In England, ’twas ever thus: before the hit records, before the acclaim, before even the voice . . . there comes The Look. And what a look Sade has: the high forehead; the svelte shape; the luminous, almost Oriental eyes; the generous, sensual mouth. Without pastel cosmetics or a hedge-clipper haircut, Sade has a look that’s both distinctive and unconventionally alluring.
And in the last year and a half, the twenty-five-year-old Sade (pronounced shar-day) has parlayed that look into an equally stunning musical career. As the lead singer and lyricist for the group that carries her name, Sade has seen her debut album, Diamond Life, sell more than a million copies in the U.K. and 4 million around the world. And now, spurred on by the single “Smooth Operator,” Diamond Life is vaulting up the U.S. charts.
Unlike Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club, Wham! and other British chart toppers, Sade shuns such excesses as synthesizers, glittery clothes and lavish videos. Instead, she represents cool understatement, an elegance based on absolute simplicity. Sade’s smooth, husky voice and her penchant for backless black cocktail dresses recall nothing so much as the great New York jazz clubs of the Thirties and Forties, while her band’s stripped-down arrangements have more to do with jazz than with rock & roll.
Her success has stirred talk, especially in the U.K., of a jazz revival. But Sade is careful not to call her record a jazz LP. “I’m frightened of anyone for one minute thinking that we’re trying to be a jazz band,” she says, “because if we were, we could do it a lot better than we’re doing now.”
In photos, her look seems austere, even haughty. In person, though, Sade is open and friendly. Her style is instinctive, and even at noon in her publicist’s modest London office, distanced from the fashion and music-biz storm centers of Kings Road and the West End, she’s dressed smart in pegged jeans and a black leather jacket. She’s unselfconscious about her look, and she claims a similar lack of premeditation or calculation for her band’s music.
“We don’t sit around and say, ‘Right, we’re going to create this sound.’ It happens too naturally for us to even intellectualize about. When we create a song, it’s just . . . the way it goes. Our music is clearly pop, because it’s easy to understand. All the songs I’ve ever loved – even jazz stuff – are things that tell a story, like [Roland Kirk’s] “The Inflated Tear.’ And [Miles Davis‘] ‘Sketches of Spain’ – you feel you’re in Spain. The soul stuff I like is Sly and ‘Family Affair,’ and Marvin Gaye, who always tells a simple story. It’s all simple and unpretentious, and that’s what music is to me. It should take you somewhere and move you in some way, and that’s what I want our songs to do.”
There has always been something different about the Nigerian-born Helen Folasade Adu. Her parents met in the Fifties, when her father, a Nigerian, was studying for a master’s degree at the London School of Economics. After their marriage and the birth of a son, the couple returned to Nigeria, settling in Ibadan, where Sade’s father took a teaching post and where Sade was born in 1959. Her parents’ relationship didn’t last, however (“My father was a very difficult man”), and by 1963, Sade found herself in England, living with her mother, her brother and her grandparents in the small Essex village of Great Hawkesley – just in time for one of the coldest winters in British history.
“It was all just green and white, green and white everywhere,” Sade recalls. “I’d never seen snow before. My grandfather was a bit tight, and he wouldn’t put heating in our room. We had icicles hanging from the condensation and ice along the inside of the window ledge. It was absolutely horrifying.”
After Sade’s mother completed her nursing-school studies, she moved the family to its own house. That, too, proved to be a temporary dwelling. When Sade was ten, her mother married “a mad butcher,” and the family moved to Holland-on-Sea, “a rent-a-go-cart seaside town, full of poodles and old ladies.”
At fourteen, Sade discovered clubs, dancing and soul music, which became her abiding passion. “It was the only thing to be listening to, the only thing I could possibly like,” she says. She liked her soul straight from the U.S., but she had a soft spot for Stevie Winwood’s voice; she’d even ask the local DJ to end the evening by playing Traffic‘s “Walking in the Wind.”
She moved to London at age seventeen to take a three-year course in fashion and design at St. Martin’s College of Art in the West End. At the same time, she also discovered the joys of the capital’s clubland. When she completed her course, she struck out on her own, designing and selling men’s clothes, operating on what could delicately be described as a tight profit margin. It was a time when the art and music worlds were more intertwined than ever before, and when an acquaintance who managed a band asked if she wanted to try some backup singing, she was more than willing.
