Jody Watley's unique sense of style and cutting edge musical taste made her one of the biggest musical stars of the 80s and early 90s and won for her the critical acclaim of her peers. A Grammy winner for Best New Artist in 1987, she was a triple threat, possessing not only a bright clear voice and solid songwriting skills, but also a keen sense of the use of the visual -- through fashion and dance -- to tie all elements together. Her influence on a generation of urban and dance-oriented female singer/songwriters should not be underestimated.
Born in Chicago in 1959, Watley became a fixture on the popular SoulTrain TV show by her mid-teens. And when Soul Train host Don Cornelius and show A&R man Dick Griffey decided to create Soul Train Records - later called Sound of Los Angeles Records (or SOLAR, for short) - they debuted with a discofied Motown medley called "Uptown Festival" performed by a group of studio musicians and singers dubbed Shalamar. The song turned out to be a smash dance hit, and a singing group of Soul Train dancers was put together as the face of Shalamar. Consisting of Watley, Jeffrey Daniel and Gerald Brown, the new group scored a couple hits and had two moderately successful albums, Uptown Festival and Disco Gardens, before Brown was replaced by mellifluous singer Howard Hewett. The reconstituted Shalamar went on to become one of the biggest groups of the early 80s (and, with the Whispers, the commercial anchors for SOLAR), with a slew of hits such as "A Night To Remember," "Full of Fire" and "This Is For the Lover In You."
In 1985, Watley left Shalamar and began working on her self-titled solo debut, working with Prince protege Andre Cymone. The 1987 disc was a smash, led off by the great dance hit "Looking For A New Love." With her model-like beauty and her cool delivery, Watley was the nearly perfect diva for the electronic sound of the late 80s. And her dance skills and creativity made for a series of memorable, groundbreaking music videos. Her breakout success as a solo singer won for her the Best New Artist Grammy Award and began a decade of great success.
Watley followed her solo debut with the hit album Larger Than Life, which moved her to the front of the burgeoning electronic dance movement. It boasted the hits "Real Love" and "Friends," which creativity added elements of hip-hop to the mix. Her third disc, Affairs of the Heart, didn't match its predecessor's success, but continued Watley's progression as an artist, this time into a heavier house sound.
Watley used her success to assist in a number of charitable causes, performing as part of Bob Geldof's "Do They Know It's Christmas" as well as the landmark HIV/AIDS awareness project, Red Hot & Blue and the Force of Natures Tsunami Relief in Malaysia. She also grew in popularity in fashion circles, serving as a regular in fashion magazines and billboard, and becoming the first black woman to appear on a Japanese fashion magazine (Spur) cover.
By the mid-90s Watley left her label (MCA) and began recording independently. She scored a minor hit with the album and song "Affection" and briefly reunited with former Shalamar mates Hewett and Daniel for Babyface's cover of "For the Lover In You."
As the new century arrived, Watley self-released Midnight Lounge, a jazz vocal collection, and returned in 2006 with The Makeover, one of the most interesting "covers" albums of the decade. She has continued to record sporadically since then and has also at times recorded with her own version of Shalamar. In 2022, Watley was awarded the Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award at the ceremony at the Georgia State Capitol, on a day named "Jody Watley Day" in the Peach State.
By Chris Rizik