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From Soul Train to Shalamar to the R&B Charts to MTV to nostalgia – these were the days of their lives. Where is the movie musical about this strange and wonderful friendship? It has all the elements: two crazy kids with a dream, the early success, the international journey to self, the highest and heights, and oh, the regrets.
If I had not had a powerful aversion to Soul Train as a child (Don Cornelius creeped me out), I might have seen the near future of crossover R&B shakin’ its groove thing in the form of Jody Watley and Jermaine Stewart. The 1980s were a magical time when just having a good time on the dance floor could lead to fame and fortune (Madonna and Rosie Perez, anyone)? Jody, no stranger to the world of showbiz (her godfather was soul music legend Jackie Wilson, whose fate should have taught her something about life’s injustices), was tapped to join the vocal group Shalamar; Jermaine was hired as a backup singer/dancer. The die was cast…
The next stage in both their careers would come courtesy of the United Kingdom. Jermaine hooked up (I’m sure it was innocent) with Culture Club and provided backing vocals on their world-changing Colour by Numbers album (“You know you’ll miss me bliii-ind!”). Jody left Shalamar and somehow ended up in the studio standing next to Bananarama during the recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (I mean, you know, singing.) Frankly, simply on the strength of their totally dope British associations, J&J could have called it a career right there.
But it doesn’t count unless you do it in the U.S. Do you remember where you were when you first heard the naughty-yet-uptight lyric “We don’t have to take our clothes off?” – in the car? at the family cookout? in utero? How about when you saw Miss Watley and her hair breakin’ it down in the video for “Looking for a New Love?” I know at least one adult homosexual who remembers being paralyzed with emotion. Jody and Jermaine may have been the black musical precursors to Will and Grace: his Frantic Romantic album (if anyone can explain to me what’s going on in that photo, I’ll buy you a drink) includes a tribute to his old friend, “Jody.” And oh, yeah, he was gay – I know you may find it hard to believe that a guy who sang a lyric like “And drink some cherry wine” might sleep with dudes, but let go of your stereotypes, okay?
Sadly, only one of the Js would see the 21st century. In spite of his admonition, Jermaine clearly did take his clothes off and did not put a condom on: he contracted HIV and died in 1997. Jody is still with us, but her hitmaking did not survive the ’80s. She touched the top of the charts a few more times than Jermaine, but which of these dance-music pros really left the greater mark? Whose catchphrase is more deeply embedded in our consciousness – her “Hasta la vista, baby” or his “Na na na naaa, n-na na…na na”? Which is more unforgettable – her cheekbones or his hair? But the choice is a false one, because the two are cut from the same all-singing, all-dancing disco-soul cloth. Their personae are symbiotic, like Judy and Mickey, or Jacko and Miss Ross.
Makers of the Soul Train feature film, are you listening?