When Melvin Lindsey closed out his last edition of "The Quiet Storm" on WHUR-FM (96.3) recently, he signed off with the "Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me," a sentimental anthem from Gladys Knight. Its mournful, romantic mood is the kind that made Lindsey an endearing and enduring part of Washington evenings for the past nine years:
I guess you could say I've been lucky.
I guess you could say that it's all because of you.
If anyone should ever write my life story,
For whatever reason there might be,
You'll be there between each line of pain and glory . . . -- Jim Weatherly
"I thought, 'What song expresses how I feel? About the time I've been at WHUR and the things that are happening to me now?' " said Lindsey, a few days after his emotional -- but temporary -- farewell. In November he moves over to WKYS-FM (93.9). "I thought of my favorites -- Luther Vandross, Diana Ross, Patti La Belle and Stevie Wonder. And I said, 'This song says it all.' "
When he signed off there was a collective choke from listeners, especially the show's large female audience for whom Lindsey and his music had become over the years a romantic fantasy, a surrogate lover, someone to stay home with every night.
Lindsey said he himself wiped away a few tears.
"It was amazing I was able to do the show. I asked everyone to clear the studio at quarter to midnight because I had to be alone and get my thoughts together. I think I must have cried a thousand times before that night."
Now Lindsey has packed up the moody magic that made him the runaway leader in Washington's evening listening. After a three-month hiatus he will try to duplicate his success on WKYS, one of WHUR's rivals, with a five-year, million-dollar contract, one of the richest in local radio. "I am going at it with everything I've got," said Lindsey, his voice bouncing energy and sunshine off the walls of his brown, black and beige condominium. On vacation for the moment is his studio persona, the reluctant intruder in a quiet, candle-lit room.
Sitting in his own living room, decorated with French poster art and musical symbols, Lindsey glowed in the freedom of down time. This is the first extended vacation he has had since he started working in his father's store in Oxon Hill when he was 8. He plans a trip to London. He also expects to keep up the swimming and racquetball that have helped him whittle 20 pounds from his 6-foot, 190-pound frame in the past year. Now he looks photograph-ready, his hair a short thick brush of coal, his thick eyebrows and mustache expressive splashes across a honey-smooth face.
Lindsey, 30, is one of Washington's more visible young success stories -- a grocer's son schooled locally from West Elementary through Howard University who stayed around to make his mark and money in a highly competitive industry. He's also one of a new wave of disc jockeys, educated as well as street-smart, equipped with management skills as well as microphone talents, and a departure from those known by an explosive, flashy style that overwhelms the music. Lindsey spoke few words on the air and developed his program's trademark electricity through choice of songs and tone. He said his quiet style developed because he was shy. "I never wanted to be a star," he said.
Lindsey's visibility and success also grow out of the special role many disc jockeys play in their local communities, riding the radio's illusion of intimacy beyond electronic companionship to civic prominence. "They have a vehicle to get to the masses, to get well known. The public looks up to them and they become role models," said promoter Bill Washington. "Especially Melvin, who has a very good, clean and honest image. He represents a high degree of integrity."
For Lindsey, this has translated into a wide range of extra-radio activities -- about 10 appearances a month -- from speeches at local schools and civic organizations to charity fundraisers (the American Cancer Society and the United Negro College Fund are his prime concerns) to lucrative roles emceeing live concerts, which for someone like Lindsey can bring in $600 a night. This summer he added several thousand dollars in pocket change as the local spokesman for Budweiser beer.
He said he remains ambivalent, however, about his role as a semi-celebrity: "It was hard for me to relate to all that. I never idolized anyone on the radio." Still, he's learned to live with recognition. "If I go to the grocery store, I can pretty well guarantee someone coming up and saying, 'Aren't you Melvin Lindsey?' " he said. That "makes me feel good . . . If I am not in the mood to receive that kind of feedback, I stay home."
Part of the ambivalence may arise from the nature of Lindsey's on-the-air personality -- that of the soft-spoken alter ego for some 220,500 listeners each night, not all of whom want to distinguish between radio and real life. "Everyone needs to be drawn to something in forms of entertainment, in forms of fantasy," he said. "And I'm safe. I'm not advocating drug use or any silly thing."
