Luther Vandross' Crisis of Faith
TThanks to comedian Steve Harvey and a host of other folks, most of America is familiar with the name “Loofuh”, the one-name nickname of vocalist Luther Vandross. On the one hand, the nickname is an in-house linguistic joke about the proclivity of some African-American speakers to pronounce the “th” sound as an “f” sound, as in “toof decay” or “bafroom”, but it is also a term of endearment for an artist who has been on a first name basis with much of black America for more than two decades.
For some Luther Vandross is as familiar as Sweet Potato pie during Juneteenth and while his music has been consciously crafted to eschew the familiar church and chitlin’ elements that are traditionally aligned to African-American expression, Vandross remains a singular representation of late-stage black modern style. Personal. Accomplished. Extravagantly stylish and necessarily so. In a genre where vocalists are expected to be more grits and gravy than tactician (see Patti Labelle or Wanya Morris for examples), Vandross has remained the consummate tactician, while not sacrificing any of the gut-wrenching emotions that we expect from the R&B singer—a figure that is in part defined by a slick urbanity and the Soul-shout tradition that made black vocalists immensely popular figures during the past four decades. On his new self-titled release, his first for Clive Davis’ burgeoning J label, Vandross is an artist in crisis. While the obvious suggestion is that Vandross is suffering from a mid-life identity crisis (see my comments about Babyface below), I would like to suggest that Vandross is instead experiencing a crisis of faith—a crisis of faith in the singular style and the immense body of work that he produced. In short, in his quest for mass commercial appeal, Luther has lost faith in Luther.
For much of his early career, Vandross was an immensely popular vocalist—the definitive male R&B vocalist—whose music was seldom consumed outside of the confines of 1980s urban radio formats. Vandross first emerged in 1981 with his “debut” Never Too Much—there were two earlier releases for Cotillion with the group “Luther”—after guest stints with Change (the brilliant “Searching” and the “Glow of Love”) and on Quincy Jones’ Stuff Like That where he was paired with Patti Austin (“I’m Gonna Miss You in the Morning”) and Gwen Guthrie on a stunning version of the Doobie Brother’s classic “Taking It to the Streets”. “Never Too Much”, the simply succulent lead single and title track, only hinted at the brilliance that Vandross would channel on the project’s key track, his seven-minute revision of the Hal David and Burt Bacharach classic “A House Is Not a Home” which was originally recorded by Dionne Warwick in 1964. As Jason King argues in his brilliant essay “Any Love: Silence, Theft, and Rumor in the Work of Luther Vandross”, which is collected in the new anthology The Greatest Taboo: Homosexuality in Black Communities, “There is a refined majesty about Vandross’ version, a quality which is present in Warwick’s production but only stakes the outer perimeter. Indeed the drama and intentional stakes of Vandross’ version seem higher, more explicit, as the domestic melodrama becomes amplified”.
“A House Is Not a Home” is the track that established Vandross as a balladeer extraordinaire and revealed his exceptional and creative talents as an arranger. The recording also helped Vandross establish himself as a Quiet Storm staple, perhaps even more synonymous with the late-night urban radio format than Smokey Robinson, whose recording Quiet Storm (1975) inspired the late Melvin Lindsey to create the format at Howard University’s WHUR in 1976. In subsequent releases such as Forever, for Always for Love (1982), Busy Body (1983) and the highly accomplished The Night I Fell in Love(1985), Vandross furthered his reputation as the definitive Soul balladeer and arranger with tracks like his version of The Temptations’ “Since I Lost My Baby”, Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin’”, Brenda Russell’s “If Only for One Night”, and a stunning and provocative re-working and melding of The Carpenters’ “Superstar” and Wonder’s “Until You Come back to Me” that arguably surpassed his version of “A House Is Not a Home”. To make the point that he was the real deal Vandross often promoted his projects by singing a live in-studio version of “A House Is Not a Home” at various radio stations.
