So I’m at the gym, winding down from a workout, chilling on the mat, and my iPod suddenly bursts the sweetest sound into my ears: the fanfare opening of a song called “Never Too Much.” By Luther Vandross. I had to sit there for a coupla minutes and pull myself together, because having run on the treadmill to Chaka Khan’s “Clouds” and Diana Ross’s “No One Gets the Prize” and Labelle’s “What Can I Do For You”, I’d forgotten that I’d programmed Luther onto the end of the playlist devoted to diva hits of the 70s and 80s.
Luther’s gone. That was my thought, a thought I’d been thinking all week. I’d been thinking of all the times I saw Luther in concert, bringing down the house with both his vocal skill and his personality, bringing us with him on a journey of love. I’d been thinking that I can’t remember another contemporary musical artist who took great pop tunes by great pop singers and turned them into his own dynamic statement. Can you really remember what the Carpenter’s “Superstar” sounds like? Can anyone really listen to the original “A House is Not a Home” and not think of Luther? Can you think of background vocalizing and not acknowledge the impeccably right and soulfully exuberant background vocals Luther was known for arranging–and singing: Get 3 minutes and 25 seconds into Chaka Khan’s brilliant “Papillon” or groove to the chorus of Bowie’s “Young Americans” and you’ll see what I mean…
Luther’s solo career jumped off at the end of one era–when we had to start waiting five (or ten) years for new music from Stevie–but before the new era–when vocal ability became maybe the fourth most important thing required of (black) singers trying to be signed to a record deal. Luther was the last of the vocal greats, with the uncanny ability to make his music relatable and definitive to both the lovelorn lonely and the lost-in-love. Not a lotta cats could do that.
I found some wonderful tributes to Luther around the blog world: