Life of a Trendsetter: Jody Watley

Jody Watley is an amazing singer/songwriter, who has won several awards for her music. This Grammy Award winning artist’s career has been long and prosperous. Jody has been placed in the same caliber of artists such as Madonna and Janet Jackson for her unique groundbreaking talent in the ‘80’s. Watley is a visionary and a huge contributor to 1980’s pop culture. She began her career as a dancer when she was a teenager on Soul Train, and was quickly noticed by Soul Train’s Gary Mumford. He created an R&B music group and Watley quickly moved up in her career when she joined the dance-soul trio called Shalamar. After seven years with Shalamar, Jody left the group to embark on a solo career.

Watley has been a trendsetting icon as long as she has been in the public eye. She was infamous for wearing the big hoop iconic earrings of the ‘80’s. She was considered a trendsetter for this fun earring style. Jody moved to England where she indulged in guest appearances with artists like John Taylor of Duran Duran, whom she dated for a short while and Bob Geldof, who leveraged big name music acts to raise money for Band Aid, a charity to relieve famine in Ethiopia. Jody moved back to America where she flourished as a solo artist, and her first solo album, Jody Watley was a big success. She went on to record seven more albums, which were also very successful. She started her own record label, Avitone, and officially added the title of producer to her list of achievements. In all, Jody Watley has sold over 20 Million albums, graced the covers of hundreds of magazine and built a career that has outlasted many of her peers.

Jody Watley

Childhood Years

Jody Watley was born to a gospel-evangelist and radio show host father and a piano/singer mother in Chicago, Illinois on January 30, 1959. She was born to a modest middle class family. Her family spent a short time in Kansas City, Missouri, and then moved to Los Angeles, which is where Jody spent the majority of her childhood. Jody had ties to the music business as the famous singer, Jackie Wilson was her godfather. Her first stage appearance was with legendary performer Jackie Wilson, as he brought her on stage when she was only 8 years old. She knew she always wanted to be a performer and enjoyed this experience. Her childhood idol and inspiration was Diana Ross. It was not long before Jody found her way to stardom. Her brother John accompanied her on tours. John was her show manager in 1996.  

Early Career

Jody Watley began her career at a ripe young age of 14 in 1977 at the peak of the disco and funk era. She began as a dancer on the hit show Soul Train. She became one of the most recognized and influential dancers on the show and she was publicized in 1978’s Ebony Magazine as being a part of the ‘New Generation’. Her dance moves were making history on the dance floor of Soul Train. She met her future Shalamar partners, Jeffrey Daniel and Howard Hewett while on the show. Founded and produced originally by Soul Train’s Dick Griffey and Don Cornelius, Shalamar was signed by Griffey’s Solar Records. Jody and Jeffrey Daniel were known for spending hours choreographing special dance routines for Soul Train and had a unique appeal. They were easily the most famous dancers on the show and were highlighted the most.

Once Shalamar was formed, the trio topped charts with their groundbreaking sound and popular dances. Their Platinum and Gold records included Big Fun, Three for Love and Friends. A new style of mixing R&B with rapping was pioneered by Shalamar when Eric B & Rakim added a few rap verses to their “Friends” single. They were the first to bring the popping dance style to the UK, which was made famous by the break dancing that was popular in the 80’s. Watley left the band in 1984 to pursue solo endeavors.

Fashion

Jody Watley has been a fashion trendsetter since the start of her career. She eloquently began the ‘big hoop’ earrings trend that is reminiscent of 1980’s fashion. Watley was unique in her style and always boldly brought fashion to a different level. On Jody Watley’s second album, Larger Than Life, she was photographed by famed fashion photographer Steven Meisel. She has been featured in magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Essence, Vanity Fair and many more. She was featured in a Vogue Italia spread with fashion model icons like Iman, Tina Turner and Naomi Campbell. She was sought after by many of the highest fashion photographers. Jody Watley was the first African American to be featured on Japan’s high fashion magazine, SPUR. Her popularity in Japan climbed and she moved there to work on a variety of projects including live performance tours.

She was the first celebrity model to appear in the Gap celebrity ad campaign. Other advertising endeavors include the Saks Fifth Avenue eight page glossy catalog spread of Jody Watley in its popular Fall catalog.

Watley has been an inspiration to many fashion forward designers and worked with John Paul Gaultier on her videos for her Friends album with Shalamar, Eric B and Rakim. She graced the audience with her runway appearance at the LA Fashion Week 2006 with designer Keven Hall. Waltey has been reported to have inspired the designs of Project Runway’s fashion designer, Malan Breton.

