Master Class: From Sade to Drake, these are the game-changers of the Quiet Storm genre
Revisiting its journey from the 70s until now, and how today’s artists continue to reinvigorate the genre, this is REVOLT’s Master Class on quiet storm.
Sunday (July 8) would have marked the 63rd birthday of radio personality, Melvin Lindsey. One Sunday night in 1976, during a rainy tempest, the interning Howard University DJ introduced his D.C. listeners to the quiet storm format of radio. What was meant as a late-night program dedicated to the lovers seeking slow jammed R&B (as a source of cathartic refuge for their relationships) quickly became popular with other stations nationwide. Due to the quiet storm format, a genre—going by the same name—began formulating. For R&B singers such as Smokey Robinson, The Isley Brothers, and Marvin Gaye, it became a necessity to mix up their flow of day-friendly uptempos and ballads with songs meant to be in rotation after dark.
Throughout the quiet storm’s 42-year lifespan, various artists have inserted their respective styles into the genre. Some became household names due to heavy airplay, including Anita Baker, Sade, and Luther Vandross. The likes of Toni Braxton, Boyz II Men, and Whitney Houston earned No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 singles, Grammys, and universal acclaim during its commercial peak in the 90s. And even hip-hop has played a role in reinvigorating the quiet storm for the 2000s up until now: Drake’s inclusion of a quiet storm radio snippet at the end of Scorpion‘s “After Dark” being the latest example.
Welcome to REVOLT’s master class on quiet storm.
Technically speaking, this lesson starts with Smokey Robinson and his 1975 album A Quiet Storm. Departing from the genre of funk on his third studio LP, the green-eyed soul legend coined his brand of romantic soul with the opening track “Quiet Storm.” In the almost-eight-minute ballad, Robinson metaphorically compares love “blowin’ through my life” to a quiet storm in the chorus, vividly juxtaposing the pleasant and distressing elements of inclement weather in his verses.
“Quiet Storm” opens with whooshing winds overtaken by a shrill, sci-fi whistle of a siren and an electric guitar riff. The ballad eventually evolves into a jazz fusion groove guided by a slow beating hand drum and a flute, while Robinson showcases his signature tenor finesse inherited from the Miracles era with Motown. Revisiting that sound, the songwriter managed to add a soft pop-rock sensibility to the lyricism.
In May 1976, Cathy Hughes—WHUR’s station manager and the eventual founder of media conglomerate Urban One (formerly known as Radio One)—called on an inexperienced Melvin Lindsey, as a last-minute substitute for an absent DJ. Pulling from his personal collection, he played melodic, mid-tempo R&B records from artists like the Spinners and the Isley Brothers. Magically, Hughes stumbled upon her wish of establishing a niche radio format suited primarily for the upper echelons of black women with sophisticated taste. Eventually, this one-off experience would start a weekly Sunday fanfare for all of D.C., as listeners called in requesting the name of songs while expressing immense gratitude.
Hughes suggested that the popular segment be titled “Quiet Storm,” as well as using Smokey Robinson’s as the official theme song. With his silky, deep voice, Lindsey quelled over 220,000 daily listeners, as they tuned in at 7:30 p.m. to hear his four-hour playlist of the latest and most nostalgic slow jams. Eventually the relaxing melodies helped the program become D.C.’s top rated, as other stations caught on across the country, imitating “The Original Quiet Storm.”
Prior to Smokey Robinson’s “Quiet Storm,” R&B had experienced the early stages of the genre’s development, with classics from Barry White, Al Green, and Marvin Gaye being amongst the touchstones. Towards the end of 1971, Al Green raspily crooned “Let’s Stay Together” at the top of his lungs, giving him his first No. 1 single. The song’s 1972 parent album, I’m Still In Love With You, garnered the Arkansas soul titan commercial crossover appeal thanks to the titular cut and “Love and Happiness.”
For Marvin Gaye, in 1973, he’d find his sex appeal with Let’s Get It On, the LP’s title track reaching No. 1. As his sound continued evolving—simultaneously adding a refreshing layer of experimentation to the outdated Motown sound of the 60s—Gaye introduced more complex, rock-centric arrangements and vocal acrobatics to soul music. This would be highlighted with the funkdafied mannerisms stemming from throbbing bongos and congas backboning his 1976 single “I Want You.” The sensual groove fit perfectly with disco’s marriage of babymaking, quiet storm music, with Barry White’s 1974 chart-topping hit “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” being a hefty precursor for the trend. It’d become pretty clear that the genre’s existence laid in the bedroom.
