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Happy Heavenly 70th Luther Vandross

Illustration of Luther Vandross by Fitzroy Facey

Happy Heavenly 70th Earthday Luther. Morning all, here is a Blue Peter drawing I did earlier with an editorial I wrote 11 years ago. Luther Vandross was born on 20th April 1951 in New York and grew up in a lower Manhattan housing project till his father passed when he was 8 years old before moving to the Bronx. Influenced by his parents and older sister singing, whilst at William Howard Taft high school he formed a vocal group Shades Of Jade with friends Carlos Alomar Diane Sumler and Fonzi Thornton. As part of a musical theatre workshop, they recorded “Listen My Brother” which Luther and his group sang on the children’s Sesame Street in 1969. By 1973 he’d written 2 songs recorded by Delores Hall, one being a very funky duet “Whose Gonna Make It Easier For Me”.

A year later school friend Carlos Alomar became David Bowie's guitarist. Luther was invited to a recording session at the famous Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, and Bowie upon hearing his velvet tones, recruited Luther for backing vocals on the “Young American” album. Luther co-wrote Bowie's “Fascination” and did his own version of “Funky Music” on this debut Luther project in 1975. It’s rumoured is that Luther sang backing vocals on Bowies “Golden Years” a track Luther would sing with disco outfit Mascara a few years later. His composition “Brand New Day” was featured in both the film and Broadway musical of “The Wiz”. Luther with Patti Austin in 1975 recorded vocals for Bob James’s “Westchester Lady” which subsequently were taken off the final mix. Speaking with Bob James for Soul Survivors issue 34, Bob said Luther would joke in future years when they’d worked together, that had Bob left the vocals on Luther would have had an earlier solo career. Whilst working with Bette Midler Luther met Arif Mardin of Atlantic and this helped to reacquaint Luther’s Shades of Jade outfit with the addition of Christine Wiltshire (later to work with Jocelyn Brown and Leroy Burgess) and record two albums under the guise of Luther. Providential not coincidental Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were part of Luther’s Band reigniting their earlier collaborations from the Sesame Street band. Cotillion dropped the group and Luther ended up retaining the rights to the album. Luther became an in-demand session singer working with Chic headlining the backing vocals of their “C’est Chic” debut album and the original instrumental version of “Everybody Dance”. Luther’s vocals graced Sister Sledge, Quincy Jones, Roberta Flack, Odyssey, Peter Jacques Band, BB&Q Band, Kleeer to Cat Stevens, Ringo Starr & Carole Bayer Sager music. As disco reached a peak in the latter 1970’s Luther fronted bands Lemon, Gregg Diamond, Charme, New York City Band, Mascara and Change…the rest is history. However, between then and Luther touting for a successful record deal with Epic in 1981, it would appear that none other than Quincy Jones seemingly overlooked signing Luther Vandross. Speaking with Patti Austin in 2012 issue 36 Patti recalls working with Luther on her godfather Quincy’s Jones’ “Sound’s” album and duets with Luther on “I’m Gonna Miss You In The Morning”. Luther also sings lead on the albums “Taking In To The Streets”. Patti says “Ironically Quincy has since admitted he didn’t see that vision of Luther. He loved him but didn’t pursue taking him under his wing but put him on the album. Quincy just didn’t get Luther’s potential and I thought …ok I’m trying to tell you something here LOL.” Luther sealed the deal with Epic in 1981 he released album after album alongside his partner in rhyme bassist ‘Marvellous’ Marcus Miller. Luther co-wrote and produced his own albums as well other artists including Aretha Franklin’s “Jump To It” and “Get It Right” and Cheryl Lynn’s “Instant Love”. I always remember waking up Easter 1985 to “The Night I Fell In Love” like it was yesterday and although I was already a fan of his music, that album with the song that‘ll make a grown man cry “My Sensitivity” sealed the fan for life deal. Covering many a classic by artists Brenda Russell, Stevie Wonder, Burt Bacharach & Hal David, and Heatwave, Luther had a unique style of replicating a composition as though he’d sung it first. Luther has sung with many female vocalists including Gwen Guthrie, Patti Austin, Dionne Warwick, Janet Jackson & Patti Labelle. Travelling around the world doing live concerts, I was lucky enough to see him in the mid-’80s at Wembley. Luther was undoubtedly instantly recognisable on a track even if he was doing background vocals. His film credit includes “The Meteor Man” a Robert Townsend film where he played a villain within a gang. He provided vocals for the 70’s gang epic “The Warriors” soundtrack and Roberta Flack covered his “You Stopped Loving Me” for the film starring Cicely Tyson and Richard Prior “Bustin’ Loose”. Luther’s lent his voice to many musical styles mostly gospel & soul based, but he was very versatile in other genres throughout the changing faces of R&B music from the 1970s to the 2000s until he passed. He has been sampled in hip hop and rap, by many including Heavy D sampling “Don’t You Know That” for “Got Me Waiting “, Queen Pen sampled “Never Too Much for “All My Love” and Busta Rhymes rapped on Luther’s version of Bill Wither’s “Lovely Day. Master’s At Work mixed “Are You Losing Me?” and there was a very soulful unreleased house mix of “Take You Out Tonight”. One of the last releases that became a classic was “Shine” sampling Chic’s “My Forbidden Lover”. In my interview issue 13 from 2008 with Melba Moore she urged me to listen to her album “Closer” and when you hear Luther on “Something On Your Mind” you’ll understand why. Vocalist songwriter-producer and all-round gifted African American Artist of huge proportions…Luther Vandross passed July 1st 2005. So as I never got to speak with him I thought I’d honour him as a true Soul Survivor today!!

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