Luther Vandross – A Tribute by James Eldon

With the release of a new compilation of lesser known material, Hidden Gems, Mr SoulCuts thought it was high time we put together a piece on the late, great Luther Vandross. Mr SoulCuts has been enthralled by Luther‘s work for the greatest part of his life, but when considering how to approach a tribute article to the great man, he realised that there was actually only one man for the job, his twitter buddy, James Eldon. James is as passionate and knowledgeable a soul fan as you’d like to meet, with exceptional taste. He is also a huge Luther fan, as this impressive piece ably demonstrates. Mr SoulCuts is overjoyed to have James writing for SoulCuts. This first article is an absolute peach!

We’ll be following this piece up with James‘ own Hidden Gems, 10 Vandross Goodies You Might Have Missed later on in the week. If you’d like to get in touch with James, follow him on Twitter for a taste of Modern Soul Devotion!

My soul hero is Luther Vandross. Not for me the eclectic genius of Donny Hathway, the exuberant genius of Stevie Wonder or the transcendent genius of Marvin Gaye, although I love them all, Luther is my soul hero. Not the ‘cool’ choice, maybe the diamante jumpers, the turbulent weight issues and the shy nervousness Vandross exuded in the spotlight all meant this was never going to be the street choice for soul hero but it is mine. Luther would have been 61 on April the 20th and it’s now 7 years since his wasteful death. What is his legacy and how will he be judged in the pantheon of great soul singers?

I have espoused before on, my twitter feed (@jreldon), my theory that most great soul artists have 5 classic albums in them and after that changes in fashion or sheer creative exhaustion leads to a drop off in the consistency of work produced. The 5 albums produced by Luther Vandross from 1978’s This Close to You to the pinnacle of 1985’s The Night I Fell In Love are among the most consistent and delectable canons of work in soul music. After that, there are many gems, but the chase for Lionel Richie-esque pop success diminished the consistency of the Vandross oeuvre.

I was fourteen when I bought my first Vandross album, his best work, The Night I Fell In Love. In a grey suburb of Bristol, when most of my friends were stomping their mullets to U2, Big Country and Simple Minds, I brought home an album for which I paid import prices (music costs less now!) featuring a guy dressed to kill with an exotic name. I’d become a dedicated soul music fan over the past year and in one of his end of year reviews Richard Searling, legendary soul DJ, had rated the Vandross album as the best of the year. My favourite albums prior to this had been the first Alexander O’Neal album and Freddie Jackson’s Rock Me Tonight, both fine albums. Both paled into the background in the face of The Night I Fell in Love.

To start with the most accomplished album could induce a diminishing returns feel to the previous 3 Vandross albums on Epic, which I bought up eagerly, but the quality of these albums is consistently high too. The Night I Fell In Love loses some of the sass and humour of the previous albums, it’s a taught, serious album where Luther’s voice occupies the grooves of Marcus Miller’s bass or the patient spaces of Nat Adderley Jnr’s string arrangements with such control and sensuality that the intensity of the album is assured. It features just 3 tracks on the ‘b-side’, all breathtakingly gorgeous and complex Vandross compositions that make up his greatest work. Wait For Love, My Sensitivity (Gets In The Way) and the extraordinary Other Side Of The World each exude the qualities that made the man so special.

First among these qualities was that voice. I once read that the only comparable voice in soul was Jackie Wilson’s and I hear some of that in Vandross’ runs, but, for me, one needs to go to the great female vocalists that inspired Luther to get close to his extraordinary, vulnerable voice. Aretha, Dionne Warwick, Cissy Houston are echoed in that marvellous voice. The growl of Bobby Womack, the echoing Marvin Gaye, the joy of Stevie are often about releases of energy through yelps and wails. This is not the world of Luther Vandross, where the vocals are controlled and often set up long, complex patterns that shimmer and echo against the melody. I often feel Luther Vandross is the great operatic tenor of soul music, exhibiting such passion and intensity, yet also such control.

