Music Sermon: The Quiet Storm Is Still Brewing
For over 40 years, the Quiet Storm radio format has been such an institution in black music, we rarely give it thought. It’s just something that’s always been there, like old ladies’ church candy in purses – you don’t consider where it came from or why. But the Quiet Storm is an anomaly in radio, especially urban radio; a swiftly changing landscape over the last 30 years which has seen format changes, programming limitations, the growth of satellite, plus shifts to streaming. Yet this format remains consistent.
The smooth R&B programming starting in 1976 and came to prominence in the mid-80s, breaking artists including Luther Vandross, Anita Baker, and Sade, and establishing hit-makers like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and LA Reid and Babyface. It was an alternative to funk, disco, and boogie that also gifted “old-school” R&B artists with the extended careers that classic rock artists enjoyed.
Black folks know, sonically and culturally, what the Quiet Storm means, even if they can’t easily describe it. It’s the deep, cognac smooth vocals of the format DJs everywhere (I feel like they go to school for that); Drake recently paid homage to Toronto Quiet Storm host Al Woods and the format itself through snippets on his Scorpion album. It’s the distinctive, airy and jazzy music beds behind those voices. The sensuous, romantic mid-tempos and ballads. But the story of how the format started and why it became so popular gets lost. It’s a super black origin story involving a Motown legend, an HBCU institution in one of the blackest cities in America, and the first black woman to become a multimedia mogul.
In the early ‘70s, Smokey Robinson was languishing post-Miracles. He’d left the group, taken a break from recording, and then come back with two disappointing solo efforts. Soul music had shifted from the Motown sound Smokey helped architect as both a lead artist and songwriter/producer at the legendary company. Labelmates Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye had proven themselves masters at adapting their sound and message to changing times; Gamble and Huff, Isaac Hayes and Barry White were creating lush but seductive mid-tempo productions for their roster including Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, the Ohio Players and the O’Jays; and vocalists like Donny Hathaway, Al Green and Roberta Flack were balancing out ‘70s funk with a deep but effortless soul sound.
Inspired and intrigued by What’s Going On, Robinson found his solo stride with his 1975 album, The Quiet Storm. “As the title tune progresses, the sensuality of its lyrics and the loose, improvisational feel of the backup suggest that the album is going to be Robinson’s What’s Going On or Innervisions, a formula-defying statement of both personal and social import,” remarked Rolling Stone writer Robert Palmer in his album review. But Palmer also noted, “Robinson is moved neither by Marvin Gaye’s macho sensibilities nor by Stevie Wonder’s semimystical mental images, and he has more pop expertise than either.” This wasn’t music to inspire humanity, it was music to inspire the mood. Smokey was unknowingly once again laying a foundation for a black soul era.
A year following The Quiet Storm’s release, Cathy Hughes (founder of Radio One and TVOne), then director of Howard University’s radio station WHUR, tapped station intern Melvin Lindsay to step in last minute as substitute DJ for a Sunday night slot. Melvin filled his time with classic slow jam cuts, “WHUR was into jazz then, and I didn’t know a lot about jazz,” Lindsay later told the New York Times. “I played a lot of old, slow songs.” And because he was inexperienced and uncomfortable behind the mic, he only took a couple of talking breaks an hour. The phone lines lit up. Cathy had been looking for a format that would distinctly target the upwardly mobile, single black women in DC – she’d found it. She suggested Melvin name his show after Smokey’s title track, and use the song as an intro (“The Quiet Storm” is still used widely as a programming anthem for the format).
After a few months, WHUR moved the program from weekends to every weeknight and rose to the top spot among urban stations in DC. Competitive station WKYS and their director of black programming, Donnie Simpson, hired Lindsay away and duplicated the program, then they became the leading urban station in DC. A format was birthed.
Stations in major markets, then secondary markets began adapting the mood music format, most during select dayparts, a few for their overall programming. While all stations followed the same formula – a multi-hour block of slow jams and mid-tempos with little interruption - some had their own names like “Mellow Melodies,” or in NYC, WBLS’ “Kissing After Dark.” BET (who hired format creator Lindsay for a short while before his death in 1992) developed a late-night video block of Quiet Storm cuts called “Midnight Love.”
An urban alternative to soft rock or easy listening, Quiet Storm ignores most of the programming rules of commercial radio. Songs can be current or decades old, deep cuts or singles, and are more likely to be a live version or extended length than a radio edit. Instrumentals also get burn; jazz fusion is a favorite.
By the mid-80s, the Quiet Storm was a key part of not only black radio, but black culture. We were in the Cosby Show era; black, white-collar professionals and academics were establishing lives in upscale neighborhoods, sending children to private schools, rubbing shoulders with the elite. If we hadn’t made it, we were close (so it seemed then). Black boomers were living well, and wanted mellow tunes to match their mellow life; smooth jazz, the classics they grew up on, and velvet vocals over sensuous productions.
