The quintessential Soul balladeer passed four summers ago, much to the grand dismay of fans who simply could not get enough. Sure, we have Luther on record, but it was his live shows that did us in; he gave his all, and he was enjoying the music he sang, too. Yet we celebrate his death not by counting our losses, but by focusing on our blessings, and Luther blessed us. So here’s Luther Ronzoni Vandross in a few takes.
Reading: A Soul balladeer being bad.
It’s Over Now is “strange” for Luther whose voice would conjure images of an eternal, selfless romantic willingness to give all for love. Yet this was drag for Luther. He’s a homosexual who sang heterosexual songs—a gender bending performance for effect. He donned R&B music so beautifully that listening to him was also like listening with a fan. Luther loved Soul music, so when he was sassy, Luther got real sassy. He reverted back to himself in a sense.
The song It’s Over Now is a reading—a black queen exposing hateful people to the ridiculousness of being shady. We sharpen our skills amongst ourselves, but a real read most likely happens on the street; board and classrooms refuse to handle the type of trash one speaks when riffing through the streets, clearing the way of hungry, angry people throwing shade, about to get played. Shade needs to be arrested, and when people throw shade, they need to be read their rights. It’s Over Now—those are the terms and conditions when there is betrayal:
You can go now
Keep your voice down
There’s no need to fuss and shout
Use the backdoor
I don’t want no nosy neighbors to see you
Check it out
“Reading” is like this: when someone denies you your humanity, you put on drag to show them the ridiculousness of their behavior. Remember, when people insult, tease, beat, batter and abuse, it’s because of a wound they have suffered. Lacking the tools for dialogue in real life, we seek refuge in the words of the artists or the divine to replace our helplessness when confronted with a situation.
Something’s going on
It’s the middle of the night
And my ESP woke me up
Is this women’s intuition or PMS? Such empathy is often attributed to women in our culture, so when men don this robe, the gender role reversal accesses an entirely new set of sensations. Listeners simultaneously identify with both the protagonist and antagonist.
Between Soul ballads and R&B riffs, Luther had the baddest game going. And since he did do duets, he go to spread his style all over the pop music world while remaining true to his roots, (i.e., expressing himself and not reducing himself to a sexual persona). Moreover, perhaps the ambiguity around Luther’s sexual orientation added to the visual drag that women fans especially adored. Luther wasn’t there to woo them per se, not like a Marvin Gaye or Teddy Pendergrass who literally make love to the microphone, for Luther it’s a tool to make love, not an end.
Luther, the handyman
Falsetto is a classic “instrument” of the male voice to imbue a sense of empathy amidst listeners. In patriarchal terms, he prostrates himself. And despite the anti-feminist women in pop who chant for their “soldiers” in “wife beaters and jeans,” there are voices from men who demand more mutuality among the sexes.
Screaming, shouting, letting loose, and the coup-falsetto are all ways crooners seduce us into taking their side. Hence, “Since I lost my baby,” really becomes a story of us consoling Luther as much as feeling his pain. Unlike sex symbols, which tweet audiences through songs by means of titillation, Soul as a genre (and Luther as a species) exceeds just sexual energy. Luther moves through erotic, fraternal, paternal, maternal, love, joy and pain. His music could not be reduced to titillation.
A House is Not a Home nor is ghetto-fab indicative of liberation. Imagine Luther on stage serenading Whitney and Cissy Houston, sitting next to Dionne Warwick. Luther gazed deeply into his sister’s eyes as this mad man softly crooned a refashioning of her sixties hit in a way that pleased Soul fans so greatly that the song is known for its riffs, not barring even the lyrics. The closest star pair to meet their match would be the Boss and the King of Pop continuing to save souls through the legacy of Black music.
“Luthered,” the Verb
Ever heard “Bad Boy / Having a Party” or “If Only for One Night?” or what about “Creepin’”? Of all those songs, Luther only left one to it’s original arrangement, further indicating that it is real hard to re-make a Stevie Wonder tune, as George Michael and Mary J. Blige met with “As.” But Sam Cook and Dionne Warwick were both open to Luther’s interpretation.
In his interpretation, Luther took full ownership of the music. He loved the music and massaged fans’ eyes, ears, and sentiments with his arrangements, taking the plain, factory-produced, mundane regular pop hit to new, unfounded heights. In short, he lathered these songs, which is more than doctoring them up.
Luther’s only close contemporary in this matter (drum roll, please) is Mariah! Indeed, the comeback queen has had more hits regurgitating oldies than Luther and certainly more pop fanaticism, yet it’s clear that her influences parallel Luther’s.
Luthering a song is wholly different, though may be looked upon as a kissing cousin of sampling. Hip-Hop and House music as genres were born out of sampling Funk. And both Hip-Hop and House appropriated various aspects of Disco. Rappers started spitting when Disco’s beat soothed down, dancers burst out during the break, hot on the floor would literally “break it down,” because, as James said, “You gotta get down to get deep.”
