The First Time I Heard… Luther Vandross
I believe that the first time I heard Luther Vandross (according to Wikipedia) was in the summer of 1981. I was six years old and travelling with my parents to visit their friends in Baltimore, Maryland. My dad would always have the latest cassette (Yes cassette. I said it was 1981) of what was popular in R&B at the time whenever we were in the car. I remember watching the landscape through the window as I soaked in ever melody. Music was the center of my life even then. It set the tone for every single day from the time I listened to the radio during breakfast before school to when I was fighting off sleep to listen to The Quiet Storm late at night. On this particular evening, I remember walking down the stairs to leave with my parents and their friends to walk along the harbor when I heard “The Voice”. Luther Vandross’ “Never Too Much” was filling the airwaves of R&B radio non-stop that entire summer. I distinctly remember walking down the steps thinking “Now this? This is different.” To this day, I cannot think of a single vocal performance that can match his cadence and delivery in “Never Too Much”. Is he talking? Is he singing? What is that?! Now that I know a little more about the art of singing from being around some really good singers, the vocal control needed to sing such a song is not for amateurs. Luther Vandross knew HOW to sing (which is totally different from just being able to sing). It was his ability to know how to sing that stopped me in my tracks. The texture of his voice felt like a brush of velvet on my cheek. I had never heard singing like that before.
Yes. I thought about all of this at six years of age.
It wasn’t until much later on in life did I find out that I had actually heard The Voice numerous times before in jingles, the group Change and in back up vocals for David Bowie and Roberta Flack. But when Luther Vandross finally stepped out on his own, I just don’t recall anyone singing like him before then and there has been no one since.
My father quickly became a Luther Vandross fan, which meant that of course I was too since I pretty much followed my parents’ taste in music in whatever they liked. Luther’s music, which impeccable background harmonies and Marcus Miller’s unmistakable bass lines, became the background music to many trips to school, the doctor’s office, and other family trips. It wouldn’t be long before my dad bought every album and I would later be found studying the album jacket, captivated by the way Luther Vandross had a way of telling stories in songs through his voice that didn’t rely on just the lyrics themselves. Every scat, every ad-lib, every “Doo doo doo doo doooo” were just as important to the story as the lyrics. It’s amazing to me that his signature career songs “Superstar” and “A House is Not a Home” were covers. It is now a fact that when Luther Vandross covered your song, it was no longer yours. The Voice owned it and rightfully so.
It wasn’t until I got a bit older and the experiences of life caught up with me that I felt like I really “got” Luther. I mean, really how much of Luther Vandross’ music can you really get as a six year old? But when I got it, The Voice sang some of the most beautiful songs describing heartbreak that have spoken for me and so many of us. Sure there were the baby making songs like “If Only For One Night” and “If This World Were Mine”. But looking back I remember a lot of his music being about longing for love and waiting for love such as “Wait for Love”, “Little Miracles (Happen Everyday)”, “and Any Love.” You can prescribe a Luther Vandross song for almost anything. His catalog covers every chapter of the adventures of love and this is why Luther Vandross is so important to the history of our music. He was more than a crooner and more than an impeccable showman. He was The Voice of the human heart.
We miss you Luther Vandross. Forever, for always.
My 5 Favorite Luther Vandross Songs (in no particular order):
“Make Me A Believer” from the album Busy Body
“I Want the Night to Stay” from the album Power of Love
“Because It’s Really Love” from the album Give Me the Reason
“Give Me the Reason” from the album Give Me the Reason
“Forever, For Always, For Love” from Forever, For Always, For Love