Around the same time, Philadelphia had been on the second leg of its first wave of commercial R&B success. Consequently, Philly Soul would seep into quiet storm: The Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” from 1970, Billy Paul’s 1972 extramarital affair ode “Me and Mrs. Jones,” and Darryl Hall & John Oates’ blue-eyed soul 1976 staple “Sara Smile” being amongst the fray. In 1977, Philly native Frankie Beverly—who had met Marvin Gaye after relocating to San Francisco in the early 70s— released his first album with Maze. “Happy Feelin’s” became Maze featuring Frankie Beverly’s breezy standout. They followed that up with the avant-funk, jazz stylings of 1978’s “Golden Time of Day,” which focused on love “shining.”
From Pennsylvania’s neighboring state of Ohio, The Isley Brothers offered Cincinnati’s answer to Philly Soul quiet storm. With their warm and slinky 1975 groove “For The Love of You,” the then-sextet joined the ranks of quiet storm maestros. The following year, they garnered a radio hit with (At Your Best), You Are Love,” a thank you ballad dedicated to their mother, allowing for the quiet storm to become a broader genre on universal love, not just the sexually intimate moments.
The men of R&B acquired sauver aesthetics in image and sound thanks in large part to the blaxploitation film movement and live performance spots on Soul Train. As a result, quiet storm reinforced the notion of the debonair gentleman desirable for the ladies. Teddy Pendergrass lived this up to the fullest with his 1979 album Teddy. On the album cover, he’s seductively staring at the camera, wearing a tailor fit cream blazer, a lady longingly resting on his shoulder, but seemingly in a distant world. Instead of resorting to playboy tactics, the singer is straightforward with his sexual conquest, suggesting “Come Go With Me” and instructing “Turn Off The Lights”—mirroring his 1978 single “Close The Door.” Eventually he’d succumb to a dramatic “Love T.K.O.” heartbreak on 1980’s TP.
This feeling trickled into the 80s, as more leading men were brought to the forefront due to quiet storm. In 1979, James Taylor would be introduced as the new lead vocalist of Kool & The Gang on Ladies’ Night—”Too Hot” becoming the album’s most successful single. The Isley Brothers added two more signatures to their quiet storm discography, 1980’s “Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time For Love)” and 1983’s satiny “Between The Sheets.” Marvin Gaye had continued his dive into quiet storm up until his tragic death, offering the fully charged “Sexual Healing” off 1982’s Midnight Love.
Unintentionally, quiet storm began holding importance outside of late-night radio and people’s romantic rendezvous. Bronx band GQ remade blues singer Billy Stewart’s “I Do Love You” in 1979, transforming it into a song with a dual purpose: modernizing the genre of doo-wop and soundtracking every black cookout experience since that summer. Some quiet storm songs served as appropriate music for family gatherings, particularly Frankie Beverly and The Maze’s “Before I Let Go” and “We Are One.”
The quiet storm format of radio had also been responsible for breaking household names on a regular basis. Luther Vandross benefited tremendously from late-night airplay since his debut mid-tempo “Never Too Much” in 1981 aptly introduced his velvety vocal agility. And in 1982, he’d pair with Cheryl Lynn to duet “If This World Were Mine.” The DeBarge siblings would entice listeners with their falsetto octaves on the ooo-zy “I Like It” in 1982, following up their success with the energetic rush of “Stay With Me” and the lullaby flow of “Time Will Reveal” in 1983.
What had become subtly noticeable was the lack of mainstream interest in the feminine perspective of quiet storm. Surely there had been ranging takes, from Diana Ross’ somber hook in 1973’s “Touch Me In The Morning” and Betty Wright’s 1974 audience rouser “Tonight Is The Night” about “making love (!!!) for the very first time,” to Minnie Riperton’s soaring whistle register on 1975’s “Lovin’ You” and Peaches’ sopranic rekindling of a relationship with Herb on 1979’s “Reunited”; just to be rivaled by Teena Marie’s passionate harmonizing with Rick James on 1981’s “Fire and Desire.” But those moments were far and few between a steady focus on pop-soul ballads aligned with some sort of political messaging, or the seductively-engineered disco uptempos fueling Studio 54 parties. Still the throne for “Queen of Quiet Storm” remained vacant, until 1983 and ’84.
