Michael Watford, a church-trained club singer whose baritone boomed over the world’s dance floors for much of the early 1990s, and in the process helped birth a subgenre of club music known as gospel house, died on Jan. 26 in Newark. He was 64.
His cousin Lorie Watford said the cause of his death, in a hospital, was dementia.
Mr. Watford’s signature hit was “So Into You,” a jubilant ditty that paired his romantic, yearning vocal, inspired by Luther Vandross, with insistent strings, a lush piano line, and frequent handclaps and drum rolls. It hit No. 1 on the Billboard dance chart in April 1994, only to be replaced a week later by Barbara Tucker’s “Beautiful People” — on which Mr. Watford provided backing vocals.
“There were different styles among house D.J.s, and different songs that appealed to their particular crowds,” said Tony Humphries, a D.J. and producer who helped push Mr. Watford to the top of the dance-music heap by playing his early records on his weekly radio show on WRKS (Kiss-FM) and during his marathon sets at Club Zanzibar in Newark (where the video for “So Into You” was shot). “But there was a smaller number of records everyone had to have, songs you heard at every club, and ‘So Into You’ was absolutely one of those.”
Little Louie Vega, a producer and D.J. who between 1992 and 1994 had his hand in more than a dozen songs that reached the top of the dance charts, said of Mr. Watford: “He comes from church. You could tell that from the way he sings, and he brought that to the music.” Mr. Vega worked with Mr. Watford on “My Love,” a song from his first and only album, “Michael Watford,” released by EastWest/Atlantic in 1994.
Michael Wayne Watford was born in Suffolk, Va., on July 20, 1959, but grew up largely in Newark. His mother, the Rev. Betty Brower of the Clinton Memorial AME Zion Church, was a gospel singer who performed in the 1970s with the Alvin Darling Ensemble. His stepfather, George Brower, was also a gospel singer.
He is survived by his mother; two younger brothers, Duncan and Terrance Artis Watford; his children, Michael Watford Jr., Symphony Watford and Taylor Watford; and two stepsiblings, Ruby Washington and Erroll Brower. His marriage to Joanne Collins ended in divorce.
“From the day Michael was born he could sing. That was his ordained life, and once he found out what his niche was, that was what he did,” said Ruby Washington, Mr. Watford’s stepsister.
As a boy, Mr. Watford sang in the choir at Greater Bethel Baptist Church, on Morris Avenue in Newark. After high school, he joined a gospel quartet, the Mack Zion Rens, where he sang with his stepfather, Mr. Brower.
To earn a living over the next decade while trying to make it as a singer, Mr. Watford pumped gas; worked as a forklift operator; stripped, waxed and cleaned floors; and ran a janitorial business.
In the late 1980s, house music dominated dance clubs in New York, Chicago and London. But the musicians who produced it often came from the outskirts of those cities, including Passaic, N.J., the home of Smack Productions.
Run by the producers Mike Cameron, Eddie Perez and John Robinson, Smack produced records for Adeva, K-Yze and Ten City, three of the earliest house acts to get major-label deals. The reaction those records got in the clubs is hard to overstate; the reaction they got on the pop charts was negligible.
In 1991, Mr. Watford teamed with Smack and the D.J. Roger Sanchez on a gospel-influenced club track, “Holdin’ On.” Released on an EastWest/Atlantic compilation, it became a club hit and scored Mr. Watford an album deal.
The album’s jazzy first single, “Luv 4-2,” released in the summer of 1993, peaked at No. 7 on Billboard’s club play chart. “So Into You,” which followed, had a similar vibe until the label approached the remixer Bobby D’Ambrosio, who gave it a bright, poppier sheen.
In addition to its success on the club charts in the states, the song was a No. 53 pop hit in Britain. Mr. Watford performed there in front of thousands at clubs like Ministry of Sound and Hard Times. He sang with the famed salsa and house singer La India on “Voices in My Mind” and the club singers Colonel Abrams and Jay Williams on “I’ll Be Right There,” an extended club jam that was dominated by Mr. Watford’s gospel ad-libbing.
But in 1995, EastWest’s co-founder, Merlin Bobb, left the label and moved to Elektra Records. He went on to sign Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes. Mr. Watford was left behind, then was dropped by the label.
A number of other house artists who lost their deals after failing to cross over nevertheless forged long careers by leaning into work as dance artists. They collaborated with big D.J.s and released songs on independent labels. Mr. Watford largely retreated.
“I just have a feeling he wasn’t managed properly,” said Mr. Sanchez, who produced “Holdin’ On” and “I’ll Be Right There.” “You didn’t see him connecting to the newer generation of producers who could have revitalized his sound.”
In recent years, Mr. Watford managed a string of karaoke bars in New Jersey before taking an administrative job at a welfare office in Essex County.
“He had his struggles,” Lorie Watford said. “I am sure he was disappointed his career didn’t kick off like he’d wanted it to. I just was recently told that he wanted to make a comeback, at 64 years old.”
It should have happened, Mr. Vega said. “He was an amazing singer and a beautiful person, super talented, with a voice like no other.”