BY CHUKS NWANNE
He stood out in the midst of suited guests in the dining area of the Protea Hotel, G.R.A, Ikeja, Lagos; his height and dressense, especially his hairdo, gave him out. Not minding his popularity in showbiz across the globe, Jeffery Daniel, a founding member of the Shalamar group, is a bundle of humility. Even as an American, he’s a strong believer in the ‘I can do spirit of (people on) the black continent’, which he’s preaching all over the world.
For over a year now, Daniel has been in the country, where he’s deeply involved in talent development and sharing his experiences with the Nigerian showbiz community. As one of the judges in the ongoing Nigerian Idol, many had actually questioned his involvement in the project that they thought should be an all-Nigerian affair. However, the reality is that the fleet-footed fellow is more Nigerian in spirit than most Nigerians.
A FORMER choreographer of the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson, Daniel’s journey into the entertainment world started within the four walls of his mother’s room.
“Becoming a choreographer happened actually by accident and necessity, but dancing started at home with my mother and my two elder sisters. I have a small family; just my mother and two sisters. My mother is a classical pianist and she plays in the Church every Sunday. Of course, my sisters and I sing in the church with her; so, music started at home,” he said.
While his two sisters grew to delve into other areas of interest, young Jeffrey continued with what seems like the family tradition –– singing and dancing.
“Being that I was the youngest, I just continued with it and it was fun for me. Sometimes, it was a kind of discipline; my mother was a kind of making me do music. You don’t want your mother to teach you music because if you make mistake, she would hit you saying, ‘not that one, not that one;” Jefferey said amidst laughs.
You mean your mum hit you for singing the wrong notes?
“Yes; I’m not sure if any other person can try that. But she’s my mother and there’s nothing I could do; she would whip you for not cleaning your room, now she’s whipping you for playing the wrong note on the piano. My mother is so complex and impatient. But the dancing part, she can’t mess with that,” he said confidently.
Up till today, Daniel finds it difficult to read music from the papers.
“I don’t read music; I compose music, I produce music, I can play the piano and guitar, but I don’t read music because I still think my mother is going to hit me if I hit the wrong note,” he said bursting into another round of laugh.
“So, don’t just put a paper in front of me because I might make a mistake. I understand music very well, but I don’t just read it on paper.”
Was that why you decided to put dance ahead of music?
“I never chose one ahead of the other; both are always simultaneous with me; being a member of Shalamar, we danced and sang.”
Though his dance career started at home, the Soul Train TV show provided the right platform for talented black Americans like Daniel, to launch to limelight.
“Dancing on Soul Train was just my passion. Up until the 70s, if you saw blacks on TV, either we were playing the part of drug dealers or being chased by the police as criminals… very few positive stories. But when I saw Soul Train, certainly you saw young black kids doing what we loved to do most, dancing and looking good. It was a platform that launched a lot of group that couldn’t get into the top 10 because they were blacks; they couldn’t get to white shows.”
Away from the picture usually painted in the international media regarding the peaceful coexistence between white Americans and the blacks, there’s a reality that is usually swept under the carpet.
“A lot of Africans get the impression that we were living hand in hand with the whites in the United States, they didn’t understand our struggle. If not for Soul Train, a lot of black artistes wouldn’t have made it to the top of the chart because, if you cannot be exposed on the national level, how do people even know you exist? So, Soul Train was a way for people to be exposed without being at the very top; you can be exposed on your way to the national level.”
While dancing on the show and gaining the popularity that comes with it, Daniel and other talented chaps were actually setting the pace for how America was dancing.
“Little did we know it was working for us, even as dancers too. By watching Soul Train then, you get to know what to wear by what we were wearing as Soul Train dancers. We weren’t getting paid, but we were just being exposed on TV every week. That was what started my career.”
He continued: “Dancing on the Soul Train TV show was purely dancing because you had to be a star to sing on the show. But then, we were young, just coming out of high school.”
Was that where your professional career started?
“Well, you can’t really say professionally because they were not paying us. Were they,” he quizzed rhetorically.
If you were not paid, how did you manage to survive?
“Ok, good question,” he said adjusting his sitting position, as if trying to browse through his memory. “Living with my godfather, living with his girlfriend, living with that girlfriend, moving in with my sisters … I was like a gypsy for a while.”
