The stylish "musical assassin" talks tunes, George Michael and activism...
Singer Jody Watley has been many things during her illustrious career, including an activist, fashion platebut, most certainly, a musician. Among her many achievements in that latter area are a Grammy win; a Lifetime Achievement Award from Billboard magazine; and numerous hits (on her own and as well as with group Shalamar), including "Looking for a New Love," "Real Love" and "Still a Thrill."
During a recent, wide-ranging talk with Windy City Times, Watleywho most recently came out with the dance hit "The Healing" last yeardiscussed everything (and everyone) from her new ambassador role to George Michael to the TV show Soul Train (which she once danced on, as a regular) to HIV/AIDS activismbut the conversation started with COVID vaccinations.
Windy City Times: We were supposed to talk recently, but things were postponed because you got a COVID vaccination. How are you doing, and how was the experience?
Jody Watley: Yeah, I got my first dose, and it was Moderna. Once I got the appointment, it was a pretty easy process. The only after-effect I had was a super-sore armlike someone had punched me in it. I was warned, "Don't get it in the arm you use," and I'm right-handed. Plus, I'm a tosser and turner [when I sleep], so I had to protect that arm. Plus, I had a low-grade headache. Other than that, within the next two days, it was like I hadn't even had it.
Tell your readers: Don't be scared. [Laughs] Go get your vaccine. I haven't even had a flu shot. Chris Rock said something: "People will take a Tylenol or Advil when they have a headache. When you read the ingredients, do you know what stuff is?"
I'm going to continue the masking for some time, "serving eyes," with the lashes poking it.
WCT: I like that term"serving eyes." [Watley laughs.] I'm going to use that from now on!
JW: [Continues laughing] "Serving eyes!" But I haven't traveled in a year and a half, but with this ambassadorship, I hope to take a trip soon. But with Chicago, you can drive to the lake and back, and that's a trip. [Laughs]
But, going back to the masks, I'm going to continue to wear one. If you don't want to, try Instacart. They come right to your door! [Interviewer and Watley laugh.]
WCT: As you mentioned, you're now the ambassador of the National Museum of African American Music. Congratulations on that! What do your duties involve?
JW: Thank youit's an honor. My duties involve bringing attention to the museum in charming ways [laughs] and encouraging people to support the museum. It really is a museum for all ages. Even if you can't get to Nashville, there are so many virtual experiences. There is another component, but I'm allowed to say what it isyetbut it's very exciting.
They chose me also because of my style that's ongoing, with the rap/R&B collection and the streetwear. My impact on music made me a choice for this honor. Right now and, I believe, through the summer, there's a digital Jumbotron with me on itand I love it! [Laughs] I have to get this second shot so I can see it in person.
WCT: And you mentioned your style. Who are your style icons?
JW: My first style icons were actually my mother and father. My dad was always in a custom suit, and he was very flamboyant. He was probably the first person I saw who color-blocked, with his lime-green suit, shirt, shoes; he also had Nehru suits, importing fabric from India. My mom was the first person I saw in donut sleevesbefore Diana Ross, it was my mother.
And my mom would always get Harper's Bazaar. In addition to being studious, I loved fashion and models. Also, Diana Ross and the Supremes were very elegant to meand I loved Grace Jones. She had and has her own thing. When I came out as a solo artist, I was very adamant with the label that I didn't want to look like anyone else; I wanted to be Jody Watley. I was wearing Gaultier before Gaultier was famous; I was also wearing streetwearalthough now it's called "vintage" because it sounds nicer. You could be fly and fabulous, and you didn't have to be rich.
To this day, people will mention to me the Chanel belt in the "Some Kind of Lover" videoand I had that with a dress and Chucks [Chuck Taylor sneakers]. Nobody else was doing that. The first time I went to Japan, I was influenced by the kids thereand the fact that it's cool to be different.
My male, female, gay and gender-fluid fans will say all types of things to me on social media, like, "You taught me that it's okay to be different." When I see things like that, it really means a lot that, to some people, I represent the freedom to be yourself. I've always been a big activist for my [LGBTQ+] fans. It's about loving yourself and being your authentic self. And don't worry about everyone liking you; as one of my best friends said, "Girlnot everyone loved Jesus." It keeps things in perspective.
WCT: You have so many hitsbut I discovered a new one: a cover of the Chic hit "I Want Your Love."
JW: Oh, yeah! That's from my album The Makeover. [Editor's note: The first single from that album was a cover of Madonna's "Borderline."] At the time, I had done a show up in the Bay Area, and I called it "Songs in the Key of My Life." I just did songs that I loved. "I Want Your Love" is one of my favorite Chic songs; it's with [producer/musician/Chic member] Bernard Edwards, who produced "Don't You Want Me and I'm still very friendly with [producer/musician/Chic member] Nile Rodgers, who gave me his blessing and played guitar on it. It was a number-one dance song here in America. I love performing it live.