“When singing came up, I didn’t think about making a career of it,” Sade recalls with a laugh. “I don’t do crocheting and I don’t play badminton, so I thought, This could be a good hobby! ” The acquaintance was Lee Barrett, and the band was called Pride. Sade was rejected at first, but the group couldn’t find anyone else, so they finally asked her to join. Eventually, Barrett suggested that she and some of Pride’s musicians work up a set of their own and perform between Pride’s sets. Sade the band took its first tentative steps at a Pride show at London’s premier jazz club, Ronnie Scott’s. Pride’s saxophonist-guitarist, Stewart Matthewman, became Sade’s songwriting partner when it became apparent that Sade was upstaging the parent outfit.
The turning point for Sade came in 1983, when the band was engaged for a concert at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The show was cosponsored by The Face, Britain’s high-gloss music and fashion magazine. Gussied-up technopop was at its zenith – but when a coolly elegant Sade, backed only by Matthewman and a rhythm section, breathed her confident, authoritative rendition of the torchy “Cry Me a River,” the place erupted with the joy of trendies who’d found their next wave.
In October of 1983, Barrett signed the band to Epic. The group had settled around a nucleus of Sade, Matthewman, bassist Paul Denman, keyboardist Andrew Hale and drummer Paul Cooke (who has since been replaced by Dave Early); it had also made the acquaintance of producer Robin Millar, known for his relaxed, spacious sound. The simplicity and understatement of the Sade-Millar approach stood out in a pop environment crowded with attention-grabbing sonic devices. The group’s first single, “Your Love Is King,” was issued that February; it was followed by a second one, “When Am I Going to Make a Living,” and the album Diamond Life. Sade was off and rolling.
It may have been momentarily hip, it may have been heralded as the New Jazz. Surely, it was a tasteful, non-flamboyant record – one in keeping with Sade’s general attitude. “That’s the way I tend to approach things,” Sade explains. “I’m not over the top; I’m not wacky. I’m fairly understated, and that reflects in the way I sing. I don’t necessarily think that you have to scream and shout to move somebody. Sometimes I am screaming and shouting: to me, I’m really putting something in and really saying something. But when it comes out the other end and people hear it, they think it sounds very understated. Maybe at the right time, with the right song, I will belt and I will go over the top, but I don’t think that to overstate is the best way of putting something across.
“The same applies to everything: to clothes and design and architecture. It’s now so acceptable to be wacky and have hair that goes in 101 directions and has several colors, and trendy, wacky clothes have become so acceptable that they’re . . . conventional. From being at art college, I’ve always hated people that have the gall to think that they’re being incredibly different when they’re doing something in a very acceptable way, something safe that they’ve seen someone else doing. I don’t look particularly wacky. I don’t like looking outrageous. I don’t want to look like everybody else.”
This distaste for wildness and flash is reflected yet again in Sade’s public persona. She does comparatively few interviews. She doesn’t feud with other artists. And in a country where pop stars are tracked incessantly by the Fleet Street press, she never shows up in the gossip columns. She shares a house in North London’s quiet Highbury with Robert Elms, a journalist, jazz buff and all-around scenemaker. She has come a long way from the night that she started scribbling the lyrics to “When Am I Going to Make a Living” on the back of a bill while walking home from the bus stop in the pouring rain; she lives comfortably, without ostentation. 1984 was a very good year for Sade.
Sade knows the challenges that lie ahead. “I want to make a record that proves to people that we have got something. Everybody’s very skeptical about someone who has early, huge success. I want to prove to myself that there’s something there. I want to make a great album to follow Diamond Life, to stretch and come forward as a band. We’ve only just started, and we’ve got a lot to do. Diamond Life has been a success, but that’s finished now. We’re only just getting used to working together as a band; I’m just getting used to singing. I’ve had a lot of exposure at a point where I’m only just learning, only just teething . . .
“Obviously, people expect an awful lot because of the amount of reaction we’ve had,” Sade muses, lighting one more cigarette than she planned to smoke, “but I feel a lot more confident now about songwriting and singing, even though I’ve still got a long way to go.”
This story is from the May 23, 1985 issue of Rolling Stone.