Key Tracks: Sade’s Diamond Life

Stuart Matthewman and producer Robin Millar reflect on Sade’s timeless debut album.

By the mid-’80s, Sade Adu, Stuart Matthewman, Paul Denman, and Andrew Hale – collectively known as Sade – were on the verge of dominating the musical landscape across Europe and leaving a huge imprint in the United States. But it all started in 1982, when Adu, Matthewman, and Denman left the popular UK Latin fusion band Pride. (A year later, Hale joined the band.) By the end of 1983, the group secured a record deal with CBS Records. Their style was a refreshing fusion of jazz, soul and R&B – reminiscent of genre-bending artists from a bygone era – and their debut album, Diamond Life, was an instant smash. For the album’s 30th anniversary, we spoke with Matthewman and the man behind the boards, Robin Millar, about crafting this timeless record.

Sade - Smooth Operator - Montreux (1984 )

What is the story behind the forming of the group?

Stuart Matthewman

When I moved from Hull to London, I saw an ad in one of the local music papers, and it said something like, “Sax player required for fashion conscious jazz-funk band.” So I kind of went along for that. It was for a band called Pride. Sade was one of the background singers. She had just started out singing, and she was hanging out in the background. I met her at the audition, and I ended up joining the band. It’s funny no one in that band really looked fashion conscious, but Sade was sitting there very cool. She had her braid going down her back with part blonde in it. Her hair was straight back, and she had a studded wristband on. I thought she was the coolest person I had ever seen.

Originally, we didn’t want to break away from Pride, but it was a seven piece band with a male singer. We were doing funk, Latin, and a little bit of disco. It was like the Clash mixed with Latin music. I started writing songs with Sade, and our manager said, “Why don’t you guys open for the main band?” So we did that. We came on first, and we did a few songs. Everyone in the audience would just freak out over Sade about how she looked and the way we sounded. At that time, there was really nothing like it out there. It was stripped down and simple and bare sounding. She started getting a lot of people interested in her and that sound, rather than the main band. It took a while, but the rest of the band told us that we should just go out on our own because the main band wasn’t going to get signed. Luckily, Sade let me stay around. [laughs]

Sade and I started doing demos, writing and rehearsing songs, and doing these little gigs. When we performed at these gigs, it would be Sade singing, Paul on bass, our drummer, and I would be playing saxophone or guitar. So, when we were playing live, we knew we needed to fill out our sound a little bit. We were like, “Let’s get a keyboard player.” Andrew [Hale] was a kid that went to the same clubs as us. We didn’t really have auditions or anything like that. He looked cool, and he went to the same clubs as us. We didn’t need a spectacular jazz player. He was just a young, cool kid. It was basically Sade and three skinny white boys. [laughs]

Venceremos Working Week

When and where did you first meet Sade and then the band?

Robin Millar

I was making a record to raise awareness of the events in Chile where General Pinochet had been in charge for ten years. A lot of people had gone missing and many of my Chilean friends in London asked me to make a record. So, we made an A side of a record and decided to make a Latin extended version of it. I put the word out for anybody who played good Latin jazz and who would play for no money and agreed with the political message to come to my studio on a Sunday evening. About 20 people came, and I knew maybe ten of them. We recorded the track with Tracey Thorn from Everything but the Girl on lead vocals and Robert Wyatt from Soft Machine on backing vocals. The following day I got a phone call from manager Lee Barrett who said, “Two members of the band I manage came to your studio last night. They liked your studio, they worked with you, they liked working with you, and they’re in a band called Pride. Can we send you some music?” I said, “Yeah. Sure.”

So, they sent me a couple of rehearsal run demos. They were quite simple and sort of jazzy, and they said, “This is the first recording we’ve done with our new singer, who was one of the backing singers of the band, because the lead singer left.” I heard it, I loved her voice, and I liked the songs. I told them to come have a chat with me. So he came with Sade in a beat up old car. She was wearing a pair of baggy jeans and an old t-shirt with her hair tied up in a cloth. Everyone at the studio was completely amazed by not just her look, but by how nice and friendly she was.

