With a multi-platinum selling vast genre discography that spans decades, the legendary Jody Watley is still a musical force to be reckoned with today.
Jody Watley was destined for the stars the minute she stepped out on stage for the first time with her godfather, the legendary Jackie Wilson. She started setting trends as a dancer on the show Soul Train. As an original member of the group Shalamar, Watley’s distinct tones can be heard on classics like “A Night to Remember,” “(This Is) For the Lover in You,” and “Second Time Around.” In 1983, Watley left the group and a few short years later launched her solo career that further cemented her role on America’s soundtrack. Watley’s debut album skyrocketed up the charts with hits like “Real Love,” “Looking for a New Love,” “Don’t You Want Me,” and “Still a Thrill.” The album garnered her a Grammy for Best New Artist and catapulted her into style icon status.
Watley’s musical journey continues today with her new group Jody Watley featuring SRL. Watley, along with Nate Allen Smith and Rosero McCoy, are a vocal dance trio that has already made a musical mark with their newest single, “The Mood” as it is has claimed the number two spot on the U.K. Soul chart and number one in the Netherlands. Watley’s solo jazz single, “Waiting in Vain,” landed in the Top 20 Smooth Jazz Network.
I spoke with Jody Watley about her career highlights, her new music, and inspiring a new generation of artists in music and fashion.
You have a long list of accolades, but what would you say are the top three highlights of your career?
Jody Watley: The Black Music Honors of course, where I received the Crossover Music Icon award. It was just awesome, especially since I’ve been in this for a couple of months or so as an artist (laughs). To be doing it this long and to have the influence that I’ve had and to actually have it acknowledged, that actually meant a lot. Winning the Grammy for “Best New Artist” and “Looking for a New Love” was released in 1987. Obviously, the whole album changed my life in so many ways. Winning the Best New Artist that year is always going to be super special and again during that particular time in my life.
I had performed with Stevie Wonder, who is one of my childhood heroes, and I still love him today. He had a television special on MTV back in the late 80s when his song “Skeletons” came out. I performed “Superstition” with him on his special. The ironic thing is I had done that song in a talent show when I was in 7th grade with the group that I had called Black Fuzz (laughs). We were called Black Fuzz because we all had these big afros and I was so nervous. Even though by that time I had been an artist for a while, there is nothing more nerve wracking to me then performing with someone that you admired growing up. Those are the three that really stand out.
Another highlight is I remember when I got the call that I was going to be in People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People issue. It meant a lot because at that time, they weren’t covering really any black artists except Whitney Houston for something like that. I shaved all my hair off and people wondered why I did it. I didn’t want it to be about the hair, I just wanted to clean faced, with my crooked teeth, and just do it like that.
Speaking of crossing over, going into your debut album Jody Watley, did you go in with the mindset that you wanted to crossover to other genres?
Jody Watley: One thing I know for sure is that I didn’t want to be like anybody else that was out at the time. Michael and Janet [Jackson] were doing the choreography and they were very great at it and no one does it better. I wanted to be different and make the statement that you can be different. I wanted it to be funky and have my spirit come through in it. It was never about the crossover, it just came. Maybe for some it’s a goal, but I just wanted to make the statement that I’m Jody Watley, this is my debut album and I’m not trying to be like anybody else, just being me and I want to make it cool for other girls that feel like they don’t fit in, that it’s cool to be them and be different. I really just wanted to make that statement, the style that black girls could be rockers too, with the heavy metal chain belts and all that. I wanted them to see we can do whatever we want to do. That was most important to me.
It has been a little over 30 years since Jody Watley was released. If you could hop into a time machine and go back to 1987, is there anything you would have changed at that time?
Jody Watley: In thinking about it, I would have had a different manager. For my first manager, I looked to see who managed Michael Jackson and Madonna, because they were really successful and I wanted them to be my manager. Freddy DeMann managed both of them. I went to them for management and when all was said and done, Freddy was going to manage me, but Madonna said he couldn’t manage me and manage her too, so they ended up shifting me to a junior manager in the company named Bennett Freed and he was really inexperienced. He was in over his head. He also managed the group ABC from London. He said you will probably sell 50,000 and they will probably sell platinum and it ended up being the other way around. I sold double platinum and they sold 50,000 (laughs). He made a lot of mistakes. I succeeded anyway. I think anytime you have someone in your circle, and that’s me speaking to myself even now, that it’s usually a red flag if they don’t really believe in you, get rid of them. If I had to change one thing, I would have gotten a different manager since it wasn’t going to be who I really wanted to manage me anyway. That experience and really pushing your vision through, that’s really the only thing I could think of from my debut album. It succeeded despite of him, it was God and the universe and destiny. He was the weakest link.
You are a style icon and you can see your influence even in artists today. When you look at them and see what they are doing, do you see that influence as they are creating their own lanes with fashion?
Jody Watley: I think it’s awesome, in particular with Rihanna. She’s my favorite. I’m so proud, I love it. I have a lot of Fenty and I pretty much have supported everything that she’s done from Puma, to the clothing line, to Fenty. I really love that she has been able to capitalize off the fact that she’s stylish.