Debuting in 1983 with The Songstress, Anita Baker quickly gained a following as her emotive melodies and smooth C-sharp resonance landscaped “Angel.” Her sophomore effort Rapture proved to be the breakout album with “Sweet Love,” “Caught Up In The Rapture,” “Same Ole Love,” “No One In The World,” benefitting well from Baker’s ability to skate over the catchy choruses. Each song peaked in the top ten of both the R&B and adult contemporary charts, with “Sweet Love” hitting No. 8 on the Hot 100.
Hailing Nigeria and the UK, Sade Adu and her backing band brought a new perspective to quiet storm with their 1984 debut album Diamond Life. If Smokey Robinson’s “Quiet Storm” represented the core essence of the genre, Sade’s “Smooth Operator” could be regarded as an accountable descriptor of the men who were singing it—one delivered by a woman who’d end up flipping the script. Due to her critically-described “husky and restrained” contralto vocals, Sade graced her loungey jazz fusion tracks with a cosmopolitan aura.
Diamond Life not only revolutionized quiet storm, but the music industry as a whole. It initiated the UK coffeehouse offspring of the genre, sophsti-pop. The album won a BRIT Award for Best British Album in 1985, proactively starting a new age invasion of alternative British R&B Acts succeeding across the pond and around the world. That same year, Sade released her second studio album, Promise, with the swing of “The Sweetest Taboo” capitalizing on their signature sound. Both albums helped Sade win Best New Artist at the Grammys in 1986—defeating another quiet storm competitor Freddie Jackson, who released “Rock Me Tonight (For Old Times Sake).”
Just as Sade became popular, the quiet storm as a whole started facing some light backlash. The genre which was once filled with sexual nuances, started to clean up its act. The lyrics became more wholesome as quiet storm materialized as the black answer to adult contemporary, ultimately ruling that format. Because of the rise of Whitney Houston—who dabbled in quiet storm with pop undertones, like 1985’s “Saving All My Love For You”—as well as soft rock’s infiltration, like The Commodore’s jubilant “Nightshift,” audiences started accusing artists and labels of making the genre appeasable for white listeners.
Others countered that the game-changing success of Sade represented thriving affluence generating in black communities. Her style of high-art jazz meant exposure to different styles of music and imagery, ultimately allowing for quiet storm to dominate the mainstream by the turn of the decade.
Just as synthpop, soft rock, and new wave started to explode on the MTV circuit, those influences had a slight impact on the genre. Art of Noise, an avant-garde, electro-sampledelia group from London, are responsible for giving the radio format its most quintessential instrumental, the hypnotic “Moments of Love.” Peabo Bryson worked the lighter elements of adult contemporary into “If Ever You’re In Arms Again,” while Tina Turner wailed “What’s Love Got To Do With It.” Patti LaBelle found herself belting alongside Michael McDonald in their dramatic chart-topping single “On My Own,” and Celine Dion covered her 1989 ballad “If You Asked Me To,” with both versions sharply contrasting LaBelle’s quiet storm style exhibited on “If Only You Knew.”
On the flip side, strictly traditional R&B remained present in quiet storm. On August 10, 1985, BET debuted a music video series called Midnight Love that played only quiet storm love ballads late in the evening. Occasionally narrated by the unseen creator Alvin Jones, the two-hour block of visuals ran for 30 years. At the same time, this marked a youthful takeover as interest in quiet storm began to spread to younger generations—some owing the genre a debt of gratitude for their actual existence!
Adding to the movement, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis penned and produced classics, ranging from Force MDs’ “Tender Love” to the Human League’s “Human.” Their star pupil would be Janet Jackson, after the trio crafted her 1986 breakout album Control. The iconic LP provided two signatures for DJ’s rotations, the moaning “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)” and the abstaining “Let’s Wait Awhile.” Their run would continue with 1989’s “Come Back To Me,” with it continuing well into the 90s.
