1975 – A Quiet Storm (Tamla)
Smokey Robinson stepped out of The Miracles at the end of the 1960s and into the embarrassment of American soul-pop riches that the early/mid-1970s had to offer. He did quite well, too, and it was this LP (his third such, solo) that was his first US top-40 hit (#7 on the R&B chart). The title of A Quiet Storm is very apt. The record is subtle and relaxed, but eats into you with an ever-building ferocity. And the “quiet storm” radio format obviously took its name from this record.
There are only seven tracks, and two are well over seven minutes long, so mid-60s’ Miracles’ pop this isn’t. On the other hand, Smokey’s voice is so familiar and distinctive that hearing it is always like going home. “Quiet Storm” is a pretty and breezy love song with a cool bass riff and a catchy chorus. In addition to prominent synth/keyboards in the breaks, played by Russ Turner, there’s also a very interesting woodwind instrument that adds a very welcome flavor to this track’s brew. I guess it’s the “sopranino” (saxophone) mentioned in the liner notes, but I’m not sure (anyone…? Kinda sounds like a clarinet). Smokey hits the higher register on the choruses of this tune, and it’s just awesome. This is a long song (almost eight minutes) that could have been longer, so pleasurable is it.
“The Agony and the Ecstasy” is song about an extra-marital affair (something ol’ Smoke is reported to have been well-versed in). The singer has learned the “agony” and that “love like ours is never, ever free”. It’s a pretty good song of similar relaxed tempo to the title tune, and I think the backing vocals elevate it a lot.
This LP’s big R&B hit was the third track, “Baby That’s Backatcha”, which is really up-tempo (and apparently made the disco charts). It doesn’t really sound like a disco track, however, having more of soul vibe, with (again) a clarinet or sopranino sax part. It’s not very funky, but the track swings a lot, and Smokey even nearly growls out some of the vengeful lyrics. The chorus is hummable and cool. Fun track.
“Wedding Song” was composed for the late 1974 wedding of Jermaine Jackson to Berry Gordy’s daughter, Hazel. It sounds appropriately breezy and romantic, and has a nice mid-tempo rhythm on which Smokey lays down his best silky-smooth vocal. “Oh what a beautiful day / to take a vow”, sings Smokey: “Pray that the things we say / will last from now on” (they didn’t, as the couple divorced in 1988). There’s even a great spoken part at the end where Smokey plays the minister, giving a benediction.
“Happy (Love Theme from ‘Lady Sings the Blues’)” is a slight titular misnomer, as the lyrical song never appeared in that 1972 film. Michel Legrand’s lovely instrumental song did, however, and when Smokey heard it and liked it very much, he wrote lyrics for it, completing this composition. Michael Jackson released it in 1973 in some markets, and Smokey finally got around to doing it himself for this record. Again, he’s singing way up in register on the choruses, to good effect, and it’s a lovely and very good song although, being picky, I find some of the instrumentation a bit on the synthetic side in the final couple of minutes. On that point, the track probably didn’t need to be seven minutes long either.
Smokey and his sister, Rose Ella Jones, who also co-wrote the title song, pair up again for “Love Letters”, a much funkier number than the quiet storm opener. This track is just okay. There’s a four-note keyboard motif that is sort-of catchy but not overly so, and the lyrics are a bit cheesy. But the overall vibe of this song is good, and the up-tempo bounce of it is welcome.
The final track is “Coincidentally”. It’s another up-tempo rhythm, and it has a bit more of an R&B aesthetic than most tunes here, with a Stevie Wonder-ish prominent keyboard part. Actually, something about the arrangement and vocal approach also strike me as forecasting Michael Jackson’s later Quincy Jones-produced stuff. It’s a decent track, and it ends appropriately with more of the “quiet storm” sopranino sound that introduced the first number.
So, this is your classic “adds up to more than the sum of its parts” LP. No individual track here is a major masterpiece (the title track comes closest), but there’s a highly enjoyable consistency of sound. What’s most significant, of course, is the emergence of the whole “quiet storm” music programming format that this record gave birth to. (Well, that and Smokey’s unimpeachable voice, of course.) About four years later, Smokey would dabble in commercial disco, but in the mid-1970s he instead found a nice middle-ground somewhere between funk and easy-listening pop.