Essential: The Art, Emotion, and Limitations of Luther Vandross

By Daniel Garrett

Luther Vandross,
The Essential Luther Vandross
Original recording produced by Luther Vandross, Marcus Miller,
Nat Adderley Jr. and Walter Afanasieff
Compilation produced by Leo Sacks and Ray Bardani
Sony, 2003

Luther Vandross’s voice is one of strength, but the strength is built of confidence, directness, and great sensitivity, rather than attitude, force, or sexuality: his approach is often intimate and supple in its expression of passion. Vandross’s sensitivity is a constant—and there is no doubt that it is genuine. In the first song on the career retrospective recording The Essential Luther Vandross, “Any Love,” written by Vandross with his longtime collaborator and friend Marcus Miller, a song about a man who faces—admits—his loneliness, but maintains the hope for love, Vandross speaks of refusing to cry, but he does not have to cry—the tears are in his voice. In “So Amazing,” Vandross sings of being grateful for the love he has found—and his carefully placed phrases, light and thoughtful, invest the song with joyful tenderness. The first lines of “Wait for Love,” a song co-written by Vandross and Nat Adderley Jr. about faith in love, are given a ballad treatment that becomes a more dramatic exchange featuring a chorus and a charged rhythm, and Vandross raises his voice without losing pitch or tone—or any aspect of civility or sorrow. Luther Vandross took love as his theme, and he consistently created a world of feeling—of desire, hope, worry, pain, resignation, and joy—in his music. The instrumentation that supports him includes a bass guitar, piano, drums, chimes, and significant synthesizers, forming tasteful, well-arranged but predominately artificial sounds. Marcus Miller on bass, Nat Adderley Jr. on piano, and Yogi Horton on drums, and Paulhino Da Costa on drums and chimes, very talented men all, are simply not as prominent as the constructed tempos and tones of the synthesizer, no matter who is programming it. (I imagine one of the synthesizer players may think he’s responsible for Luther Vandross’s success.) Vandross’s background singers—some of the industry’s best—are his true human witnesses, his most impressive collaborators. (I imagine some of his background singers may think they are responsible for Luther Vandross’s success.) Vandross’s sensibility and voice—a sensibility and voice created out of choices, influences, and ambitions—are so unique that the otherworldly music that accompanies him may be absolutely necessary. Vandross’s arrangements, like his voice, create their own drama and it is not necessarily where or what we expect—the courtesy and the loneliness in his voice means that realization and resignation have an impact they would not have in another singer’s song. Vandross, a man who looked ordinary in the first photographs taken of him, became more striking as the sensitivity in his face became more naked: as he began to look the way he sounded. (I imagine some of the photographers of his album covers may think they are responsible for Vandross’s success. I imagine the janitor who cleaned Vandross’s recording studio may think he is responsible.) This intelligent and gifted man, Luther Vandross, attained a remarkable achievement, but one that does have limitations—his songs can seem fantasies, and many of them can seem too much the same, but Luther Vandross is a phenomenon, for which no one is finally responsible but he himself.

Many people have idiosyncrasies, and most have strengths and weaknesses: the key is creating a life—art, work, social situation, love—that accepts those, that uses those attributes as gifts, as resources. In the medley “Power of Love/Love Power,” Vandross produced one of the anthems of his career, a song that affirmed love. (It would have been interesting had he been more explicit about why the power of love is so needed in the world.) Luther Vandross’s singing on the chorus on “For You to Love” is as beautiful as anything—and sound, as much as thought or feeling, was what he was about. One of his most perfect recordings is his performance with singer Martha Wash of the Lieber-Stoller song “I (Who Have Nothing),” a song about lovers with nothing to give each other but love: and Vandross projects humility and passion, and both he and Wash caress and stroke the lyrics and the song is full of intimacies and observations, glories of articulation. Vandross’s respect for talent can be discerned in how much space he gives Martha Wash. Vandross was famous for his adoration of women singers, such as Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, and Diana Ross, and he produced recordings for them. On The Essential Luther Vandross, he sings with Dionne Warwick (“How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye”), Cheryl Lynn (“If This World Were Mine”), and Mariah Carey (“Endless Love”). Vandross also performed some of the songs of his male antecedents and peers, such as Smokey Robinson (“Since I Lost My Baby”) and Stevie Wonder (“Knocks Me Off My Feet” and “Creepin’”). Luther Vandross’s interpretations of the Bacharach-David songs “Anyone Who Had A Heart” and “A House Is Not A Home” are tributes to a singer (Warwick) and to writers he admired. In “Anyone Who Had A Heart,” Vandross creates tiny rhythms with small groups of words, and then follows them with long notes or long lines. In “A House Is Not A Home,” the meaning of existence versus living, materialism versus spirituality, and loneliness versus love is made undeniable. I don’t think suffering is worth much—and the only thing I have ever learned from my own is that I don’t like it, but Luther Vandross makes loneliness into a nearly sublime fact: it reveals something about the man—about his depth, his standards—and something about the world in which he lives.