As the 80s closed out, the shift in R&B incorporating more updated techniques and hip-hop influences started to become apparent with New Jack Swing and post-disco templating the contemporary. In 1985, Midnight Star flexed a synthesized groove with a preppy choral call on “Curious,” giving a taste of how New Jack Swing would have shapeshifting potential for quiet storm. The following year, Zapp & Roger sealed the deal with “Computer Love” in 1986, as they Auto-Tuned the voices of Charlie Wilson and Shirley Murdock. Roger would best that with his 1987 solo plea “I Want To Be You.”
Al B. Sure spearheaded the movement of sensual quiet storm aided by New Jack Swing, particularly with his charismatic swag on “Nite and Day” in 1988, effectively restoring a positive reputation for unibrows. Aaron Hall’s ad-libs about “sugar” on Guy’s “I Like” in 1989 grasped that energy for a more uptempo feel. Ralph Tresvant broke away from his New Edition shadow and delivered “Sensitivity.” Chuckii Booker followed these leads, with his name being called in the background of 1992’s “Games.”
The women of R&B channeled distressed film noir stage singers like Dorothy Dandridge for their quiet storm renditions. Michel’le’s harty musing through the real-life pain of domestic abuse on 1989’s “Something In My Heart” catapulted the song to No. 2 on the R&B charts. Lisa Fischer simply inquired “How Can I Ease The Pain” in 1991, winning a Grammy as a result and becoming one of quiet storm radio’s most popular songs for its Art of Noise vibes. Faint and airy in her vocal delivery, Tracie Spencer also received radio success for “Tender Kisses.” But none executed the aesthetic quite as well as Toni Braxton, whose 1993 self-titled debut offered heartbreak anthems “Another Sad Love Song,” “Breathe Again,” and “Seven Whole Days.”
As commercial gains settled in as a norm for quiet storm, and the kinks of the genre had been ironed out by multiple artists, it became relevant in the pop culture vernacular of the 90s. The work from Luther Vandross, Sade, and Anita Baker became richer, fortified by more mature perspectives. Sade’s “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” brought those in constant disarray an insightful message, while her 1992 album Love Deluxe capped it off with “Cherish The Day,” “No Ordinary Love,” and “Kiss of Life.” Luther Vandross handed newlyweds multiple options for their first dance at the reception: “So Amazing,” “Here and Now,” and “Power of Love.” Anita Baker showcased an introspective rawness to her vocal power on “I Apologize” and “Body and Soul,” just as Barry White did on “Practice What You Preach” In 1994.
Quiet storm effectively became a part of Janet Jackson’s sexual liberation on wax, with 1993’s janet. The raindrops falling in “Any Time, Any Place” accents the lyrics “in the thundering rain,” a motif that hasn’t eased up in the genre since Smokey Robinson’s “Quiet Storm.” Three years prior, Tony! Toni! Toné! mentioned “It Never Rains In Southern California;” and two years before that New Edition asked “Can You Stand The Rain?” In the near future, SWV—who received No. 1 and 2 hits with “Weak” and “Right Here (Human Nature Mix),” respectively—joined in with “Rain,” as did Brandy on “Angel In Disguise” and Carl Thomas on “Summer Rain.” Ashanti sampled Isaac Hayes for 2002’s “Rain on Me.”
Similar to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Babyface played an integral role in shaping 90s R&B in various facets. He established his own legacy in the quiet storm universe with The Deele’s 1988 signature “Two Occasions,” and his 1990 solo hit “Whip Appeal.” His greatest contribution would be the executive producing credit he received from 1995’s Waiting To Exhale soundtrack. The all-star female ensemble of singers matched the spirit presented by the film’s big screen actresses. Whitney Houston starred as lead of Waiting To Exhale, debuting at No. 1 on the Hot 100 with “Exhale (Shoop Shoop).” The quiet storm-premised soundtrack worked as an inspirational springboard for some of R&B’s exemplary bodies of work, including Toni Braxton’s Secrets, Brandy’s Never Say Never, and Mary J. Blige’s Share My World.