The Night I Fell in Love showcased Vandross’ increasingly solid songwriting and production talents, particularly in the arena of up-tempo and mid-tempo tracks, as exhibited by the tunes “The Night I Fell in Love”, “Till My Baby Comes Home” with Billy Preston’s star-turn on the Hammond B-3, and the dramatic “Wait for Love”. The tracks were written and produced with regular Vandross collaborators bassist Marcus Miller and keyboardist Nat Adderley, Jr., who is of course the son of cornetist Nat Adderley, Sr. and nephew of the legendary Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. “Wait for Love” captured Vandross at his best, particularly his talent at “finishing” a song. Though Vandross’ music only shows scant traces of the black gospel tradition, part of Luther’s signature style is the way that he closes a tune, improvising over the melodies and the lyrics, often creating a musical experience that is distinct from the song itself. Like his rapid-fire breakdown of the lyrics “still in love with me” on “A House Is Not a Home”, “Wait for Love” captured one of the reasons why Vandross consistently distinguished himself from other R&B balladeers. Along with Vandross’ regular crew of backup singers—including Paulette McWilliams, Fonzi Thornton, Whitney’s mama Cissy Houston, Lisa Fischer, and Alfa Anderson (she of Chic fame)—the trio of Adderley, Miller, and Vandross, with the late drummer Yogi Horton, crafted a highly regarded signature sound. The Vandross “sound” is witnessed on his high profile work with Aretha Franklin on Jump to It (1982) and Get It Right (1983), his idol Dionne Warwick (“How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye” and the original recording of “So Amazing”) and his thrilling re-reading of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “If This World Were Mine” with Cheryl Lynn.
With the release of Give Me the Reason in 1986, Vandross was in peak creative form and the recording marked a distinct shift in Vandross’ career. Give Me the Reason marked Vandross’ first blatant attempt to cross over to mainstream audiences, perhaps buoyed by the breakthrough of “Till My Baby Comes Home” into the Top 40 the previous year. On Vandross’ end he debuted a new svelte frame, losing more than 100 pounds from his 300-pound frame. Vandross also allowed the lead track and title single to be aligned with the movie and soundtrack of the commercially successful Danny DeVito and Bette Midler film Ruthless People. The project’s second single “Stop to Love”, accompanied by a video that featured Vandross dancing on the top of trucks, became Vandross’ highest charting single, peaking at #15 on the Billboard pop charts. Despite Vandross’ seemingly overt efforts to cross over—including a duet with former hoofer turned actor and singer Gregory Hines, who was at the height of his popularity thanks to his paring with Billy Crystal for the film Running Scared—Give Me the Reason remains one of his most accomplished recordings. The album features gems like his remake of Bacharach and David’s “Any One Who Had a Heart” and his rendition of his own “So Amazing”, which was initially written for and recorded by Dionne Warwick.
While there were a myriad of reasons Vandross had failed to previously cross over, including his reputation as being primarily a balladeer and his rather weighty frame, Vandross and a host of other black artists during that era where victims of the intense balkanization within the radio and burgeoning music video industry. Given the current overwhelming black and black-face presence (not a diss to those damn boy bands, but just keepin’ it real) on MTV shows like TRL, it is hard to believe that only 15 years ago blacks rarely appeared on the channel unless they were Lionel Ritchie or self-styled exotics like Michael Jackson or Prince (I’m being nice, ‘cause I could have called them freaks). Give Me the Reason was released at a point when subtle shifts were taking place in the pop music industry. Vandross, Whitney Houston, and Anita Baker, whose Rapture was also released in 1986, all benefited from the emergence of “lite FM”, adult-contemporary, and lite-Jazz radio formats, formats that were largely fermented as a backlash to overwrought and banal pop music in the mid-1980s and the increasing commercial presence of hip-hop music. 1986 was of course the year that the now infamous Run-DMC and Aerosmith collaboration on “Walk This Way”, along with the success of Run-DMC’s Raising Hell and the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, permanently altered “black” music’s relationship to the recording and music video industries.