Today, brands and businesses chase young consumers. But then, the 25-to-44-year-old black middle class – a new and still growing demo just a little over a decade after the Civil Rights Movement – was a draw. An exec with advertising agency W.B. Doner & Company (now Doner Company) explained the appeal to the New York Times as the format reached its peak. “These (listener demo) figures indicate that the format gives advertisers an affluent, sophisticated market. When we find out there’s a station with a ‘Quiet Storm’ format, we jump on board.”
A media director at black-owned agency Burrell Advertising described the ad buying formula to Billboard. “If you’re buying time for durable goods, like automobiles, or goods aimed at mothers…these programs are a good buy. The music’s not loud or abrasive. It’s geared towards people who are winding down as opposed to getting wound up…because (the Quiet Storm) is extremely targeted, it is very useful.”
The format also helped stations boost their morning ratings since listeners would go to sleep with the slow jams and stay tuned in once they woke up. Radio became a key part of daily routine. The Quiet Storm was and is multipurpose mood music; perfect for everything from sexy-time to just general wind-down. Jeff Brown, the current DJ for WHUR’s Quiet Storm, has explained the music’s prevalence in day-to-day life, “Back in the day… people had dinner with the Quiet Storm. People studied to the Quiet Storm. People ironed out their clothes for the next day to the Quiet Storm.”
R&B from the 1980s is sometimes criticized in retrospect (and by some at the time) for being a little too polished and surface – too bougie, basically. There wasn’t a lot of grit or pain in the music. It wasn’t heavy on social commentary, either. It was silk and velvet, river-smoothed stones instead of the red clay of blues-inspired soul. For existing and established groups, it was adapt-or-die. Funk bands of the ‘70s transitioned from shiny and sparkly bodysuits to Italian suits; from singing about shaking it on the dancefloor, to getting busy in the bedroom. None made this transition more successfully than the Isley Brothers; they were introduced to a new demo and granted a new chapter in their career. Kool and the Gang and the Commodores followed suit as well. There are generations of fans who now know these groups for smooth R&B first, and funk second.
The format created room for groups like Frankie Beverly and Maze and DeBarge to prosper. Two-step and red cup music was the order of the day.
But even artists known more for pop crossover and uptempo hits benefitted from the format. Whitney’s “Saving All My Love For You” was huge at Quiet Storm radio, and A&M Records’ VP of Black Promotion spoke to Billboard about the slow jam format helping to break Janet Jackson. Control was a hit with the younger demo, but “(w)hat the Quiet Storm stations did was play ‘Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun),’…introducing the older audience to the fact that there was something on the album for them as well.” He added, “We’ve sold three million records, and kids only go so far.”
For me, the Quiet Storm was background for sneaking on the phone with whichever little boyfriend of the moment (if I remember correctly, 9 p.m. was the cut off for incoming calls in my house, and I had to be off the phone altogether at 10 – exactly the time radio switched over to the romance). Or, being stretched out on my bedroom floor, chronicling the most recent developments of my very serious teenage love life in my journal by the light of my closet (because I was supposed to be in bed).
I’d take time to note the music serving as the journal entry’s soundtrack at the top of the page:
2/27/1991 – 10:46 pm – “My, My, My”
“I hope my parents go to sleep soon ‘cause I need to call my baby. That is my sweetheart. I haven’t felt this way since [redacted to protect grown people from embarrassment]!”
(Yes, that’s a real excerpt. Yes, I still have my journals. Yes, I was dramatic.)
Now that the history and origin are established, let’s look at some of the artists and songs that have become synonymous with the format.
Love's Light in Flight: The Quiet Storm Jams
Because the Quiet Storm isn’t programmed by hottest, newest, latest, there are some songs that stay in steady rotation on the format regardless of region or year.
“Reasons (Live)” - Earth Wind and Fire
It has to be the eight minute and change live version or it doesn’t count. Maurice White was in his whole entire bag. Also, at 6:41 is the line that famously inspired Eddie Murphy and later Jay-Z: “He plays so beautiful don’t you agree?”
“Two Occasions (Live)” Babyface / The Deele
Again, Quiet Storm is a format that embraces live and extended versions over a radio edit every time. ‘Face is not only a core format artist going back to his days with group The Deele, but, along with partner LA Reid, is responsible for countless chart hits as a songwriter and producer. Also, this a Class A “you don’t know nothin’ ‘bout this here”-level jam.
“Love Light in Flight” – Stevie Wonder
Even though the Quiet Storm is mostly a ballad-driven format, the right mid-tempo grooves find a home there, as well. I’ve heard multiple stations over the years announce their programming as “Love’s light in flight…the Quiet Storm.”
“As We Lay” – Shirley Murdock
Adultery R&B lives on Urban AC stations from 10 p.m. – 2 a.m. Crossover hits “Secret Lovers,” “Congratulations,” and the subgenre’s anthem, “As We Lay” started there.
In 1987, Murdock credited the radio format for her eventual No. 5 Billboard chart success. “I was definitely introduced by ‘The Quiet Storm,” she told the New York Times. “If it had not been for those formats, we would have been passed up.”