House music appropriated the screams and hollering in Disco, often just speeding up the beats per minute. “Goodtimes” by Chic, followed by “Rapper’s Delight” from the Sugar Hill Gang is probably the most widely known Disco-to-Rap leap. Even Vaughan Mason’s Bounce Rock Skate shows listeners how close Disco is related to Funk, the former watering downs the beats of the later.
Hip-Hop followed the grittier beats and passions; yet there are certainly many such samples as this really is the foundation of the oral tradition. Lesser known is Luther singing with the group Change on the track “The Glow of Love” which also sampled Chic’s song.
This is how the music stays alive, not killing itself over and over in order to be reborn as divine. Soul is not about that kind of sacrifice, so sampling is much more than just copying out of lack of imagination. Frankly, just listen to any of a set of remixes and samples, and then you’ll know the deal. One of my favorite modern triages spanning Funky Soul, Hip-Hop, and R&B is “Stay with Me” by DeBarge, then “One More Chance” by Notorious BIG, and “Foolish” by Ashanti. While all these beats are phat, and dope as samples, this is mere sampling, not Luthering.
It is ironic that one of the best examples of Luthering is a cover of a favorite Luther Vandross dance beat. Fantasia Luthered “Till My Baby Come Home.” Beyond keeping the essential baseline, though replacing Luther’s classic organic organs with a synthesizer (perhaps for lack of budget), Fantasia heads Luther note-for-note. She restrains her riffs to a few Whitney style he-he’s, but the real coup comes at the end. And this is the most solid case for having Luthered this song.
To “Luther” a beat
To “Luther” a beat
Fantasia’s song ends were fans really begin. Imagine listening to a song on the radio with a group of friends. At first, note how we all pipe up and cheer. Like the game show Name That Tune, fans know the song from the first note. One might snap her fingers, and another might jump up and start the two-step, waiting for the beat to drop. And if someone like Fantasia is your friend, one might even start singing; yet we all know the lyrics and, most importantly, the riffs. By the bridge, everybody is bumping their heads; the chorus is so tough, and gravity pulls that beat down from a head bop to the pelvis were we might start to jam.
Everybody is crooning by the end of the song, and certainly by the time Luther starts what seems like an Ella Fitzgerald style Be-Bop riff: Luther bounces “B-b-b-b-baby” between his lips. Trying to copy him is a feat—not everyone can do it—and that’s also why he is Luther Vandross, meaning he could do it, and as a fan, he loved it. As a humanitarian, he shared.
And it’s Fantasia’s own Be-Bop “B-b-b-b-baby” that polishes off the Luther crowning of this remake. Again, we, alongside Luther, are aficionados of this music. It’s like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater director Judith Jamison opens her choreography in Love Stories: “Black people dance at home.” After the tune on the radio does its bit, Fantasia lays in with:
I love my man. I need my man. Take care of my man ... I get a little concerned about it. I get a little upset sometimes. ‘Cause if you ever think I’ma let you take away what God has given me, you betta think again!
By this point, Fantasia is screaming, something Luther never did. Luther yelled, crooned, hummed, moaned, groaned, belted, trilled, and colored most of his notes, but he’s not a screamer. Yet this is Fantasia’s version, and in true Luther form, she’s gotta do her thang. It’s a fierce cover where she adlibs the end. Her girlfriends can be heard in the background egging her on, “That’s right…” one says. “She sho’ betta…” smirks another. Googling lyrics for this song are of no use as few have bothered to give this music a clear listen; this music is way too bad. It’s the individual diversity that makes the Griot; otherwise the stories are all the same.
I don’t need no cure
All of this music can be said to be Luthered genres of Gospel, which, along with Blues, is itself a Luthered genre of Negro spirituals. While Mariah Carey is the sampling queen, she really Luthered one of her very few straight covers. Arranged by Mariah, alongside Corey Rooney and Dru Hill, our diva partnered with 90s Soul balladeers Dru Hill to bring out the very best of Prince’s 1984 The Beautiful Ones; this song represents yet another reason why the album Purple Rain reigns influential.
It’s eerie how Dru Hill wails “why oh why” over and over, Mariah backing him up almost ethereally as she goes way high while the gentleman swings low; their contrast almost competes with one another, yet ultimately compliments their riffing. It sends chills right down the spine. “The melody is strangely hypnotic,” explains the blogger otherwisecommitted in listing the diva’s top ten favorites, “adding a touch of musical menace to the melodrama halfway through the song, where Mariah traded callouts with Dru Hill, trying to convince him of her love.”
Mariah records few of the songs she Luthers, preferring to devote these tunes to her fans, and hence does so in concerts. Mariah Luthered SOS Band’s Just Be Good to Me and addresses Aretha as “incomparable” to introduce her version of “Don’t Play that Song for Me.” Yet the hands down most dramatic covering of Mariah as the modern diva of Luthering was her classic performance at VH1’s Diva’s Live.