It was something of a personal albatross for Vandross that he had not crossed over to larger pop audiences, particularly because his music could not so easily be identified as traditional black pop. On the real, in a world where Michael Bolton could repeatedly butcher himself through faux R&B tunes to great commercial acclaim, Vandross frankly deserves as much and more attention than one of the most renowned “culture bandits” (shout out to my man Bob Davis and the Soul Patrol) of the last 20 years, Kenny G notwithstanding. Vandross would not break through into the Top 10 until the release of “Here and Now” in 1989, a song that was included on a double-CD compilation of Vandross’ music called The Best of Luther Vandross, the Best of Love. There is something sadly ironic about the fact that some mainstream audiences were first introduced to Vandross with “Here and Now”, a song that was included on a compilation drawn from Vandross’ six previous full-length releases, all of which were platinum sellers without the support of crossover audiences or a “hit” single. In fact “Here and Now” entered the Top 10 in March of 1990, almost six months after the song was initially released to black radio. While Vandross has claimed the song, which was co-written by Dionne Warwick’s son David Elliot, was not crafted to reach crossover audiences it was promoted that way as evidenced by the second video done for the song. The song’s first video was done in conjunction with a WBLS promotion in which soon to be married couples competed to see who would be chosen to have “Loofuh” sing at their nuptials. The video for “Here and Now” basically consisted of video footage of Luther’s performance at the wedding of the eventual contest winners in an event that was presided over by the legendary right-reverend (my man) Calvin Butts (Abyssinian’s own). To cross the song and video over without the benefit of the “hot, sweaty, funky” black folks who were all up in the initial video (sweaty, funky black folks would not be in vogue in crossover videos until Mariah Carey), a second video was shot featuring animation that obscured both any racial themes and Vandross’ ever-fluctuating weight.
In an interview done a decade ago in support of his eighth release, Power of Love, Vandross frankly addressed his disappointment at not achieving crossover success in his career. As Vandross complained at the time “It seemed as though every time I turned around, James Ingram was having a No. 1 record…. Where is my crossover hit?” Vandross’ reference to contemporary balladeer James Ingram rivals Marvin Gaye’s pointed comments about wanting to punch vocalist Joe Simon in the face when Simon beat him out of a Grammy Award in the early 1970s. The lead single and title track of Love Power at the time became Vandross’ highest charting song, peaking at #4 in October of 1991. Perturbed that the song, despite all of its promotion, did not become #1, Vandross berated his promotional and management staff, later admitting that “Yeah I was doing my Darth Vader imitation, because this situation was vomitizing…. My career cannot continue until I can claim that I’ve had a No. 1 record. I’m ravenous for one. I don’t think it’s unreasonable or self-serving to ask for one. Somebody has it every week”. Vandross’ comments provide important insights into his artistic choices during the past decade. Vandross’ public acknowledgment of his disappointment marked the beginning of his crisis of faith and, for the past decade, he has consistently distanced himself from the classic “Loofuh” that was regarded as the best voice in black pop since the reign of Queen Aretha.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vandross laid waste to a host of would-be-Luthers including Freddie Jackson, Keith Washington, and David Peaston. By the mid-1990s Vandross’ sound was admittedly dated compared to that of Keith “whining is an art form” Sweat and R. Kelly, who almost single-handedly redefined the persona of the classic R&B “love man” with “Bump and Grind”. It was increasingly difficult for Vandross to reach younger audiences, some of which were likely conceived to a Luther classic a decade earlier. This fact perhaps explains Vandross’ curious choices for his tenth full-length album Songs, which was released in 1994. Songs was Vandross’ long-awaited “remakes” project in which he recorded versions of pop classics such as Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello”, Dionne Warwick’s “What the World Needs Now”, “Going in Circles”—which was first recorded by Friends of Distinction—and McFadden and Whitehead’s late-disco-era anthem “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”. The lead single for the project was a duet with Mariah Carey. The duo’s version of “Endless Love”, first done by Lionel Ritchie and Diana Ross in 1981, comes off as forced and contrived and largely devoid of the kind of soulfulness that one might expect from Vandross and hopes to get from Carey. Perhaps to craft the kind of pop recording that was emblematic of the aforementioned Ingram and Bolton, Vandross inexplicably dispensed with his usual cast of collaborators and instead handed over the production reins to Walter Afanasieff, who had worked closely in the past with pop-schlock faithful such as the aforementioned Bolton, Celine Dion, and Kenny G. Given the opportunity to “Lutherize” songs such as Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With”—Aretha Franklin’s version of the song on her Live at Filmore West is a religious experience—or the Barbra Streisand staple “Evergreen”, Vandross chose to play it straight in pursuit of the ever-elusive #1 pop hit. Only his rendition of “Going in Circles” showed any aesthetic allegiance to the classic “Luther” of the 1980s. In fact it is simply astounding that Vandross chose this route given the fact that many of his classic “Loofuh” remakes were of trite pop tunes such as the aforementioned “Superstar” or “How Deep is Your Love” (Never Let Me Go, 1993). For the record, his duet with Mariah Carey stalled at #2 on the Billboard Top 100. Vandross attempted to cross over via a duet with an established contemporary female vocalist two years earlier with “The Best Things in Life (Are Free)” which was recorded with Janet Jackson for the soundtrack of the Damon Wayans film Mo’ Money. Like the Carey duet, the song stalled in the top ten.
