Grammy Award-winning vocalist, producer, and songwriter Jody Watley made a name for herself with the dance-soul trio Shalamar before she embarked on a solo career that brought her several Top Ten pop hits and a reputation as "The Queen of Cool." Watley was born in Chicago, Illinois, on January 30, 1959, but grew up in Los Angeles. Her teenage gig as a dancer on Soul Train led to a meeting with the hit TV show's creator, Don Cornelius. Along with Jeffrey Daniel and Gerald Brown, Watley was recruited by Griffey to join Shalamar in 1977. A string of poppy dance-soul hits featuring Watley began in 1978 with "Take That to the Bank." Watley left the group in 1982 and moved to London, where she recorded some demos with the Art of Noise. It was during this time that she was invited by Bob Geldof to appear on the 1986 charity single "Do They Know It's Christmas?" by Band Aid. She returned to the U.S. late in the year and began working on her solo debut.
Recorded with hit producers Bernard Edwards, David Z., Patrick Leonard, and André Cymone — who eventually became her husband until 1995, when the two divorced — Watley's 1987 self-titled debut became an instant smash courtesy of its lead single, "Looking for a New Love," and its catch phrase, "hasta la vista, baby." Similarly stylish videos accompanied the hits "Don't You Want Me" and "Still a Thrill" and helped earn her the award for Best New Artist at the 30th annual Grammy Awards. Two years later, she returned with the ambitious album Larger Than Life and the number two pop hit "Real Love." The album's second single, "Friends," was an early R&B/hip-hop blend with Eric B. & Rakim making an appearance. The remix album You Wanna Dance with Me? surfaced a year later, as did the million-selling exercise video Dance to Fitness. Fashion spreads and an appearance in a Gap ad campaign were other non-musical activities and helped earn her a spot on People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People list.
More mature music appeared on both 1991's Affairs of the Heart and 1993's Intimacy, and while they weren't the major hits her earlier efforts were, they were well received by critics and helped strengthen her loyal fan base. She also worked with legendary composer Henry Mancini on the soundtrack to the Blake Edwards film Switch during this time and accepted an offer to sing at the White House in 1992. The 1995 album Affection found the singer off her longtime label, MCA, and on her own independent label, Avitone. Her 1998 effort Flower found her on Atlantic worldwide, but the label didn't release the album in the States. A year later, Destiny's Child put the Watley-penned "Sweet Sixteen" on their multi-platinum album The Writing's on the Wall, while Watley herself was working on a new dance sound that was slightly more left-field but still stylish and tasteful. The Japanese-only The Saturday Night Experience, Vol. 1 landed in 1999. She returned to the dance chart in 2000 with the Masters at Work-produced "I Love to Love" featuring Roy Ayers. House tastemakers Ron Trent and Blaze remixed the single "Saturday Night Experience" for the U.K. label Giant Steps in 2001, and the sophisticated Midnight Lounge appeared on Shanachie the same year. In 2005, she appeared on King Britt's album This Is, and climbed back on top of the dance chart with a remix of her classic "Looking for a New Love." The following year, Watley released a new album, The Makeover, featuring a cover of Madonna's "Boderline," which made it to number two on the dance chart. Further singles from the album also climbed the dance chart. "A Beautiful Life" made it to number five, and "I Want Your Love" went to number. In 2008, Billboard honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Additionally, she appeared in a fashion spread alongside Iman, Naomi Campbell, and Tina Turner in Vogue Italia. Featuring black models almost exclusively, the issue was the first to sell out in the magazine's history.
During the early 2010s, Watley stayed active through collaborations with French Horn Rebellion and a string of performances, including one at the 2013 Essence Music Festival. "Nightlife," released in 2013, became her 19th solo Top 20 dance-chart hit. Shortly thereafter, she became the legal and registered trademark owner of the Shalamar name. A diverse, high-energy Watley EP, Paradise, followed in 2016, as she led Jody Watley & SRL, featuring two new partners, on tour. ~ David Jeffries