I received a call in London from Simon Booth one day, telling me about an African girl who was singing with a group called Pride in London. I was immediately interested because of my years in Paris, when I had become fascinated by African music. A day or two later Lee Barrett rang to tell me about this new band that he was managing, with this incredible African girl singer. I immediately knew that he was talking about the same person.
‘I’ve heard about them,’ I said. ‘I’d be very interested to listen to their stuff.’
‘Oh.’ He was obviously surprised by how easily this was going. ‘Right then, I’ll send something over.’
The next morning I received a tape. The label said, “Pride. Hang onto Your Love. Smooth Operator”. I put it on. It didn’t sound very African. Without the top-line harmonies, strings and riffs, it was basically a funk groove with a vocal chant. It was a terrible demo but the tone of the girl’s voice was fabulous in places. And I liked the lyrics. I put it away until I got back home that evening, and then I listened to it again, and again, and again.
Ellen had gone to bed, but I needed to share what I thought I had discovered. I went up to the bedroom and woke her, chucking the tape machine on the bed.
‘Listen to that,’ I said as she blearily pulled herself together.
There are certain sounds, textures and voices which have a universality about them. They just make people feel better when they listen to them. This was one of them.
Even a few weeks before he died, my Dad was still telling people how I had rung him at three o’clock in the morning that day.
“Dad,” I told him, ‘I’ve got this singer here. If I get the job I’ve made it.’
‘So who is this girl?’ I asked Lee the next day.
‘Her name’s Sade. She’s just one of the backing singers,’ he told me. ‘But I think she’s really good. With Pride she usually just does a couple of Supremes covers, but she’s co-written these two songs.’
‘So, what’s going to happen?’ I asked.
‘Why don’t we have a meeting?’ he suggested.
They came to the studio, which seemed to impress them. Just like me, Sade was passionate about her music. She too had a mixed parentage, in her case a Nigerian father and an English mother. Both our mothers were nurses. On one side we were both exotic, while on the other we were deeply English and suburban. I could immediately see that she had a wonderful, warm quality; a dominant, maternal personality which seemed to affect everyone. She was also stunning to look at. The girl who was the lead singer for Pride seemed quite happy to just step aside and let Sade move forward. It was the sort of effect she had on people. A few weeks later she suggested to the band that they change their name from Pride to Sade and they all agreed without a word of argument. She reminded me of my mother, people just did what she told them.
At our first meeting I asked them all what they wanted to do and Sade started to talk. She had brought along some tracks including Billie Holliday, Ray Charles, the Isleys and Marvin Gaye. Then she played a couple of Latin jazz tunes, which she said was the sort of thing the boys wanted to do.
‘Let’s record a couple of tracks,’ I said. ‘What else have you got? Hang on to Your Love is nice, but maybe we need something else to start with.’
‘We’ve got this other song called Your Love is King, and we’ve got a singles deal with RCA,’ she said. ‘We can do the tracks for them.’
We made a verbal agreement that I would receive a producer’s royalty if the tracks were released, and immediately went to work to record and mix Smooth Operator and Your Love is King, giving ourselves a week to complete the task. It was a hard but enjoyable week. The drummer was awful so I wrote the drum part and then had to drop him in about every bar and a half, putting a click in his headphones, like a metronome, to keep him in time. The bass player, who proved to be a natural, had hardly played the bass at that stage and also had to be dropped in, bit by bit.
Like a lot of singers, Sade wasn’t able to stay in tune when she had the headphones on. There is a technical reason for it, something to do with air pressure.
‘Let’s abandon the headphones,’ I suggested. ‘Why don’t you sing into a microphone placed exactly between two speakers. That way we’ll end up with your voice and quite a lot of spill sound from the speakers. I’ll then reverse the phase of the loudspeakers and record the music again onto other tracks on the tape machine. Then I’ll put the two images together, the outer phase and the in phase track, one of which will have your voice on, and the music will be cancelled out.’
It sounded horribly technical but I knew it would work. It is a trick that they NOW use in the cockpits of fighter aircraft to cut down the engine noise, so that pilots can hear themselves talk. The sound coming from the engines is actually phase-reversed through a couple of speakers in the cabin, the two layers of noise cancelling one another out. I could have told them that . . .
‘All this stuff you’ve played me has more of a soul feel,’ I said, once we had the backing tracks. ‘I think we need more light and shade. Let me get in a percussionist.’
I had worked as a session percussionist myself and I knew just what I wanted. I wanted something that would work around the drum beat, filling the spaces with little bits of cross-stitching. There was a guy I had worked with before who I knew was good. I called him in and the band loved what I made him do with a tambourine and little wood blocks on Your Love Is King, and with congas coming in on the second verse of Smooth Operator, to give it a lift.
Then I made them formalise some of the riffs, particularly one of the sax lines, and bind the whole thing together more. They had a great keyboard player called Andy who I made play both the Fender electric piano and the acoustic piano. I dropped them both in on the chorus, exactly on top of one another so you couldn’t hear the double notes, like two voices reading the same poem precisely in time, so that they sound like one voice but with extra depth. I wrote some simple string lines and classic soul harmonies.
