Although the first record he ever bought was the Isley Brothers’ classic Twist and Shout, it was the pop music of female vocalists, as well as their dramatic productions and fierce arrangements, that fed Vandross creativity, propelled his passion and inspired him to become more than just a studio voyeur looking over the greener grass.
Growing-up in the Smith Houses projects on lower Manhattan, Luther began, as do we all, as a fan. My friends and I would sit in our apartments listening to music to music and daydreaming about the singers we loved, Vandross explained to me in 1996, the first time we met. Writing the bio for the then-new Your Secret Love album, we were in a luxurious hotel penthouse in midtown Manhattan.
We wondered what it was like backstage at an Aretha Franklin concert or wonder if Diana Ross and Aretha, since they were both from Detroit, went to lunch together and then got their nails done. That would be the kind of stuff going through our minds.
Although Vandross was the President of the Patti LaBelle fan club, and even had the pleasure of meeting his idol at the Apollo, it was witnessing the understated power of Dionne Warwick that really knocked him off of his feet. She was the opening act for the Shirelles, but Id never heard of her before, he said. She was striking and, when she opened her mouth to sing, I was like a young painter seeing Picasso or Matisse for the first time. Dionne Warwick went on stage and, from that moment, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
In a long career that stretched from being a session singer in the early seventies to being a real superstar until his premature death in 2005, Luther crafted majestic original material that includes Never too Much, The Night I Fell in Love and Dance With My Father, but the brother also covered songs in a way that put most of his contemporaries to shame while also schooling the youngster.
Indeed, the same way that Luther once sat in the audience of the Fox Theater in Brooklyn watching Dionne Warwick performing the tragic romance of Anyone Who Has a Heart, which he remade for Give Me the Reason (1986), El DeBarge told me in 2001, When DeBarge was on the road with Luther, he taught us the ropeshow to breath and go out onstage and be a natural. Id observe him, listen to that pure voice, and it was obvious that he was singing from the heart.
Heart was something that meant a lot to Luther and he followed his, along with his talent, to the pinnacle of show biz success. Putting in the hard work, Luther practiced with friends, sang on various sessions, harmonized about numbers on Sesame Street and toured with David Bowie, Bette Midler and Roberta Flack. I had decided from the beginning that I wouldnt have a Plan B to fall back on. I knew all the rejection would be temporary. I refused to stop pursuing my dreams simply because other didnt think I was worthy of a career.
After his friend and fellow session singer Yvonne Lewis invited him to sing with a group of studio musicians calling themselves Change, his world turned upside down. At first I was only supposed to sing backgrounds. Then I was asked to sing lead on two songs, Searching and Glow of Love. Later, when I started hearing those songs played on the radio and my name attached to the project, I knew I had to finish my demo tape and shop for a deal.
Like many New York City kids who grew-up in the sixties listening to AM radio, the music of Burt Bacharach and Hal Davis songs (I Say a Little Prayer, Whats New Pussycat, Close to You) were so prevalent during that era that there was no escaping their influence. An alternative to the teenage rebellion, lust and drugs of the British Invaders, the music was sophisticated and orchestral with lyrics that were honest and angst-filled; Vandross was addicted.
Those producers and songwriters of that period were like tailors who created custom dresses for their artists, Vandross said in 1996. By then, hed done his own versions of Anyone Who Had a Heart and The Windows of the World, but it was his lushly expressive and epically arranged A House Is Not a Home that was one of his shining moments as a pop interrupter.
Hell, even Dionne Warwick, who first recorded the track in 1964 when Luther was eight, has said that his was the definitive version. In 2001, Warwick told me, Any song of mine that Luther covered, he preserved the integrity of the song, yet he made it his own.
In addition to the Bacharach and David ditties, Vandross was also a true fan of Motown. Whether it was his duet with Mariah Carey on Endless Love or riffing on a Stevie Wonder number, those tiny Motor City studios were also a part of Luthers fantasy world when he was a teenager.
There are certain songwriters you can always depend on, he told me. Folks like Stevie, Smokey Robinson and Ashford & Simpson are a few of them. Although he didnt include Marvin Gaye on the list, without a doubt his cover of If This World Were Mine, the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell ballad that he recorded with Cheryl Lynn in 1982 has always been a stand-out. Their lustful rendition of the song, with its slower tempo, was the difference between teenage first love and a passionate adult affair.
Seeing Vandross and Lynn perform the song on Soul Train back when Id just turned twenty, lets just say it spoke to more than my heart. The longing and soulfulness in their voices made the song a Quiet Storm smash, says Ericka Blount Danois, author of the Soul Train book Love, Peace and Soul. It was the eighties and things were moving fast, but when it was time to slow things down, Luther was the love song requirement.
Nine years after his death, Luther Vandross remains one of soul and pops premier vocalists who also reshaped every song he covered with the beauty of a pure artiste. Im not really concerned with what my peers are doing, he said in 1996. All I can do is what my ear tells me to do. When it came to making over songs, nobody did it quite like Luther Vandross.
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), DAngelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales writes the weekly column Vintage Vision for Ebony.com, blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com and Twitters @gonzomike.