Liner Notes – Luther Vandross

Liner Notes - Luther Vandross

April 20, 1951 – July 1, 2005

Luther Vandross could arguably be the best singer… I mean with the purest and most pleasing voice of any recording artist I’ve ever heard.  Certainly, there are ample contenders like Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Mahalia Jackson and Michael Jackson but when you’re just measuring how wonderful the singing voice is, for me, Luther’s at the top of that stunning list.  Luther was bad… I mean with a pitch perfect velvet voice, from the earliest works I can find.  Before he ever had a hit record, his accomplishments rival most successful performers’ whole careers.  Luther shined as guest performer on countless records and even released two albums himself on Cotillion (Atlantic) Records.

This Liner Notes contribution documents Luther Vandross’ incredible body of work that preceded his first hit record, his 1981 album, Never Too Much.

He was born in New York in 1951 and named Luther Ronzoni Vandross.  The middle name explains why his music publishing company is called Uncle Ronnie’s Music.  I first heard that impeccable voice when I was watching David Bowie perform songs from his Young American LP live on some TV show like Dick Cavett or maybe The Tonight Show in 1975.  I distinctly remember they were singing songs like “Fame,” “Young Americans” and “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” live because it was the weirdest thing.  One of the background singers had a voice that blended perfectly with the other background singers, as it’s supposed to do, while at the same time standing out and attracting my attention because it was so clear and pure and (I say this as a manly man) outright beautiful.  I had never witnessed such a phenomenon before or since.  I had no idea who he was then; his voice just stood out and commanded my attention.  Turns out Luther not only sang background on the album but co-arranged the vocals with David Bowie and co-wrote one of the songs with him, too.  Well, sort of.  Bowie took an unreleased song that Luther had written called “Funky Music,” changed some of the lyrics and renamed the song, “Fascination.” Both versions are incredible dance songs.  I was visiting a DJ friend of mine who was working at an R&B radio station in Flint, Michigan (WAMM, I think) in 1976 when I stumbled onto Luther again.  The top three songs for that station at the time were “Disco Lady” by Johnnie Taylor, “Say You Love Me” by D.J. Rogers and “The Second Time Around” by Luther; not Luther Vandross but a group called “Luther.” They were wearing these songs out in Flint.  I was part-time on WJLB in Detroit then and Johnnie Taylor was the only one of the three that we were spinning at that time.  I became a lifelong fan of D.J. Rogers and Luther Vandross.  The group, Luther, was made up of Luther Vandross and former Shades of Jade members Anthony Hinton and Diane Sumler (group Luther formed in High School), Theresa Reed, and Christine Wiltshire.  Again, that velvet voice jumped out at me as I was listening to this song I had never heard, pumped through the radio station’s giant speakers.  Right away I knew it was that same voice I had heard with David Bowie.  “The Second Time Around” came from the same LP entitled, Luther, that “Funky Music” was released on in it’s original form, one year after Bowie had changed it for his album.  One of the stand-out tracks on the Luther LP was a song he had written earlier and was featured in the Broadway musical, The Wiz, starring a young Stephanie Mills.  The song was, “Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day.” The song I’m featuring below from this 1976 debut album is, “Funky Music.” Twenty-five year old Luther throws down on the lead vocals but this song shows off his superlative vocal arranging skills; nobody does it better.  Trust me, I was no fan of Disco but when something this good came along, I couldn’t deny it.  This brotha’ put a vocal arrangement on this cut that drives it straight into your heart!  Turn it up when you play it and I dare you not to move.

Luther described himself in a documentary interview before his performance at Royal Albert Hall in London as, “One of the first real singers to emerge out of that Disco period.” This explains his ambidexterity in delivering a funky dance song or a smooth ballad with equal capability.

