*Twenty-three years ago today, R&B singer Jermaine Stewart died of AIDS-related liver cancer at the age of 39. In honor of his unacknowledged contribution to 80s R&B and dance music, we’re celebrating his journey from Chicago, to “Soul Train,” to working with Shalamar and Culture Club, to forging his own solo path in the mid-eighties with the hits “The Word is Out” and “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off,” to his heartbreaking burial in a grave that went without a marker or tombstone for an unfathomable 14 years.
Born on Sept. 7, 1957 in Columbus, Ohio, Stewart and his five siblings moved with their parents Ethel and Eugene to Chicago, and Jermaine was introduced to the entertainment industry via stints as a dancer on both “American Bandstand” and later “Soul Train.”
Jermaine Stewart dancing on “Soul Train” in 1977
He would meet and become close friends with fellow “Soul Train” dancer Jody Watley, who would go on to form Shalamar with front man Howard Hewitt and another “Soul Train” dancer, Jeffrey Daniel. Stewart began singing and dancing backup for Shalamar, as well as The Chi-Lites, The Temptations and The Staple Singers, while also recording backup vocals for the Boy George-led band Culture Club.
Jody Watley on her friendship with Jermaine Stewart
Stewart was featured prominently on Culture Club’s 1983 album “Colour by Numbers.” As a result the group brought him into the studio to record a demo and used their influence to help him land a solo deal with Arista Records. In 1984, he released his debut album and single of the same name, “The Word is Out.”
Jermaine Stewart – The Word is Out
Jermaine Stewart talks about working with Culture Club and recording demo
Stewart released his second album, “Frantic Romantic,” in 1986, led by the hit single, “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off.” It went platinum quickly and was followed up by second single, “Jody,” inspired by his homegirl, Jody Watley.
Jermaine Stewart – We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off
Jermaine Stewart – Jody
Jermaine’s third album, “Say It Again,” was mostly produced by André Cymone who had previously worked with Prince and Watley. The title track became a U.S. top 40 Billboard hit and also reached the R&B top 10. In the U.K., it made it all the way to number 7, helping the album into the top 40.
Jermaine Stewart – Say It Again
Stewart’s next three singles, “Get Lucky,” “Don’t Talk Dirty To Me” and “Is It Really Love,” found considerable success in Europe, particularly Germany, where “Don’t Talk Dirty To Me” was one of the biggest selling records of 1988, making the top 5.
Jermaine Stewart – Don’t Talk Dirty to Me (Soul Train)
Below, a UK film crew visits Stewart at his Hollywood home inside The Franklin Towers on Franklin Ave. on March 13, 1988. Also shown is behind the scenes footage from the “Get Lucky” video shoot.
Jermaine Stewart “Get Lucky” 1988
Stewart’s fourth and final album under Arista, “What Becomes a Legend Most?,” featured first single “Tren De Amor” and the follow-up, “Every Woman Wants To.” However, sales were slow and Stewart ended up changing labels.
In 1992, Jermaine teamed with Chicago producer Jesse Saunders for his last recorded work, an album for Reprise Records titled, “Set Me Free.” The title track was released as a single in the U.S., but the album was never released.
Jermaine Stewart – Set Me Free
Shortly before his death, Stewart returned to the studio to record a new album titled “Believe In Me,” but it was never completed. Stewart was 39 when he died on March 17, 1997 of liver cancer, caused by AIDS. Ironically, his hit “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” was written as a response to the AIDS scare of the 1980s. Although the final album was not completed, the finished tracks were released on the 2005 compilation “Attention: A Tribute to Jermaine Stewart,” which was released under BFG Records, owned by Stewart’s younger brother.
Sadly, Stewart’s burial site in the Chicago suburb of Homewood, Illinois went without a tombstone or grave marker for 17 years. In 2014, a Stewart superfan documented his journey to find the singer’s unmarked grave. He found what he was told was the burial location on March 17, 2014 (at around the 3:46 mark below).
Later, in 2014, the superfan circled back to film the gravestone that had finally been placed on Stewart’s burial site … by the singer’s mother, Ethel.