What about your father?
“My father,” he quizzed again. “I only met him three times in my life,” he said with a straight face.
“Ask him; he wasn’t there. I was a kid; kids don’t dictate to parents what to do. I met him like three years ago; that’s the third time I met him.”
Does that mean you don’t have plans of linking up with him after these years?
“I did; I actually went to see him. After my mother passed away six years ago, I felt there was no need for my father; I had no reason communicating with him after all, he didn’t raise me. Not to be rude, I was telling my sisters that he was just a sperm donor; he got us here, but he had nothing to do with shaping who I am. But then I thought about it and said, ‘who am I? He tried reaching me, but I was very reluctant.”
Blood they say is thicker than water. Along the line, Daniel had soft spot for his father, who at that point was eager to meet with his world famous son.
“I thought that, maybe, that’s him doing his best towards the end of his life. He lives in Finis, Arizona; I was living in Japan at that time. So, I was in London at a time and had to fly to the US to re-do my UK visa. I thought about my father and I rented a car and drove through the desert to Finis to see him; that was the first time in my life that I spent a week with my father.”
Meeting Mr. Daniel in Arizona provided answers to a whole lot of questions young Jeffrey had always asked about his lineage.
“I got to know who the Daniels were; I didn’t know who the Daniels were until I met my father. Until I met him, I didn’t know who his father was; I didn’t know who his mother was; I didn’t know who his brothers were. I didn’t know how he grew up; how he met my mother; I didn’t know the Jacksons are my cousins … I leant a lot of things about my family just by spending one week with him.”
How related are you with the Jacksons?
“I mentioned it to Michael Jackson before he died, but I wasn’t sure; I just heard something about it and I asked him, ‘Michael, do you have any grandmother named Crystal Jackson?’ He was like, ‘how did you know?’ My father mentioned it to me the second time I spoke with him on phone; he briefly said it, but I didn’t have the information. Then that year that I met my father, he showed me the papers; he showed me the family tree and I was like, ‘wow! All the years I was working with Michael, I didn’t know we are related.’
Did you have any discussion with Michael Jackson on this?
“Just slightly, but I had more conversation on this with Jermaine, Marlon and Rubby.”
The coming of Shalamar
HAVING gained popularity among American audiences and beyond, producers of Soul Train resolved to set up a recording company to manage some of the talents the programme had discovered.
“They called it Soul Train Records. Because they started a record company, of course, they needed artistes; Jody Watley and myself were the number one dance couple on the Soul Train. They knew I could sing and dance, but up until then, no one had ever heard Jody sing. So, I started rehearsing with her.”
Coming from a music background, it didn’t take long before Jody found her rhythm.
“Her mother was in the adult choir and I was in the junior choir in our church. So, I met Jody through our church. Her mother was singing, I was singing, but Jody wasn’t; I had to teach her how to sing. She was auditioned and she passed. I’m the founding member of Shalamar.”
Shalamar is an American music group, primarily of the 70s and 80s. It was originally a disco-driven vehicle created by Soul Train booking agent, Dick Griffey, and show creator, Don Cornelius. They went on to be an influential dance trio, masterminded by Soul Train producer, Don Cornelius. As noted in the British hit singles and albums, they were regarded as fashion icons and trendsetters, and helped to introduce 'body-popping' to the United Kingdom.
Their first hit was the 1975 Motown-inspired production Uptown Festival, and released on Soul Train Records, the success of which inspired Griffey and Don Cornelius to replace session singers with popular Soul Train dancers Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel to join original Shalamar lead singer Gary Mumford. Gerald Brown would take over the spot vacated by Mumford in 1978 for the Disco Gardens album, which featured the hit Take That To The Bank. After conflicts over lack of payment from Dick Griffey and Solar Records, Brown would leave the group and was replaced by Howard Hewett in 1979. The group was later joined up with producer Leon Sylvers III in 1979, signed with Griffey's Solar Records and scored a US million seller with The Second Time Around.
“We sold over 25 million albums and became one of the biggest R&B singing groups in the industry. We just played the London O2. We decided to come together because people love the hits. It wasn’t my ambition to get back with the Shalamar because that was in the 80s; I’ve always looked towards the future. But if people want to hear us and they are paying for us to come, I go and do it.”
