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“I’m Just Walking Out My Blessing”: Grammy Award-winning Music and Style Icon Jody Watley Stays Poised Under Pressure
Written by FaLessia Booker
Photos by Albert Sanchez
If you rocked a puffy tulle skirt and big hoop earrings in the late 80’s, you have Jody Watley to thank. This multi-talented lady is a mother, singer, dancer, songwriter, actress, businesswoman, and fashionista.
Our readers may know quite a bit about Jody already:
FACTS ABOUT JODY WATLEY:
• She became a “Soul Train” dancer at age 14 after auditioning a few times, becoming one of the most popular dancers on the show.
• Jody was an original member of the R&B group Shalamar, where she performed with fellow members Howard Hewett and Jeffrey Daniel (who were part of the most well-known lineup) for six years, leaving in 1983 to pursue a successful solo career.
• Watley set fashion trends in the “Looking for a New Love” video that helped her to win a “Best New Artist” Grammy in 1988. (Every girl had one of those puffy tulle skirts and jumbo hoop earrings!)
THINGS YOU MAY NOT KNOW:
• Jody has her own record label, Avitone, founded in 1995.
• She was the first African American to play the role of “Rizzo” in the Broadway play Grease.
• Watley performed for President George HW Bush (that’s the first one, y’all) at the White House in 1992 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Billboard Magazine in 2008.
• Jody’s groundbreaking single “Friends” was the first to pair Pop/Dance with Hip Hop, utilizing a multi-genre crossover formula that continues to dominate the charts.
• Jody is the Goddaughter of music legend Jackie Wilson.
Personally, I didn’t know that Jody had covered Madonna’s “Borderline” on her 2008 album “The Makeover” and that she has her own workout video called “Dance to Fitness,” which sold over a million copies. I was pleased to have the opportunity to talk to this extremely busy lady about life, music, family, and fashion.
Check out Jody Watley’s TOUR DATES
When we spoke, I was surprised by the softness of her voice. I told her that I had expected her to be louder, more forceful. She laughed. She was sometimes, she said.
Her life philosophy is simple: “Make new memories. Make every day more special than the last.” Jody is proud of her achievements, but “doesn’t rest in them.”
I asked Ms. Watley what she thought of the Presidential election. She viewed current political events as a time of great uncertainty. “This is a very unsettling election season and outcome. A certain group of people are feeling very bold right now.” She and I also talked about our children. Watley is mother of two young adults: a daughter, Lauren, and a son, Arie. Both children are college educated, a fact that Jody is very proud of: “I take my parenting role very seriously.” We spoke about the challenges of raising young black children and having conversations with them, not only to make life easier, but to potentially save their lives. On a lighter note, we chatted about her Thanksgiving holiday, which included going out to dinner after taking her mother to lunch, and visiting friends later in the evening.
One of the first things Ms. Watley revealed to me was that she avoided drama. When she called, I was reading a lengthy blog entry that she posted on her website, setting the record straight on what she did (and didn’t do) regarding her former group, Shalamar. “Some people resent when you’re eloquent,” she remarked.
“I wanted to put an end to the drama.”
Drama sells, however, and tales about Shalamar’s breakup often paint Jody as the villain whose sassiness could not be tamed by Dick Griffey (founder of Solar Records, Shalamar’s original record label.) Those stories often omit that Watley has been in contact with both Howard and Jeffrey quite often since Shalamar parted ways. Hewett and Daniel even recorded the song “Just One More Time” for her 1988 album “Flower:” a version that was scrapped in favor of a rendition with only Watley’s vocals.
Jody shrugs off the negativity. “You can walk on water, and people will say it’s ‘cause you can’t swim.”
The Early Years
Before there was any drama, Jody Vanessa Watley was born in Chicago, the daughter of a local minister. A shy child, Watley looked to hobbies such as writing for her entertainment. She began writing poetry and later set her sights on becoming a romance novelist. “I would write short stories and rent them out for a quarter for a few days,” she recalled. Writing was a gift that would serve her well as she turned to songwriting.
Though born in Illinois, Watley grew up in California, proudly proclaiming: “I’m an LA girl!” While dancing on “Soul Train,” Jody was selected by Don Cornelius to be part of Shalamar, along with singer Gary Mumford (who was later replaced by Gerald Brown) and Jeffrey Daniel, also a dancer on Soul Train. After settling on Howard Hewett as lead singer in 1979, a string of successful albums and memorable singles followed.
Watley’s “hidden talent” is sewing. I joked with Jody during our chat that she didn’t need any other talents—she had too many already! Growing up, Jody’s mother would buy fashion magazines which served to inspire her. She made clothing from patterns and her eye for fashion led her to wear clothes from Jean-Paul Gaultier before his fame as a designer skyrocketed.
On the creation of Shalamar Reloaded:
When she considered the idea of putting together a new group, choreographer Rosero McCoy was part of the search team. McCoy wasn’t new to Jody—she had known him since 1998. He has worked with Justin Timberlake, Usher, Prince and First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as done film work in movies. The search didn’t last long, and McCoy joined Watley as two-thirds of the new group.
One more singer was needed, and Nate Allen Smith was discovered during auditions. “When Nate walked in, the vibe was right,” Watley recalled. The Ohio native was invited to be the third member of the newly-formed Shalamar Reloaded, or SRL. The group’s tagline: “New single, new mood, new music for a new generation” made the vision clear: this was not a new version of an old group. The sound would be different, definitely: Shalamar Reloaded spans the genres of R&B, pop, and dance along with hip hop and electronica. Jody says that SRL gives her “the group experience that God and the Universe wanted me to have.”
Still Loved as a Solo Artist
Watley says that her concerts are like a party. She performs classic hits like “Looking for a New Love,” and “Friends,” and then dives into her newer material. The shows are high energy, funny, and inspirational, something that Watley says many people don’t expect from her.
On December 20th, Ms. Watley was invited by the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin to join her at her Christmas party in Detroit. She’ll perform a few songs and enjoy hanging out with Ms. Franklin, who Jody stated has been very supportive of her. Also, the first full-length album from SRL, called “The Bridges” is due in 2017. Their third single and video, “The Mood,” has already been released to critical acclaim. Jody’s current solo project is entitled “Paradise.” The video for her newest single, “Sanctuary,” will be shot in a few weeks. In the meantime, follow Jody on Instagram or Twitter, and “like” the Facebook pages for her and Shalamar Reloaded.
Putting It All Together
Ms. Watley ended our conversation with a challenge to all of us: “As long as I’m doing what I want to do, I’ll never be a failure. Get out of the ‘what-ifs’ and just do it.” As for her life now, she says, “It’s better for me. It’s joyful.”
FaLessia Booker is Editorial Director of Courageous Woman Magazine.
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