I heard a couple of more tunes they had. I asked them, “What do you want to do?” They replied, “Well, we don’t have any money. Would you consider letting us use the studio and producing us? Because we’ve had some interest from some record companies.” I said, “Yes. I’d like to do that. We’ll have to work around the sessions of other people we have booked in, so we’ll have to duck and dive a little bit. Evenings, weekends, and get in when we can.” We did two tracks together, which were “Smooth Operator” and “Your Love is King.” The same recordings ended up on Diamond Life. We never re-recorded them. We mixed them very late one Sunday evening and gave them to him on that Monday morning.

Sade - Your Love is King @ Live Aid 85

When you all were members of Pride, can you describe the chemistry that existed between the group members that would later on become the group Sade?

Stuart Matthewman

None of us had any money back then. I was living in a squat. Sade was living in some assisted housing. She was actually living in a disused fire station. My place was pretty grim, so I used to hang out at Sade’s place. (She would normally have more food in her kitchen than I did.) She had an amazing record collection of a lot of music that I didn’t know about at that particular time. I started listening to Chet Baker, Nina Simone, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield. I started listening to this great music, and we started writing songs.

The songs ended up being really simple and stripped down. The reason for that was because none of us were great musicians, but we all sounded good. Sade had a gorgeous voice, but she wasn’t a trained singer. The same thing with me; I could get a nice sound with my sax, but I never studied jazz. Andrew would play simple chords and Paul was a simple bass player. We just had this stripped down, simple sound. If any of us had been ten or twenty percent better as musicians, it would’ve been horrible. It would’ve been too much. What made our sound special is that we were young and naïve, and we didn’t really know what we were doing.

Stuart Matthewman mentioned that the group was young and naïve. He made references to the fact that they were doing their take on the music they were influenced by.

Believe it or not, Diamond Life, is Robin Millar’s bad attempt at making an Atlantic soul meets Philly record.

Robin Millar

Robin Millar

They were young, naïve, and talented. All of those three things were true. Naïve is a funny word. Yes. It’s true, because they were blissfully naïve of any kind of supposed rules of how you’re supposed to make records. We were the right mix of people and the right time, really. I wanted a vehicle to express my work as an arranger, sound crafting producer, because my heroes were Norman Whitfield, Quincy Jones, all that Marvin Gaye, Philadelphia International stuff, Aretha [Franklin], and to a lesser extent, George Martin.

I had been doing some indie stuff, and I was desperate to do what was in my mind a sort of pop or soul record. Sade had the voice, the band could play. I just needed to bring in a percussionist, do some string and brass stuff, work out some good backing vocals, and capture all of their great ideas. I was in heaven. If we hadn’t been able to do those first two songs without a record company sitting over us, who knows? So, believe it or not, Diamond Life, is Robin Millar’s bad attempt at making an Atlantic soul meets Philly record. [laughs]

What gave you the belief that they could be signed to a record deal and thrive as a group because their sound was vastly different than anything in the mainstream at that time?

Robin Millar

When I met them, their sound was basically funk backing with people playing fairly free jazz and soul over the top. I thought it needed structuring, which was my job. But I did make one concession to what was going on at the time. I don’t know if other people had done this before or not, but it was the very early days of sampling machines. So, I took a sample of a bass drum from a Linn drum machine and I sampled my old snare drum and I replaced the bass drum and snare drum on those tracks with a sample. Because the other mics overhead were still open, you still heard the dynamic range of the drummer as part of the sound. I suspect it was pretty unusual for people listening on the radio to hear someone playing drums with what seemed to be the same volume and tone all the time. Now, it’s routine. Almost every drum track you hear, they’ve gone in and replaced the sound, but back then, it was quite unusual. But you’re right, their sound wasn’t mainstream. [laughs] By the way, if you want to know, the manager took those two tracks, “Your Love is King” and “Smooth Operator” around to all the record companies, and every single one of them turned them down. We didn’t get a deal at that time.

The Face, February 1983

That doesn’t surprise me because typically record companies are hesitant to take a risk on the unknown when everything sounds similar and is selling well.

