One day I was exploring classic soul music and R&B and my travels lead me to the legendary Smokey Robinson (b. 1940). While reading, I came upon his 1975 solo album A Quiet Storm. Always a visionary, Smokey looked around at the records that his contemporaries were releasing and felt it was time for a change. By the mid-Seventies, black music was defined by the funk sounds of James Brown, Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield and others. Smokey felt that some sensitivity was called for.
On this his third solo album, Robinson went for a stylish, mature sound and smooth, romantic ballads. The record was a major hit, reaching Number 7 on the R&B charts, 36 on the Pop charts and spawning two Top 40 hits. “Baby That’s Backatcha” topped the R&B charts and “The Agony and the Ecstasy” hit #7 on that listing. Smokey Robinson had established himself as a solo artist and reinvented his brand of “contemplative romantic soul”. A Quiet Storm would later be called one of the greatest Motown albums of all-time. Maybe more than all this, the record spawned a whole new sub genre of soul music.
Melvin Lindsey was a student at Howard University in June of ’76 when he filled in for a DJ at WHUR in DC. With his silky smooth radio voice, he and his penchant for programming what he called “beautiful black music” began to catch on at the station. Melvin and his partner, Jack Shuler, were soon given their own show which they promptly christened “The Quiet Storm” in homage to Smokey’s record. The title track of A Quiet Storm was used as the show’s theme and Lindsey and Shuler played “four hours of melodically soulful music that provided an intimate, laid-back mood for late-night listening, and that was the key to its tremendous appeal among adult audiences”. The format was so popular that within a year virtually every station in the US with a black audience adopted it for their graveyard time slot and some like San Francisco’s KBLX-FM, went to quiet storm programming 24 hours a day. Popular broadcasters like Lawrence Tanter in Los Angeles (today he’s the Lakers’ PA announcer) and the late Vaughn Harper in NYC were called on to explain the new genre. Tanter addressed the misconception that quiet storm radio was only for blacks. He explained that his listeners were 40% black and 40% white.
The originator, Melvin Lindsey, became a hugely popular personality. After starting out in 1977 at a yearly salary of $12,000, he eventually left WHUR for its DC rival WKYS in 1985 when he signed a contract for a cool $100,000 per annum. Sadly, Lindsey died of AIDS in 1992, aged 36, but the format he started continued on.
Quiet storm enjoyed its heyday from the late 1970’s into the 1990’s. Think of it as R&B’s answer to adult contemporary featuring a subdued soulfulness unmistakably rooted in R&B. Interestingly, quiet storm was favoured by the black middle-class at a time when the gap between the classes was widening. “The black suburban population doubled between 1970 and 1986, and the number of blacks attending college increased 500 percent between 1960 and 1977.” Stations playing quiet storm also aired ads for Jaguar and American Airlines aimed at “an upscale audience”. This music served this emerging demographic. Most of the songs contained lyrics describing tasteful sensuality and celebrating ease in life. Also, male singers were more free than their funk and harder soul counterparts to be sensitive, gentle and tender. Luther Vandross in particular was referenced as an artist who did much to alter the role of the male in suburban soul and contemporary R&B.
Quiet storm signalled a shift away from the political content and social commentary of some funk and soul of the Seventies. It did not address issues confronting inner city blacks but instead was consumed by African-Americans in the suburbs. Of course, there were naysayers. Among the black community, many complained about the lack of political commentary in this music, implying an ignorance of the plight of less-affluent blacks. The music was defended though by African-American program directors as music that simply celebrated the normalcy of everyday living. The fact that the songs represented black middle-class life – “a mindset of simple, everyday sophistication” – was in itself significant.
Also fascinating – for me, anyways – was quiet storm’s penchant in it’s programming for avoiding Top 40 hits on albums and instead pinpointing the “B” and “C” album picks – the deep cuts on Side 2 – and putting them in heavy rotation. An example I read concerned Janet Jackson and her Control album of 1986. While the four or five big hits from the record found heavy airplay on Top 40 and urban R&B radio, quiet storm programs and stations regularly played one of the albums ballads, “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)”; “These quiet storm formats open up album play and allow the depth of a quality album to be heard”.
The quiet storm format remains resilient and is still heard today. But I’ll stop here as my work is done; “today” ain’t my bag.
No deep cut untouched here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure. Quiet storm is an interesting one as its roots can be traced back to 1975 and one man – DJ Melvin Lindsey – and his love for for one album – Smokey Robinson’s third solo LP.
Quiet storm launched the careers of Luther Vandross and Anita Baker and introduced Sade to North American audiences. Here’s a list to get you started on your own quiet storm playlist
- “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” – the Temptations
- “Let’s Stay Together” – Al Green
- “(If Loving You is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” – Luther Ingram
- “Me and Mrs. Jones” – Billy Paul
- “Killing Me Softly With His Song” – Roberta Flack
- “Let’s Get It On” – Marvin Gaye
- “Time Will Tell” – Tower of Power
- “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” – Barry White
- “You Make Me Feel Brand New” – the Stylistics
- “Quiet Storm” – Smokey Robinson
- “This Masquerade” – George Benson
- “Lovely Day” – Bill Withers
- “Rise” – Herb Alpert
- “Reunited” – Peaches & Herb
- “Cruisin'” – Smokey Robinson
- “Too Hot” – Kool & the Gang
- “We’re in This Love Together” – Al Jarreau
- “Just the Two of Us” – Grover Washington, Jr.
- “Baby, Come to Me” – Patti Austin
- “Human Nature” – Michael Jackson
- “Hello” – Lionel Richie
- “Smooth Operator” – Sade
- “Saving All My Love for You” – Whitney Houston
- “Sweet Love” – Anita Baker
- “Here and Now” – Luther Vandross
- “End of the Road” – Boyz II Men
- “Un-break My Heart” – Toni Braxton
- “Nice and Slow” – Usher
- “The Closer I Get to You” – Luther Vandross and Beyoncé
- “Until the End of Time” – Justin Timberlake