By the late 90s, just about every mainstream R&B artist had a piece of the quiet storm pie. Whether that was TLC’s “Red Light Special” or Monica’s “Angel of Mine.” The effects of Luther Vandross-styled wedding music had lingered with Boyz II Men, particularly their 1992 smash “End of the Road,” and ’94’s “I’ll Make Love To You.” Interestingly enough, the Motownphilly boy band collaborated with Brian McKnight on “Let It Snow,” a Christmas jingle evoking quiet storm cadences. McKnight himself would grant the lovers “Back At One” in 1999.
Neo-soul managed to redirect the quiet storm narrative. Sade’s sophisti-pop sound had also been credited for providing the earliest waves of neo-soul. Reflectively, neo-soul started to mesh more with radio listeners at night. Leading the pack from ’95 to the aughts: D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar” and “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”; Maxwell’s “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” “Whenever Wherever Whatever,” and “This Woman’s Work”; and Erykah Badu’s “Next Lifetime.”
The late 90s into the turn of the new millennium saw a burst of men vying for the title of Quiet Storm King of the new generation. The collective unit of Tyrese (“Sweet Lady”), Jon B. (“They Don’t Know”), Carl Thomas (“Lady Lay”), Case (“Happily Ever After”), Donell Jones (“Where I Wanna Be”), Joe (“I Wanna Know”), Musiq Soulchild (“Love”) and Sisqó of Dru Hill (“Beauty” and “Incomplete”) became late-night regulars. The women with more of a street perspective compared to the Toni Braxtons and Whitney Houstons played opposite to these men: Lauryn Hill (“Ex-Factor”), Kelly Price (a cover of Shirley Murdock’s “As We Lay”) and Faith Evans (“Soon As I Get Home”) being notable examples.
Hip-hop has had its fair share of moments with quiet storm, whether that be The Notorious B.I.G. making grotesque swimming pool allusions over a sample of DeBarge’s “Stay With Me” or Lil’ Kim blazing her guest verse on Mobb Deep’s “Quiet Storm.” Lil Wayne equates an oral fixation to a rainstorm on Kelly Rowland’s “Motivation.” Plies interpolated Janet Jackson’s “Come Back To Me” and The Deele’s “Two Occasions” in separate radio hits. Jill Scott would co-write (and sometimes guest perform) the hook for The Roots’ “You Got Me,” bringing a spotlight to her solo career full of quiet storm staples.
Scott’s Philly soul poetics set the example for more mature skewing adult R&B radio, with the release of her 2000 debut Who Is Jill Scott: Words And Sounds Vol. 1. Her songs that were usually played at night were now taking over daytime rotations, with Tom Joyner, D.L. Hughley, Michael Baisden, and Steve Harvey’s nationally-syndicated morning and afternoon drive shows taking after Melvin Lindsey’s cues. Their daily programs had been responsible for sending new fans over to Heather Headley, Kem, Kenny Lattimore, and Eric Benet. (And due to his attachment to the genre’s legacy with “Make It Last Forever” and “Nobody,” Keith Sweat began hosting his own syndicated quiet storm segment in 2007 entitled Keith Sweat Hotel.)
The rhythmic megastars of the aughts also benefited from the usage of quiet storm. All about her balladry, Beyoncé impacted the format with “Dangerously In Love” and her Luther Vandross cover duet “The Closer I Get To You.” In 2006, her and Justin Timberlake would remix his “Until The End of Time” to fan acclaim. Usher already broke ground in the 90s with “Nice & Slow,” so by the time of the release of “Burn” from Confessions in 2004, he’d become a pro. Teens and college students now had their own formats of quiet storm playing on hip-hop stations, with Chris Brown’s “Yo,” Pretty Ricky’s “Grind With Me,” J. Holiday’s “Bed,” and Bow Wow and Omarion’s “Let Me Hold You,” reworking old elements for the new school.
Today, trap&B is still persistently utilizing quiet storm, thanks mainly to Drake. When he first entered the game, he dropped Come Back Season and So Far Gone, softly crooning about heartbreak and lovers’ redemptions. Jump forward more than 10 years later, and that Drake still exists on Scorpion, reminding listeners of the format with the outro of “After Dark” sampling a recording from WBLK’s version of the quiet storm.
Listen to REVOLT’s ‘A Master Class in Quiet Storm’ playlist below.
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