Robin Millar

It’s strange, but that has always been the case. You’re right. The comments were generally the tracks are too slow, jazzy, and too long. And as you said, it wasn’t what was happening at the moment. Actually, Sade was much more optimistic about it than I was. Sade just liked everything the way it was; she didn’t want to change anything. She had an extraordinary attitude, really. Her attitude was we don’t need to change the music; we just need to change how cool we are and then the music will be fine. We need to become more visible, which is what she and the people around her set out very successfully to do.

I would also say it was her boyfriend at the time, Robert Elms. He was a journalist, and he and Sade knew the guys that were starting a new, very hip monthly magazine called The Face. Sade had a couple of very cool friends. She was friends with Jean Paul Gaultier, the fashion designer and a couple of members from Blue Rondo à la Turk. Somehow, The Face decided to put her on the front cover. The only part I played in it was that I suggested that with this coming out, they should play a live gig in London that week. Very hastily, we rehearsed about a half hour set of cover songs. One of them which ended up on the album was “Why Can’t We Live Together.” We did “Smooth Operator,” “Your Love is King,” and “Hang On to Your Love.” Those were the only three songs they knew how to play. They also did “Be Thankful for What You Got” and “Heaven Is in the Backseat of My Cadillac.”

But the important thing was, there were 1,000 people standing outside of the door, who couldn’t get into the club. Very cleverly, Robert had told all of his journalist friends at daily newspapers to come to the gig. This sounds common nowadays, but it wasn’t that common in 1983 to pull off that kind of thing. There were 1,000 people cueing up around the door of this little club called Heaven in Charing Cross in London. Suddenly, all those same record companies, who turned them down were crawling all over Sade. They were desperate to sign her. The record companies all told her that they were going to send her to America, that she was going to be great, and she was going to work with Quincy Jones. She said, “I don’t want to go to America and work with Quincy Jones. I love Quincy Jones, but I’m quite happy here, and I’m quite happy working with Robin.” The record companies weren’t pleased when she told them that. She said, “That’s too bad.” CBS Records, now Sony Records, were the only record company who said, “If you want to work with Robin, you can work with Robin.”

So, I wouldn’t have gotten the job to finish the record, if hadn’t been for her. When we started, the A&R man that we were assigned to was Muff Winwood, who is Steve Winwood’s brother, who at the time was head of A&R at CBS Records. He came to the studio and said, “Listen, don’t worry about singles, because we don’t particularly think you’re a singles band.” It was very sensible of him to say that to us. He said, “Just make the best record you can. Out of the record, a single will emerge. I think you’re about selling albums and not singles.”

We actually recorded 13 songs. It was Sade who said that she wasn’t confident about three or four of the songs. She said, “One of those I’m not sure we recorded very well. On another one, I don’t like the arrangement.” One of them, which was a dance track, didn’t fit with the rest of the album, because the album was moody. We left four tracks off, and we ended up with nine tracks on the album. We put one of the tracks as a bonus on the cassette. So, if you bought the cassette, you got an extra piano and vocal called “Love Affair with Life.” I wonder how many people have even heard of that track. [laughs]

Sade - Love Affair with Life - Munich (1984 )

Did you play any part in helping the group come up the name for their band?

Robin Millar

No. I stood back in complete amazement, while Sade just said, “Look, we’re called Pride at the moment. I just think Sade is a better name than Pride.” The rest of the band agreed with her. I thought myself this is somebody who gets what she wants. [laughs] None of them said anything against it. And of course, the usual stuff came up with the record company. They were saying nobody was going to know how to pronounce the name of the band properly. She told them, “They will. They will.” If you remember on the American record, it actually told people how to pronounce her name on the cover, but not on the European one.

After securing the record deal with CBS Records, what was the group’s mindset going in to record your debut album?

Stuart Matthewman

We didn’t have any master plan of doing anything. We were just happy to be in a real recording studio and getting fed. I didn’t have a job or living expenses. It’s very hard to do that now in New York or London. Andrew and Paul were sharing an apartment, but none of us had any money. We were just interested in writing songs. I was getting the equivalent of unemployment assistance, and then when the record first came out, I was getting picked up in a limousine and taken to the airport to do TV shows, even though I was living in a squat. The song “When Am I Going to Make a Living” was on this album. Sade wrote the song on the back of a cleaning ticket after she picked her clothes up from the cleaners. She had no money and she wrote down, “When Am I Going to Make a Living.”

