Happy 30th Anniversary to Jody Watley’s eponymous debut album, originally released February 23, 1987.
[Read Quentin Harrison's interview with Jody Watley here]
Reinvention has been at the core of Jody Watley as an artist, and a woman, from the beginning. The Chicago born singer-songwriter-dancer ended up a Los Angeles transplant in the early 1970s when her family relocated there. The teenaged Watley hit the ground running in the City of Angels, ready to realize said reinvention of herself through her love of music, dance and fashion respectively, and Soul Train proved the outlet for all three.
From 1974 to 1977, Watley and her colleague Jeffrey Daniel became one of the most identifiable pairings in the history of the show. Their visual impact made an immediate impression on SOLAR Records mogul Dick Griffey and Soul Train host (and founder) Don Cornelius, who were brainstorming behind the scenes to put together a telegenic R&B group. Watley and Daniel were plucked from the show and became fresh-faced recording artists overnight, as two-thirds of an outfit to be called Shalamar. While the group started off pre-fab, the vibrant personas of Watley and Daniel gave the group its own voice quickly.
Two singers (Gary Mumford and Gerald Brown) joined Watley and Daniel on Shalamar’s first two albums, Uptown Festival (1977) and Disco Gardens (1978) respectively. With the arrival of Howard Hewett, however, the creative chemistry was instant. Five albums followed from 1979 to 1983, gifting Shalamar with a bevy of commercial and critical accolades stateside and abroad, specifically in England, where their sixth LP, Friends (1982), was an unequivocal smash. Tensions within the group splintered them in 1983, putting an end to one of the defining R&B acts of the period. Following the band’s dissolution, Watley embarked upon a rejuvenating sojourn to London, setting about to reinvent herself yet again.
Watley stayed busy there, participating in Bob Geldolf’s 1984 Band Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and recording with Musical Youth and the Art of Noise. The latter collaboration netted her a brief deal with Phonogram Records, and the imprint cut two singles exclusive to the British and European markets: “Where the Boys Are” and “Girls Night Out.” Both singles established Watley as an evolving songwriter, as she had begun to tentatively write on several Shalamar album sides previously. Additionally, the visual and vocal approach on her new solo material predicted the eventual direction of her debut album.
Watley returned to America in 1986 to shop record labels with the blueprint of Jody Watley, and she ultimately selected MCA Records. Under the direction of record executive Jheryl Busby, MCA had become a hotbed of R&B talent. At the time of Watley’s signing, the label housed Gladys Knight, Stephanie Mills and New Edition. With the support of MCA behind her, and total artistic autonomy, Watley wasted no time getting to work on her project.
Watley continued to find her voice as a lyricist and wrote the majority of the album herself alongside Minneapolis wunderkinds André Cymone and David Rivkin. Cymone cut his teeth with Prince at the outset of his career and went on to release three records of his own afterward. Rivkin, brother to Prince and The Revolution drummer Bobby Z, was a crackerjack producer and engineer in his own right. They produced five of the nine sides on Watley’s eponymous set. Watley brought one of her musical heroes, Bernard Edwards of Chic, on board to assist with additional production and writing on three sides. Lastly, Patrick Leonard, who had recently worked with Madonna on her 1986 album True Blue, was tapped for one cut on the LP.
Recorded at studios in Los Angeles, New York City and London, the finished product of Jody Watley belied a sense of citified modernity in its collision of funk, euro-dance, R&B and black pop. 28 years old at the time of the album’s release, Watley’s lyrics portrayed a woman balancing the snap of youthfulness (“Do It to the Beat”) with the sensuousness of adulthood (“Some Kind of Lover”).
It’s not surprising that the songs earmarked as singles brought these themes across succinctly. From January 1987 to April 1988, Jody Watley spun off five singles in “Looking For a New Love” (US #2, US R&B #1, US Dance #1), “Still a Thrill” (US #77, US R&B #3, US Dance #8), “Don’t You Want Me” (US #6, US R&B #3, US Dance #1), “Some Kind of Lover” (US #10, US R&B #3, US Dance #1), and “Most of All” ( US #60, US R&B #3, US Dance #1). Three of these singles pushed the album to its American platinum benchmark by December 7, 1987. But more than any of the awards it secured, most notably a Grammy win for “Best New Artist” in 1988, Jody Watley’s soundprint has retained its relevance separate from the epoch it emerged from. Or, simply put by borrowing a line from Watley’s 2014 dance charter “Nightlife,” “It’s in the music…!”
The intertwined “double bass” approach of the bass guitar and Watley’s lowered vocal on “Still a Thrill” has made the song an eternal R&B classic. There are the album jams too, a spunky duet with the late George Michael on “Learn to Say No” and the almost semi-live funk band feel of “Love Injection”―neither have lost their luster.
“For the Girls” reactivated the already utilized British/European dance model initially constructed on her Phonogram singles, but on Jody Watley, she fused it with an American R&B sensibility. This gives “For the Girls,” and the overall arc of the album, something of a sophisticated, worldly feel that sets it apart from what her peers were doing at the time.
In the 30 years since Jody Watley hit the charts, each subsequent album its creator released added another vital piece to one of the most solid and progressive canons in popular music over the past three decades. It’s a testament to the artist herself, and to her consistent reinvention that could only be described as unapologetic, fierce and, of course, cool.