This month is of course not only the holiest month on the Dystopian Dance Party calendar, but also Pride Month for the LGBT community, commemorating the Stonewall uprisings of June 1969. So I thought today was as good a time as any to talk about one of our favorite LGBT Jheri Curl artists (LGBTJC?), Jermaine Stewart.
Stewart is best known for his 1986 hit “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off”–which is, for the record, the fucking jam–and for having quite possibly the most iconic blowout-and-thin-moustache combo in the game. But he had an illustrious career behind the scenes, as well: starting out as a dancer on Soul Train, then just missing a place in the group Shalamar, for whom he went on to dance and sing backing vocals; he can also be heard singing backup on Culture Club’s 1984 hit “Miss Me Blind.”
It was the Soul Train/Shalamar connection that led to “Jody,” Stewart’s second-best-known solo song, inspired by his close friend and former Shalamar frontwoman (/previous JCJ profilee), Jody Watley. It’s also a jam, with a dark electro-funk vibe reminiscent of 1999-era Prince.
Sadly, Jermaine Stewart’s life ended in a way his ebullient spirit didn’t deserve: he died of AIDS-related liver cancer in 1997, at just 39 years old. His passing echoes that of many other gay men who came of age before treatment and prevention of HIV were widely accessible–a reminder of one of the many reasons why Pride Month is important. Which, I realize, is a bummer of a way to end this post, but hey: if listening to Jermaine Stewart can’t put a smile on your face, what else can? You can hear him, and the rest of this month’s artists, on the playlists below.
If you’re a regular Jheri Curl June reader, then you should already know that the first week of June holds special signifance in jheri curl music history. As we noted back in our very first Jheri Curl June Special of 2014, Prince’s birthday falls at the end of the week, on June 7. Just a day earlier, there’s also the birthday of megaproducer and Prince’s fellow Minneapolitan, James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III: the subject, with musical life partner Terry Lewis, of our 2015 JCJ Special. And if all that wasn’t enough, on the very same date as Prince, another Midwestern Jheri Curl architect was born in 1956: Cincinnati, Ohio’s own Antonio “L.A.” Reid.
With all due respect to Mr. Reid–who, in my defense, has so much money that I sincerely doubt he cares–there’s a reason why we waited three years to enshrine him in the Jheri Curl June Hall of Fame. If, as I suggested last year, Prince was Jheri Curl’s principal architect and Jam and Lewis its most successful engineers, then Reid and his longtime colleague Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds were more like JCM’s property developers, building on the blueprints of the Minneapolis Sound to considerable success without ever really innovating on the formula. When we think about L.A. and Babyface, we think about…well, LaFace, a label synonymous with early ’90s R&B. Their achievements in the previous decade were decidedly more modest.
But that doesn’t mean they weren’t, in their own way, important. Dystopian Dance Party has love for Reid’s and Edmonds’ early band the Deele, and last year we highlighted one of the pair’s late-era jheri curl productions, “Rock Steady” by the Whispers. There’s plenty of room in pop music for songs that refine and iterate on existing formulas, rather than reinventing the wheel; this is especially true in jheri curl music, a genre that existed pretty much exclusively as a vehicle for up-and-coming artists to bite from Prince and Michael Jackson. This, then, is our tribute to L.A. Reid: maybe not the most innovative of artists, but a shrewd businessman, a talented musician, and a gifted producer and songwriter who could, let’s not forget, buy and sell all of us in a second.
By 1987, Shalamar’s classic lineup of Howard Hewett, Jody Watley, and Jeffrey Daniel had disbanded. The lineup for Shalamar’s ninth studio album, Circumstantial Evidence, consisted of Sidney Justin, a former backup singer for the group who replaced Hewett when he left in 1985 to pursue his solo career; DeLisa Davis, who auditioned to replace Watley after her departure in 1983; and Micki Free, a rock guitarist who was discovered by Gene Simmons while in a band that opened for KISS, and later joined Shalamar under Simmons’ counseling despite his hard rock sensibilities.
One of my favorite things about researching and writing for Jheri Curl June is the complex web of connections between the various artists within the genre. Today’s selection, Chicago‘s Jody Watley, is no exception. Naturally, as with most things jheri curl, many roads lead back to Minneapolis: Watley’s 1987 solo debut was co-produced by Prince‘s childhood friend and former bandmate–and, as of this year, JCJ vet in his own right–André Cymone. The other producer on the album? None other than David Z, the older brother of Revolution drummer Bobby, who engineered much of Prince’s work through the mid-1980s.
But Watley is far from just another footnote of the ever-sprawling Prince Dynasty; she’s a part of jheri curl history on her own strengths. She got her start in the late 1970s as a dancer on Soul Train, where legendary host Don Cornelius chose her to join his in-house vocal group Shalamar (more on them next week). And Cymone wasn’t just a producer Watley nabbed for his Minneapolis-Sound cred; the pair were romantically involved, and would later marry for several years beginning in 1989, with a son, Arie, born in 1992.