If I Could Steal One Final Glance: The Mourning After Luther

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Posted April 22, 2013 by J Matthew Cobb in Features
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Seven years after the unfortunate death of Luther Vandross, the soul of R&B still feels lost

“If I could steal one final glance, one final step, one final dance with him/I’d play a song that would never, ever end” – Luther Vandross, lyrics from “Dance With My Father” (2003)

Promotional 1981 cover of Vandross’s debut solo single, “Never Too Much.”

On Saturday, April 21, 2013, Luther Vandross would have celebrated his 62nd birthday.

The ripples from Luther Vandross’s passing is still being felt years after his passing, particularly in the field of R&B he once dominated. And that’s a very tough bite of knowledge to chew since Vandross was still at the top of his craft, even while he fought for his life after recovering from a severe stroke in 2003. With rigorous rehabilitation, a praying mother and loved ones hoping for a speedy recovery, the R&B balladeer between 2003 and 2005 tried to find his voice and muse for music again. Unfortunately he lost his battle with life on July 1 at the age of 54. But even as his voice was silent in the recording universe, Dance With My Father – his last recorded album and one that he had just finished prior to the stroke – put him back on top of the food chain, winning him a posthumous Grammy for Song of the Year. The title cut, a tribute to his deceased father, went gold. While it stalled at number 38 pop, it managed to reach number on a host of radio stations across the country. It became one of the most requested songs of his career. When the album was released and became the number one album in the country on the Billboard 200, his management was in a state of shock. “It’s pretty amazing,” Carmen Romano, Vandross’s business manager, said.  “We’ve sold all of these records with barely any promotion. It’s a testament to the strength of the music.” Amazingly, Dance With My Father became Luther’s only No. 1 album of his career.

Trace Luther’s footsteps up the Top 40 and you’ll see he tried his best to reach the top. The soul singer did everything he could to try to become a crossover sensation, from losing the KFC weight to squaring off with Sony executives over their lack of promotion. There was even the Walter Afanasieff-produced Songs album, a move that focused on cover tunes and eased back on Vandross’s sexy soul. Most of his attempts brought him closer to the success he had been searching for, earning him platinum and gold certified albums along the way. Surprisingly enough, Vandross only landed twelve Top 40 singles in his lifetime. The highest he ever charted was number 2 pop with his duet with Mariah Carey on his remake of “Endless Love.” Meanwhile, Gregory Abbott had a platinum-certified No. 1 hit with “Shake You Down” and Billy Ocean had three No. 1 hits while at the peak of his powers. On the other hand, Luther – clearly the ambassador of R&B male singers throughout much of the Eighties and early ’90’s – never reached that kind of achievement. That’s a startling revelation considering that Vandross was an acolyte of the sophisticated vocal styles of Dionne Warwick and mirrored the soul of Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Patti LaBelle. He wrote, produced and arranged much of his own music, which allowed him to work on projects for Aretha, Dionne and another singing diva, Cheryl Lynn. On top of that, his team of jazz-loving musicians – including Nat Adderley, Jr. and Marcus Miller – made sure that his music was blessed with epiphanies of outstanding R&B and even traces of adult contemporary elegance. After all these years since his passing, the unsolved mysteries behind Vandross’s failed crossover attempts continue to stump music historians. Some have speculated that his questionable sexuality and being evasive from answering the big question limited him from pop star success, but that’s a laughable inquiry when you discover that Vandross helped give the gender-bending David Bowie a hit record with Young Americans back in 1975. The dubious eroticism of Michael Jackson and Prince – both pop stars of a higher galaxy – were also subjects of the tabloid kind.

Singer Luther Vandross with former RCA Music Group Chairman Clive Davis in 2004.

Today, his absence in a genre he once dominated is truly being felt by the legions of R&B and soul fans. Alicia Keys and John Legend are pretty good, but they aren’t even in the same league as Vandross. R. Kelly could be the last piece of Luther’s type of work ethic, since he produces, writes and arranges his own music. Lately, the R&B veteran has even dipped in the soul styling of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye for his Love Letter and Write Me Back albums, but the raunchy content found on his earlier stuff and his own mid-grade vocal style hinders him from reaching Luther-ness. Miguel and Frank Ocean, the youngest of the new R&B generation, are talented individuals who continue to bend the genre into a more stylistic and creative canvas allowing their other musical influences to weigh in on the matter, but Vandross remains in a league of his own.

