Ms. Jody is one of the leading lights on the southern soul-blues circuit, but she's virtually unknown among mainstream fans in other parts of the country. A large part of the singer's appeal, at least in the south, is her deft balance of provocativeness and propriety. She'll tongue-bathe the microphone with a lasciviousness that might make Tina Turner blush: "I take that joystick into my hand, y'all—and I like to call it a joystick because it brings me so much joy. . . . Ooh, that thing is so pretty to me!" Or she'll pick a man from the audience to sit on the "hot seat" for her "Big Daddy" routine: "Would it be all right if I straddle you, and when I'm riding you, my cat accidentally strokes your leg?" she'll say, standing in front of him now, fondling herself and thrusting her hips at him. "Would that be a problem?"
But there's an old-fashioned seriousness of purpose behind these high jinks, and it separates the former Vertie Joann Pickens—born in Chicago in 1957 and raised in Bay Springs, Mississippi—from many of her booty-shaking contemporaries. For all her carryings-on, Jody makes it clear that she intends her routines to instruct women on how to keep their relationships strong—they're not about objectification or wantonness. "I've had fans come up to me and tell me that their relationship is so much better after they went home and did some of the things I advised 'em on," she says. "I tell 'em, 'Give thanks to God for that.' And I let 'em know it's more to it than just jumpin' in bed; you've got to build on your relationship."
To drive the point home, she peppers her sets with fare such as "I'm Keeping It Real," an extended secular sermon: "If you're in a relationship and you ain't happy," she tells women, "get the hell out!" The song "If He Knew What I Was Thinking" portrays an abused woman lying in bed and plotting revenge against her tormenter, a scenario Jody knows personally: "My first husband, he hit me so hard . . . and next day when he got in from work, I was halfway to Chicago. I don't stick around for the second lick." Even in her odes to lost love, her protagonists are as likely to tell a man to hit the door as they are to bemoan his absence. As provocative as her persona can be, she doesn't compromise when it comes to her assertiveness and self-worth.
Most important, though, Jody commands a supple and resonant voice, capable of conveying a wide range of emotions without sounding forced, and her theatrical flair ramps up the intensity even further. She delivers "I've Got the Strength to Stay Gone" as a full-fledged soap opera, complete with desperate entreaties from a male vocalist who sings the role of a repentant but unredeemed cad. On the southern-soul circuit, favorite songs are practically evergreen, and she recently made a video for "The First Time," a ballad from the 2011 Ecko album Ms. Jody's Keepin' It Real. "It's about me and this guy getting together," she says, "and every time we get together, it's just like the first time; the magic is still there." She says she's recently reintroduced "The First Time" in her shows.
Like most southern-soul stars of her generation, though, Jody has had her greatest commercial successes not with ballads but with dance tracks ("Ms. Jody's Boogie Slide," "The Bop") and raunchy party songs ("Booty Strut," "Just Let Me Ride," "I Got That Thunder Under Yonder"). For the most part, her act is a jubilant celebration of sexuality. She knows she'll have to self-censor a bit at the Chicago Blues Festival—it's an all-ages event—but she's confident that won't cramp her style too much. "Oh, I'm going to tone it down," she says. "I'll definitely tone it down. But we're gonna have a real good time, I promise you. Ms. Jody is still going to tell it like it is." v