Working with the legend, Michael Jackson
AT the time Jeffrey was dancing on Soul Train before Shalamar and into Shalamar, little did he know that Michael was watching him with admiration; he was a fan.
“Of course, I was watching the Jackson Five and Michael for sure; they were superstars to us since they were kids. I had no idea he was watching me. One time, Shalamar was performing at the Disney Land and I got words that Michael was coming to see me perform; I was already doing the back-slides and body popping. So, he stayed in the wing of the stage with little Janet. He watched our show and watched me going through the dance movements and the audience just went bananas. After that I got a phone call from him and I started going to his home to teach him.”
You took him through dance classes?
“Well, I wouldn’t call it dance class; we just got together and danced. At that time, the word choreography wasn’t part of our vocabulary; we just called it ‘making up steps.”
The Moonwalk dance style, where did it come from?
“Well, the real core of it was from the Electic Boogaloos, the dance group that brought the whole body popping thing to the forefront. Before then, I was doing the roll back, locking and all these other dancing, then popping came; part of it, is the backslide. Michael changed backslide to moonwalk. The moonwalk is a different dance; it’s like less gravity, like you are floating in the moon.”
Having worked with Michael for years, choreographing his videos including the popular Thriller, Jeffrey has a lot of respect for the late King of Pop, whom he considers a rare being.
“I don’t know how people are going to take this, but Michael is one of the most unique and special person I’ve ever met on this planet; a lot of people didn’t realise this until he died. He’s going to be spoken of centuries to come; how special we were to be alive in his time. Go back and listen to his old records, listen to how he sang, how he used his voice; you can’t imagine a kid having such conviction. You listen to this kid singing out his heart; it was real, it was powerful, it was emotional. If you listen to some of his oldies such as I will be there, then look at his lifestyle and dancing … I find it difficult to listen to these songs these days because I will just break down.”
To Jeffrey, working with Michael was an endorsement on his career.
“Working with him was a revelation because he made me his choreographer. I became one of the most demanded choreographers in the industry because, once you worked with Michael Jackson, that’s the top. He’s the first person I worked with outside Shalamar. So, because I worked with him, everybody started calling me… I can keep naming the jobs I did because I worked with Michael. They will go like, ‘this guy choreographed the Bad video!’ Everyone wanted the best, so they would hire me.”
“It’s a tragedy of course; it’s a great loss. The Judge just passed a verdict the other day; I still can’t make sense that all those things happened; that his doctor would bring such a drug into someone’s home. That type of drug can only be used in a professional setting, with experts waiting to monitor the patient. The drug don’t make you sleep, it takes you under. So, it’s not a sleeping pill; it’s something heavier than that. I can’t imagine a doctor bringing that into his home; I just can’t imagine that Michael would allow such thing to happen, it doesn’t sound like him.”
He continued: “It’s a loss, but the only consolation I can get from it is that he died in a sleep; not plane crash or accident. He died a peaceful death; that’s the only consolation I get from the whole thing.”
Coming to Nigeria
JEFFREY Daniel’s first visit to Nigeria was in 1981 when Ben Murray-Bruce brought the Shalamar group on the platform of Silverbird Entertainment.
“Silverbird was a small outfit at that time; there was no radio or TV station and things like that. He came to America and met with my mentor Duncan and Griffey and he wanted to be like them. He had every opportunity to do it in the United States, but he said, ‘I want that in Nigeria.’ Shalamar was his biggest success; we did the University of Ife, University of Ibadan, University of Lagos, we were at the National Theatre for a couple of days.”
That visit was Jeffrey’s first time on an African soil.
“We called it ‘Homecoming’; when I got off the plane on my first time on an African soil, I literarily kissed the ground and said, ‘I’m home. I didn’t know Nigeria; I thought I did, but now that I see Nigeria, I realised that I didn’t know anything about it. Because we know Nigerians speak English, we take it for granted. But now this time I’m back, I’m realisng that the Nigerian culture is abstract to that of America and Japanese; it took me coming to Nigeria to find out.”
After his first visit, Jeffrey fell in love with Nigeria and wanted to make a return visit.
