Luther Vandross was highly successful as a solo artist in the ’80s and ’90s on the R&B — and to a lesser extent, the pop — charts. But he had been in the music business long before he broke out as a solo star. As early as 1972, people were recording his songs and using him as a vocalist. His first high-profile connection was on David Bowie’s 1975 album Young Americans. The shape-shifting Bowie had become fascinated with the Philadelphia soul style, and an old friend of Vandross’s was his guitarist at the time. Vandross showed up, co-wrote the heavy funk of “Fascination” with Bowie, helped out during the rest of the recording sessions and went with Bowie as a singer on the resulting tour. Bowie in turn helped introduce Vandross to some other famous musicians, including Bette Midler, and before long, Vandross was singing (backing and sometimes lead vocals), writing, and arranging – not only for singers and for his own quintet, but also for musicals and commercials. The list of artists he worked with in the late ’70s is a veritable who’s who of pop and R&B stars, including Chic, Carly Simon, Sister Sledge, Quincy Jones, the Spinners, Roberta Flack, Donna Summer, Ben E. King and Ringo Star.
Finally, in 1981, Vandross got a solo contract and released Never Too Much, which eventually went on to reach double platinum status in America. He released five more albums in the ’80s; all of them went platinum, and three again reached double platinum. The ’90s saw him put out five albums as well, with slightly less commercial success (two double platinum, two platinum, and one gold). However, he won four Grammys in the ’90s to make up for the lack of the third double-platinum record. Vandross released two more albums and earned himself four more Grammys in the ’00s. Over the length of his career, Vandross’s records went to number one on the R&B charts at least eight times, and to top 10 on the pop charts seven times. The man was a commercial giant, selling over 30 million albums – not including the albums he appeared on, co-wrote, arranged and contributed to.
The purpose of the recently released Hidden Gems is to expose Vandross’s fans to his “seldom-heard deep album tracks and movie soundtrack songs,” though considering how many people have already purchased his albums, this may be unnecessary. The compilation is heavily biased towards his later career material — 12 of the 15 tracks are from the ’90s or ’00s – and towards his syrupy ballads. In addition, it includes two soundtrack songs, from Dustin Hoffman’s Hero (1992) and Wesley Snipes’ Money Train (1995), little-known films with soundtracks “long out of print”, according to the album’s liner notes. While “The Thrill I’m In”, from Money Train, was produced by ’80s pop producers Jam & Lewis, they were far past their chart-ruling ’80s heyday at this point, and these two songs are mainly notable for their rarity.
Hidden Gems contains a large assortment of lesser-known Vandross ballads, performed in his typical style – elaborately orchestrated, lush, grandiose, gliding and sugary. Two of these songs happen to be covers. One is “I Who Have Nothing”, originally sung by Ben E. King. It’s easy to see why Vandross picked this song for a cover, since King’s version is full of darting and sweeping strings and flowery, melodramatic vocals. It is almost entirely strings and bass. There is a mournful trumpet that might appear in a Sergio Leone movie, but no percussion. It is a strange song where the lavish delivery cuts against the message of being unable to get a girl due to poverty. Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway redid it as a duet, doubling the length of the original, adding drums, and making it more explicitly bluesy and jazzy. Vandross uses this version as a base, singing it with Martha Wash, and adding a saxophone that merits inclusion on the Lethal Weapon soundtrack. His other cover choice is Little Anthony & The Imperials’ “Goin’ Out Of My Head”. Like “I Who Have Nothing”, this song is about being ignored by walking women – “I see you each morning, but you just walk past me.” Little Anthony’s version is simple; the bass plays a steady three notes while Mr. Anthony sings in a very high, light, child-like voice that gets only higher. Sweet backing vocals coo behind him. Vandross gives it his treatment and transforms it into something slow, deep and churning.
A few of the tracks have more of a steady pulse. “Are You Using Me” is straight disco — subtle horns and guitar, thumping bass and snapping drums. Vandross wails smoothly, “Are you using me,” echoed by pleasantly arranged female backing vocalists. “Like I’m Invisible”, from 2001, feels like it might have been influenced by rap. “You Really Started Something”, also from 2001, is more disco, this time driven by a keyboard. But most of Hidden Gems proceeds at a very stately pace. It is only for those who truly enjoy Vandross’s style — but it seems likely that those fans already have the songs on this disc.