WCT: You mentioned Bernard Edwards, and he produced a song you did with George Michael on your debut solo album called "Learn to Say No." Could you tell our readers about that collaboration, and what George was like?
JW: George Michael and I met and became friends when I was living in London. I didn't have a deal at the time but we had done the Band-Aid charity single ("Do They Know It's Christmas?"). I asked him if he would do a duet with me if I got a deal, and he agreed. When I met with the labels in America, I wanted them to know that I knew who I was; I was like a ninja or assassin in terms of knowing my focus. George was such a superstar at the timeand no label believed he would do a duet with me. I said, "Trust me. He's going to do it."
He chose the song "Learn to Say No." At the time, Bernard was with the group Power Station, with Robert Palmer, Duran Duran's John Taylor and Andy Taylor, and Tony Thompson. Tony played drums on "Learn to Say No," so it has this big sound. The downside was that George's label wouldn't allow it to be a single because he was about to drop his duet with Aretha Franklin, "I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me)." But I know it would've been a smashand that video would've been so hot! [Laughs]
WCT: That song practically screamed for a video.
JW: Yes! I was so disappointed, and he was, too. It still sounds great, though. George is very missed, and he's still one of my favorite artists/vocalists/writers. Just beautifuland such a loss… His music is forever, thoughand he is forever. I'm honored to be one of a small group of people who sang with him.
WCT: Windy City Times is doing a series on "HIV at 40." You've been an activist for decades and you're on the [1990 HIV/AIDS benefit] album Red Hot + Blue. Did you think we would be 40 years in and not have a cure/vaccine?
JW: No. It's really astounding. So many have lost their lives, especially early on, and it was such a taboo subject. When I was asked to do the Red Hot + Blue projectwhich was the first one of its kindmy label didn't want me to do it. They were worried that people would think I was gaylike that would be the end of the world. And they thought people would think I had AIDS, even though I was just talking about awareness. I could do a whole dissertation on how ridiculous it all was.
I'm not gay and I don't have HIVbut I can speak about how it's affecting everyone. I knew so many people who were dying from AIDS. I told them that I would do the album, anywayand if they wanted to sue me, they'd just have to sue me. I stuck to my guns, and they gave me permission to do it.
Red Hot + Blue has raised millions of dollars, and there are other albums in that Red Hot series. The documentary that came out of that is still worth looking up. And, still, it's a major problem in Third World countries, where they can't afford the medicine.
WCT: One of the people claimed by HIV/AIDS was singer Jermaine Stewart (the 1986 hit "We Don't Have to Take Your Clothes Off"), who died in 1997and released a song about you, called "Jody." What do you remember about him?
JW: He was one of many I know who died of HIV/AIDS.
This is a little difficult for me because Jermaine and I weren't friends when he passed. Someone told me that because I wasn't friends with him, I shouldn't speak about him. So I'll just say that he was a great artist and everyone loves "Clothes Off," and he had one of the best blow-dry bob haircuts of all time. [Laughs] Jermaine was certainly a character in many ways. It was still a loss, even though we weren't friends.
WCT: Switching gears, in this age of reboots, should they bring back Soul Train? [Watley was a dancer on the show in the 1970s before finding success as a vocalist in the group Shalamar.]
JW: No! I'm not big on bringing stuff back. Some things should just be left in their eras. The show that Don Cornelius created was magical for its era because there was no other show that showcased R&B and hip-hop. It's like when Arsenio Hall had his show; I loved it because you could perform and you could interview. You go on TikTok; it's kinda like Soul Train for this generation. A new dance show would have to fit this era; Soul Train was for that era. Just because you can bring something back doesn't mean you should. [Laughs]
WCT: So true. We talked about COVID at the start. With this year of COVID and the racial awakening some people have had, what have you learned about yourself?
JW: Interesting… Though I'm in the public eye, I've pretty much been a loner most of my life. I'm very comfortable being quarantined and on my own. [Both laugh.] I've learned how to keep myself busy, entrepreneurially, with my home lineI've loved candles since I was in junior-high school. I've learned that, no matter your circumstance, you have to take what you have; what we have now is what we make of life now. With everyone, I think that should be the takeaway.
I'm comfortable in my own skin and with my own company. Social connection is part of being humanbut it's good to, as my mother would say, "go somewhere and sit down." [Both laugh.] Making the best of things is important, but I didn't need the pandemic to remind me of that, although some people did.
Also, I learned it's nice to have some social distance, so stay six feet back! [Laughs]
WCT: More, if possible…
JW: Exactly! You don't need to be up on me when I'm making a transaction. [Both laugh.]
WCT: Thank you for your time. You're the musical assassin who serves eyes.
JW: YesI love that!
Jody Watley's official website is jodywatley.net/ .