Luther’s second album, entitled, This Close To You, floored me when I first heard it.  I couldn’t believe an album stuffed with so many great songs was not being played on Detroit radio.  Mind you, I was on the air at the time but still part-time while working on my B.A. from Wayne State.  In those days, we could play whatever we felt like playing.  So why wasn’t this incredible album being played?  Simple, Cotillion Records was not promoting it.  I discovered the record at the campus radio station, WAYN, while conducting a summer broadcast training program.  If I was given a copy by a promoter, it would’ve jumped out at me because I was already a fan.  So just like his first album, This Close To You, went virtually unnoticed by the public.  This LP is outstanding, from top to bottom.  I’ll share with you the song that Aretha covered on her ’82, Jump To It album, “This Is For Real.”

Going back to my dislike for Disco as a genre, every now and then exceptionally good Disco songs would appear by artists like Anita Ward, Donna Summer, SOS Band, An’gela Winbush and Alton McClain & Destiny.  Just like the Isley’s, “Fight The Power,” fit the genre but was too funky for me to consider Disco, so too were Luther Vandross’ Disco slammers.  He was the King of Disco, blessing other unknown artists with that one or two song contribution to their otherwise unnoticeable albums.  “Hot Butterfly” was the title track for Gregg Diamond’s Bionic Boogie (1978) album and covered by Chaka Khan on her Naughty album in 1980.  Gregg who? is right!  If not for Luther singing this song on his LP, I wouldn’t even know who this dude was.  In fact, I was so repulsed by the album cover which went out of it’s way to let you know it’s contents were unapologetically Disco, it took someone requesting the song while on the air for me to go back and find this record.  I had received so many promo copies of this album but never told there was a jam on it.  I was giving it away… frisbeeing it away… and only had one or two copies left when I found out there was a diamond (pun intended) in the midst of what I perceived to be whack tracks.  Check out Luther’s sizzling and beautiful take on “Hot Butterfly,” aka “Papillon.”

Luther’s most famous drop-in performance for otherwise obscure artists is the one that really put him on the map for the general public.  The studio group, Change, released the Glow Of Love LP in 1980 and Luther sang lead on the title song and “Searching,” which brought the group Change a hit album with the public still not knowing who was singing those two bomb songs.  I went to see them in concert when the studio music producers hurriedly put a group together to go on the road and sing the hit songs live.  By now, I know who Luther Vandross is and figured since he wasn’t really a part of this group, the two hit songs only being session work for him, he probably wasn’t going to be performing live with them.

I went to the concert anyway on the slight chance he would make a guest appearance since they were only on the concert bill because of his contribution.  He wasn’t there… Change was aiiiiight!  I was greatly disappointed but not surprised!  To my amazement, since most of the audience didn’t know who Luther was, they seemed to enjoy Change’s rendition of “The Glow Of Love” and “Searching.” I guess they thought the lead singer had a cold or something.  I promise you, he sounded nothing like Luther.

Two names that were constants in the background of Luther’s successful career were bass player, Marcus Miller and keyboardist, Nat Adderley, Jr.; nephew of the late Cannonball Adderley (“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”).  Luther met and started performing with Nat in High School.  Nat was even there arranging the music (Paul Riser arranged strings and horns) and playing keyboard on Luther’s first two albums for Cotillion Records.  From Never Too Much on, Nat and Marcus served as Luther’s co-writers, co-arrangers and musicians on most of his works.  Nat even served as Music Director for concert performances.

Luther sang commercial jingles for advertisers and I used to play his Stroh’s Beer jingle on radio and listeners, not knowing who he was, always phoned-in requests right after it ran, to play it again; as if it was a hit record.  Luther wrote and sang on songs as collaborations or session performances for far too many projects to name them all.  He fronted vocals for groups Soiree, New York City Band, Mascara, worked with Roberta Flack, Brecker Brothers, Bob James, Stephanie Mills, Spinners, Chic, Bette Midler, AWB, Ringo Starr, Sister Sledge, Cher, Melba Moore and Evelyn Champagne King, to name a small few; all before his first hit record.  After the Change album, 30 year old Luther Vandross finally hit it big with his 1981 solo album, Never Too Much.  The rest is magical music history.

I gotta leave you with another beautiful song from his first Cotillion album, Luther, entitled “I’ll Get Along Fine.” This duet with Diane Sumler is Luther Vandross at his finest… way before he was even acclaimed.  Enjoy!

Yours musically,

Reuben Yabuku