At 2000’s Divas, one of many of Mariah’s appearances on the famed franchise, girlfriend paid homage to the reigning diva that night, the Boss Miss Diana Ross. Mariah opened her performance with Love Hangover. Then, as if tailor-made for her gay male fans, this diva takes off into whisking Ross’ definitive disco bass riff with her own hit “Heartbreaker” before polishing off the tune by blending in “Love to Love You Baby” by Disco diva originale, Donna Summer. Talk about fierce.
For fans, Luther’s definitive Luthering, however, is “Superstar / Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).” Simultaneously paying homage to the Carpenters (“Superstar”) and Aretha Franklin (“Until You Come Back to Me”), such a feat is barely repeatable, only skimmed by Mariah’s performance at Diva’s starring—as her appearances tend to become—Diana Ross.
The secret behind Luthering songs is creepy. It is the clear tradition of the West African griot. These soothsayers sing/rap at every gathering, accompanied by a chorus of various drums and bells, which equally pushes the feat (and feet) to new heights. Modern Griots like Mali’s Ami Koita or Salif Keita all Luther their traditional beats, too. In retelling history and raising memory to life, enabling memory to inform and support us today, it is important to keep the facts straight.
It’s the same in Gospel, of which Luther (and his greatest influence, Aretha) would have been steeped in since birth. And since we’re going there, we’d have to consider Mahalia Jackson, a real remix queen, taking songs composed in the cotton fields, healing souls note-by-note.
The Livin’ Is Easy
In its many permutations, from the Enchantress Nina Simone, opera diva Leontyn Price, to the showtimey Billy Stewart, the fantastical Janis Joplin with Jimi Hendrix. My favorite is Mahalia Jackson, which she Luthers in Luther’s Superstar sense. “A long way from home,” Mahalia drags out each note succinctly almost as a bridge to her rendition of Summertime. The cotton is indeed high.
Mahalia blending the two as Luther blends his song “If Only for One Night,” into his cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin’”. “And it’s go’ be tonight,” Luther says slyly in the song’s transition. It’s clear that Luther is an artistic heir of Mahalia Jackson.
Another favorite version of “Summertime” comes from John Coltrane, where not even a single word is uttered. The force of this song’s narrative, coupled perhaps with the visuals provided by the Porgy and Bess stage play and its empathetic roots (a white Jew writing specifically about Black people in America, and for Black performers), each one of these artists seems to have encapsulated this song with their own flair; they each have truly Luthered “Summertime.”
The Question of the Missing Album Notes
Luthering is yet different from copying beats from influential artists and riding high. Witnessing and Testifying can be clearly heard in the Blues, what Cornel West calls a tragicomic disposition. Professor West describes this disposition born as cultivating the ability “to stare painful truths in the face and persevere without cynicism or pessimism.”
“You never say no,” Luther repeats, clarifying this most Soulful position on love. This loss of love is certain and specific. It’s love and abandon, yet unlike pop music, it’s love refusing to stop loving again. He is orphaned by love unrealized, and this is the love supreme. He is a motherless child of the highest order in this song, akin to Stevie Wonder on “As” singing: “Do you know you’re loved by somebody!” Again, all these lyrics are not on the beat and absent from the album notes.
Despite Stevie’s fierce lyrics, or Luther’s melismatic magic, these prophets drop the knowledge of redeeming power of love in adlibs and riffs. They improv it, making it up as full extension of their hearts. Rendering oneself so vulnerable and exposing one’s scars is risky business, at which many of today’s young pop divas would probably scoff.
No, today’s mini-divas want a “soldier” or “hood boy in wife beater and jeans.” It is they who act like bastards. That’s a true loss of Soul. Still buried inside the likes of these modern divas is a bit of Soul, though it may take aging to live and let it pull through.
“Nothing can stop me from loving,” these lyrics seem to say. “I’ll be lovin’ you ‘till the day that you are me and I am you,” Stevie concludes in “As,” before drifting off into a menagerie of his crooning both vocally and on the keyboards. “For you, love might bring a toast of wine, but the best for you I pray,” go this jazzy tune’s polyrhythmic beats.
“Nothing but death can keep us apart,” says a departing Nettie to her sister Celie in the film version of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. “M.I.S.T.E.R, period,” the benevolent patriarch has torn the two apart, condemning his young wife to a life of lovelessness, because he certainly was not prepared to show her any (nor to himself, that is until he forgives himself).
Yet despite years of not knowing if her sister Nettie was dead or alive, living literally under the hoof of an abusive husband in the Jim-and-Jane-Crow South, it is her love of the character Shug Avery that would eventually pull Miss Celie—and practically everyone else—through. Truly living the life of the oh-pressed, Celie was still able to find love long enough to sustain her until she got her family back. Notably, Miss Celie first had to find her own dignity, which only came through being able to express and feel love. When we deaden ourselves to the possibility of love, when we abandon love altogether, we abandon living.