One of the things that I wanted to do was to have a clothing line since people wanted to dress like me, but I couldn’t get anyone to take it seriously. That again goes back to having the right manager. I did convince MCA to give away tiny Jody Watley perfume for promotion for the third album. So again, it was ahead of all the record companies and marketing companies, and they just didn’t get it. I couldn’t get the right person to see why it made so much sense, but to see it come to fruition for those artists, I think it’s wonderful and I feel a part of that.
You have been cited as an inspiration for many artists, but who inspires you these days?
Jody Watley: I’m inspired by Rihanna, I love what she’s doing. Even with everything that I’m doing, you know the consistency with branding along the way when people think of me whether it’s past or present style; there’s always an unpredictability. What’s she going to do next? Or what is she going to do now?
Like right now I have a jazz single out and I have an R&B group out and we have the number two R&B single in the U.K. and those are unexpected things. I am always inspired by people who are continuing to evolve and keep it moving. Oprah and people who are very business minded and creative. People who make other people feel inspired by the things that they do whether it’s through their social media, or out of the spotlight, and they are doing something good and it’s not stagnant. Oprah and Rihanna are up there. Richard Branson is another one. I read a lot about business people from John Johnson and how he built the whole Ebony and Jet to Berry Gordy and Motown.
My biggest inspiration coming up was my dad, because he was a very forward thinker. I am an Aquarian like him, he passed away a long time ago. He would do things like have Christmas in August and would say live in the now don’t wait to use these special dishes, if you want to dress up, do it. My dad was very influential in how I viewed life early on. Life is so precious.
Talk about your jazz single “Waiting in Vain.” People may not realize that you are such a versatile singer.
Jody Watley: My parents loved jazz when I was growing up. The many artists that came out of Motown were also very influential with me as a little girl. Jazz music was too. Nancy Wilson is one of my favorite singers of all time. I just love the genre. The first jazz single that I did was in 1990 for a project called Red, Hot, and Blue. It was the first project that created HIV and AIDS awareness and it was a charitable record. All of the proceeds went to create HIV/AIDS Awareness. We got to do Cole Porter songs any way we wanted. I chose jazz since it wasn’t a Jody Watley album, it gave me the freedom to do something different and show that side. I’m comfortable singing it and my tone suits it. So since then I’ve been wanting to do something and so I did a jazz version of Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain.” It’s so beautiful it’s got a Bossa Nova feel to it, I just love it. Even though I’m a dance girl at heart I’m a jazz girl too. It’s taken off so great.
It just shows a different side. Jazz is a big part of soul music and our culture. It’s my way of showing love to an art form that in many ways is overlooked. That was part of the inspiration also for releasing it. I’m really happy whether it is R&B, pop, electronica, dance, jazz; it’s all good.
You mentioned your new group, Jody Watley featuring SRL. The single “The Mood” has a different vibe. Is there an album in the works?
Jody Watley: Our target date for the album Bridges is June. Bridges is such a metaphor for life and is about evolving and leaving things in the past and moving onto other things. It represents so many things. I’m so glad our music is being well received. Our show is fantastic.
How would you describe the group’s sound?
Jody Watley: It’s a whole different vibe. It’s contemporary R&B and it’s got the pop flair to it. The album Bridges is pretty eclectic. There’s a mixture of hip hop, dance, and contemporary R&B. I call it a gumbo of styles but rooted in soul music. So, I think Jody Watley featuring SRL is a sonic revolution of love and it’s rooted in the love that we all have for quality music. It’s a mixture. It’s all fresh, we aren’t trying to be anything. We are the next great music trio for the now and moving forward. I’m proud of this album.
How do you stay relevant and the key to your longevity? Is the key really being able to be versatile enough to do all of it?
Jody Watley: It’s true, my fan base is so diverse. It is because I’ve never gotten stuck. I always make new goals for myself and it keeps people guessing and excited. New fans are coming on board, and people are often shocked I’m still doing it and that’s nice too to be able to surprise people. I think that’s how you do stay relevant and current; you don’t get stuck in the past and resting upon your laurels. The easiest thing is to go do a greatest hits tour and there’s nothing wrong with that, I do my greatest hits too but as an artist and just being alive, I’m always saying how can I be fabulous today? (laughs) I think that’s important and I like to remind people of that.
Why is having a place like the NMAAM so important?
Jody Watley: It’s so necessary and so important, rhythm and blues and soul music is the foundation for so many music genres in America. It is American music and influenced generations of people. To have that history which is often lost in our country, because it’s not just for us, it’s for the world. To have a place that is honoring the rich and profound richness of the legacy of our music, which is music for the world to me. If I’m in U.K. or Germany, American soul music is everywhere. There should be a place for all time where it is preserving African American music. It’s crazy that we haven’t had this before, but it’s better late than never and it’s very necessary and if we don’t do it then it won’t be done.
Fill in the blank: My music matters because…
Jody Watley: My music matters because it’s strong and joyful.
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