Singer. Songwriter. Producer. Dancer. Choreographer. Fashionista. That is Jody Watley. The Grammy-winning icon has been a pioneer in dance, music, video and fashion for nearly five decades and she is in no way about to slow down. The Chicago native began her illustrious show business career as one of the popular regulars on Soul Train, which segued into her becoming a part of the popular R&B group Shalamar before she broke out on her own into a dynamic solo career with hits like “Looking For A New Love,” “Real Love,” “Everything” and “Some Kind of Lover.” In this exclusive SoulTrain.com interview, she speaks about her days at Soul Train, her solo career and her latest hit, “Nightlife,” which has become a hit in clubs around the world.
SoulTrain.com: Welcome to SoulTrain.com, Ms. Watley. First of all, you have a monster of a hit single called “Nightlife.” What was the inspiration behind that song? I want to dance every time I hear it.
Jody Watley: That’s what I want! From the intro, I want anyone who hears it to instantly be put in a good mood and dance to it in your living room, when you go out on your run, walk to the gym, or dress up and go out and have a good time. The inspiration was all of those things.
SoulTrain.com: When is your new CD Paradise scheduled to come out?
Jody Watley: Early 2014.
SoulTrain.com: Wonderful. What are some of the song titles on the new CD, or do you want to surprise us?
Jody Watley: I want to surprise you. But I will say I was listening to classic soul and disco songs like The O’Jays’ “Message in Our Music” and McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” and those songs really pick you up right from their intros. I wanted to do songs like that. One of the things I’ve done with the songs on Paradise, including “Nightlife,” is that I’ve been performing some of them live first to see what the audience reaction was. That process has enabled me to make the songs better. Most often you write songs and you record them and that’s it. Then you do those songs live on tours. So I wanted to perform some of the songs live first before I finalized and released them. For instance, I had opened shows with “Nightlife,” a song that people have never heard of that wasn’t even out yet. But the reaction and response was people were dancing to it and loving it. Performing it live also lets you know if it is really resonating with people or if it is going down in flames.
SoulTrain.com: Well, your music always resonates with audiences because over the years you’ve made so many beautiful songs. One of my favorites is “Commitment of Love,” which is a really gorgeous song.
Jody Watley: I love that song so much.
SoulTrain.com: When writing songs, most often the subject matter is about personal experiences. What helps or inspires you to create a song like that?
Jody Watley: Songs come when I least expect them. I may have a specific vibe or something I want to go for but the song itself either comes to me or doesn’t. There have been songs I have tried to write but they just weren’t going anywhere so to a certain degree the spirit takes me to the song I’m supposed to be writing. That’s really always been it. Some songs are about personal experiences. Sometimes I’m thinking of other people and what’s going to get them excited like with “Nightlife;” I wanted people to feel fabulous and feel like getting dressed up and going out. So all of the songs paint different pictures. I loved writing all my life. I wrote poetry as a child and that really developed into songwriting. I was singing songs and making up words as a little girl so I feel very blessed and fortunate that I get to do that aspect of being an artist because not every singer writes. I enjoy telling these stories because it helps make everything that I do even closer to me authentically because they are representations of me.
SoulTrain.com: When you first broke out as a solo artist that must have been a really wonderful time in your life since you could express how you felt. Your first self-titled solo album was, as they used to say back in the day, “the bomb.” What was it like to be on your own and finally do you?
Jody Watley: What it represented for me was having faith in myself even when sometimes you experience self-doubt, like we all have, and we have to overcome the voices in our head. Not everybody believes in you, so we have to believe in ourselves foremost and be ready to persevere and conquer whatever it is. So really for me I felt like my solo debut was a way of being rewarded for believing in myself because coming out of the group Shalamar, success for me wasn’t about hit singles. I just wanted to be happy and proud of what I was doing. No matter what, I was going to succeed because I’m going to be doing what I want to do around people that I want to be around. It just represents faith and confidence and being true to yourself. The best things in life are when we are true to ourselves and not trying to live up to anyone else’s expectations other than our own.
SoulTrain.com: Apparently millions of people believed in you as well because you sold millions of records and you won the Grammy for Best New Artist. That must have been, to paraphrase one of your song titles, “quite a thrill.”
Jody Watley: Yes! It was like putting the smackdown on all of the doubters. It was such a triumphant thing to happen. It was like God and the universe rewarded me far more than I could have ever even imagined. Anything I do I want to be the best and I just want to kick ass with it. Under the circumstances that I was coming out of with forces that were trying to make sure that I never succeeded, to succeed anyway was wonderful.
SoulTrain.com: I feel you on that. Let’s talk about your days on Soul Train. You are one of the greatest dancers in Soul Train’s history. I know for myself as a former dancer on Soul Train I have a lot of great moments. For you, did you ever have what I call OMG moments during your time on Soul Train?