He has, however, chafed at the irony that has left his own dance card vacant from time to time, even while he's building the stuff of dreams for lonely people all over town. The combination of night hours broadcasting and daytime appearances left him with virtually no social life for a while. He tried luncheon dates but the now-gone 20 pounds appeared. Now he's cut back on weekend obligations and intends to "make time" for his personal life. When interviewed for a television report on his departure from WHUR, he stretched out his arms to all those ladies beyond the camera and shouted "I'm available!"
The roots of Lindsey's manner and success took hold in the Petworth neighborhood near 15th and Decatur NW, where he was born the youngest of six children.
When it was time for Melvin and an older sister to go to college, his father ended a brief retirement to work in the Howard University registrar's office so the children would receive the free education given to children of university staff.
The elder Lindsey describes a son who was "an average boy, having a tendency to be mischievous but not destructive. He was always studying. On the way home from the store, he memorized all the presidents and their wives."
While his father trained him to industry, his mother opened his eyes to the cultural world. When she could afford it, she would take the whole family on the bus downtown to the National Theatre. The music of Frank Sinatra was a constant around the house.
When Lindsey was 14, his father sold the store and the son went to work as a handyman at the family's church. "I also read scripture at all the funerals," said Lindsey. "Maybe that was my first taste of announcing, getting up in front of the microphone and reading scripture over dead bodies." In his spare time he listened to WPGC-FM and WOL-AM (1450) and developed what he calls a "fanatical" taste for the Beatles.
Lindsey can't remember exactly where the idea of a career in the media started. At West Elementary, MacFarland and Deal Junior High schools and Wilson Senior High, he was always chosen to give assembly speeches. At Wilson he enrolled in a work-study program that landed him an internship with "Panorama," the daily interview show on Channel 5, and for 10 months he soaked up the broadcasting environment of competition, excitement and creativity.
"At Channel 5 there were a lot of people who encouraged me. At the time the producer was Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld. I enjoyed working for her. I admired her drive and energy," he said. But the office politics behind the cameras turned him off.
"Maury Povich was hosting with Alice Travis," he remembered. "They used to have some of the biggest arguments. I was thinking, 'Wow, I don't ever want to find myself in this position.' There was just constant turmoil between the two of them." But he wasn't ready to steer clear of show business. When he was 17 he began working in the box office at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre, where he saw his first live concerts.
In his first year as a communications student at Howard, Lindsey caught the eye of Cathy Hughes, then the counselor for incoming freshmen, later general manager of WHUR and now owner of WOL. Lindsey organized a food project for needy families. "That kind of giving is inherent in his personality," said Hughes. But a close friend, Jack Shuler, remembers Lindsey also as a briefcase-toting candidate during a campus political campaign, "this straight, middle-class kind of kid" who "was always business" yet sought acceptance from those who weren't.
"He worried about his image," recalled Shuler, a telecommunications specialist with the Veterans Administration. "So he decided he wanted to be called Max. He tried to get everyone to call him that for six months because it sounded ordinary."
When Hughes moved over to the sales department at WHUR, she gave Lindsey a summer job as a general gofer. "In the advertising department, I saw the importance of ratings, I saw the rewards for good ratings. I saw the sales people did very well," Lindsey said. "At first I had wanted to be a journalist but then I saw these people were making really big bucks and I said, 'Let me find out about advertising.' "
One Sunday night in May 1976, Hughes, then at the helm of WHUR, needed a substitute deejay. She called Lindsey, who had never been inside a radio studio. Lindsey enlisted Shuler, a radio major who had a license and could run the board, and gathered some Isley Brothers, Delfonics and Spinners from his family's collection. "Go on the air?" Lindsey remembered thinking. "I said the call letters and a couple of times mentioned my name. The lines were flooded with calls. There must have been some kind of natural knack."