“The Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Suite)” – Quincy Jones, Al B. Sure, James Ingram, El DeBarge and Barry White
Q is another core Quiet Storm producer. His work with James Ingram, Michael Jackson ballads and mids like “Human Nature” and “Lady in My Life” (technically Rod Temperton, but still), all the way through Tamia’s “You Put a Move on My Heart,” held space on the late-night format. But the definitive Quincy Quiet Storm jam is this whos-who line up of staple vocalists, and it’s still untouchable.
Smooth Operators: The Quiet Storm Royalty
Without the support of the format, some of the leading soul vocalists of the ‘80s and early ‘90s wouldn’t have reached the same career heights. The Quiet Storm style defined the R&B sound of the decade, and created a new platform for crossover success. “It opened up the whole thing where ballads could break in without having to compete with up-tempo songs,” music historian Nelson George explained in 1987.
Luther Vandross is the definitive quiet storm voice. He doesn’t have the depth and urgency of church-bred vocalists, but instead the virtuosity of an opera singer – hence his nickname the Black Pavarotti. Luther would stretch his songs out, and walk through them slowly, unhurriedly, switching the arrangements up two or three times in one song but never losing control of the vocal. His debut album arrived just as radio was starting to embrace the more laid back tempo and rhythm of R&B, and it propelled him to a dominant spot among the male soul vocalists of the decade.
Luther and fellow male vocalists Peabo Bryson, James Ingram, Billy Ocean, and Freddie Jackson exemplified the pop-soul balance that was the Quiet Storm sound. It wasn’t down home church, it was suburban dinner parties…for people who grew up in the church. Even front men-turned soloists Jeffrey Osborne and Lionel Richie smoothed down the raw edges from their group days for their ‘80s turns.
The Quiet Storm is largely a male vocalists' game, but if Luther is the king, Anita Baker is the queen. Her career possibly wouldn’t have existed without the format’s open embrace of jazzy soul, sweeping arrangements and big – but again, not church-inspired – vocals. “Baker made music for assimilated black Americans,” George wrote in his book The Death of Rhythm and Blues, “though unlike that of crossover artists, her work tapped into the traditions of jazz and blues with a feeling that suggested being middle class didn’t make your taste the musical equivalent of a Big Mac.”
Baker’s predecessors Phyllis Hyman and Angela Bofill were mainstays on the format in the beginning, but had they debuted 6 or 7 years later, their careers may have taken different paths. Vocal stylists like Anita, Regina Belle, Miki Howard and Chanté Moore would have faced similar career challenge to find a place where they fit at radio without the influence of the Quiet Storm at its peak. Chanté, unfortunately, did get caught in urban radio’s split into Urban Main (up-tempo, current hits by younger artists) and Urban Adult (mid-tempos and ballads, “mature” voices, and the home of the Quiet Storm). She never quite figured out the formula as a young artist who started at an “adult” format.
The best thing about the Quiet Storm format is that except for two defining musical characteristics, which one radio programmer called “tempo and texture,” the format is diverse. In addition to classics and newer soul voices like Luther and Anita, at its height, the format was also largely responsible for introducing Sade to the music world.
Pitchfork’s Jess Harvell described Sade as a band (yes, Sade is both singer and band name) that “helped to define the quiet storm era, when smooth grooves aimed at grown-ups were still a legitimate mainstream phenomenon.” The Quiet Storm was for a sophisticated and cosmopolitan listener. British sophisti-pop and synth-heavy new-wave got airplay in the chill out hours. Art of Noise’s “Moments in Love” has even been a frequently-used music bed for the format over the years.
I could keep going – jazz balladeers like Keith Washington and Will Downing, jazz instrumentalists like Norman Conners and Kenny G, classic groups like Heatwave, ‘80s groups like the Force MDs and Ready for the World, late ‘80s/early ‘90s singers like cousins Cherelle and Pebbles, young stars like Shanice and Tracie Spencer…they all got shine at the 10 o’clock hour from your local urban adult radio station. As hip-hop’s influence took over mainstream R&B and urban radio, the Quiet Storm was a sanctuary. I personally realized I’d reached full auntie status when I started turning my radio from NY’s home for hip hop and R&B, Hot 97 to the “old school” stations WBLS or Kiss FM for nighttime ambiance.
The Quiet Storm’s peak was the ‘80s, but its last big moment of impact was probably the neo-soul era, when the format helped break new artists combining all the classic musical elements listeners loved, most notably Maxwell and Jill Scott. While not as impactful, however, the format still endures. As I said earlier, it’s been around so long, we take it for granted. It’s not exciting, it’s not groundbreaking. We know exactly what we’re getting, but that’s why it’s special and important - it’s a black cultural institution. It still draws an older listening demo on terrestrial radio, but playlisting on streaming services has duplicated the role the Quiet Storm once played for discovery of new R&B artists like H.E.R. and Daniel Caesar. Fans are once again seeking programming for a desired vibe - lifestyle music - and that’s what the Quiet Storm was intended to do. Former urban label executive Kevin Fleming provided a description to Rolling Stone that applies to both the original radio programming and today’s playlists. “That evening format, laid back, cool out, is important – it’s a rejuvenating way to listen to your music.”
Creator Melvin Lindsay described the format’s music and artists more succinctly. “It’s beautiful black music.”
#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.