This was written by lead singer Sade Adu and Ray Saint John, who was a member of Sade's previous band Pride. The song is about a fashionable man who lives a jet-set lifestyle. He's very popular with the ladies, and breaks a lot of hearts in his travels. With the lyrics, "Across the north and south, to Key Largo, love for sale," it's implied that the women he uses also supply his wealth. It's also clear that he does not return the affections of these women, as Sade sings near the end, "His heart is cold."
Julien Temple directed the video, which finds Sade singing in a nightclub as a shady deal goes down. Most viewers saw the 4:15 version, but an extended version was also made. Running 8:30, that one has dialogue, a chase scene, and a man falling to his death.
"Smooth Operator" was the breakout hit in America for Sade, who were based in England. Their debut album, Diamond Life, was first issued in 1984 in the UK, where "Smooth Operator" was the third charting single. In the US, the album was released in 1985, with "Hang On To Your Love" as the first single. It went nowhere, but the next single, "Smooth Operator," rose to #5 and earned the group a reputation as an exotic soulful act with a captivating frontwoman.
Despite the cold-hearted lyric, this song is often used to imply a romantic encounter. It played a big part in the Season 12 Big Bang Theory episode, "The Procreation Calculation," where the lovelorn character Stuart plays it during his seductions after he finally lands a girlfriend.
This was a #1 Adult Contemporary hit for Sade, who topped that chart again with "The Sweetest Taboo
." In America, but songs benefited from airplay on VH1, the adult-leaning music video channel launched in 1985.