“It was intimidating to stand next to him,” Mariah Carey told Rolling Stone. “Luther was incomparable — his voice was velvety, smooth, airy, with an unmistakable tone.” The popular magazine later praised Vandross by saying that “no singer made the Top 40 sound so intimate — often painfully so — as Luther Vandross.” After his passing, Reverend Jesse Jackson compared his legacy to another timeless great. “In the tradition of Nat Cole, he was a singular male voice,” he said. “He was an artist who brought a great sense of dignity to his art.”

In his ramblings over the decline or R&B music as a viable genre, music critic Nelson George saved the mention of Vandross for the last chapter in his 1988 book, “The Death of Rhythm & Blues.” He openly praises Vandross’s voice and his music, while also stating that his success had everything to do with the decline of the black music industry – especially as traditional black product labels like Motown, Stax and PIR withered away. George also mentioned that Vandross “put out albums without the aid of black retailers,” putting in the same league of black entertainers like Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson and Prince as being the black pop stars of the early Eighties who “relied on white figures for guidance.”

Luther’s longtime friend and lead backup singer, Fonzi Thornton also proclaimed him as an once-in-a-lifetime singer, saying Luther “really wanted to be known for the skill and the craftsmanship [and] for his ability as a singer. “There’s nobody that sings like him.”

And that’s what sets him apart from the league of soul singers that after him. No one sounds like him, not even close. His singing style, along with his devout affection for love songs and even his need to have a party using Chic-styled disco gems (“Never Too Much”) and gospel-spiced workouts (“The Power of Love/Love Power”), has its own copyright. It is one that’s deeply missed in today’s R&B and remains irreplaceable. And maybe it should be a crime for critics and music journalists to compare legends of Luther’s kind with the younger talent. It often seems unfair and downright silly. But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t do it. You can’t pinpoint an act of progress if you forget to acknowledge the goodness of yesterday. As long as we have Luther’s music, we have no other choice but to judge accordingly.

 

Luther’s Deep Cuts

Fans and devout followers of Luther know his big hits. They know them inside and out, from his perky ’80’s concert opener “Stop to Love” to the wedding favorite of “Here and Now.” Plus, the hits from his 13-album catalog remains in heavy circulation as Sony continues to pour out endless compilations of the same old song (the 2007 box set Love, Luther and 2012’s Hidden Gems are his most recent). There’s also countless background session work he lent to music greats like the Donna Summer/Barbara Streisand “Enough Is Enough” duet, or all the early work for Chic and Change. Still there are a host of overlooked gems in his repertoire which proves to newcomers of Luther’s music that he was pretty damn good at his craft, even when the world wasn’t paying close attention. Here’s just a handful of them.

Love Me Right
Aretha Franklin
from the album Jump to It (1982)

Vandross is so noticeable on this funky track from Franklin’s 1982 comeback album. You might as well call it a duet. Aretha holds her own vocally, even sing-rapping in the style of Luther’s “Never Too Much.” Had this been released at the height of disco, the Queen of Soul would have easily been pulling on Donna Summer’s coattails.

 

She Saw You
Luther Vandross
from the album Dance With My Father (2003)

Even on his last comeback album, Vandross left room for his longtime collaborator Marcus Miller to give him something nostalgic of his “It’s Over Now” roots, while exercising Teddy Riley-esque hip-hop beats that’s totally respectable to his level of legend. He even throws in a cute “creep, creep, creep” reference midway into the song, hearkening back to his memorable cover of Stevie’s “Creepin’.”

 

My Sensitivity (Gets In the Way)
Luther Vandross
from the album The Night I Fell in Love (1984)

The hit that got away from The Night I Fell in Love. Inside the feelgood crossover funk, Vandross’s wears his feelings on his sleeve: “I seem to fall in love with just the slightest touch/And even the little things begin to mean so much.” That kind of transparency allowed him to become so attractive to his army of female fans.

 

For You to Love
Luther Vandross
from the album Any Love (1988)

Vandross orchestrates a sexy dreaminess using whispery background coos, Paulinho DaCosta percussion and breezy Cali synths. It’s the kind of midtempo balladery that allowed him to successfully compete against the “tasty love” sweet nothings of Freddie Jackson, who was Vandross’s only main competition in the Eighties.

 

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About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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