The title, which he isn't sure he will carry over to WKYS, developed the next day. "Cathy and her secretary, Tiza Gibson, said [I] ought to be 'The Quiet Storm.' Cathy said I was very quiet and I struck her like a storm, I surprised her like a storm," and they adopted a minor ballad of Smokey Robinson's for the theme. Initially "The Quiet Storm" ran on weekends, a part-time occupation for Lindsey who, remembered Hughes, was now thinking of being a lawyer. "But he was working for me as a baby sitter and an intern. So I could exert a whole lot of influence . . . I controlled two sources of his income," said Hughes. She convinced him that his future lay in broadcasting. He did take a break from WHUR, leaving the station the spring he finished at Howard with cum laude standing and a bachelor's degree in journalism to work in the promotions department at WKYS. When Lindsey returned to WHUR in November 1977, "The Quiet Storm" became a five-hour, nightly show.
Within a year the program was No. 1 in its time slot, beating out longtime major-domos like Felix Grant (WMAL-AM) and Uncle Johnny (WRQX-FM). The show routinely brought in the highest revenues for WHUR and helped pull the station from 20th place in the ratings war to a high of third last summer. And Lindsey, who started out with a salary of $12,000 a year, left earning six figures.
He had turned down feelers from other stations before, he said, but this time the opportunity was right. "I loved being at WHUR but obviously it is owned by Howard University and their main interest is education," Lindsey said. "WKYS is owned by NBC and broadcasting is their primary interest." He insisted internal politics at WHUR, where the general manager was fired in June, didn't influence his decision to leave. "The one beauty of working from 7 p.m. to midnight is that when you get to work everyone is gone. Sometimes I felt like I was self-employed. You don't get involved in the office politics. If there was a big shouting match that day, they are gone by the time I got there," he said.
The search for a successor won't be easy, said WHUR program director Jesse Fax. "What he developed and what is making it hard to replace him," Fax said, "is his class and sophistication."
The pattern of "The Quiet Storm" has been duplicated around the country. One New York station now devotes the entire day to love songs. And some aspects are easy to duplicate: 20-minute stretches of music, down from Lindsey's original 40, and very little talk. But what Lindsey produces is something rarer, the feel of an evening with a strong but gentle companion, combining standards like Sarah Vaughan's "The Long and Winding Road," Phyllis Hyman's "Somewhere in My Lifetime," Ashford & Simpson's "So, So Satisfied" and Patti La Belle's "Little Girls." He provides his audience with the illusion of a lengthy cuddle or a good cry.
Listeners would call to gripe if he moved the tempo up.
Leaning back into a suede couch, Lindsey thought about the formula of the show and concluded there isn't one. "There is an ear for blending music . . . Some can't wait to jump on the air and talk, talk, talk . . . But I feel if you don't have anything to say, why say it? The music is the star."
As Lindsey's ratings grew, so did his opportunities. He substituted on local television interview shows like "Good Morning Washington" on Channel 7 and "Morning Break" on Channel 9, and joined the staff of Channel 5's "P.M. Magazine" in April 1984.
"The Quiet Storm," however, remained his first priority, and the speeches at local schools a high second.
"I'm committed to giving students encouragement," he explained. "Melvin Lindsey attended public schools, Melvin Lindsey had dreams, is fulfilling those dreams. They can fulfill theirs and go beyond."
Though the milestone of their 30th year is when many people begin replanning their lives, Lindsey said he hasn't drawn up any master plan. But his nonplan now might include marriage. "I've been getting proposals lately," he said, laughing about his new million-dollar availability. "In the past few years marriage hasn't been a primary thing on my mind. I have always envisioned myself as an older parent. I don't want to put anyone else through any hell because I want to have a good time. Once I am finished having my good time, Melvin will be ready to settle down and take on those responsibilities."
But Lindsey knows whose style he is modeling his achievement on -- Diana Ross. Recently he went to Atlantic City just to see her perform. "She is my personal inspiration of somebody who knows what they want, goes after it, does it well and has had an ability to stay on top for years and years. That is something I look for myself. I have told everyone I have a plan of longevity. I never want to be a two-year flash, and then -- 'Wow, where is Melvin Lindsey?' "