Jody Waltey has her own blog, which she maintains and uses as a platform to discuss her latest fashion finds, and explore the past trends which she has been instrumental in launching. Jody Watley had a knack for fashion and has shown this style sense from the very beginnings of her career on Soul Train.

Along with the big hoop earrings that Waltey was known for, she has always seemed to have a knack for pairing vintage clothing and accessories with the new wave styles of the ‘80’s. This style worked great in combination with her music videos, such as “Looking for a New Love”, which featured amazing dance performances. Other artists that seemed to be following this vintage trend that was popular in the '80's were extreme fashion minded Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. Jody Watley took it one step further than any other artist when she brought vintage styles together with high fashion couture designers. This made a name for Watley early on in her career as a fashion forward diva.

Watley credits her mother as being her first influence in the world of fashion. She has stated in numerous interviews about her fashion sense that it is important to find what works for an individual and then go from there. She believes in individuality in fashion. This belief shows through in her fashion and style. 

Solo Career

Jody Watley experienced much success as a solo artist. After leaving Shalamar she was able to make some creative decisions about the direction of her career and have a say in the direction of her music, which she had not been able to do in Shalamar. This experience was great for Jody and she pursued even more independence from the large record labels by starting her own label, Avitone. Jody’s first album, the self-titled Jody Watley was a great hit. She was able to co-write two thirds of the songs on the album, which was the creative direction she had longed for. “Looking for a New Love” became an instant hit and her other funky dance singles were off to a great start. Watley went on to release eight albums in total beginning in 1987, the second album after the self-titled was called Larger Than Life. Some of her number one hits include, “Some Kind of Lover”, and “Don’t You Want Me”. She constantly re-invented her style and her music was fresh and well received.

Her albums Affairs of the Heart, Intimacy, and Affection seemed to correlate with what was happening in her personal life with husband Cymone. They were all about the ups and downs of relationships. After their divorce in 1995, her new albums reflected a grown up Jody, although she continued to carry that fun and fresh dance sound that made her popular in the dance club circuit.

The Makeover, sold exclusively in Virgin Mega Store chains, debuted at number one within the chain’s sales. This album featured a cover of the Madonna song “Borderline” that was iconic in itself. The sound of the album was a mix of electronic fusion and dance beats. Jody Watley continues to be a successful artist creating new and fresh music to perform herself, as well as writing music for the new R&B artists making their way up the recording industry charts. 

Films / Broadway

Jody Watley has made many TV series guest appearances. Some of these series include Drag Race, Unsung, ABC Afterschool Specials, Melrose Place, Doogie Howser, M.D., and New American Bandstand. When she wasn’t busy making music she was appearing on the latest sitcom. The music trends of the time were mirrored in many of the popular television series on air. Many times Watley would play herself when making appearance.

Jody Watley released her 1990 Dance to Fitness video in which she is reportedly one of the first women of color to produce such a video. One of her most notable performances was on Broadway’s Grease starring as Rizzo, a tough leader of the pink ladies, who smokes, drinks, and does pretty much whatever she wants. Watley was yet again a pioneer for African American women. She was the first black woman to be cast in the Grease role of Rizzo on Broadway. Her talent was remarkable and the play received many rave reviews. Watley has also been credited as playing a disco diva in the 1999 movie Mystery Men. This was an action-fantasy-comedy and was not a huge box office success, although she did star alongside a great cast of Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofalo. 

Producing

Jody has always been a proponent of controlling her career as an artist. She has talked about her admiration for the artist formerly known as Prince and the way he has remained in control of his own career as opposed to the many artists who are not. She took that one step further and started her own independent record label, Avitone Records in 1995. After parting ways with MCA records, Avitone released Watley’s album Affection. This was Watley’s fifth solo album and by this time she had gained quite a bit of knowledge about the production of music. She felt confined with the constrictions of the major record labels and wanted to break out of that mold. She originally formed Avitone as a vehicle for her own talent and music. Avitone, throughout its history has entered license agreements with several distribution companies including independent Bellmont Records, Universal Music Group, Giant Step Records, and Shanachie Records. She signed a partnership with Virgin Megastore to be the exclusive carrier of her 2006 album, The Makeover. Avitone entered into an agreement with Alternative Distribution Alliance to globally distribute Avitone’s music.

