-oriented, and hard- edged. By herself, Jody Watley has evolved from the embodiment of the dance-diva and the tough street girl to the elegant haute-couture nymph. Always creative and spontaneous, Watley’s use of cutting-edge videos in conjunction with high-end directors has taken black music to higher levels.

Documenting the career of an artist as extraordinary as Jody Watley is a complex, yet honorable undertaking in itself. In a relatively short career, Watley has broken down barriers for black women in singing, modeling and acting. As much an entrepreneur as an artist, she has always been directly involved in both the writing and production aspect of her musical output.

It all started with the popular television program, "Soul Train" for Jody. She had been a popular dancer on the show in the mid-70s. She, along with fellow dancer, Jeffrey Daniels, were both invited to be a part of a musical group, Shalamar. An opportune afterthought, Shalamar had been formed by Dick Griffey to put a face on a Motown disco medley, "Uptown Festival". An immense hit, it was recorded by a faceless group of studio singers. One of them, Gary Mumford, was invited to join the group. Mumford was quickly replaced by Gerald Brown. Brown would finally depart the group to be succeeded by mainstay, Howard Hewett.

Jody Watley enjoyed a slew of hits in Shalamar, including "Second Time Around", "A Night To Remember", and "Make That Move". Amidst rumors of conflicts with Hewett, as well as Jody’s own frustrations with few solo performance opportunities, she departed the group in 1984. She eventually met up with Andre Cymone, a former alumnus of Prince’s camp. Their collaboration resulted in "Jody Watley," released on MCA records. An across-the-board hit on the dance, pop and r&b charts, the album yielded 3 top ten hits; "Looking For A New Love", "Don’t You Want me" and "Some Kind Of Lover". Watley’s list of accomplishments would continue, as she won a Grammy in 1987 in the category for "Best New Artist." There was supposedly some controversy with regards to the fact that Jody had already been a member of Shalamar, making her a veteran and not so "new". This stipulation was quickly dispersed on the realization that Watley was and is a solo artist, and that her success has nothing to do with her status as a member of Shalamar.

Jody Watley had undoubtedly become a star on her own merits. The thing that her first album had done was to establish her name as a solo artist. Many of the people that purchased the first Jody Watley album were largely unfamiliar with her previous musical incarnation as the female lead of Shalamar. They have remained loyal ever since.

In 1989, Watley was back with a follow-up, Larger than Life, which yielded three other Top 10 singles, "Real Love", "Friends", and "Everything". This album would break new ground in the arts of music and video. The lead-off single, "Real Love", was a music video unlike anything that had been done to date. A runway piece, the video was filmed in vibrant cinematography and showed the gorgeous Watley sashaying in top designer outfits.

The "Real Love" video was directed by the then unknown David Fincher, who has since become one of Hollywood’s most sought-after directors. Fincher’s credits include "Alien 3", "Seven" and "Fight Club". "Real Love", with its eye-catching visuals, has conceptually influenced many subsequent videos such as "Free Your Mind" by En Vogue, and "Love Is All We Need" by Mary J. Blige.

Her next single with its accompanying video, "Friends", was even more forward thinking. Featuring rappers Erik B. and Rakim, this was one of the first musical collaborations of an R&B artist and a hardcore rapper. The video showed Watley dressed elaborately in an outfit by avant-garde fashion designer, Jean-Paul Gaultier. Ever the creative, Watley would unite to very different subcultures in this video, as it showed B-Boys performing among drag queens. In this way, Watley was also able to pay homage to some of her most devoted fans, the gay community. With the last two singles from "Larger Than Life," Jody Watley was beginning another evolution in her career. Both ballads, "Everything" and the Latin-tinged "Precious Love", respectively, foreshadowed a new direction for Watley. The strength and depth of emotion with which she performed these ballads would become something more apparent on her subsequent albums.