Vandross returned in 1996 in what would be his last recording with the Epic label after a 15-year relationship. With Your Secret Love Vandross returned to classic “Loofuh” form, this time trying to update his sound for contemporary R&B/Urban taste, employing the talents of Spinderella (Deidra Roper, the DJ of Salt-N-Pepa) on the track “I Can’t Wait No Longer”. There were strong Vandross originals such as the heavy soul of “I Can Make It Better” and “Nobody to Love”, which were both written with long-time collaborator Marcus Miller. Vandross also recorded a beautifully sparse version of Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet” and a stirring rendition of the Little Anthony and the Imperials classic “Goin’ Out of My Head”, a song that accommodates the wild vocal flourishes that mark the best Vandross performances. Unfortunately, the recording was beyond the radar of contemporary R&B, which at the time had become a solidly producer-driven entity punching out a host of cookie-cutter artists without any distinctive features. Vandross was also beyond the scope of the burgeoning Neo-Soul movement in which vocalists like Eric Benet, Maxwell, and D’Angelo were already firmly ensconced as post-Luther “Soul Men”. The low-key commercial response to the recording more than likely facilitated Vandross’ break with Epic.
Given full creative control, Vandross signed with Virgin, the same label as Jackson, releasing I Know in August of 1998. Easily Vandross’ most personal recording, the title track featured a harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder. Vandross also revisited “Get It Right”, the track he wrote for Aretha Franklin 15 years earlier, this time imbuing it with a hip-hop spin. I Know was one of Vandross’ most ambitious projects as witnessed by his brilliant collaboration with the extraordinary Jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson, who is easily the strongest vocalist with whom Vandross has been paired, save his duet with Martha Wash on their dramatic reading of “I Who Have Nothing” on Power of Love. Vandross also revisited his roots on the project, reminiscing about his childhood in New York City on the track “Nights in Harlem”, returning to the club scene where he first flourished as a guest vocalist for Bionic Boogie and Change, and hooking up with the legendary dance music producers “Little” Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez on the track “Are You Using Me”. In different ways, the songs were representative of Vandross’ desires to remain authentically connected to the aesthetic and cultural communities that produced him, namely the kind of black urban spaces where “sanging” is appreciated and the tight spaces where black, brown, and white bodies come together to embrace their humanities on hot sweaty dancefloors. The recording was rounded out with a dramatic “Lutherized” reading of Leo Sayer’s “When I Need You”, which again highlighted the faulty logic of the Songs project. While the move to Virgin gave Vandross the ability to explore more challenging terrain, the Virgin publicity machine failed him; I Know was his first recording that failed to go platinum. Vandross severed ties with the label shortly thereafter. By the time he toured with Boyz II Men in the fall of 2000, none of the songs from the recording were included in his concert repertoire.
