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FACES

Jody Watley Takes A Spin

May 03, 1987|DENNIS HUNT

Most dance albums are the dregs. All they have to offer is a good beat, without much imagination, creativity or continuity. One or two good cuts is normally the quality quota for a dance album.

There are exceptions. Madonna's albums, invariably loaded with dance tunes, are first-rate. Janet Jackson set a new standard for dance music with "Control," the best dance album since Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" in 1979.

Jody Watley's current hit album, "Jody Watley," her first effort as a soloist since leaving the group Shalamar a few years ago, is exceptional, too. Her Top 5 single, "Looking for a New Love," is one of many scintillating tracks on this all-dance collection.

"I didn't want any ballads on it," Watley said of the album. "My roots are in dance. That music reflects my energy. I didn't want anything to slow down the energy, to spoil the feeling."

During a conversation one recent afternoon in a West Hollywood restaurant, Watley, 28, was enthusiastic--but it was hard to tell, because of her dry, deadpan voice.

"That's just me," she said. "Sometimes I don't show my excitement the way other people do."

Vocally, Watley is no Anita Baker. But she doesn't have to be. An average singer armed with the right material and producers can make a top-notch dance album. Watley's vocals are expressive and melodious enough; they're just a bit underpowered. But the instrumentals and the production on this album are so good, thanks to producers Andre Cymone, Bernard Edwards and Pat Leonard, that knockout vocals aren't really necessary.

"Looking for a New Love," with its riveting rhythms and catchy lyrics, is the gem of the album but "Love Injection" and "Learn to Say No," a duet with George Michael, are also robust dance numbers. The Michael duet may be a single, but Watley isn't sure. "George is a friend," she said. "We didn't do it so it could be a single. I just wanted to work with him."

"Please don't ask me any more about Shalamar," Watley said. The request, accompanied by nervous laughter, was dead serious.

Though she exited Shalamar in 1984 after eight years with the group, people are still curious about the details. Howard Hewett, the Shalamar leader who reportedly kicked Watley and Jeffrey Daniel out of the group, has told his side. Hewett, by the way, has since left the group for a solo career. Shalamar, with a new lineup, is still on Solar Records.

Until now, Watley has been silent about the split.

"I'd rather keep it that way," she said, claiming there are no sordid details to reveal. According to her version, that old standby, musical differences, is largely to blame.

"I wanted to do more experimenting. We always had the same producer, the same stable of writers. I was bored with it."

Watley also wasn't happy that hardly any of her songs were used on the Shalamar albums. "I was writing a lot but only two songs that I co-wrote were used on albums in my eight years in the group," she said, her face mirroring her disgust.

Watley also wanted to do more solo vocals and to be more involved with charting Shalamar's creative direction--primarily Hewett's task. "I was capable of much more than I was able to show while I was in the group," she said.

Though friendly with Daniel, who, like Watley, moved to Europe, she is still bitter toward Hewett. "I've run into him a couple of times since the group split up. It's, 'Hi, how are you?' then I keep on going. I really have nothing to say to him."

Shalamar started out as a standard late-'70s disco group, indirectly spawned by the TV dance show "Soul Train." A Chicago native, Watley came to Los Angeles with her parents in the mid-'70s in her mid-teens. She and dancing partner Jeffrey Daniel became the top team on "Soul Train," which led to the invitation to join Shalamar.

Largely through the musical vision of Hewett, Shalamar blossomed into an innovative group, branching out into rock. Just before the original outfit disbanded it seemed to be on the verge of becoming one of the premier soul groups of the '80s.

The new lineup, featuring Micki Free and Delisa Davis, doesn't seem to have that creative spark. Shalamar is apparently back to being an ordinary soul group.

After leaving Shalamar, Watley wasn't moping around Los Angeles wondering about her next career move. "I had to get out of town," she said. "It was time to do something different, somewhere else."

So she moved to Europe, dividing her time between London and Paris. With her poise and elegance, modeling seemed to be a natural direction. Since Shalamar had been popular in Europe--Britain in particular--she had a name there. Consequently, getting fashion assignments wasn't that difficult.

Watley did some singing there too, recording singles with the Art of Noise, Musical Youth and as part of Bob Geldof's all-star Band Aid group, which made the single "Do They Know It's Christmas."

But she still wasn't ready to resume her singing career full-time until last year. "It wasn't anything in particular that told me it was time to do it again," she said. "It was just a feeling. I just knew it was time to get back to Los Angeles and try it again."

MCA Records, she said, offered her the best opportunity. Now that her debut album is a hit (No. 16 on the Billboard magazine chart), she is the only member of the old Shalamar to make it big so far.

Is there much satisfaction in that?

Watley tried hard not to look smug, but she finally burst into joyous laughter.

After composing herself, she said: "Yes, there's some satisfaction. I guess I can't really hide it."

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