It was immensely hard work, with a lot of late nights, but by the end of the week we had created what would become the Sade sound. I was very pleased with the result. Glowing with our achievement, we handed the results in to RCA on the following Monday morning and they said “no, thank you”. They thought they were “dreary, too long, too slow, not contemporary enough, not like what’s happening in the charts”.
It is still my experience that if you play a great new record to fifty people in a room and forty nine of them love it to death, the one person sitting in the corner with a question mark over his head will be the one from the record company.
I had also sent a copy to my manager who rang up and said, “quite pleasant”.
I was distraught because I was completely convinced that we had done something great. Anyone who had happened to come into the studio during the week had been equally blown away by the sound and by her. Ninety nine per cent of singers would probably have got rid of me at that point. Sade, however, suggested we all got together for a meeting, including her boyfriend, Bob Elms, who had recently helped launch the influential style magazine, The Face, using the studio cafe as an editorial office much of the time. At the meeting we decided that we would not give up. We would simply try another tack. Bob agreed to organise a photo-session with Sade, putting her face on the cover of the magazine. We then organised a gig at Heaven, the gay club under the Arches at Charing Cross. In true music-business hype style, we turned away a thousand people at the door, none of whom had yet heard Sade sing.
The following day every major recording company in the country, except RCA, offered her a record deal to do an album. They were all offering her every producer on earth.
‘I’ve got my producer,’ she said. ‘Robin Millar is producing me.’
I started receiving smarmy, arse-licking phone calls from people who suddenly realised that I, some art-housey sort of producer that they knew nothing about, was somehow pivotal in this deal. Someone with a double-barrelled name from A&R at EMI rang.
‘Robin Millar!’ he exclaimed when I answered.
‘Yeah?’ I replied, cautiously.’
‘Listen, man,’ he said. ‘I’ve been following your career for years….’
‘How long have you lived in Belgium, then?’ I enquired.
‘What do you mean?’ his flow was temporarily interrupted.
‘Well, all the success I’ve had in recent years has been over there.’
‘Nah,’ he laughed, ‘come on, man, don’t kid around. We’ve got this chick. I think you’ve met her. We reckon it’s a marriage made in heaven.’
‘What chick’s that then?’ I asked.
‘This Sade,’ (pronounced to rhyme with SLADE). ‘She’s really good, man. You’ve got to work together.’
‘I have worked with her already.’
‘No! On what?’
‘On two tracks.’
‘I don’t believe it,’ he said. ‘You mean the two tracks I’ve got right here? That’s fantastic!’
Sade ended up signing to CBS for the smallest advance offered but a promise of artistic control. The following day Muff Winwood, the ex bass player from Spencer Davis who went on to produce Sultans of Swing for Dire Straits and was then working at CBS, rang me. ‘Can you do these two tracks again?’
‘Because RCA want twelve thousand quid for them. It’s a lot of money. I’d really rather you did them again.’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I thought it was a really special week. I don’t know that we’ll be able to capture it again.’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I don’t think we’re going to end up paying.’
I’d just taken on young Pete Brown, brother of Sam Brown and son of Joe and Vicki, as a studio assistant. I took him aside one evening.
‘We’ve got some serious dubbing work to do,’ I told him, ‘before we send the tapes back to RCA.’
We then sat up all night with an early digital dubbing machine and the multi-track tapes, dubbing off onto spare reels the sax solo, the backing vocal, the percussion parts, the string parts and the guitar bits, (half of which I’d played), on the basis that when RCA took the tapes away we would be able to record a basic new backing track and fly in as much of the stuff as I thought I could get away with. We finished at about nine in the morning. A couple of hours later, as we struggled to stay awake, Muff phoned again.
‘I’ve thought about what you said,’ he said, ‘and I think we’ll pay the twelve grand.’
We then recorded fifteen tracks, nine of which would find their way onto the album and Muff asked us which one we thought should be the single. ‘Which one made your spines tingle?’ he asked. ‘Which one had you all looking at one another and made you smile?’
‘Your Love is King’, we all replied.
‘Right,’ he grinned. ‘Well, I can assure you that no-one in the record company would have picked that one, but we’ll go with it.’
He was as good as his word, which is what makes him unusual amongst record executives, even though the track was four minutes forty five seconds long when the industry wisdom had it that no single should be more than three minutes ten. Being a man from the Sixties, Muff was unafraid of taking risks and knew that it was by being different that you stood the best chance of being noticed.
A few years later Tom Robinson came to me and asked me to produce an album for him.
‘Why me?’ I asked.
‘Partly because you’re A X leftie like me,’ he confessed. ‘But also because I only want to do records that will startle and amaze, while also having beauty and integrity. As long as I live I will never forget sitting in a gay bar, watching Top of the Pops, with the usual parade of silly juvenile, jumpy rubbish. Suddenly in the middle of it there was a four and half minute oasis with this unbelievable looking woman singing this rich, beautiful, tragic torch song. That sort of impact is so rare.’
In 1999 Vibe, the biggest R & B magazine in the world, which serves the black community, (a community which has put out all the music in history that means the most to me), asked its readers to vote for their favourite song of all time. Sade sent me the magazine with a card saying “I don’t normally pay attention to these things but…. Blimey!”
At number two, after Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On, and ahead of Aretha Franklin, was The Sweetest Taboo from Promise, our second album together, with our names linked in brackets afterwards. I cried and cried and cried, because my parents were dead and I couldn’t tell them.