Happy 35th Anniversary to Sade’s debut album Diamond Life, originally released July 16, 1984.
On January 16, 1959 an icon for the ages entered the world—she just didn’t know it yet.
Helen Folasade Adu was born to Adebisi Adu—a Nigerian lecturer—and Anne Hayes—an English nurse; she was the second child conceived by this interracial couple residing in Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria, undoubtedly a remarkable origin given the period. When Adu and Hayes’ marriage fractured four years after their daughter’s birth, Hayes relocated back to the United Kingdom with her children, settling first in Colchester and later in Holland-on-Sea—two areas of Essex, England. Hayes did her best to give her son and daughter a normal upbringing and that structure allowed them to focus on whatever their passions might be; Adu’s interest centered around the plush lure of fashion.
For the young woman who would come to be known as Sade—a shortened version of her middle-name Folasade—London called to her and in pursuit of a higher education based in fashion, Adu enrolled in the venerated Saint Martin’s School of Art at 18. While Adu tasked away at her clothing design studies, another point of curiosity began to surface within her: music. It began innocuously with the Saint Martin’s student singing with Pride, an emergent and polite funk outfit popular in and around London at the very top of the 1980s.
Everything changed upon Adu forming a creative friendship with Pride’s dapper guitarist/saxophonist Stuart Matthewman. Adu and Matthewman began writing together and out of those scripting spells came the embryonic song shape of “Smooth Operator.”
Adu and Matthewman’s inevitable defection from Pride occurred in the first half of 1983; Adu’s activities at St. Martin’s ceased thereafter as well. Soon, the duo saw themselves expand to a proper group with the addition of keyboardist Andrew Hale and bassist Paul Denman. The artistic chemistry between Adu, Matthewman, Hale and Denman bonded the four youths right away and upon deciding to christen themselves after the namesake of their lead vocalist, the quartet got busy tightening up their live presentation.
By mid-1983, Sade had racked up several lauded showcases in London and one abroad in New York City. Record label intrigue reached a fever pitch in the wake of these performances and Sade eventually received a formal invitation to sign with Epic Records. Upon signing with the imprint, work commenced on their debut album Diamond Life with producer Robin Millar over a six-week span.
The nine-track song cycle is a sumptuous aural spread comprised of lithe funk (“Smooth Operator”), exotic jazz tones (“Your Love Is King”) and robust R&B (“Frankie’s First Affair”). A smart pack of session men provided support for Matthewman, Hale and Denman, however, it is their respective chops that give each track its own enthralling sonic radiance. Dovetailing between meticulousness and improvisation, the space between those two methods is where Sade’s trademark sophistication reveals itself on the steamy floor-filling black pop of “Hang on to Your Love” and the nimble soul of “I Will Be Your Friend.”
The entries contained on Diamond Life don’t just flout instrumental prowess, compelling song texts sit ensconced at the core of the arrangements and an identifiable vocal presence breathes life into them. Aside from a co-write credit from Ray St. John on “Smooth Operator,” a four-way split between the band members on the flashy “Cherry Pie,” and a cover of the social commentary chestnut “Why Can’t We Live Together?”—originally handled by the stateside singer Timmy Thomas in 1972—the remainder of Diamond Life leaped forward from the imaginations of Adu and Matthewman. Standing tall amongst the spicy rhythm sections, rich brass accompaniment and assorted percussion patterns of her musical brothers is Adu. She enchantingly straddles the divide between observation and active participation in every narrative gathered here.
Using her smoldering contralto as a seductive lead-in, Adu transfixes audiences before guiding them into the labyrinthine interior of the long player. Spotlighting two sides—the working-class fable of “When Am I Going to Make a Living?” and the erotic tragedy of “Sally”—both are stunning human-interest tales cast incomparably by Adu. On these pieces, and throughout Diamond Life, one could traverse a wealth of emotional experiences, from luxury to woe, lust to misery, opulence to redemption—it makes for thrilling listening that could strike a collective chord with blue and white collar crowds equally. It comes as no surprise then that “When Am I Going to Make a Living?” saw issuance as the second single from the then-forthcoming Diamond Life in May 1984 after “Your Love Is King,” which had impacted at British radio and retail in February.
When Diamond Life did finally arrive in stores in July of 1984, it made quite a splash. The record not only blew open an already vibrant rhythm and blues scene in the United Kingdom, it helped to center it as a dually dominant force capable of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with its American counterpart for decades to come. Further, Sade’s rise to prominence became living proof that a woman of color fronting a coterie of white male musicians could be a persuasive platinum seller as much as any of the antecedent English music exported to foreign shores.
The concluding singles from the LP, “Smooth Operator” and “Hang On to Your Love,” cemented Sade’s aptitude to cross class, race and gender barriers (globally) with their fluid R&B style. In an era of hair bands, adult contemporary superstars, hip-hop emcees, androgynous pop figures and titans of the video age, Sade showed that they could compete on a cramped playing field and find a space for themselves.
With five more acclaimed studio recordings having come since Diamond Life, Sade’s international reputation is undiminished. Still, the darker resonance and romance of Diamond Life is as powerful as it was thirty-five years ago when taken on its own merits, separate from Sade’s other projects. Inspiring and enrapturing to any and all who encounter it, the classic appeal of this effort will continue to endure amid the finite trends that are part and parcel of today’s manic music marketplace.