‘So Amazing’ Luther Vandross 16th Anniversary
‘Give Me The Reason’ ..here’s an excuse to pay homage to the 16th anniversary of Luther Vandross joining his rightful place in the creator’s choir with a Blue Peter one I painted earlier in May 2021
Luther Vandross was born on the 20th April 1951 in New York. He grew up in a lower Manhattan housing project until his father passed away when he was 8 years old. After this tragic event, he moved to the Bronx. Influenced by his parents and older sister singing, he formed a vocal group, whilst at the William Howard Taft High School, called 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 TV program, 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 Luther’s velvet tones, recruited him for backing vocals on the ‘Young American’ album. In 1975, Luther co-wrote Bowies ‘Fascination’ and did his own version of ‘Funky Music’ on this, his debut project. It’s rumoured that Luther sang backing vocals on Bowie’s ‘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’.
Also in 1975 Luther with Patti Austin recorded vocals for Bob James’s ‘Westchester Lady’ which subsequently were taken off the final mix. When I spoke to Bob James for Soul Survivors in issue 34, Bob said later, whilst they were working together, Luther joked with him, 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. This helped to reacquaint Luther’s Shades of Jade outfit (with the addition of Christine Wiltshire, who later went on to work with Jocelyn Brown and Leroy Burgess) and they recorded 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. He 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, Cat Stevens, Ringo Starr & Carole Bayer Sager’s 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.” From the time 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 artist including Aretha Franklin’s ‘Jump To It’ and ‘Get It Right’ and Cheryl Lynn’s ‘Instant Love’. I always remember waking up Easter Friday 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. I was lucky enough to see him in the mid 80’s at Wembley when he travelled the world doing live concerts. 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 ‘Bustin’ Loose’, starring Cicely Tyson and Richard Prior. Luther has 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 1970’s to the 2000’s up until he passed. He has been sampled in hip-hop and rap, by many including Heavy D sampling ‘Don’t You Know That’ in ‘Got Me Waiting’, Queen Pen sampled ‘Never Too Much’ in ‘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 with Melba Moore in issue 13 from 2008 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 an all around gifted African American artist of huge proportion. Luther Vandross passed 16 years ago on July 1st 2005. So as I never got to speak with him I thought I would honour him in the Soul Survivor’s Roll Call Of Fame.