*Connecting with artists, legends and newbies alike, is always exciting for me. I’m a sucker for talented people and love hearing their stories – especially if I’m a fan. Excitement doesn’t always mean I’m in store for a good experience, though. Sometimes I go in wide-eyed, but end up bitterly disappointed by the experience … the nature of the beast, I suppose.
So, I had the opportunity to interview someone, a legend in her own right, of whom I was a fan: the mysterious and intriguing Jody Watley.
If you’re from my generation, (and I’ll let you figure that out on your own, per the Hollywood code), the mention of her name likely conjures up images of her dueting with Howard Hewitt over drinks and dinner in Shalamar‘s “A Night to Remember” video, or you picture those alluring eyes drawing you in as she dances in reckless abandon in a sexy black get up, wearing big hoop earrings in the “Still a Thrill” video … or you may even go back a little further, with her doing the robot alongside Jeffrey Daniel down the Soul Train line to some 70s funk. Whatever the memory, Jody definitely made her mark in music and, speaking only for me, her offerings in some form or another were interwoven through many of my most impactful years.
But memories aside, I was feeling some kind of way about what to expect from interviewing the “Friends” singer.
Despite her success as a dancer turned singer, finding it as both part of the group Shalamar and as a solo artist, when the bright lights dimmed a little, all her press seemed to largely take a turn for the negative. Turns out that things with Shalamar – which is widely known at this point – didn’t end so amicably. And without rehashing the whole story, in a nutshell, there was bad blood between the trio and affiliated business entities and the bulk of the attention that Jody got in the media was relative to the very complicated rift. Then, that brand of press was exacerbated by her being a strong and vocal woman who always spoke her mind about how things went down when asked. It was always clear that she wasn’t happy about what went on during that bitter-sweet period.
I would never say it’s a bad thing to speak your mind, but her comments and the Howard vs. Jody vs. Jeffrey, etc stories became the only facet of Ms. Watley that fans were exposed to. That largely negative narrative led to me kinda taking “negative” as a major part of her personality. It was difficult not to.
Now, fast forward to me finding myself with the opportunity to speak with her because big things are happening in her career (most significantly – and shockingly, in view of all the turmoil – her legally securing sole rights to the name “Shalamar” and “reloading” the group). I’m thinking, “how am I gonna navigate the minefield of the Shalamar subject without casting a pall over the entire conversation?”
Tricky … but it’s what I do … so, I was in.
On the scheduled day, the phone rang precisely at 11 am PST as was set up:
“Uh, Hello?” I said, made a little shaky by my “how do I …?” state of mind.
“Gerald??, this is Jody Watley,” she said, but with the most disarming and exuberant voice I’ve heard in a while.
I’m usually the one who disarms in order to set up the smoothest interview possible, but Jody completely stole my thunder. Any preconceived notions I had about her and how things would go were immediately drowned out by the welcoming sound of her voice.
At total liberty to ask “whatever,” the conversation commenced. To kick it off, she was especially excited about having secured the authority to use the Shalamar name any way she wanted to:
“Well, it’s very exciting … acquiring the rights to Shalamar is probably not what anybody would’ve expected,” she said. “But if you you know me and know that I am a business-minded person, then you wouldn’t be surprised at all.”
“When they [former group members] were notified, they were notified through my attorney and you know initially [they responded with], ‘Ok, well what is she gonna do with it?; we’ll abide by it.’ And there has been some push back from them in that [they say], ‘she doesn’t really own it,’ but I have the trademark number. It’s a legal process that I went through so they just have to swallow a bitter pill and I’ve moved on. It’s business. It’s … never been personal. I’m handling the business of Jody Watley and now the business of Shalamar as well.”
What led to Jody launching the effort to commandeer the name was activity that former members were involved in that, she felt, had the potential of damaging her image, then ultimately scrubbing her from the group’s history.
“Beginning in 2005 or so, former member began doing shows in the UK using old photo’s that included my likeness to market and promote their shows. Fans would post to my Myspace page at the time and then Facebook asking where I was and they assumed I would be there because I was in the ads. The guys apparently would say onstage ‘they were sorry I couldn’t make it, I was welcome back anytime’ – which needless to say was not true and potentially damaging to me as a working artist,” she revealed.
“This came after an appearance on a show there called ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ where they used a tactic called ‘passing off’ or ‘bait and switch’ – by bringing on an imposter… a woman pretending she was me down to crinoline skirts and jumbo hoop earrings. They would say here we are back together again just like old times, the two Soul Train icons (when in fact Jeffrey and I were the only Soul Train dancers) … while never introducing this woman by her name. Then it went from that to replacing my name under photos that included me from the past in Shalamar as an original and known member – replacing my name with hers … as if they were purposefully attempting to morph this person into Jody Watley.”
That’s when the business savvy singer took action:
“Needless to say this was illegal and unethical. When faced with cease and desists from my attorneys – we would be told well ‘Caroyln owns it and she can do what she wants …’ Carolyn is the woman Howard and Jeffrey have taken with them to the UK. They attempted to erase me from Shalamar’s history – though I sang on every major hit Shalamar is known for with the exception of ‘Dancing In The Sheets’ …”
Being an original member, she wasn’t having any of that and, long story short, she’s now the proud owner of the group’s name: Shalamar: Reloaded.
Longstanding fans of Shalamar have been salivating for years at the prospect of the most successful version of the trio (Watley, Hewett, and Daniel) reuniting, whether in the studio or just touring as a legacy group. And there have been some “almost” moments:
“The fans should also know that as owner, I did put on the table the possibility for a reunion show for the sake of the fans and with the alleged fake owner out of the way – for a one night only event – I pitched to the Essence Festival last year after I’d appeared there with my own show (they all passed),” she shared.