The group Destiny’s Child added the single “Sweet Sixteen”, written by Jody Watley, to their Writings on the Wall album. This album went on to succeed going multi-platinum in sales. Many other artists performed songs written by Watley, including David Morales and Gardner Cole. She recorded many soundtracks featured in movies such as Dr. Doolittle, White Men Can’t Jump, and Red, Hot + Blue.

Awards

Watley has received many nominations and awards for her talent. She was the 1987 Grammy Award recipient for Best New Artist category. She was nominated six times for MTV music awards for her video “Real Love”. Watley received the 1988 Soul Train Female Album of the Year Award. She began the ‘90’s as one of People’s 50 Most Beautiful People and Harper’s Bazaar’s 10 Most Beautiful Women. Almost two decades later, Waltey’s career earned her the prestigious Billboard Lifetime Achievement Award, which is only bestowed upon the most influential musicians in the world. Watley has reached the legendary status of icons such as Janet Jackson and Madonna for her creatively produced music and videos. Watley was nominated for multiple MTV Video Music Awards, and an AMA nomination for Favorite R&B single for the song “Looking for a New Love”. Watley has received many accolades for her inspiring work as a musician as well as an artist.

Other Projects

After embarking on her solo career, Watley began pairing up with some of the recording industry’s biggest stars such as Musical Youth, a Jamaican reggae group, and Duran Duran’s John Taylor. Some of her other projects include Characters, Stevie Wonder’s MTV special. Watley ventured into a project for the soundtrack of the movie Switch with composer, Henry Mancini. Jody worked with U2’s Bono, George Michael and Sting to produce the single “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, to benefit the Band Aid charity. This was an incredibly talented lineup that yielded an amazing single and brought quite a bit of money in to support AIDS research. The group Shalamar was reunited for a single remake of “This is For the Lover in You”, by Babyface in 1996. The remake also included LL Cool J. In 2008, she launched an online music store while she was topping the charts with singles from her Makeover album.

Personal Life

In Watley’s early career days she was reportedly dating Duran Duran member John Taylor while she lived in Europe during the late ‘80’s. Jody was able to keep her name in the headlines despite her short break from releasing any albums. She worked with a group called Art of Noise, recording a demo. Jody Watley has two children which she credits as the most important part of her life. ?She has been quoted in Noir magazine as saying that motherhood has been her most important job in life. Her marriage to Cymone, the former bass player for Prince's band, co-wrote and produced several of her solo albums. Watley and Cymone divorced in 1995. She has done a great job balancing her family life with her music career and producing as well as finding the time to dedicate her status and time to philanthropies and helping others.

Jody also trained with Doug Blasdell, from Bravo’s reality TV series Work Out. Doug Blasdell was a highly respected name in the celebrity fitness scene. Watley was devastated by his untimely death and has reported that she has not worked with a personal trainer since. She was very close with Blasdell and his loss was felt throughout the celebrity training circuit. Blasdell was openly gay and Waltey was one of his biggest supporters. He was known for being the oldest trainer on the reality TV show, Work Out. He was 44 when he passed away. This was a personal loss in Jody's life and she has publicly grieved for the friend and trainer she has lost. 

Philanthropies

Jody Watley has always given back and supported many charities. In her early years just after leaving Shalamar, Watley performed a single “Do They Know It’s Christmas” which the Band Aid organization raised money for to support famine in Ethiopia. She was one of the first celebrities to support HIV/AIDS awareness in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. She performed with legendary musicians such as Bono, Annie Lennox, and David Byrne in the Red, Hot + Blue compilation for an AIDS Awareness Organization which also raises money for research and relief. She attended the Life Ball, one of the world’s largest AIDS benefits held in Europe. Jody Watley was invited by President Bush to perform at the White House after a captivating performance on behalf of AIDS.

Jody Watley is an incredible icon and pioneer for female African American artists. She is very supportive of new talent and helps with her involvement in the Grammy U program of Los Angeles. This program supports young artists beginning their music career through education and performance opportunities. This gives real life experience to those who are actively pursuing a career in the music industry. She was also involved with the charity Force of Nature in helping the victims of the massive and devastating 2004 tsunami. The death toll reached close to 300,000 people. Force of Nature has raised a great deal of money with music concerts and other events. Jody Watley is an inspiration to many in her charity work. She has displayed remarkable humanitarian interest by devoting her time to the charities she has helped.