She Took the Soul Train to Stardom : Once a Voice in the Background, Jody Watley Has Burst Onto the Pop Charts in Her Own Right

Stu Black is a Los Angeles writer.

SINGER JODY WATLEY is playing to her smallest assemblage in recent memory, a gang of three. She is speaking of wondrous ideas she has planned for larger audiences. "I want this next video to have a gritty, street feel," she says, looking around the office at MCA Records in Universal City. The wall is lined with gold and platinum plaques, symbols of the company's successes. Watley is describing her cinematic vision to an MCA executive, director Dominick Sena, who will shoot her next video, and her manager, Bennett Freed.

"We threw everything into 'Still a Thrill,' " Watley explains, mentioning her second video, "and in No. 4 we'll go Fellini with jugglers and fire-eaters. I want No. 3, 'Don't You Want Me,' to be steamy, something like this," she says, pointing to a provocative magazine photograph of a man and a woman, one of several visual aids she's brought to the meeting. "I want to steam up the lens."

"Fine," the company executive replies, smiling. "I just hope you won't have a problem with your boyfriend. We've had boyfriend problems when we've gone steamy before."

Watley smiles slyly. "No boyfriend problems," she says. "He'll be on our team."

"How can you be so sure?" the director asks.

"Because he'll be the guy in that picture. He'll be dancing with me."

These days, much of the Western World is dancing with Jody Watley. The 28-year-old from Los Angeles, who just three years ago was out of work and living in England, is on a fast, well-choreographed track.

Her emergence on the pop charts has synchronized with the tide of history. In the current pop-music cycle, women vocalists, veterans and rookies alike, are enormously popular. Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin and Natalie Cole, all of whom were successful in past decades, have returned as music-industry gold mines, joined by such relative newcomers as Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Anita Baker and Madonna. Jody Watley is riding this latest trend.

Her album, titled "Jody Watley," hit No. 1 on Billboard magazine's Top Black Albums list earlier this year, crossed over to the Top 10 on Billboard's Top Pop Albums and is expected to crack the million-sales mark soon. The first single, "Looking for a New Love," with its sardonic signature line, " Hasta la vista, baby," reached No. 1 on the Hot Black Singles chart. Her latest single, "Don't You Want Me," is in the Top 15 on the pop chart and rising.

Watley paid her dues on the nationally syndicated dance show "Soul Train" in the early 1970s. She quickly became the video sock hop's most popular female dancer. At age 17 she was picked by the show's creator, Don Cornelius, to be one-third of a singing group he was forming for his new record label. (Soon after, Cornelius' Soul Train Records became Solar Records when he sold his half of the business to partner Dick Griffey.) The tightly formatted group, called Shalamar, consisted of a male lead singer, whose identity changed several times (Howard Hewett was the most popular) and two background singers / dancers, Watley and fellow Soul Train emigre Jeffrey Daniel. It made danceable music and became a solid commercial success.

"Shalamar wasn't fun anymore," Watley says in explaining why she left the trio in 1983. She is sitting in a Thai restaurant picking at a bowl of vegetables. Her dark eyes narrow when she mentions Solar Record executives.

"They controlled us. They felt more comfortable keeping us away from the creative decisions. They refused to accept the fact I had become a young woman, that I wasn't a girl anymore. I had ideas I could have added to the group."

"Jody is the epitome of the '80s artist," says her manager, Bennett Freed, who also manages other noted rockers, including Steve Winwood and Bananarama. "Back in the Phil Spector / Ronettes days in the early 1960s, women artists were manipulated and told what to do. Today's artists, like Jody, Janet Jackson and Madonna, have more control. For instance, when she (Watley) signed with MCA last year, she immediately hired the Rogers & Cowan public relations agency so she could work with them and be in charge of her public image. She choreographed her three videos. She helped design her album cover. She is in control. I work for her, she doesn't work for me."

Born in Chicago, Watley is the daughter of the late John Watley, a radio evangelist who hosted a daily gospel music show. Her mother, Rose, sang in church choirs. For much of Watley's early life her father's itinerant preaching kept the family (Watley has an older brother and a younger sister) on the move. "We lived like a bunch of bandit gypsies," she says.

Wherever it was located, the Watley nest was a home on the road for well-known musicians. Sam Cooke, Joe Tex and Watley's godfather, Jackie Wilson, were frequent guests. It was Wilson who orchestrated Watley's unexpected stage debut when she was 8. At a packed Wilson concert, he spontaneously pulled the unsuspecting child on stage to dance with him. Three years later, while living in Kansas City, Watley organized a dance group that won a local talent show.

"We called ourselves 'Black Fuzz' ", she says, laughing at the memory. "We were a three-girl dance group, and each one of us had a huge Afro."

Dancing was Watley's love, the "Soul Train" television show her weekly passion. She fantasized about being a "Soul Train" dancer. Then her parents moved to Los Angeles in 1974.

Their first Sunday in town the Watleys went to famed gospel singer James Cleveland's Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church. After services, Watley was approached by a young parishioner named Glen Stafford. Stafford told Watley he was a "Soul Train" regular and that he needed a temporary partner. Would she be interested?

"I nearly fainted," Watley recalls. " 'Yes, yes!' I hollered. The funny thing is he didn't even ask me if I could dance. He just liked the way I looked."

After Stafford's original partner returned, however, Watley had trouble getting back into the "Soul Train" studio. "I had to find people who would bring me on the show, because I wasn't a regular," she says, chuckling. "I would hide under a blanket in the back seat of someone's car until we were past the guards at the studio gate. Sometimes I would be able to stay in the studio all day. Other times they would tell me to leave. Some people got defeated by that humiliation. Not me. I was determined to be a regular."