Luther Vandross’s early recording “Never Too Much” was full of energy, and it is energy—emotional and vocal (technical)—that impresses many: energy as life force, as dynamic fact, as charm, as distraction, as evidence, but that was a small part of what Vandross had to give. In the song “Stop to Love,” a reminder to one who pursued ambition to make a place in life for love, and in “It’s Over Now,” in which a betraying lover is given walking papers, emotion rather than energy is primary: and Vandross focuses on the revealing of feeling, as he does in “Superstar” and “Here and Now.” In the song “Your Secret Love,” Luther Vandross is a man who realizes that being someone’s secret love is not being a true love, that there is a lack of commitment and respect: “Why can’t we tell somebody?” and “You’re breaking my heart,” he sings.

Secret loves? Vandross’s audience—much of which were women, crying, screaming, cheering women—probably knew the most important part of Luther Vandross in knowing his voice, but that has not been enough for some people. People make up stories to explain what they understand—and what they do not understand; and the trashier the story, the trashier the mind of the person telling the story; and the more cruel the story, the more cruel the mind of the teller. Luther Vandross might have been like the writer Henry James and the actor Jude Law—if he did not exist, who would have the imagination to invent him? For an African-American “love man,” Luther Vandross, unexpectedly, did not sing explicitly about sex (whereas Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, and others did): and sex is everywhere in popular culture: always a fundamental part of human society, it is part of the principal iconography of our time, and the human body has become a compendium of signs. For our society, skin—the body’s protection, and also an organ, is a false but widely believed symbol of caste, of social meaning—of history and power, with erotic temptation and taboo read in shades of skin. Teeth are seen as a sign of health, money, and sex appeal. The perfectibility of teeth, as with the search for a better apartment or job, is another aspect of a belief that life can come entirely under control and that one can appear as an approved model, though whether that is what one actually is remains another, unasked question. Hands are what they are, large or small, with fat or slim or average-looking fingers, and there is little we can do about them, we did not make them, and yet they seem expressive of us, not just in terms of gestures, but for their very shapes. Muscle? It is authority, force, fibrous tissue, contracting and expanding organ, power. Of course, more attention is paid to the parts of the body with sexual characteristics (though, most parts of the body can be made to resonate with an erotic glance and glow). Breasts are often taken as a sign of gender. The word breast used to refer to the upper, front torso, whether male or female, but now breast or breasts typically signifies female, with chest the word used for the same region of the male. Breasts, as symbol, have become more important than flesh: appearance is all, whether it’s achieved with a push-up bra or silicone, one more commodity in a market of meanings. Phallus—thing of flesh, of male form; and symbolic idea of generative power. I have seen the bluntest words for a large, swinging male sexual organ used as reference to, as symbol of, social authority in what would be otherwise thought of as publications of polite discourse. Metaphors used to come from literature or the natural world—that of flora and fauna—but now, with many people less familiar with these fields, the metaphors arise from the few areas of commonality and force that remain, and the private world, primarily the sexual arena, is foremost among them. Cultures, like individuals, emerging from puritanism and repression can be emphatic in sexual exploration and expression—like unbridled adolescents, crude, single-minded—and I think that has happened in America, in the western world, with the sexual revolution. We have a lot of assumptions today about what constitutes identity and reality that were merely arguments and speculations yesterday: we believe things that our ancestors would have considered stupid or vulgar. Luther Vandross did not talk about his own private life with any degree of specificity: and that inspired speculations. It is arguable that Luther Vandross did not need to be specific, that he was as much a god of love as Garbo—abstract and passionate, an icon of an idea of feeling.

