Shalamar: ‘Our fans would follow us on roller skates unicycles…it was bizarre’ | Music | Entertainment

Jeffrey Daniel, Jody Watley and Howard Hewett of Shalamar

Jeffrey Daniel, Jody Watley and Howard Hewett of Shalamar (Image: Getty)

Shalamar provided the soundtrack for a generation. Soulful 80s hits like I Can Make You Feel Good and A Night To Remember made global stars of the trio; but founder member Jeffrey Daniel will always be best known for another achievement – being the man who taught Michael Jackson how to moonwalk.

“I perfected it, I pioneered it,” says Jeffrey, 67, of the physically demanding dance technique. Only then it was called the backslide. When I taught Michael Jackson he called it the moonwalk, even though there’s no walking involved. You can’t think about walking, you have to slide. But moonwalk was a more commercial name and it stuck.”

Los Angeles-born Jeffrey had been doing the dance on Soul Train on US television since 1979. The show, which ran for 36 years, was the TV springboard for American soul and R&B acts.

“It was massive in the States, the epicentre of the soul world,” says Jeffrey. “There was no cable TV, no social media – this was where it was at.”

Dancers didn’t get paid, he says. “We got a box of chicken and a can of Coke. They had big stars in the audience. It was the place to be.”

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Shalamar performing on This Morning

Shalamar performing on This Morning (Image: Shutterstock)

Jeffrey was 17 when he realised Soul Train’s dancers went on, after filming, to Maverick’s Flat, the unofficial after-show nightclub.

“We called it the sweat box,” he laughs. “I was sneaking in, underage. Sometimes I’d climb over the back wall and sneak in through the back door.” Personable and charming, he befriended leading dancer Tyrone Proctor and was soon allowed into Soul Club recordings.

“I was told to sit but when a certain record came on, I ran up there and I danced. The floor manager bawled me out in front of everyone. I shrunk back in my seat…”

But the self-styled “tall skinny guy with the afro” kept going until producers realised his talent could no longer be ignored.

“I was influenced by Danny Kaye, James Brown, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy. I was always adding things. I did a handstand on a skateboard, I came dancing down with a mannequin. Once my partner Jody Watley and I staged a fight that looked so real the other dancers rushed to try and pull us apart.”

They became the show’s best-known couple, and Daniel one of the most influential dancers. Shalamar began as a studio group created by Soul Train’s producer Don Cornelius and booking agent Dick Griffey. The first release, Uptown Festival – a disco Motown medley on Griffey’s Solar label – was a hit, even in the UK.

founder member Jeffrey Daniel

Founder member Jeffrey Daniel (Image: Getty)

So Cornelius ditched the session singers and built a trio around Jeffrey.

“I am the founding member of Shalamar,” he states. “There was no group before me.”

They’d had four minor UK hits before A Night To Remember propelled them into the Top Five in 1982. They’d already had a million-seller in the US with 1979’s Take That To The Bank. By then Howard Hewett had joined – creating the classic Shalamar line-up. Fame hit them like a runaway freight train.

“I remember landing somewhere and being hungry so the car takes me to McDonald’s. I’m standing at the counter when suddenly school emptied out. There are kids everywhere and they recognise me. They were pulling at my clothes, my ass, touching me everywhere.

“I really couldn’t understand it. Why are you acting like that? And someone said, ‘Jeffrey you’re a star to them’. Fans on tour would follow us on rollerskates, on bikes, on unicycles. It seems bizarre. People were coming up and pulling at me.”

He pauses, smiles and asks, “Who’s going to come pulling at me now? Now it’s just the IRS and tax collectors.”

Live shows were “pandemonium”, he tells me. “But we were on stage, so it was cool. UK audiences were different. They’d storm the stage too, but they’d get intellectual with me. They knew the names of the songwriters, they read the credits. I didn’t get that in America.”

Jeffrey credits producer Leon Sylvers III, who produced five of their albums from 1979’s Big Fun until 1983’s The Look, for their rapid rise. “We were so blessed to have a producer like Leon. He really crafted the songs and coached us. I learnt so much from him.” Jeffrey and Jody left Shalamar just before The Look came out, citing issues with management and their label.

“They weren’t paying us,” he says simply. “I formed my own publishing company and they even wanted a piece of that.”

Daniel grew up in LA with a single mother and two elder sisters. As a boy, he only saw his father three times. His late mother, a classical pianist, played in the family church.

“As the only boy, radio was like my big brother. I was listening to The Dave Clark Five, Motown, James Brown. I loved The Four Tops and The Byrds. You had a wide variety of genres in LA – it was like a big melting pot.”

In 1983 he came to London, another melting pot, and settled here.

Michael Jackson

Jeffrey taught star Michael Jackson, how to do the moonwalk (Image: Getty)

“I was filming Paul McCartney’s Give My Regards To Broad Street, phoning home and things weren’t going well, so I stayed until 1988. I didn’t just leave Shalamar I left America.”

But even here his fame caused problems. He recalls getting swamped by fans at the Notting Hill Carnival. “We needed the police to get out of there!” Yet the London scene certainly welcomed him. He says he fondly remembers hanging out with Echo & The Bunnymen and Wham in Camden.

“Andrew Ridgeley used to drive me and George Michael home, with George drunk in the front seat. Alison Moyet came to my flat and we wrote a song together. I loved going to the Wag Club and seeing people like Neneh Cherry, Sade, Pepsi & Shirley. It was a very communal environment.”

After creating the role of Electra in Starlight Express and presenting UK TV show 620 Soul Train, Jeffrey went to Japan to work with Ryuichi Sakamoto. “One day he’ll be looked at as a Beethoven or Stravinsky. His string arrangements take you to the ceiling.”

Travelling back here, Jeffrey stopped over in LA where Michael Jackson, a fan since the Soul Train days, asked him to co-choreograph videos for his 1987 hits Bad and Smooth Criminal.

“Michael was amazing, the hardest working person; he’d have worked all night if you didn’t stop him. Thriller was already the biggest selling album of all time, but he wanted to outsell it with Bad – he was in competition with himself.”

Shalamar performs on Soul Train

Shalamar performs on Soul Train (Image: Getty)

Shalamar didn’t do too badly themselves, selling more than 25 million albums in their heyday. Jeffrey and Howard reformed the
group in 1999, replacing reluctant Jody with Carolyn Griffey, daughter of Dick Griffey and R&B singer Carrie Lucas. They’ve been performing with a seven-piece band since 2001 – “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Grandfather Jeffrey also found time to judge on Nigerian Idol. “I was a compassionate judge. I tried hard not to break people. I was never brutal.”

Shalamar are back touring, “for the 40th anniversary of our Friends album and the 40th anniversary of me performing the backslide on Top Of The Pops”, he says. “We’re full of plans to take over the world.” Yet tech giants worry him. “We need to pause before we go down the abyss.

“Everything is getting dehumanised. Elon Musk, we liked Tesla and Space X, but putting chips in human brains? That’s scary. Bill Gates owns the most farmland in America. Why? GM food.

“Zuckerberg wants to put us all in the Metaverse – what about the organic universe? Try to keep humanity in your soul. In lockdown, I wrote a couple of songs. One is called Make Love Great Again – shouldn’t everywhere be great?

“The other is Back To The World. We need to get back to the real world and act like humans. It’s upbeat but the message is there as well. That’s my contribution.”

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