In the mid-1980s, MTV largely defined pop music, so the charts were ruled by telegenic singers who often acted as spokesmodels for their albums. Dance hits were churned out like products on an assembly line, many quickly forgotten after their fleeting moments in the spotlight. But there were also real stars who made their mark (primarily due to a combination of charm, talent, and charisma).
One of the most significant figures to emerge from this period was Jody Watley, who inarguably announced her reign as a dance-pop queen with 1987’s self-titled first record. Her smokey yet supple voice, unerring pop instincts, and supermodel looks made her the perfect pop star, and Jody Watley was a fantastic introduction to her new direction. (She’d already proven to be a talented artist capable of winning audiences’ affections when she was with popular soul trio Shalamar.) Few solo debuts have ever made such an impact, and Watley became a bona fide legend—and Grammy-winner—as a result.
Even when compared to Janet Jackson’s breakthrough 1986 album, Control, Watley’s LP is an essential dance-pop record in its own right. Sounds of synthpop, house, R&B, and pop are expertly woven together under the watchful eyes of André Cymone and David Z (musicians who were born of Prince’s Purple Universe). Without a doubt, the funky and metallic Minneapolis found its way into the elegant Jody Watley.
As alluded to earlier, before claiming superstardom for herself, Watley sang with ’70s funk outfit Shalamar. A former dancer on the classic variety show Soul Train, she was recruited to join the band and appeared on the second album, 1978’s Disco Gardens. That said, it was Shalamar’s third album—1979’s Big Fun—that truly brought her success. It even scored a top ten single, “The Second Time Around“, and set the course for a fantastic voyage for Watley and her bandmates (which included six albums and a string of Top 20 UK hits). After leaving the group, she spent a hiatus in the UK (even appearing on the 1984 all-star charity single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”) before returning to the States and embarking on her solo career.
For Jody Watley, she worked primarily with André Cymone—whom she would marry in 1991—and David Z. (Of course, Cymone was a bassist with Prince who released a trio of synth-funk albums and scored an R&B Top 10 hit with “The Dance Electric”.) As an essential member of Prince’s constellation of stars, he helped bring on heady funk and sophisticated urban pop. The other two producers Watley collaborated with were Chic founder Bernard Edwards and prolific pop producer Patrick Leonard (responsible for some of Madonna’s biggest his). Though much of Jody Watley sports the metallic sheen of 1987, its strongest tracks have aged remarkably well, with the hits becoming integral to the canon of dance-pop in its entirety.
With her first solo single, “Looking for a New Love”, Watley declared herself as a formidable pop diva capable of making a mark with what would become an urban-pop classic. She wrote the tune with Cymone, who—alongside David Z—crafted an irresistible funk-pop sound. It starts with the iconic intro (ghostly synths floating eerily over a rubbery bass) before leaping into a slamming strut with hard drums. Watley matched the insouciant beats with a sullen sass that dovetailed with the assertive lyrics that dragged a wayward lover. The song couldn’t have been more gratifying as an introduction to her solo career. With it, she immediately clued in her listeners that she was an intelligent, arch, and assertive young woman with a voice for young women who refused to be ciphers or sylphs.
Given that Watley looked like a runway model, she came of age at a perfect time in pop music. After all, MTV was a major component of music-making in the 1980s. Sporting a Diana Ross-like mane of silken raven tresses and rocking a pair of gigantic hoop earrings, Watley matched the style of the track with equally fashionable visuals in the Brian Grant-directed music video. The clip was a glorious way of twinning Watley’s funky feminism with her appreciation of high fashion. Thus, she pioneered an image that is at once haute couture and womanist.
Elsewhere, Watley, Cymone, and David Z find inspiration with Prince and the minimalist techno-funk of the Minneapolis sound with “Still a Thrill“. The song is a moody, ruminative number with hot guitar licks and a swaggering percussion. She employs a throaty purr, crooning with restraint to match the tight-fisted arrangement and production. It’s a (relatively) spare number, and Watley simmers with understated coolness. As with her work alongside Grant on “Looking for a New Love”, she flashes her eye for high fashion, dancing in a cavernous castle in a designer gown.
The trio’s tracks operate to create this distinctive silk and steel persona. There’s an eccentric, flashy queerness to the music, one that is witty, affected, and full of spirited attitude. In these two guys, Watley found collaborators who “got” what she was trying to do: make brilliant dance music that’s paired with an eye towards Vogue magazine style. Gay audiences embraced her music, and her songs became soundtracks to gay nightclubs (with remixes scoring Saturday nights in urban gayborhoods). The singles are great, but the album tracks are just as good, with the trio looking to other sounds (such as the house-pop of “Do It to the Beat”, which pays homage to the ballroom culture that supported and adopted Watley).
The musical teaming of Watley, Cymone, and David Z essentially defines and shapes her sound and image. But her work with Bernard Edwards and Patrick Leonard is important, too, when looking at Jody Watley’s legacy and place in pop culture. Edwards created an instantly recognizable signature sound: spare, tight, and angular arrangements with stuttering guitars, bouncing bass, and catchy hooks. On “Learn to Say No”, he offers a post-disco update on a Motown stomper with shades of Chic. Here, Watley shares the spotlight with the late, great George Michael (another charismatic bandmember who was on the precipice of solo superstardom), and the two seem to be having a great time mugging their way through the pop tune.
Leonard’s ” Most of All” is the only tune that doesn’t age as well, and it was the album’s final single. It’s an irresistible pop ditty but sounds too much like his ’80s work with Madonna (particularly True Blue Madonna). The hallmarks are all there: electric bass, fluttery synths, light-funk guitars, ebullient horns, thumping drum machines, and chanted backing vocals. Watley’s honey-dipped singing is pitched to a pretty girlish trill to match Leonard’s pop joy. It’s a good track because Jody Watley is seemingly incapable of making bad music, but it’s also the sole inclusion on the LP that’s wedded to its era.
A year after Jody Watley was released, Watley won a Grammy for Best New Artist, beating pop stalwarts like Swing Out Sister and Terence Trent D’Arby. She built on the success of her debut album with 1989’s successful sophomore follow-up, Larger Than Life, which spun off another string of hit singles. (The most important of them was its New Jack Swing classic, “Friends”, which matched her with hip-hop greats Eric B. & Rakim.) She continued to put out albums over the subsequent decade, branching out into sultry soul and jazzy soul-pop without ever forgetting her dance roots. In the new millennium, she found new audiences by recording deep house and electronic dance music, cementing her status as a dance queen who dominated the dance charts and reigned as a perennially influential figure in club music.
Undoubtedly, Jody Watley kickstarted the career of one of dance-pop’s most entertaining and consistent performers. By honing her talent and working with the right people, Watley was able to grow on the success of that album and become a legend.