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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

December 13, 1987|STU BLACK | 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.

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