But, dust being settled, you won’t see the “Make That Move“ singer flanked by Howard Hewett or Jeffrey Daniel under the new “Reloaded” name. Instead, Watley has added two young’ns, whom she hand-picked as result of an “American Idol-style” audition process. She wanted to bring a fresh and youthful vibe – which she says matches her own – to the show and any forthcoming new music:
“The new members are Nate Allen Smith, he’s a young talent out of Ohio, and Rosero McCoy, whose a renowned choreographer whose worked on film and television and with some of music’s top artists, including me … and he sings also. We are going into the studio. We’ll have a single before the summer is here,” she said.
Since the legal victory, Jody has been touring extensively under the new name and with the two new fellas, performing to sold out crowds and delivering what her fans, old and new, expect of her.
She shared more about the new members, the show and explained what the “reloaded” part of the name means in more detail:
“Rosero has really been putting me through the paces and people tell me that they’ve never seen a show like it, she says. “It’s actually a superior show in many ways. We’re dancing a lot harder because Nate is a dancer, too, and he’s singing those leads, but he’s giving you sexy, he’s got an afro like Maxwell, the women love him and he’s in his 20’s … he’s just great.”
“Nate is just delighting the audiences, people love him … he’s not trying to be anyone other than himself. Same with Rosero, they have their own identities, so it’s not like, ‘she’s trying to get carbon copies …’ No, she’s carving out something new and we’re actually dancing a lot more as a group than I did when it was back in the day with Shalamar.”
“The first half of the show is Shalamar and the second half of the show is Jody Watley, and then I mix in there ‘Nightlife,’ which was a single that came out sometime in 2013 and went through 2014. I actually had recorded it with Gerald Brown, who recorded with me on ‘Take That to the Bank.’ So, you get my current project ‘Paradise,’ which has the classic disco-soul, funky feel to it … it all feels very new, nothing old and rehashed. And I really tried to polish the classic songs and keep the essence of them, but make them feel fresh and presented fresh, so it’s very exciting. And the imaging is … I’m very excited about it and the people who have come out to the shows and have seen us, they’re loving it and that’s what makes us all very happy and encouraged.”
“I’ve always been creative and so … I give the people what they want but also show some growth here and make the songs feel fresh so you get the classic songs and more. We do a remixed version of full of fire and that’s one of the more powerful songs in the show because it’s very ambient. It ’s one of the songs that I wrote when I was in Shalamar and it isn’t just about relationships and love, but love of life, the passion that we all have to be alive, and I make it …it’s almost a testimonial, so it takes the audience to a totally different and unexpected emotional place … and thats after we’ve gone nonstop dancing and twirling to ‘Right in the Socket’ and ‘Take That to the Bank.’
Shalamar: Reloaded performs “Right in the Socket” in Tokyo:
“We’ve already done probably about ten shows. We’ve sold out shows in Tokyo and Japan and Osaka. We just did four shows in Oakland, we sold out BB Kings in New York, Harrah’s Atlantic City … so the show is very high energy, dynamic, you know, doing choreography, because I’m a freestyle girl as a solo artist … but it’s actually fun,” she gushed.
Brimming with passion, energy, and hustle, Jody is on a serious mission to make the most of each days she’s given in the business, without depending excessively on the past:
“I’m always gonna be full of energy and full of life. And no day is the same as we’re living it. It’s like, what can I do, you know I’m proud of what I’ve done but I’ve never gotten stuck on ‘I’ve done this and I’ve done that’ and ‘I can put my stilettos up and I did that.’ Yeah, I did that and I’m proud of that, so what’s next?”
In that vein, she’s solidifies her relevance by personally posting on Facebook and Instgram, Tweeting, and she has a music blog. She does whatever the hustle requires of her, but with a spirit of gratitude:
“It’s in many ways like having a nine to five job, because you have to be on top of it or delegating it to someone else, but then it’s not authentic,” she said. “I’m very good about thanking people for supporting me, because that’s who I am … always gratitude and thank you so much. You have to hustle, hustle, hustle, otherwise you’re just another person that sings. you have to eat, breathe, sleep it.”
Jody feels like she now has the chance to apply her brand of hustle to Shalamar: Reloaded and make it what she always dreamed it could be, of course not taking anything away from what “was”:
“With Shalamar now it’s about bringing in new fans with my music, whether I’m doing club stuff or remixes, I dabbled in electronic music and ambient and drum and base … my audience is probably one of the more diverse and that’s because I’ve kept broadening and branching out … like a stew, I’m adding things and still always bringing people in, because Shalamar has been dormant since like 1990 and this is and opportunity to reinvigorate that and bring new people into it.”
“Groups pretty much don’t exist anymore and I like the challenge of that, too. Someone has to be on on the limb. you have to be a risk taker to be a trendsetter and to inspire others to maybe copy.”
And speaking of stilettos and copying, she wouldn’t mention names, but she does feel like there are superstars out there who are “standing on her stilettos, whether they give it up or not.”
To me, it’s simply imitation, and you know what they say about that. And if that’s not enough earn her the respect she’s due, she recently got a personal call from the Queen of Soul validating her hard work and the fruits of her career:
“I’m fabulous, but always very humble … the thing about me, as long as I’ve been an artist, I’m blessed and fortunate to have the longevity that I do and still be a grounded and sane person and never self-destruct and some of the things that happen to a lot of our great artists unfortunately. I got a call, I spoke to Aretha Franklin a few weeks ago … the ultimate seal of approval, the Queen of Soul saying she was proud of me in how I’ve maintained.”
Contrary to what I expected, I experienced the softer side of Jody Watley and to my relief, it’s still a … nevermind, too easy.
Learn more about Jody Watley and Shalamar at the Shalamar: Reloaded website.