Greta Garbo, a great actress, a woman of many kinds of beauty, had an androgynous quality, and though Luther Vandross is unmistakably a man, he has an androgynous quality as well: it is, as is their intelligence and sensitivity, part of their transcendence. Androgyny can be an absence of strong male and female qualities or the presence of both male and female qualities: and what androgyny suggests is an ability to be and to respond beyond gender, beyond custom, and when we think of love—whether we call love attention, care, compassion, dedication, desire, empathy, loyalty, sacrifice, sympathy, or tenderness—we think of a form of feeling or a kind of response that does not respect the usual limits; and thus, androgynous individuals reach us, excite us, in a way that surpasses the quotidian. The work of an artist usually does not contain day-to-day biography—the “who did he sleep with last night, and what did he have for breakfast” details—but the work of an artist does contain a biography of artistic efforts and instincts, a biography of intellect, a biography of spirit. What do we know of Jimmy Scott, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, or Cassandra Wilson? Frank Sinatra, for one, seemed less a confessor of his own feelings and more a revealer of perception and an interpreter of texts as he became older. I listen to Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits (Reprise/Warner, 1968), and hear the fond recall of romantic reverie in “Strangers in the Night,” the lightly pleasant “Summer Wind,” the exploration of age and time and love in “It Was A Very Good Year,” and the warmth of “Forget Domani (Forget Tomorrow)” and “Somethin’ Stupid”—“Domani” reminds me of an Italian street song and “Somethin’ Stupid,” Sinatra’s duet with his daughter Nancy, reminds me of something old and English—and I hear the bluesy beat and Sinatra’s exhilarating and soulful vocal in “That’s Life,” and the distinction of the other songs and performances, some featuring music that is very sentimental; and what I think is that Sinatra does not reveal facts but rather what must be beneath any recognition of facts: understanding of human experience.

On the second half of The Essential Luther Vandross, Vandross sings “Goin’ Out of My Head,” and it’s interesting how graceful Vandross sounds as he makes his declaration of loneliness and love, how he manages a sense of dignity simultaneous with the aura of ardor. The way he repeats and inflects the word “night” near the end of “If Only for One Night” suggests rampant desire—or male hysteria—but that is subtle: the power is in the suggestion not the volume. The odd accents and effects in “She’s So Good to Me,” with its quick tempos, booms, and high notes, offer a substitution for the expected, a substitution for what other singers provide in rawness of tone and theme, and “She Loves Me Back” is even more cute. The absence of real world markers can give the songs both a direct path to the emotions (what else is there?) and also make the songs seem romantic dreams—and some of them can be undistinguished. Vandross’s duet with Gregory Hines, “There’s Nothing Better Than Love” is intriguing as it pairs him with a male voice that comes close to Vandross’s in softness. Dionne Warwick’s duet with Vandross, “How Many Times,” features singers of different styles and generations—and Warwick, contemplative, sincere, narrative, and precise, is a master song stylist: she is more forceful than Hines. “Endless Love,” written by Lionel Richie and previously performed by Richie with Diana Ross, is taken by Vandross for his duet with Mariah Carey, a singer with an operatic range, one whose parentage and duets with rappers make her as much a symbol of the contemporary moment and multiculturalism as baseball star Derek Jeter (Derek Jeter seems to have been a golden child, a member of several worlds at once and beloved in each. A right-handed New Jersey-born baseball player who makes about twenty million dollars a year, and is known for dating conspicuously desirable women, among them Mariah Carey, this tall man is famously biracial but not widely defined by race—although one disturbed person wrote him a letter telling him to stop dating white women). The Vandross-Carey duet is a meeting of great voices: and one does not for a moment believe they are in love—instead, one thinks of them as performing, beautifully, eloquently, a drama of love, an allegory that touches on feelings and forces we recognize as true or hope are true.

I can only anticipate what Luther Vandross’s work will mean in time—time is measured not only by the clock, but by the changes in us—in our lives, in our cultures, in our understandings. Clocks used to be easily found in public offices and on city streets, but in the last decade they have become rare, possibly because of the widespread use of cell phones and computers, which usually tell time. The provision of a clock was useful during business transactions and also a de facto public service, and the withdrawal of clocks means that, if one is not wearing a watch, one has to ask and be grateful for the telling of the time. There are other things to be grateful for, among them the work of Luther Vandross.

about the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett has also written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared inThe African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.

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