Danielle A. Jackson | Longreads | March 2019 |7 minutes (1,794 words)
In a photo dated September 1983, my father stands alone, 30ish, and relaxed, with arms akimbo and a slight belly bulge on a porch outside Superior Baths in Hot Springs, Arkansas. In another image with the same timestamp, my mother reclines on a pink-framed bed and paints her nails. I’d call her posture dainty, how she holds her head at an angle, crosses one bare leg over the other. It is obviously shot by her lover. Before finding this memento of their getaway as an adult, in my mother’s apartment after my father died, I had only my own existence as proof they’d ever been romantic with each other.
I also had incomplete, fragmented memories that felt sharp, scattered about my mind like bits of glass. They are records of fact, but also, possibly, my imagination: a blue light of something lost yet unnamed and refracted back to me. In one, I stand near the front door of our first home as my parents, far away, on the other side of the room, embrace with hips and arms touching. I peek at them above the piece of newspaper I have found to hide my face. The heat of their embrace embarrasses me; their smiles seem private and new. In the other, they slow dance on our fluffy green shag carpet, but I cannot recall what music they dance to.
When I think of my father back then, the Luther Vandross album, Never Too Much comes to mind. Luther wears a leather jacket on the cover, opened to reveal a crisp white shirt and a grin that reaches his watery eyes and creases his forehead. It was his solo debut, after years composing, producing, arranging, and singing backup for, among many, David Bowie, Chic, and Roberta Flack. Luther’s weight fluctuated during those years. He battled hypertension and diabetes and tried to manage it by managing his waistline. Through his first decade of solo success, when records like, “Any Love,” and “So Amazing,” and “Anyone Who Had a Heart” burned through car stereos on my street, his weight was the subject of loving jokes from his fans. Big Luther’s voice was better, sexier, more supple than little Luther’s, people would say.
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My father’s weight went up and down during those years, too. When we were closest, he was merely portly, but he smoked and drank cans of Pepsi in rapid succession. This worried me, so with my mother’s help, I made a case for him to quit cigarettes. “Maybe you could eat more oranges instead,” I told him. Time passed and he became so obese it wore down his femurs, and he had difficulty walking a long block without losing his breath.
My Uncle Frank was a glamorous gay man who lived in California and worked as a hairdresser and stylist to many people in show business. Before he died in the mid-80’s, he told us Luther was gay, too. It was a rumor we held as truth and made space for without using language we would today, like “coming out” or “in the closet.” We assumed Luther knew longing. We knew his performances were made of great skill, but recognized in them something so tender and familiar, we speculated the personal stories that must have lived underneath.
* * *
When I fell in love in my 20s, “Never Too Much,” the single, made me dance an ecstatic two step whenever a DJ played a set of R&B from my parents’ time. My college boyfriend J. was the pride of black upwardly mobile DC — the local paper profiled him when he won a hefty scholarship to university. J. was more like me than many of the friends I made — I, too, was paying for college with lots of prayers and an academic scholarship. We spent entirely too much time together; for a while, I liked living without boundaries. “Never Too Much,” an uptempo song of romantic abandon, was us. Marcus Miller’s bass is warm and ebullient, but mostly, it’s Luther’s phrasing that propels it. He sings every line into the next like it’s all one sentence, a single breathless enjambment. I remember joy in the moments we danced, but I now believe the source of my joy was the full experience of sensation dancing and falling in love gave me permission to have.
Luther’s cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “A House is Not a Home,” is the most enduring single from his debut. Kanye built a number one hit out of it in 2003, and it remains a staple on The Quiet Storm with Lenny Green, a syndicated show that runs out of New York’s WBLS on weekdays from 7pm to midnight. The most recent night I listened, they played New Birth’s “Wildflower,” released in 1973, then Guy’s “Goodbye, Love,” from 1988, which led into the Jackson 5’s 1970 Motown single, “I’ll Be There.” Then came Xscape’s recording of “Who Can I Run To,” an R&B #1 in 1995, and Ella Mai’s “Trip,” released just last August.
Before finding this memento of their getaway as an adult, in my mother’s apartment after my father died, I had only my own existence as proof they’d ever been romantic with each other.