Talk to me about the group’s collaboration process in the studio, Robin.

Robin Millar

After we finished “Smooth Operator” and “Your Love is King,” the first song we did was “Sally,” the song about the Salvation Army. I remember playing Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Love Me Anymore” in a completely dark control room. Having played that, Sade jumped up and flipped out the cassette and put on Gil Scott-Heron’s Pieces of a Man. We spent three hours listening and then we put on Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man. Then, we put on “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday. Then, we listened to half of a Nina Simone album. All the way through making the record we would play tracks to put us in a certain frame of mind. I couldn’t sit here and possibly tell you all the songs, but I can tell you they didn’t include Phil Collins, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones records. They would’ve been all of our black music heroes. Somewhere at the very, very center of the record is that sort of emotional feeling, really. I have very strong memories of those listening sessions.

She is quite the joker.... I’ve seen Sade walk into a control room with a waste basket stuck on one foot with an orange peel to make false, goofy teeth.

Robin Millar

We didn’t really have conversations about direction. We used to play a group of tracks and then go off and record. If you think about the content of the songs, with the exception of “Smooth Operator,” where the lyrics were written by someone else, the rest of the tracks were all about classic soul and blues issues: How am I going to get a job? Where am I going to sleep tonight? My man done me wrong. The songs were about simple issues. The music was simple and heartfelt. Sade does feel things very deeply as a person.

By the way, she is a really funny person, too. She is quite the joker. She isn’t quite as cool as people like to think she is. I can say the same things about two other divas I’m come across: Alicia Keys and Beyoncé. They’re much more down-to-earth in a nice way than people might think. You know when you’re trying to horse around and you stick one foot in a waste paper basket, so you have to clump around on one foot like you’re limping. I’ve seen Sade walk into a control room with a waste basket stuck on one foot with an orange peel to make false, goofy teeth and come into the room to joke around and make noises. She has a well-rounded personality, and I think you hear that on her first record.

This particular album was released in 1984. During this time, Michael Jackson and Prince were reigning on the pop charts as well as other great artists. To be a quartet from London, England and have the ability to make a mark on the charts during this time, speaks volumes about the songs on this album and the impact your group made in Europe and the United States.

Stuart Matthewman

When we released Diamond Life in England, it performed really well in Europe. In America, R&B and jazz was a very different thing at the time. Artists like Luther Vandross and others were very accomplished and precise. They were using producers, session players and recording engineers, but we weren’t doing that. When these bands played live on TV, they would have a big band full of session players, who had been playing for years on tour or in church and from that kind of background.

For us, it was just Sade and three skinny white boys. When the record company came over from America to see us play, they were like, “Oh my goodness.” Sade, obviously, wasn’t doing all the regular R&B and bluesy riffing that everyone else was doing. I don’t think they understood how they could market us in America because it was so different from everything else. I think they were expecting Sade and this amazing ten piece R&B band, and we weren’t that at all. We were just naïve and very simple. I think that’s why it almost took them a year to release our album in America.

Sade - Hang On to Your Love - Munich (1984)

When the group arrived on American shores, the record company didn’t quite know what to make of the group. Were you worried that American audiences wouldn’t embrace them in the same way Europe did a year earlier in 1984?

Robin Millar

It’s a very interesting question; and it’s a complex question. When those kids were growing up in England, there was no niche radio in the UK. There was no R&B and soul radio. You didn’t have the option of listening to black music all day. You could buy it, but if you had the radio on, it was a complete mix of pop, rock, soul, and R&B. Whether you liked it or not. So, they grew up with that mixed diet, as opposed to their contemporaries in America who would’ve been able to choose what music station they wanted to listen to.

After they were released in Europe, we went to the States and met with Cliff Crist, I think he was the only black A&R working out of CBS Records in New York, so we all gravitated to him. He said a very sensible thing. He said, “In my opinion, if you don’t get the black audience first in America, you won’t get them. If you get them first, and if you crossover, they’ll stay with you.” That was why they released “Hang On to Your Love” as the first single in the US. It was the most funk orientated groove track and it was released mainly to black radio stations first, and it was released before “Smooth Operator” or any of those other tracks.