In 1990, Jody Watley released "You Wanna Dance With Me," which compiled her biggest dance hits up to that point with new remixes. This seemed to mirror a chapter in a book of art being closed, as it would mark the beginning of a time when she would heavily explore ballads. Later that same year, Jody was one of the featured artists on the benefit compilation, "Red, Hot and Blue," the proceeds of which went to AIDS charities. The album featured various artists performing songs by Cole Porter. Jody performed a beautiful rendition of "After You Who". The album featured artists as diverse as Lisa Stansfield, Sinead O'Connor and U2.

In 1991, Jody Watley released her third album, "Affairs Of The Heart." This album, in contrast to her previous albums, largely consisted of ballads. One of the ballads, "It All Begins With You", was heard by then U.S. President George Bush when she performed it on "Good Morning America." He invited her to perform it at the White House. Ever the thoughtful, Jody seized the opportunity to address problems in public education funding.

Never one to forget her dance fans, Watley made another cutting-edge collaboration on "Affairs Of The Heart." By in large, dance music remixers had not yet received recognition as producers. Despite this industry bias, Jody collaborated with dance music pioneer, David Morales on the house track, "I’m The One You Need", which resulted in a smash dance, pop and r&b hit.

In 1993, she released her least dance-oriented collection, "Intimacy." This collection was largely in the classic soul vein, and was very innovative, in that it foreshadowed the coming of the likes of Maxwell, Erykah Badu, and Lauryn Hill. Again, she collaborated with David Morales on a house-track, "Ecstasy". Sadly, MCA Records had gone through many corporate changes, as had the market. A more consumer-driven market would make promoting an ever- evolving and experimenting artist like Jody Watley out of the question. Instead, the industry pundits chose to promote the quickest trends that would gain them the most revenue. This chain of events would prompt Watley to leave MCA.

In 1995, following a brief hiatus, Jody would have perhaps her most amazing and ambitious year to date. She returned with a fresh album. Introduced to the public via its title track, "Affection" was Jody’s first release on her own record label, Avitone. This is consistent with Watley’s drive to always be involved with her work in some aspect. Her new label was distributed at that time by Bellmark, who was at the time also distributing Prince’s NPG label. Despite limited distribution, "Affection" did well. Containing mostly jazzy tunes, offset by funky melodies, it remains a testament to her daring spirit and entrepreneurial aspirations.

This year would also see Watley in her first acting job as Betty Rizzo in the Broadway performance of "Grease". Not only would Jody receive stellar reviews for her portrayal of Rizzo, but this marked the first time an African-American female was in this role on Broadway. A revealing side note to that year’s accomplishments, was Watley’s relationship with longtime collaborator, Andre Cymone. Jody’s marriage to Cymone, was made public, as was her divorce from him. A question many fans had pondered for years, she revealed all in the liner notes of her "Affection" album. This revelation brought cloture to her and her fans alike.

In 1996, Watley was briefly reunited with her former group, Shalamar. (Hewett, Daniels, and herself) by producer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds on a remake of the Shalamar ballad, "This Is For The Lover In You". Shalamar performed backgrounds on the song, which also featured rapping by L.L. Cool J, who is said to have conceived the collaboration. The song was a resounding hit, both on the pop and R&B charts. Shortly after, MCA records released the compilation "Greatest Hits." Executive-produced by Watley herself, and including masterfully written liner notes by David Nathan, the collection went largely platinum.

Jody Watley would be absent from the music scene for nearly two years before returning in 1998. Early on, it had been revealed that she had signed a two-album deal with Atlantic records. Her debut for the label, "Flower," featured a diversity of top-notch musical producers including such talented names as Bryce Wilson, Dwayne Wiggins and Masters at Work. In the early half of 1998, Jody’s lead-off single from her "Flower" set was released, and enjoyed good radio rotation. Titled "Off the Hook", the song did reasonably well on the pop charts, but did extremely well on the dance and r&b charts, even ending up as one of the top dance tracks of 1998. The follow-up single, "If I’m Not In Love", would also go on to become a massive dance hit.