Listen to The Other Side of The World, at times the voice is whispering and then it swoops into more emotive tones before the final minutes where it explores the emotion of the song through a pleading, questioning refrain. It is almost like jazz in the way the voice plays around the melody and the emotive lyric. Vandross’ songs are often about insecurity and focus not on the intimacies of an individual relationship but of the relationship with love itself. Love is a character in much of Vandross’ best work and like a petty, spiteful friend, love often spurns or denies the Luther‘s pleadings.

I guess that’s why I first connected so fully with Luther’s music. It places such high expectations on love and yet it tracks so acutely the pain and the loneliness that love can also cause. His first Epic Records albums were my teenage soundtrack and they brought me great comfort during those difficult years but, like the best poetry, the albums can be returned to throughout life’s journey.

What happened after those 5 amazing albums? Ironically the next Luther album, Give Me The Reason was the pinnacle of his success in the UK and it contains some classic Vandross tunes, but there are moments when the complexity is forsaken for a lighter, more pop based sensibility and the aspiration to be a mega crossover artist. This tension was evident in most of his latter work for Epic which, although they contained some absolute gems, too often the insecurity was masked by upbeat, chipper sentiments that didn’t match the depth of previous work. This dash for pop recognition culminated in the covers album, Songs, produced by Mariah Carey’s producer Walter Afanasieff. Vandross’ cover versions are usually extraordinary, rethinking and reimagining classic songs, adding a depth one couldn’t believe could be applied, like finding a secret cellar in an already impressive mansion. The Songs album dismissed this originality for bland covers that almost wanted to mask the richness of the man’s voice and talent. Vandross’ connection with his loyal black audience was diminished by the album but he got his coveted first pop number one.

His final album for Epic, Your Secret Love, is one of his best as it seeks, almost as an apology, to reconnect to his loyal soul fan base. It is a consistent album that tries to be a Luther album as we remembered them in his heyday. After this there was one album for Virgin America that had some really traditional Luther tunes but also contained a house track with Masters of Work and a brilliant jazz tune with Marcus Miller, Bob James and Cassandra Wilson. For Vandross it was akin to evolution and, although overall the project wasn’t a success, it hinted at what might happen if Luther ignored the mass market and went with a more organic vibe.

There was a hiatus then and the man who revived the careers of Luther’s heroines, Clive Davis, signed Luther to his J Records label. The final two albums Luther made sounded modern with enough nods to the classic Luther sound, avoideding the banal, manufactured sound of his worst ‘commercial’ material. The final album’s title track Dance With My Father became a huge hit but with the horrible twist of fate that its success came after the stroke that led to the fatal heart attack that killed Luther at such a young age.

His legacy? He came from a time when soul music was the simple balance of a unique, exceptional voice and a timeless song that combined to touch your soul. After his heyday, the producers seemed more important and fewer and fewer voices stood out on the radio. Where I feel that music history is cruel to Vandross is its dismissal of his song writing and his peerless arranging skills. He opened up classic and original songs and created wonderful new open spaces that he then furnished with riffs and melodies that seemed to echo with a range of emotions. He often wrote and sang sad songs, tales of hurt and disappointment and this acknowledgment of the bleaker side of love is now too often forsaken for booty talk or self help Oprah screamers.

Watch Vandross sing A House Is Not a Home for Dionne Warwick at a NAACP awards ceremony and it’s clear that such a voice is a blessing and it’s equally sad that this marvellous gift didn’t bring the man a happier lifestyle. It is said the English love an underdog – a gay genius with weight problems who was never fully loved by the pop audience who couldn’t digest his rich servings – Vandross’ popularity over here is perhaps explained by this. That, and some of the finest soul music ever recorded. He will never be ‘t-shirt logo cool’ or dug by the beard stroking vinyl junkies but he was ours, the soul boy’s soul singer and we loved the anticipation of every new Luther album and we miss our hero deeply.

In the liner notes for Hidden Gems written by Luther’s life-long collaborator Fonzi Thornton, Hidden Gems is described as a deeper dig into the musical treasure trove of Luther Vandross, uncovering lesser known songs and performances that he endowed with the same passion and love as his well known repertoire. Sounds good to me! The new album Hidden Gems is now available on CD and via download sites.