Peter Donnelly, Opinions Editor and Niall McElroy, Contributor.
Luther Vandross was raised in the years when the Motown movement was simply a burgeoning sound of sophisticated, intriguing four-beat drum patterns.
Enlightened and inspired by that experience of hearing Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Four Tops and The Temptations on the radio and around the Bronx where he grew up, he would become one of the most revered and skilled soul singers and producers of the 20th century.
It was more by coincidence than creation that he came to the attention of none other than glam rock icon David Bowie in the 1970s. From that point onward and with the added of experience of working with Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack and Chic, his career accelerated and by 1975, he was co-writing ‘Fascination’ with Bowie on his soul-inspired Young Americans album. 1980 saw Vandross etch his mark upon the disco movement, providing voice to the production and dance group Change’s ‘Searching’ and ‘Glow of Love.’ These stomping tunes could not have become enduring dance floor classics had it not been for the prime vocal talent and delivery of Luther Vandross and his slick musicianship. 1980 proved that Vandross was rapidly becoming a man in high demand, further adding his touch on keyboardist and producer, Michael Zager’s track, ‘Don’t Sneak On Me’ as well as Mebla Moore’s ‘Something On Your Mind.’
It was in 1981 that he released his revered and flawless cut of Never Too Much, the title track to which became a universally recognised soul classic, from both the dancefloor, the lounge or beyond. It became his first number one platinum hit in the US R&B Album Charts while surprisingly reaching just 41 on the UK charts.
Slow jams on the album such as ‘A House is Not a Home’ (covering Dionne Warwick) and ‘Don’t You Know That?’ remain the requisite listening choices of the lonely and broken-hearted and showcased Luther Vandross’ inner sensibility as a songwriter and vocalist amongst the greats in the history of R&B.
Between 1981 and 2003, prior to succumbing to a stroke, he released thirteen studio albums. His 1982 release with Forever, for Always, For Love was notable for being littered with ripe groove classics. Soul queen Aretha Franklin’s album of the same Jump to It and her 1983 Get It Right are signature Vandross-branded electro-funk productions with ‘The Velvet Voice’ himself weighing in on the backing refrains. The relationship between these two giants was one that would last until Luther Vandross’ untimely passing.
In 2003, Vandross suffered a severe stroke, the debilitating effects of which were to leave him permanently in a wheelchair and unable to showcase his trademark crisp baritone voice.
Fonzi Thornton, one of Luther Vandross’ childhood friends and himself a singer, was keen to recount Vandross’ latter months. The illustrious husband and wife singer-production duo Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford were regular visitors to Vandross while in hospital. Aretha Franklin, due to her fear of flying, arrived in her tour bus to visit along with Patti LaBelle and Teddy Pendergrass. Pendergrass had been paralysed from the chest down due to injuries he sustained in a car accident in the 1980s. Fonzi Thornton humorously recounted how both Vandross and Pendergrass broke out in song in the hospital room, with Thornton finding himself providing backing harmony to the lead vocals of the two soul greats in the wonderfully surreal scenario.
Luther Vandross made one of his last public appearances at the 2004 Grammy Awards in California, at which he was awarded a Grammy for his hit ‘Dance with My Father’. On screen, he movingly uttered, “When I say goodbye, it’s never for long….I believe in the power of love.”
Vandross died on 1st July 2005 at the premature age of 54.
His extensive back catalogue will forever remain testament to the monumental musical talent and skill of this son of New York.
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