A DECADE before Cathy Hughes created the Quiet Storm radio format at Howard University's WHUR-96.3, one exemplar of that ultra-romantic genre could occasionally be found honing his craft in Washington clubs. Oddly, it wasn't Jon Lucien's rich, expressive baritone and soothing delivery that brought him to venues like Georgetown's Shadows in the mid-'60s. It was his bass playing for the Phoenix Singers, a trio that had been part of the Harry Belafonte Folk Singers.
By the mid-'70s, though, Lucien was front and center with his own music. He was a romantic balladeer whose lilting songs melded sensuous R&B, pop and smooth jazz with supple Caribbean and Brazilian rhythms -- a Quiet Tropical Storm, as it were. And it seemed a natural fit for the Virgin Islands native, born on the tiny island of Tortola and raised in St. Thomas.
How Lucien became a cornerstone Quiet Storm figure illustrates the vagaries of the music business: except for the intervention of a Catskills comedian, he might never have left home.
"I was down in the Virgin Islands, playing bass in clubs," Lucien recalled, "when I met Dick Richard, a burlesque comedian who also played very good jazz piano in a club called the Black Patch. I would leave from my gig after we were through and sit in and play with him.
"When Dick got back to America, he wrote me a letter asking me if I'd like to come play for the summer in the Catskills," Lucien continues. "I was 19, and I flew up and met him at the airport and we drove to Staten Island, where he lived. And the following day, we drove up to the Catskills, which seemed like it took forever. I'd never driven so long in one drive in my life!"
Tortola is all of 21 square miles.
"I said, 'When are we going to get there?,' and Dick would say, 'It's just a little hop, skip and a jump -- another hour and a half!' "
Lucien ended up settling in New York, playing bass in bands that performed at weddings and bar mitzvahs, and very occasionally flexing his voice.
"I was always singing, but I never took it seriously," he explains. "I was doing somebody's wedding on Long Island when I met a guy named Ernie Altschuler, who used to be with Columbia, producing Tony Bennett back in the day. He'd moved over to RCA and when he heard me sing, he gave me his card and told me to come look for him. It was just random luck, I guess."
Lucien made his RCA debut in 1970 with "I Am Now," and while the record introduced America to his sophisticated crooning, it also presaged a career's worth of production and marketing stumbles. Lucien, still playing bass, had gone into the studio with pianist Stanley Rubinstein and drummer Bobby Scott, wedding bandmates who happened to be excellent musicians, and cut a spare debut before Horace Ott came in behind them and overly sweetened the arrangements with strings. The album was mostly covers, except for "Find Yourself a Lover."
His followup album, "Rashida," was mostly originals, including such fan favorites as "Lady Love," "Would You Believe in Me" and the title track. But nobody could figure out how to sell it.
"There was a lack of vision, especially when we did the 'Rashida' album," Lucien says. "Everybody was saying, 'What do we call this music?'
"I said, 'It's music.'
" 'But we've got to call it something! It's not jazz, it's not R&B, but it has that in there.'
"And I said, 'Yes, because it's music! Why does it have to have a label?' "
The singer's final RCA album, 1974's "Mind's Eye," echoed his first, with Lucien's simple initial recordings filled out after the fact by arranger Dave Grusin.
None of the RCA albums, and none of the follow-ups for Columbia and Mercury, effectively captured Lucien's mesmerizing presence, and they didn't fully take advantage of the Caribbean undercurrents in his music.
"The producers I was working with thought I should just do quiet things," he says. "But I come from the Virgin Islands and I always had a lot of rhythm in my music. As a matter of fact, [on 1975's "Song for My Lady" album] the music was hot, but by the time those guys finished watering it down, it sounded like we were wearing tuxedos when we were recording. All the basic energy of the rhythms was knocked out of there."
Lucien's recording travails were bad enough, but in 1980, his baby daughter drowned in a pool and he abandoned both music and the States for the rest of the decade. "I went back to the Virgin Islands, thinking, 'Let me just go home and get myself in a safe place and be with my parents,' " he says. "While I was there, I met my [current] wife, Delisa; we married and went to live in Puerto Rico for nine years."
That's where a young Mercury executive who happened to be a fan of the old recordings found Lucien in 1991 and persuaded him to resume his recording career with "Listen Love" and 1993's "Mother Nature's Son." Old problems quickly resurfaced, including trying to force him into an R&B straitjacket.
"The thing that puzzled me is they knew what I did," Lucien says. "Yet every time I'd write and start doing material for the sessions, everybody would say, 'Let's do a record like this guy, like that guy.' And I'd say, 'Isn't it true that this guy already exists? Why you want me to sound like him? I came here with my own originality, so why should we try to sound like someone else?' "
Which explains why Lucien finally started his own label, Sugar Apple.
"I was old enough to decide enough is enough," he says. "On my own albums, I've added more of the Caribbean rhythm to that sophistication of melodies and chord changes and I'm just being myself completely, using all the experiences that I've had in music."
Lucien's first effort was "Lucien Romantico" two years ago, and he's just released a follow-up, "Man From Paradise." The albums are available in some retail stores, on the Web and, often, at his gigs.
"If I can get the music to my fans, that's enough for me," Lucien says. "I don't need to be number one."
Some of that spirit was undoubtedly inspired by the intriguing phenomenon that occurred in England in the mid-'90s, when '70s albums by Lucien and fellow traveler Terry Callier were reissued on British labels and quickly embraced by acid-jazz fans and soul revivalists.
"The two of us, over there, we're champions," Lucien says with a delighted roar. "When I first toured over there [after the revival], I went up to Brighton and walked into a large club and there were people all over the place! I thought there was some special party going on!"
When the band stepped on stage at showtime, "everybody was standing up -- there was no seats, and it looked like a bunch of sardines just standing! And these people were calling out all these songs that I'd done. I looked at my percussionist [Myra Caseles], and said 'What's happening?'
"We felt like the Beatles!"
The revival wasn't quite as fervent stateside, but Lucien has managed to keep working, despite another personal tragedy: His 17-year-old daughter, Delila, was killed in the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800. The following year, Lucien dedicated his "Endless Is Love" album to Delila and the other passengers on that flight.
He has also dealt with his own health issues.
"I don't want to lie: I am a dialysis patient, but one would never know it," Lucien says with a hearty laugh. "That's because I don't let the problem keep me down. It's like a job that I have -- I do it three times a week and when I'm out of there, I don't think about it any more. I'm on the list for a kidney transplant, and I do everything correctly so I don't have any problems. I'm light with the liquids, I eat the proper food and I take my medication like I'm supposed to, so I can walk around and act like a normal human being."
That kind of life-affirming spirit is at the heart of "The Best Is Yet to Come," a standard that has recently made its way into Lucien's repertoire, though he first learned it almost 40 years ago.
"I met [composer] Cy Coleman before I ever came to America," Lucien says. "He used to come down to the Virgin Islands and was friendly with Marty Clark, so I played with him. When I did, I was playing in keys that I didn't even know existed because I was still a youth learning by ear. But Cy Coleman gave me a lesson for two weeks; by the time I was finished with him, I could play anything anybody threw at me."
Including, eventually, a song that talks about keeping hope alive in tough times.
Says Lucien: "I'm not going anywhere until the Lord wants me."
JON LUCIEN -- Appearing Friday through Sunday at Blues Alley. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Jon Lucien, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)