Very often, we would have six people at the mixing desk at the same time.

Stuart Matthewman

I believe it was crucial, because it linked Sade with a black audience, and it gave her credibility. It was important to be respectful of the music that meant the most to us in the deepest sense. We all liked pop music and there definitely was a pop sensibility to the record, but the music that made us all burst into tears at the same time was soul music.

What were some of the instruments you used in making this album and your studio practices?

Stuart Matthewman

When we did the song “Cherry Pie,” before we had mixing desks with automation, Robin was there with the four of us in the studio. Everyone was on the desk at the same time. Everyone had their job of putting a bit of echo, delay, or changing a level down on a tape. Then, you would edit between those different mixes to get the best mix. Very often, we would have six people at the mixing desk at the same time.

Robin Millar

We didn’t have a lot of time to make this record, which I think meant the thing had a whole lot of momentum. The other thing you have to remember is she was signed in a flurry of publicity. Each member of the group worked hard; and they worked long. I was a hard taskmaster. I wanted those records to have real feel and precision. I was conscious that, if they were going to make it overseas and in America, you couldn’t be sloppy. I knew how well-crafted and played an Anita Baker record was and you couldn’t be sloppy like some English records were. There was a lot of hard work by the group.

The record company was gearing up for the launch of this new superstar, which meant photo sessions, choosing costumes, direction, photo art for the album, interviews, and biographies. Sade was all over that; she worked as hard on choosing photographs, outfits, photographers, cropping photographs, and subediting. She would be in the studio two hours before the session would start meeting with head of promotion or press and discussing strategies. It’s one of the reasons I knew this album would do well, because she looked like a million bucks, she had that voice, the record was coming together well, and she was determined to embrace the game. I don’t mean the game disparagingly. She was very willing, able, and ready to play the game.

Sade - Cherry Pie - Montreux Jazz Festival (1984)

Can you talk about “Cherry Pie” a bit more in-depth?

Stuart Matthewman

We had been playing “Cherry Pie” live during our shows. We had a slightly different arrangement and bassline once we recorded it in the studio. When we went into the studio with Robin, we figured out a new arrangement for it on the spot. This song was all about mixing. There were a lot of delays. I was intrigued getting out my wah-wah pedal. We loved Marvin Gaye, so I had to get a wah-wah pedal. I wanted to sound like Wah Wah [Watson] who played with Marvin Gaye. He was my favorite guitar player. No one was really using wah-wah pedals in their songs at that time. I used that all over Diamond Life.

How long did it take to record the songs for the album?

Robin Millar

It took about six weeks from top to bottom.

As you look back on the album 30 years later, how do feel about the long lasting impact it has made on popular culture?

Robin Millar

I was in Parliament three months ago. I was invited to a private event by the United Nations. It had nothing to do with Sade. I went into the Parliament building and there were a few other music people there. I was there with a very old friend and he asked, “Isn’t this your old piano, Robin?” I said, “Yeah. That’s my old Steinway piano that I sold.”

When I sold my studio in 1990 to Parliament, the piano was to be used by the Speaker of the House, it was a woman then and in her private chambers and that’s where we were. I sat down and I just played the first four bars of “Your Love is King,” and I busted into tears in front of all these VIPs because I recognized the sound of the piano.

My partner, she said to me, “I’ve never asked you, because we go all over the world, Robin, we go to Argentina and African townships, check into hotels and go across the street to a café to get a bite to eat and within 40 seconds ‘Smooth Operator’ comes on the sound system. How do you feel?” I told her, “I felt relief and an extraordinary sense of gratitude that for all the things I could’ve possibly been connected to over the years, it’s this album.”

I don’t know if you may think this is rubbish, but I think it’s the best soul record that Britain has ever put out. I think, it’s probably the coolest record that ever came out of this country in an endearing sense. To not just be involved in something that successful – but something that has stayed that cool – has been a real joy and honor. How fortunate can I be that people still remember this record 30 years later? Universally, there just isn’t a downside to it. It’s just extraordinary the place this record has with people.

By Chris Williams on November 27, 2014

On a different note