[20 December 2007]
As the essay included in the Love, Luther box set’s booklet makes clear, there will probably never be another singer in the world like Luther Vandross. The MTV generation turned music into something as visual as it is aural (and by visual, I’m not even referring to video quality, I’m referring to the look of the artist), and it’s hard to imagine a record label taking a chance on a chocolate-brown, 300-pound guy approaching 30 unless he’s a gangsta rapper or he won American Idol. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what Epic Records did with Luther Vandross in 1980, and the result was a quarter-century of great music by the individual that I believe to be the greatest singer-NOT the greatest R&B singer, NOT the greatest black singer, NOT the greatest male singer… the greatest singer, PERIOD, of his generation.
A former friend got upset once when I called Luther his generation’s Frank Sinatra, although I don’t think the comparison is far-fetched at all. Both singers came from the Tri-state area, both were unlikely sex symbols with legions of female fans, and both men had incredible interpretive powers. In light of revelations about Luther’s life—according to many, he was an unhappily closeted gay man who spent much of his life searching for but never finding true love—the lyrics to many of his ballads take on an almost painful autobiographical glow. What Luther and the Chairman of the Board (who actually share a duet on this album) mostly had in common is that they both knew that the best singing didn’t come from whooping and hollering, that it was all about tone, emotion, and sensitivity.
Take “A House Is Not a Home”. Among true Luther fans, nothing he’s recorded before or since tops this 1981 interpretation of the Dionne Warwick classic. I’ll freely admit that every time I hear this song I turn into a weepy mess, not something the average guy is willing to admit. Hearing Luther sing the lyrics about forgiveness and loneliness, it’s quite obvious that he identifies strongly with the song. He inhabits the lyrics like few vocalists do nowadays, and that’s why I can listen to a song like this a million times in a row and not get tired of it. It’s one of the singular best vocal performances ever recorded.
Songs like “A House Is Not a Home” gave Luther a bit of an unfair reputation as a balladeer. His work certainly titled that way after “Here & Now” became his breakout pop smash in 1989, but Luther was also a star of the disco era. Hell, he sang backup on tons of dance hits, including Chic’s “Le Freak”, Sister Sledge’s “He’s The Greatest Dancer” and Barbra Streisand & Donna Summer’s “No More Tears (Enough is Enough” (you can pick his voice out of all three songs fairly clearly), and knew how to hold down a dance floor pretty well on his own. His fast-paced, syncopated verse on “Never Too Much” (included here in a rare 12” version) is a gem, as is the joyous, string-laden “Glow of Love” (recorded by the group Change and presented here in it’s original album version). Luther was the voice (although not the face) of many dance groups during the late Seventies and early Eighties, and this collection pulls out rare gems such as his shuffling rendition of Toto’s “Georgy Porgy” (recorded under the name Charme) and the percolating “Hot Butterfly” (later recorded by Chaka Khan under the name “Papillon”, Luther provided background vocals on the re-recording). Even at the end of his career, he still hadn’t lost his love for the groove, as the summery groove “Shine” makes clear.
But groove aside, Luther managed to filter his emotions and an undeniable vulnerability and sensitivity into some fantastic ballads. While his high-water marks from a pop perspective are a pleasant if Xeroxed version of “Endless Love” featuring Mariah Carey and the slightly oily wedding ballad “Here & Now”, they certainly don’t represent the best of Luther’s slow jams (we’ll make no reference to baby-making here, for Luther was a true romantic). The feather-light “So Amazing” and the yearning “Wait for Love” are more in line with the typical Luther ballad. And, let’s face it, the man also had a way of taking songs originally recorded and making them his own. This set features solid versions of near-uncover able classics like Heatwave’s “Always & Forever” (recorded live in England), as well as Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet” and “Creepin’” (which as many people identify with Luther as they do with Stevie). There’s also the smoldering revision of Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway’s “The Closer I Get to You” (recorded with a restrained Beyonce, sounding better than she ever has), and one of my personal favorites, his version of Brenda Russell’s “If Only for One Night”. Much like “House”, it’s one of those ballads that you can tell Luther is singing directly from his heart. The honesty in his singing continued right through to the end. “Dance With My Father” is one of those songs that pulls every heart string in existence, but isn’t calculated or cloying. It’s simple, beautiful and honest.
I guess this would be the point where I quibble about the questionable inclusions (does Luther’s spirited if generic remake of “Love the One You’re With”—a song even HE disliked-have to be on every Luther comp?) and the exclusions (the bouncy “Best Things in Life Are Free“ with Janet Jackson), but what’s the point? Although Luther’s albums (especially during the mid-late ‘90s) could be maddeningly inconsistent, everything was at least listenable, thanks to that voice, which couldn’t hit a bad note if one walked up to him and struck him in the face. The compilers did a bang-up job here.
Luther left us quite a legacy when he unexpectedly passed away in 2005, and Love, Luther is a carefully and lovingly assembled collection of his greatest moments-spread across four discs and 56 tracks. It covers material ranging from his first recorded song, a 1973 duet with little-known R&B singer Delores Hall (making it’s first-ever appearance on CD) to an absolutely stunning version of “A House Is Not a Home” recorded during an NYC concert a couple of short months before the 2003 stroke that marked the end of his recording and performing career. In between, you’ll find hits spanning from the disco era to the quiet-storm R&B years when he was the biggest male soul singer on the planet. There are rarities, demos (including a somewhat humorous promo single featuring some of Luther‘s best moments from back when he was a commercial jingle singer), duets, remakes…if you have to own just one Luther collection (and it’s my firm belief that everyone should have at least one Luther album), you can’t go wrong with this set.