“After my first visit, I was yearning to come back to Nigeria and I was talking to my manager Tunde Babalola about it. They were saying, “oh, Jeffrey, not Nigeria, maybe Ghana.” I said to them, ‘No’. And I was telling them that Nigeria has what it takes to represent all black countries.”
What were their reasons?
“Well, some of them were Nigerians and some Americans; I think it’s because of the state things were then and some of the experiences they had in the past. I guess they became pessimistic not thinking that things can change. This is a different world now; things have to change; nothing can stay the same forever. Even if people are not interested in change, change happens everywhere.”
Away from the usual stereotyped reports on the international media, Jeffrey sees Nigeria as the future of the world.
“I can see the most populous Black Country in the world; they have so much and do give so much. Some of the best engineers, technicians and students in the US and Europe are Nigerians. Black people are the most resilient people in the world; we have so much taken from us, we’ve been abused so much that sometimes, we don’t even know ourselves. So, it’s not that Nigerians are bad people, but Nigerians are in such a bad situation that is making them behave like that. But if you can take care of the situation, they will behave like Nigerians again; they will be dignified black Africans again.”
Not minding the many challenges faced by Nigerians, he said “they are still rising and showing how great they are. So, if we can change the situation; it’s going to enhance the life of Nigerians. Already, Nigeria is threatening to be one of the biggest economies in Africa; it’s the fastest growing economy in the world. Look at people like P-Square, M.I, Asa, Femi Kuti and others, they are getting acknowledged around the world, yet there’s no infrastructure.”
Impressed with potentials he met on ground, Jeffrey Daniel has given his next five years to Nigeria.
“If the people want to give it a try, if the politicians are ready to face the realities, together, I’m going to be part of this new Nigeria, I will do it. If I die trying, I don’t mind. I’ve lived in America, UK and Japan so, why can’t I share my experience with my fellow African brothers and sisters.”
The Nigerian Idol job
WHEN Jeffrey was unveiled as part of the judges for the Nigerian Idol, many saw the decision as one of those craving for foreign ideas, but in the real sense of it, his inclusion was by default.
“I hated reality shows and contest shows; I never watched them. I don’t like the idea of somebody sitting down and telling someone what they can be and what they can’t be; it’s about killing someone’s career before it starts. I came to Nigeria on my own; I bought my ticket and came down here. I was to be here for a couple of weeks, but I spent three months. Towards the last week, the Nigerian Idol came up and Tunde said to me, ‘you want to stay in Nigeria, maybe this is the time to introduce Jeffrey Daniel to Nigerians.’ He was like, ‘they know Jeffrey of Shalamar, Jeffrey of Michael Jackson, but they don’t know the real Jeffrey Daniel.’
I saw it as a good idea, and after the press conference, they saw the commitment in me and they decided to put me as one of the judges. So, it’s not as if they were looking for an American judge, no! In fact, my boss Pedro was against bringing me as a judge; he wanted an all-Nigerian judging panel. But after he saw my commitment, he gave his approval. Now, I’m not just a judge in the show, I’m the Directing Talent manager. I had the honour of bringing the winner of Nigerian Idol and West African Idol, Yeka Onka and Timi Dakolo to the UK to open for Shalamar at the O2 Indigo Arena.”
No matter the toga you put on the country, Jeffrey is looking forward to a new Nigeria that will stand tall in the comity of nations.
“I want to be part of this new Nigeria that will shape Africa and the world; Africa is the future. We have the window of opportunity right now to set things right and we have to start acting now. If we don’t stop all these selfishness and greed now, the people who have their eyes on your resources will come and take them. This is no joke; America is falling, Europe is falling and they know it! Who do they need? Their resources are in Africa and Middle East! So, what are they going to do when they are in desperate need, when they see themselves going down too far? They are going to come after it! And if they see that these people don’t give a damm about their own people, they won’t give a damm about you.”
Citing the Libya situation as an eye opener to African leaders, he pointed out, “we just saw them take a head of state and murdered him on the street like a dog and the world just watched! Who came in to say, ‘stop this?’ Now, what will happen in the case of Nigeria, a place people are already saying the country is corrupt anyway. So, who is going to come in here and say, ‘stop it!
It’s time for the leaders to look at the big picture and take action, if not, these people are going to come in here and take it from you.”