"Jody became more than just a regular," says Cornelius, executive producer and host of "Soul Train" since its inception 17 years ago. "She and her partner, Jeffrey Daniel, set the standard for the '70s and '80s 'Soul Train' dancer. They were very creative, their dancing abilities were undoubted and they always seemed to know what to wear."

In 1976 Cornelius and his then-partner Dick Griffey formed Soul Train Records. "I bought a master, a finished record, from a producer," Cornelius explains, "in which he had a group record a medley of Motown hits, which he called 'Uptown Festival.' The group's lead singer, Gary Mumford, was excellent. I decided to replace the background people, however, with two 'Soul Train' dancers who would work behind Gary. Since Jody and Jeffrey were the most recognizable dancers on the show then, I said, 'Let's use them.' My partner said, 'Jody Watley can't sing.' I said, 'It doesn't matter, only the look matters.' Besides, she had told me her mother had been a gospel singer. I had some cockamamie idea there must be some kind of singing in her genes."

"I had never thought of singing professionally," Watley says. "I was a dancer so I was a little nervous. But I knew it was a good opportunity, thought about it overnight and said yes the following day."

Cornelius left the record company before Shalamar became successful. By 1983 Shalamar had recorded eight well-received albums and such top-ranked singles as "Dead Giveaway," "Take That to the Bank" and "Second Time Around."

At first Shalamar had been a dream to Watley, a dream that enhanced her ego and her bank account. By 1983, however, the joy was gone and internal problems had developed.

Watley and Daniel chafed under the restrictions they had faced since joining the group. Their contributions remained limited to controlled dance routines and backup singing. In her seven years with Shalamar, Watley sang lead twice, on two songs that were buried on albums. She wanted to write for the group, another ignored ambition. Daniel wanted to create new dance routines, but his requests were similarly denied. They complained, but Solar executives seemed oblivious to their feelings. Howard Hewett, who had come aboard as Shalamar's lead singer, wasn't. He had frequent disputes with Watley.

"There was a lot of learning going on for all three of us in those years," says Hewett, now a solo artist on Elektra Records. "We were like brothers and sisters. That's why we argued the way we did. There was a lot of craziness going on between the record company and the group.

"One of Jody's problems was that record companies have a tendency to go with what has sold for them previously," Hewett continues. "It was unjust to her. I always felt that Jody was a unique talent with a special voice that deserved to be exploited more."

As Watley's relations with Solar Records continued to sour, she began to think about leaving the group, even though she owed the company several albums. Finally, in 1983, Watley hired an attorney who negotiated a settlement ending her obligation.

"When I left the group I didn't want to pursue a solo career," Watley says. "Just being out of Shalamar made me happy. People equate success with your financial situation or how much attention the media pays to you. I equate success with how happy you are."

Watley gave birth to a baby girl, Lauren, in 1983. "I was in a relationship, I love kids and decided the time was right to have one," she says tersely. "I don't like to talk about her publicly. I won't talk about her father either, especially since we don't see him now."

Soon after Lauren's birth, Watley, infant in arms, headed for England, where Shalamar had been popular and she had always been treated well.

"I just wanted to get out of Los Angeles," she says, sitting in a West Hollywood park near her apartment. "My first thought was to go on vacation. I changed my mind when I realized that I'd come back and be in the midst of people telling me how dumb I was for leaving Shalamar. I wanted to be in a different environment."

Watley hung out in England for a year, shopping and going to parties. She became acquainted with photographers, and a modeling career blossomed. But after 12 months, Watley began to miss the music. At parties she ran into musicians who were eager to work with her. She developed concepts and wrote lyrics with Gary Langan, a singer / songwriter with the group Art of Noise. She also met Bennett Freed, a curly-haired, 30-year-old American who had once been partners with Freddy DeMann, who is now Madonna's manager. Freed had been a Shalamar fan, and Watley's musical free-agent status excited him. They had long conversations about building her career. He persuaded her to promise to contact him if she decided to get serious about music again.

His timing couldn't have been better. Music was regaining a pre-eminent place in Watley's life. In 1984 she was asked to join many of Britain's top rock stars in the "Do They Know It's Christmas?" single and video for Ethiopian famine relief. Soon after, a homesick but revitalized Watley returned to Los Angeles and contacted Freed. The plans they had discussed in London began to take shape.

"Jody came into MCA with so many things intact," says Jheryl Busby, a 16-year music-industry veteran who is president of MCA's Black Music Division and senior vice president of talent acquisition and artist development. It was Busby who beat the heavy competition and got Watley's name on an MCA contract.

If there has been a negative undercurrent about Watley, the complaint is that she is a clone of Janet Jackson.

"I guess she steals a line or two from Janet Jackson," says a prominent Los Angeles disc jockey who requested anonymity. "I'm at a loss to explain her (Watley's) success. Maybe the timing is right, what with the preponderance of female artists making an impact right now. The beat is there, and she makes a great video presentation, but as far as pure singing abilities there is nothing there to excite me."

The disc jockey seems to hold a minority opinion. "That first Watley single MCA put out, 'Looking for a New Love,' was very much in Janet's tradition," says Billboard columnist and Calendar writer Paul Grein. "But Jody is not a Janet clone. Overall Jody seems to be a pretty wide-ranging singer."

One recent day in Cable News Network's Hollywood studio, Watley waits to be interviewed for CNN's "Show Biz Today" program. She talks quietly with the interviewer off camera while lights are rehung. The young floor manager comes over to Watley and nearly genuflects. "You are so beautiful," he says. "I can't believe you."

The singer laughs uneasily. Thirty seconds later the floor manager repeats himself. This time Watley's face goes red--the arrogance of a stereotypical rock 'n' roll star is missing. The shy kid with the religious background is embarrassed.

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