November 2017

Quiet Storm Brewing

A smooth blend of R&B and jazz, “quiet storm” was all the rage in the ’70s, ’80, and ’90s.

Before it got attached to a radio show, a radio format, and a subgenre, “A Quiet Storm” was a song. Written and sung by R&B great Smokey Robinson, it first appeared on his 1975 album of the same name. The video below features a more recent version of the song, produced by ex-American Idol judge Randy Jackson, on which Robinson duets with John Legend, one of several modern R&B stars whose style owes more than a little to the quiet storm sound.

Another singer whose name got added early on to the list of quiet storm artists was Teddy Pendergrass. This 1982 performance of “Love TKO” pretty much defines the meaning of the term “quiet storm”—the music feels slow and sedate, but the emotion in Pendergrass’ voice (and facial expressions) gives us a sense that a lot more is going on just beneath the surface. Sadly, not long after this was filmed, Pendergrass was involved in a serious car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life; he died of respiratory failure in 2010.

Like Teddy Pendergrass, Luther Vandross was cut down in his prime. Crippled by a severe stroke in 2003, he died two years later. But in the 25 years preceding his death, he was consistently one of R&B’s top singers and, as this 1994 rendition of “Always and Forever” shows, a master of quiet storm.

Not all quiet storm artists were American. Helen Folasade Adu, better known to the world as Sade (pronounced sha-DAY), was born in Nigeria and raised in England. Her 1984 song “Smooth Operator”—seen here in a live version—met with huge international success, and was one of several Sade songs to be heard regularly on quiet storm radio playlists. Although she’s only recorded six albums in the past 35 years, all six have been major hits. For her service to music, Sade received the title CBE (Commander of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth II in 2017.

Quiet storm arguably reached its commercial peak in 1986 with the release of Anita Baker’s second album, Rapture. Buoyed by the hit single “Sweet Love,” Rapture won two Grammy Awards and sold eight million copies worldwide, confirming that there was a significant audience for relaxed, romantic R&B with a touch of jazz. Baker went on to many further successes over the next two decades, but following a frustrating experience in the early 2010s recording an album that was never completed, she announced in 2017 that she was retiring from the music business. Luckily, we still have videos like the one below to remind us what a dynamic live performer she was in her ’80s heyday.