In steps Clive Davis. In the spring of 2000 Davis had been ceremoniously ushered away from the head position at the Arista/BMG Entertainment label, the label that he founded in 1975. Whitney Houston’s well-publicized sweat-fest at a celebration of Davis’ career was one of the many things done to ease the 67-year-old into retirement. Despite his orchestrating of one of the great comebacks in pop music history with Carlos Santana’s Supernatural, Davis was increasingly being overshadowed by upstarts within the Arista/BMG family like Sean “P-Diddy” Combs and most notably Antonio “LA” Reid, who along with Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds had redefined the stakes of boutique-style labels with their successful LaFace partnership. Reid took over from Davis in July of 2000 in what was publicly played out as being a move in line with Bertelsmann’s (BMG Entertainment’s German parent company) retirement age policy. Not wanting to bet against Davis’ talent for reading pop music trends, Bertelsmann offered Davis the chance head up his own label—sharing 50% of the label’s profits—simply known as J Records. Though Davis would not take some of his well-known creations with him to the new label, like Houston or Santana, he was allowed to take some lesser acts like Deborah Cox, Next, Monica, and Angie Stone with him and has since wooed a host of newcomers including R&B acts like Alicia Keys, Olivia, Jimmy Cozier, the next generation boy-band O-Town (they of Making the Band), and of course Luther Vandross.
Banking on the hype that Davis et al. created for Santana, Luther Vandross is the singer’s debut recording for his new label. In a recent interview with Sonia Murray of the Atlanta Constitution, Vandross admitted that at Epic and Virgin he was “surrounded by people who thought it was enough to only obtain R&B success…and I didn’t think that it was enough. And I was constantly telling them, ‘You know, I’m not going to wear a blond wig to get success as a pop-singer. But at the same time, I refuse to let you tell me that this is some esoteric voice that appeals to only a certain corner of the market’”. In the current pop music landscape, “pop” is increasingly defined by contemporary R&B sensibilities as a range of folks like Jessica Simpson, N’Sync, and Babyface are being “laced lovely” by the likes of Jermaine “JD” Dupri, Teddy Riley, and The Neptunes. In an effort to again achieve the mainstream appeal that has continued to elude Vandross, Luther Vandross features a patchwork of “young” producers, all of whom have had some modicum of success in both the R&B and Pop arenas. Unfortunately, what is missing from the recording is Vandross himself as he takes a backseat to a bunch of contemporary production clutter that distracts the listeners from what makes “Loofuh” the legendary voice that he is—his voice.
The project’s lead single “Take You Out”, produced and co-written by Warryn “Baby Dub” Campbell who worked with Vandross on the most recent BeBe Winans disc, is as scrumptious as any Vandross single, recalling his “Any Love” (Any Love, 1988). In classic Vandross form, he takes flight during the bridge, closing the song with a falsetto coo and an urgent “let me make your house a home”. The last line is of course an improvised reference to his classic performance on “A House Is Not a Home” that serves to realign the “new” Vandross with the “classic” model. The first track on the recording “Take You Out” is unquestionably one of the great performances on a recording that begins to falter quickly thereafter. “Grown Things” marks the first collaboration between Vandross and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, although they were label mates at Epic for nearly 10 years. The song, co-written by the duo along with Babyface protege Jon B (who also produced the track), is a clever spin on the funk landscape that both Vandross and Babyface have been long removed from. Throughout the song’s verses Vandross’ vocals are reminiscent of those of the self-exiled Sly Stone, while the song’s chorus (“you make me want to do thangs, do thangs, them grown thangs, do thangs with you”) is vocally patterned on a riff from the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money” (“do things, do things, do things, bad things with it [money]”). However clever the song is, essentially a Jon B song, it misses the mark as Babyface and Jon B involve Vandross in their own individual identity crises. In the video for his current Neptunes-produced (yes, it’s banging) single “There She Goes”, Babyface—who has jettisoned his jeri-curled glam look for a ‘fro and eight o’clock shadow—is clearly an artist in the throes of a middle-age identity crisis. Jon B, on the other hand, has yet to resolve his status as a talented R&B songwriter/singer who happens to be white; he consistently reminds viewers about how much he adores brown-skinned women in a fashion that is only slightly less insulting than the “Mariah Carey at the Coon Show” videos of the early and mid-1990s (and I’m not talking about the video with Mase and Puffy.) Ironically, as Vandross’ sound began to show wear in the early 1990s, Babyface was often cited by critics as a logical choice to work with Vandross. Too bad the collaboration came a decade too late. Babyface also co-produced the forgettable “Like I’m Invisible” with Vandross.