Green has been on WBLS since 1997, but Melvin Lindsey and Cathy Hughes at DC’s WHUR, the Howard University affiliated station, created the Quiet Storm format in 1976. Hughes was managing the station and needed a replacement DJ. Lindsey, then an intern and Howard student, filled in, bringing records his family owned. The segment proved immediately popular, and when he graduated, Lindsey came on full time. It was a striver’s music, created specifically to reach the growing Black middle class of DC and its suburbs. Hughes had taken the name for the format from Smokey Robinson’s 1975 album, A Quiet Storm, which opens with soft, howling wind, flutes, congas and a cooing vocal, suggesting, Pitchfork wrote, “a deeper metaphysical connection between two intimate lovers.” It was definitely for people like my parents, who’d become adults in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and civil rights legislation that changed the kind of work they had access to, but didn’t go far enough to protect them from the vulnerability a society stratified by race guarantees. My father climbed up the ranks with the state of Arkansas, while my mother worked at a city-funded hospital. Both knew what it felt like to dutifully train the new, younger white man who would eventually become the boss. They were people who deserved to relax after a long day.
Between my early childhood and my first adult romance, something about the soft, lovelorn cuts gave me comfort, too. At some point, I found a tape my sister made of Keith Sweat and Jacci McGhee’s “Make It Last Forever” — just that sole track, playing on repeat on both sides. Sweat’s lead vocal is sweet, vulnerable — it’s the first piece of music I remember giving me a physical reaction, a warm feeling, a fluttering. Now, probably because it was my older sister who brought it to me, who’d made the tape in the throes of her own early college romance, it sounds like what I imagine adolescence to sound like: rough at its edges, yielding and tentative deep inside.
* * *
Late in 1994, Madonna’s album Bedtime Stories came out. It had smooth, moody pop-R&B songs like “Take a Bow” and “Secret,” and songwriters Babyface, Dallas Austin, and R. Kelly were at the helm. The next year, the Whitney Houston-led film adaptation of Terry McMillan’s novel Waiting to Exhale released, and Babyface wrote most of the soundtrack. It was a commercial success, and with slow grooves from Whitney, Toni Braxton, Faith, Chante Moore, and SWV, an homage to the slow jam. In some ways, so was the film. In its first few seconds, we hear the low, dulcet voice of an actor playing a Quiet Storm DJ. We hear him again at the film’s ending, framing events in the lead characters’ lives over the course of a single year. I was 14 when the film came out and didn’t share the heroines’ middle-aged love panic, but they were glamorous and aspirational, and the story’s main romance seemed to be the one between the characters, the friendships among the women. In turn, the strain of black pop on the album, one of many pivotal 90s film soundtracks that made an imprint and endure, created a mood, an ambiance that was soothing, a place from which to have conversations and communion with my own friends. In letters we circulated between classes, in bleary eyed late-night phone conversations about our fears, we lived with each other, we lived with the music.
The term “slow jam” became widely popular when a song performed by Midnight Star and written by a young Babyface came out in 1983. Midnight Star was a slick funk band heavy into synths, and “Slow Jam,” a cut from the album No Parking on the Dance Floor, was a duet. The male narrator “asks” a partner for “her hand” and for the party’s deejay to play another slow jam / this time make it sweet. Brenda Lipscomb, the woman narrator, consents. It’s a forthright demand for intimacy, for private time, in a public setting.
It was definitely for people like my parents, who’d become adults in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and civil rights legislation that changed the kind of work they had access to, but did not go far enough to protect them from the vulnerability a society stratified by race guarantees.
Obviously, “slow jams,” the sentiment and request inherent in them, both precede and extend beyond Midnight Star. My mother remembers swoony slow dances to Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” and “blue light” basement parties in Chicago during her adolescence in the 50s and 60s. She said the psychedelic lighting in tight spaces made the parties feel sexy. Smokey Robinson was one in a constellation of artists who made sensualist soul music in the 70s. The best singers know all about tone modulation, but Minnie Riperton, Syreeta, and Deniece Williams mastered a style of vocalizing that often settled into a soft hum or murmur. You can hear them in the colors and emotional frequencies Janet Jackson, Aaliyah, and Solange tap into in their recordings.
These soft, tender soundscapes are, for me, tightly woven with images of black intimacy. Of two black people tuning into themselves and each other. When my mother paints the picture with her memories, when Kerry James Marshall paints a dance in a lived-in room — they are images that demand humanity in a way we may not realize is a demand. They insist on the body, on its flesh and blood. They gather and soothe the nervous system. They allow for a tender masculinity. They are obsessed with survival, generations, and continuity.
We slow dance, or attempt any kind of social dance, less these days. I think that’s why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s dance videos made us stir. The comfort and delight she took in her body were, for some, profane, the antitheses of how a leader should comport herself. And yet, I do not need to return to any era that came before this one. There is no idealized black past: women and queer people have suffered too much for too long at the hands of those we love. This isn’t even about romantic love; it is about the impulse. This is a reminder that our desires for sweetness and connection are and have always been a salve. The urge means we are not dead inside.