Paul S. Denman: Sade's Groove Operator

I ENJOY BEING A COG IN the machine,” says Paul S. Denman regarding his 30-year stint with sultry songstress Sade.

"I enjoy being a cog in the machine,” says Paul S. Denman regarding his 30-year stint with sultry songstress Sade. On bottom-bobbing hits like “Smooth Operator,” “Paradise,” “Cherry Pie,” “Never as Good as the First Time,” and “Turn My Back on You,” Denman joined Sting, Pino Palladino, and John Taylor to launch the wave of in-your-face bass that emanated from England in the earlyto- mid 1980s. Over the years, Paul has pared down his plucking process, as evidenced by his deep, minimalist grooves on Sade’s lauded latest, Soldier of Love. “Mainly, I see myself as a song helper, pushing the music along,” he offers.

Born in Hull, England, in 1957, Denman had an acoustic guitar by age 12, but dug the “cool, background look of the bass player.” A year later, after strapping on a friend’s bass and feeling a connection, he bought a Vox bass and began playing along with records featuring the rumble of Trevor Bolder (David Bowie), Colin Hodgkinson (Back Door), and Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath). Exploration of ’70s punk, funk, and fusion followed, and by the time he moved to London in 1980, Denman was more than ready to replace the bassist in Pride, an R&B/soul band that included Nigerian-born Sade Adu as a backup vocalist. It was a smaller splinter group—with Sade, Denman, guitarist/saxophonist Stuart Matthewman, and drummer Paul Cooke— that turned heads via its sparse sound, and eventually got signed to Epic. Cooke split, keyboardist Andrew Hale came onboard, and the band’s 1984 debut disc, Diamond Life, was a global smash. Since then, the four members have been equal partners in the sophisti-pop staple known as Sade.

How has your approach evolved over 30 years?
Early on, being young and eager, I was more outfront— slapping and taking solos live. Robin Millar and Mike Pela, our producer and engineer at the time, liked what I was doing, and they encouraged me to step forward and try ideas. However, I hadn’t really learned how to hear a song or listen to what the others were doing; that came with time and maturity. As the years rolled on, I started to get more into dub and reggae, using off-beats and playing less, and it fit with Sade’s melodies really well. I’m always listening to the melody; I won’t play anything without the melody in my head, because I don’t want to get in the way with some insignificant fill. Now, I’d rather play one note for three minutes than trample on somebody’s feet with two. You eventually learn to find your pocket, and sometimes that pocket is filled with space.

How do you come up with your bass lines?
They always come from a beat; Stuart or Andrew puts a up a beat and plays some chords, and I feel something and start to play along. Then they tell me whether they like it or not; we’re very critical and honest with each other, which is good because it forces me to figure out other ways to approach the part. Then Sade will come in and sing over the top of it, and I’ll change everything! There’s always a point where a lot of bass is going on while we’re getting the groove, and then she starts singing and suddenly there’s not a lot of bass—I pull everything back. Ultimately, I play what I think best fits the melody and rhythms coming from the others, and I try to play every note from the heart, with 110 percent conviction.

What has kept the band together, even through long periods between albums?
We still have a hunger and thirst to do what we do, and we all really love and respect each other as people. This had been a long layoff, and I’m not sure why; we can only make an album when we feel the time is right. Our songs are not written until we all get together, and if you take one of us out it just doesn’t work, so it can be an extended process. During this last downtime, I stayed busy managing and touring with my son’s [bassist /vocalist Joe Dexter Denman] punk band, Orange. That helped me reconnect with the passion of it all and come back fresh for Soldier of Love. When people ask me to describe the album, I tell them it’s just the sound of four people being really honest.


On the opening bars of Sade’s Latin-flavor hit “Smooth Operator” [from Diamond Life], Paul S. Denman digs into a montuno-like descending line like the one shown in Ex. 1. Later in the tune, Denman kicks off a stirring solo by making ample use of quarter-note triplets, like in Ex. 2. To expand your groove consciousness, program a drum machine or sequencer to click a 2:3 clave rhythm and make up some triplet-heavy lines of your own.

Denman’s chilled-out, quasi-Brazilian samba groove on “The Sweetest Taboo” [Promise] is approximated in Ex. 3. The line is beautifully simple, but don’t be fooled—fail to lock with the strong backbeat in the drums and the groove goes from sweet to sour in short order.

On Sade’s sultry shuffle “Please Send Me Someone to Love” (from the 1994 Soundtrack to the film Philadelphia), Denman supports the swing with big notes, carving little pockets for snare cracks to sit, much like in Ex. 4. While the first two bars of the phrase have a tight feel, the second two open up with longer notes. —Brian Fox


Basses ’79 Music Man StingRay (purchase inspired by Bernard Edwards of Chic); Gretsch Broadkaster bass; 1920 Anton Schroetter upright
Strings Rotosound Swing Bass (.040–.100)
Amps Trace Elliott AH350 head and 1518 cabinet
Recording Soldier of Love Direct via Avalon U5, with Moog MF-105B Bass MuRF at times


With Sade (all on Epic) Soldier of Love [2010], Lovers Live [2002], Lovers Rock [2000], Love Deluxe [1992], Stronger Than Pride [1988], Promise [1985], Diamond Life [1984]. With Sweetback (both on Epic) Stage [2] [2004], Sweetback [1996].