Quiet storm is a radio format, musical style, and subgenre of R&B, featuring soulful slow jams, pioneered in the mid-1970s by then-station-intern Melvin Lindsey at WHUR-FM, in Washington, D.C. Smokey Robinson's like-titled hit single, "A Quiet Storm", released in 1975 as the title track to his third solo album, lent its name to the format and to the radio program that introduced it to the public. Encompassing a mix of African-American music genres, quiet storm music is distinguished by understated, mellow dynamics and relaxed tempos and rhythms. It can be soothingly pensive, or express romantic sentiment. Quiet storm music is similar to soft rock and adult contemporary styles, but it is more closely and unmistakably rooted in R&B and soul music, often with jazz extensions.
Today, quiet storm is a broad term given to an array of mellow, slow-groove contemporary R&B, soul and smooth jazz offerings of the type featured on Melvin Lindsey's WHUR program, and on myriad other stations that followed his lead—most notably KBLX-FM in San Francisco, which in 1979 became the first radio station in the U.S. to present a 24-hour quiet storm format (which lasted 32 years, until the station was acquired in April 2011 by Entercom Broadcasting and converted to straight-ahead Urban AC format).
According to music journalist Jason King, quiet storm developed as a subgenre analogous to soft rock because it emphasized the more tender qualities of R&B:
Sensuous and pensive, quiet storm is seductive R&B, marked by jazz flourishes, 'smooth grooves,' and tasteful lyrics about intimate subjects. As disco gave way to the 'urban contemporary' format at the outset of the 1980s, quiet storm expanded beyond radio to emerge as a broad catchall super-genre.
Ben Fong-Torres of Rolling Stone called the genre a "blend of pop, jazz fusion, and R&B ballads--all elegant and easy-flowing, like a flute of Veuve Clicquot champagne".
Melvin Lindsey, a student at Howard University, with his classmate Jack Shuler, was first a disc jockey for WHUR in 1976 as stand-ins for an employee who failed to report for work. The response from listeners was positive, and Lindsey stayed on. Founder of Radio OneCathy Hughes, WHUR station manager, heard of the show's positive reception and responded by giving Lindsey and Shuler their own show.
After a time, the strains of "A Quiet Storm," Robinson's popular recording, became Lindsey's theme music and introduced his time slot every night thereafter. For many, when Robinson's trademark tenor voice wafted out over the airwaves, it signaled a welcome end to the stresses of the workday. "The Quiet Storm" was four hours of melodically soulful music that provided an intimate, laid-back mood tailor-made for late-night listening, and that was the key to its tremendous appeal among adult audiences. The format was an immediate success, becoming so popular that within a few years, virtually every station in the U.S. with a core black, urban listener-ship adopted a similar format for its graveyard slot. Melvin Lindsey died of AIDS in 1992, but the "Quiet Storm" format he originated remains a staple in radio programming today, more than 30 years after its inception.
Quiet Storm programming is credited with launching the careers of Luther Vandross and Anita Baker, and with introducing Sade to U.S. audiences. Classic quiet storm recordings include Frankie Beverly and Maze's "Golden Time of Day," Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On", the orchestrations of Philadelphia soul, the recordings of Al Green, Barry White, and Bill Withers, much of jazz guitaristWes Montgomery's work during his CTI (Creed Taylor, Incorporated) years, and the work of jazz-funksaxophonistGrover Washington, Jr. In 1986, Peabo Bryson released an album entitled Quiet Storm. Quiet Storm was most popular as a programming niche with baby boomers from the mid-1970s to the early '90s. During this era, it promoted a noticeable shift in the sound of R&B of the time. People such as Al Green, Luther Vandross, and Minnie Riperton became the faces of R&B without the traditional "grit" and a shift in the focus to sexual activities. Some, such as Mark Anthony Neal, believe that this shift represents a cultural appropriation to make R&B more marketable to white audience. Others argue that it is simply representing a growing new class of black authenticity—affluent or middle-class African Americans who, while still black, are still represented by musical genres beyond gangsta rap or hip-hop. After this period much of mainstream R&B took on a harder, hip-hop influenced approach.
At least two non-commercial FM stations, the community-based WGDR in Plainfield, Vermont, and its sister station, WGDH in Hardwick, Vermont (both owned by Goddard College), broadcast a weekly, two-hour "Quiet Storm"} program -— a 50-50 mix of smooth jazz and soft R&B, presented in "Triple-A" (Album Adult Alternative) style, with a strong emphasis on "B" and "C" album tracks that most commercial stations often ignore. Launched in 1998 and hosted by Skeeter Sanders, WGDR's "Quiet Storm" is one of the station's most popular music programs, based on a 2010 listener survey. In September 2011, a syndicated version of Sanders' program began broadcasting on the Internet-only Fishbowl Radio Network and ran for three years, until November 2014. In January 2015, the program began streaming on SsassyRadio.com. It is also syndicated to terrestrial radio stations across the United States affiliated with the Pacifica Radio Network.
WHUR operator Howard University has registered "Quiet Storm" as a trademark for "entertainment services, namely, a continuing series of radio programs featuring music."
The mellow, laid-back nature of the format has been parodied, most notably by Tim Meadows on Saturday Night Live, in which he played a "Quiet Storm" DJ who would react to life-shattering news, such as being fired, having his wife confess to adultery, and even his own murder, with his soothing voice unaltered. Back in the 1990s, Canadianadult contemporary station CFQR-FM in Montreal aired a Quiet Storm program featuring new-age music. Most recently, in 2007, Premiere Radio Networks launched a nationally syndicated nightly radio program based upon the Quiet Storm format, known as The Keith Sweat Hotel. That program, in edited form, broadcasts under the Quiet Storm name (as The Quiet Storm with Keith Sweat) on WBLS in New York City.