Jody Watley: The first would be when Michael Jackson came to the show. I was in a haze! I wrote fan letters to Michael Jackson so to be within ten feet of him was like, wow! I’m surprised they didn’t call the ambulance to take me out!
SoulTrain.com: Soul Train would have this policy of the dancers not talking to the guests but I did anyway. Did you have a chance to meet and speak with Michael that day?
Jody Watley: No, not on Soul Train. That would come later. One group I loved was Labelle because they were so out there! They wore us dancers out. I actually went to speak to them and I took a picture with them, and I am friendly with all of them to this day. They were all just so nice and approachable and it made an impression on me as an artist. So I always try to be nice to people and to take time to take pictures. Every moment on Soul Train was really an OMG moment. Coming from the midwest, trying to get on the show and getting kicked out, and coming back in and Bobby Washington taking me on the show, every moment was like, “Oh my God!” To this day, I have much appreciation and gratitude in every moment.
SoulTrain.com: Before you came to Soul Train, what dancers on the show inspired or influenced you?
Jody Watley: Pat Davis and the whole original Soul Train Gang. Pat Davis’ style stood out. Tyrone Proctor is my favorite of all time and I’m still close to him. He just brought out so much in me. He inspired me to want to be the best. He was always like, “You better dance!” Or “You need to be dancing in heels now!” I also loved Vicki Abercrombie. The power of seeing young people being fabulous, dressing up and dancing and having a good time was important.
SoulTrain.com: Indeed. I’ve always been intrigued by your robot dancing as a kid watching you on Soul Train, and I consider you one of my robot teachers since I do the robot as well. Obviously, some of the other original members of the Soul Train Gang like Pat Davls influenced you in that style of dancing, but who or what else inspired you? You moved and looked just like a real robot!
Jody Watley: I loved dancing all my life. With the robot, I would watch Shields & Yarnell. They were a mime couple. Also the Lockers when they came on Soul Train, particularly Slim the Robot. They made such a big impression on me.
SoulTrain.com: Tell me about your participation in the charity event the Live Ball in Vienna, Austria some years ago.
Jody Watley: That was an incredible event to be a part of. It was the biggest charity event of that time in Europe and probably the world. It was an honor to be there and to be involved with various organizations that promote HIV and AIDS awareness and help raise money. Before that, the first project I did which was the first of its kind for AIDS awareness was Red, Hot & Blue in 1989, with an eclectic array of artists like Annie Lennox and David Byrne. In the beginning, people were nervous about artists getting involved in projects like this. But everything I do or attach myself to has to be something I believe in and want to be a part of.
SoulTrain.com: One of my many favorite songs that you have done is “Friends” with Eric B. and Rakim. That’s one of my anthems. What inspired that song?
Jody Watley: Some people think that song is about one person in particular, but it is actually about a few. It’s just a real life song about betrayal. No one picked up on it but Shalamar had an album and a song called “Friends” which was very happy go lucky. So I was like, “I’m going to do a real song about friends and how it really is.” At the time, the whole rap collaboration thing didn’t really exist except when Chaka Khan worked with Melle Mel on “I Feel For You.” I was hearing this song as a duet and I loved Rakim’s voice and his menacing tone, and I wanted him to do the verse like if someone was singing but only rapping on it. Some didn’t see how it was going to work. Eric B. and Rakim were the real deal. They weren’t mainstream. It was suggested Will Smith do it and I said no, it has to be Eric B. and Rakim. His rhymes would really be in your face. So to this day, that formula is part of the music landscape. Again, you can’t be a pioneer if you try to be like other people. But for me being authentic is always important.
SoulTrain.com: What would you like to say in memory of Don Cornelius, who helped to launch your show business career?
Jody Watley: I am forever grateful to Don Cornelius. He formed Shalamar with Soul Train Records. He created a vehicle that was positive. I am just very grateful for him and all that he did. There will never be another Don Cornelius.
SoulTrain.com: What words of wisdom do you want to share with SoulTrain.com readers who deal with haters and jealousy like you have in the past?
Jody Watley: I’m going to tie it in to the title of the album, which is Paradise. We all have to create our own slice of paradise. You will find that within yourself first and foremost. If you tap into your paradise, it’s less likely that other people can bring you down or discourage you. Stay close to your inner paradise and create your own paradise. Music for me has always been a sense of paradise against obstacle and challenges. So I want to continue to inspire others through my music and other projects that I would like to do in the future.
For more information about Jody Watley, visit her official website www.jodywatley.net.
Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer/performer, Soul Train historian and soul music and movie historian. He is also a former Soul Train dancer. He is featured in the new Soul Train documentary Show Me Your Soul and is also featured in the new book Love, Peace and Soul: Behind theScenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show Soul Train by Ericka Blount Danois which is available on Amazon and in bookstores.