Simply put, Vandross comes off as unbelievable at times throughout the recording, a fact that is made more clear on the Kay-Gee-produced track “Bring Your Heart to Mine”. The longtime Naughty By Nature producer/DJ has created a cottage industry of bouncy R&B grooves with groups such as Zhane, Koffee Brown, and most notably Next, and thankfully chose to produce a “Luther” song as opposed to making Vandross “RL the prequel”. Unfortunately, lyrics such as “I don’t want to be a hater / but he needs to raise up off you” sound improbable—insulting really—when uttered by a 50-year-old Vandross, suggesting none of the tongue-in-cheek humor of say Tom Jones’ “Kiss”. Like Puffy’s attempt at writing and producing for Boyz II Men on Evolution, the song also highlights Kay-Gee’s limits at writing pop ballads. In most other cases on the recording, the stable of R&B/hip-hop producers stay close to their own formulas, attempting instead to integrate Vandross into the contemporary soundscape with little success. Such is the case with “How Do I Tell Her”, produced by Ron “Amen-ra” Lawrence (he of Puffy’s legendary Hit Squad), and “Let’s Make Tonight the Night”, produced by Eddie F (he of Heavy D and the Boys fame). This is not to say that they are inherently inferior songs, but that they do nothing to highlight Vandross’ vocal sensibilities and are probably the best testament to the incongruity of tracks produced for cookie-cutter vocalists and performed by legitimate vocal artists. In other words, even great vocalists can’t resuscitate rhythm and bass heavy tracks created to obscure limited vocal talents. The one exception on the project is the Allstar-produced “Say It Now”, which simply percolates in a way that is reminiscent of the best uptempo Vandross songs such as “The Night I Fell in Love” and “For You to Love” from Any Love (1988). Allstar produced several songs on Bebe Winans’ Love and Freedom, a project in which Vandross provided stellar vocal arrangements. Naturally, “Say It Now” is brought to life by Vandross’ usual cast of background vocalists including Tawatha Agee (see Mtume and her own Tawatha ), longtime collaborator Fonzi Thornton, Paulette McWilliams, who is a 30-year veteran of the industry (see Quincy Jones’ Mellow Madness ), and Cissy Houston, a legendary vocalist in her own right.
Vandross’ crew of backup collaborators is present on the project’s two remakes. “Any Day Now”, which was penned by Vandross favorite Burt Bacharach and Bob Hillard, was first recorded by the smooth R&B crooner Chuck Jackson in 1961. It is a song that has been historically aligned to Jackson and as such Vandross and producer Nat Adderley, Jr. play it straight except for Vandross’ signature vocal arrangements which are only punched up towards the end of the song. (This is the only track produced by his longtime production partner Adderley.) Vandross also revisits Bacharach, this time with Bacharach’s longtime partner Hal David on “Are You There? (With Another Guy)”. Produced by Vandross, it is the only example of classic “Loofuh” with song and vocal arrangements done by Vandross himself and a classic “finish”. The song is one of the few bright spots in what is otherwise a dismal attempt on Vandross’ part to remain relevant to today’s listening audiences.
Ironically, Vandross remains an icon of late-20th-century black pop and is quite frankly one of the most exquisite voices in the industry. Vandross’ apprehensions about not achieving sustained mainstream commercial success and the elusive #1 recording are legitimate and one can only surmise how much Vandross’ image—dark-skinned with weight fluctuations that often exceeded 300 pounds—has played in his inability to achieve such success. Luther Vandross may well deliver to Vandross that elusive #1, but at what cost? A year ago, Vandross was the subject of a vicious rumor that suggested that he had died of HIV. The rumor was in part the product of an on-going fixation among some black audiences about his sexuality and his most recent weight loss. At the annual Essence magazine music festival in New Orleans, Vandross made a dramatic “comeback” that shattered any doubts that he was suffering from ill-health. But there was some truth to those rumors. “Loofuh” is dead, replaced by a sleeker, trendier, banging, hyper-heterosexual version. Like the lead track of his most personal recording I Know, I am “keeping the faith”, that Vandross will stop chasing Billboard bullets and “raise the dead”, in the process re-establishing himself as one of the singular vocal talents of recent pop history.