Ironically, Jody would be plagued by many of the industry problems that had affected her at the end of her MCA run. The release date of the "Flower" album was constantly delayed. Atlantic Records would never elaborate on why they kept postponing the release date. In the end, the album was never issued in the United States, although it was released in Canada, Japan and throughout Europe. It eventually went platinum in the United Kingdom.

The end of the millennium saw Jody go futuristic as well as return to her dance music roots. She released “The Saturday Night Experience Volume 1”, a collection of electronic dance music in 1999. An experimental recording, this EP runs the gamut from house to drums n’ bass. Though originally released in Japan, the popularity of “Saturday Night Experience” abroad prompted its release in 2000 in slightly altered form. This version contained several new remixes and was only available for purchase via Watley’s website.

Jody continued in the dance music vein, recording and releasing the single “I Love To Love”, featuring disco-jazz great Roy Ayers (“Everybody Loves The Sunshine”) and produced by Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez and Little "Louie" Vega of Masters At Work. With Ayers coolly sublime percussion, and Watley’s sultry voice, this garage house track is one of dance music’ s grandest collaborations. The song was released by MAW records, the Masters At Work imprint, as a 12” single, and later was re-released with new remixes

The music on “The Saturday Night Experience” and the “I Love To Love” single lovingly hinted at the direction Watley was to take on her next full-length album. Indeed, the sound Watley experimented with on “’Experience” would become more defined on “Midnight Lounge” which was released in Japan in 2001 on Avitone/Universal Victor. While sharing similar themes to the earlier “Saturday Night Experience”, “’Lounge” is much more refined and diverse, with offerings in jazz-house, garage, trip-hop and chill-out. “Midnight Lounge” features top-notch production from house veterans like Ron Trent and Dave Warrin, as well as longtime collaborators Masters At Work and Rodney Lee. “’Lounge” contains some of the best moments in Watley’s already outstanding solo career; “I Love To Love” is contained on “Midnight Lounge” in edited form. The standout track though is the Dave Warrin-produced reinterpretation of the Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush duet, “Don’t Give Up”, on which Watley’s silky smooth vocal glides over Warrin’s synthesized groove.

“Midnight Lounge” proved to be a critical success and sold quite well as import albums go. Indeed, Internet sales alone made “Midnight Lounge” a considerable success. However, many of Jody Watley’s fans, established and new, eagerly awaited a U. S. release of the album. Also, “’Lounge” enjoyed such positive feedback in magazines like "Billboard" that interest was generated in many music buyers that were still unfamiliar with Watley. “Midnight Lounge” was finally released in the United States in March of 2003 on Avitone/Shanchie. While this version contained all the essential moments of the Japanese release, Watley added a new track and several new remixes that made the U.S. version easily more soulful than its Japanese predecessor. “The Essence” a song produced by electronica legend King Britt was one of the new additions, as well as new remixes by Afro Kozmic and Eastwest Connection.

The U.S. release of “Midnight Lounge” was an affirmation of Jody Watley to the music industry that she’s still a force to be reckoned with and that she remains in an industry where art is too-often sacrificed in favor of commerce. These days, the venerable Jody Watley’s endeavors include her official website, www.jodywatley.net, and a forthcoming clothing line of hats and T-shirts. These hats and shirts are designed by Watley herself and will be made available through her website. Ever the fashionable, Watley’s clothing line easily combines her first and second loves, music and fashion. When discussed in terms of her various accolades and accomplishments, the appeal of Jody Watley is undeniable. Despite hard times within the corporate music industry as well as various personal trials, Jody Watley remains a testament to perseverance, work and determination. Ever spontaneous, she continues to surprise her fans, as she takes on new challenges. As Jody Watley has continued to rise to the occasion, so do we, her fans, always rise to meet her.

You can reach Mervin at: mervinesque@hotmail.com

  
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