John McCready, Radio Times, August 1987
IT'S LIKE saying Miles Davis can play the trumpet, or Mike Tyson can knock most heavyweights into the middle of next week, but Luther Vandross can sing.
From Sam Cooke to Marvin Gaye, from the curiously misunderstood Barry White to Teddy Pendergrass and current last-dance-Romeos like Freddie Jackson and Alexander O’Neal, the history of soul music is littered with great male voices mixing the macho with a candlelight sensitivity to win hearts and dollars. Brooklyn-born Luther Vandross could easily be seen as an ’80s extension of that tradition. Some of the women in the audience have brought flowers for him. He sings to them as if across a restaurant table.
Luther Vandross touches back to Sam Cooke’s teasing of gospel into pop. In Gerry Hirshey’s history of soul Nowhere to Run, ‘Midnight Hour’ man Wilson Pickett recalls: "the sisters fell like dominoes when Sam took the lead... Flat out. Piled three deep in the aisles."
Most vocalists would give their gold medallions to share the same sentence as Sam Cooke, but 35-year-old Luther Vandross isn’t quite sure it’s where he wants to be. Perhaps mindful of Lenny Henry’s carpet-chested creation, the lady-killing Theophilus P. Wildebeest, he always keeps his shirt buttoned up and distances himself from this super-lovers’ dynasty.
Rather, he sees himself as a curious extension of soul music’s illustrious female tradition. "I never bought Sam Cooke or even Otis Redding records," he says. "For some reason, I was loyal to the female singers – like Aretha Franklin.
"When The Supremes were on The Ed Sullivan Show, I hid my school report unless my mother punished me by banning me from watching it. Don’t tell me about Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye. Of course I admire them. But listen to Patti Labelle. I’m a devil for the divas..."
In America, Luther has "official" celebrity status, having been grilled by Joan Rivers and lampooned by comedian Eddie Murphy. In Britain he is something of a cult phenomenon. His five albums, from the 1981 Never Too Much debut onwards, have sold by the cartload and his London concerts saw the touts asking upwards of £40 for a ticket. With the success of this year’s Give Me The Reason LP Luther Vandross is at last getting the British recognition that he deserves.
But if it all ended tomorrow, he wouldn’t starve. Before his own solo career began, Vandross honed his talent as a session singer on David Bowie’s Young Americans, and advertisements for Kentucky Fried Chicken, Budweiser and 7-UP. He became one of the New York session circuit’s most sought-after voices, adding the backing spice to songs from Chaka Khan, Carly Simon and Chic.
Following Never Too Much (partly financed by money from commercials) his production skills helped teenage heroines Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin turn in their best collections in a long time.
Despite a consolidating second LP and the million-selling Busy Body, America took almost as much notice of his shape as they did his singing. Weighing in at over 20 stones, he was dubbed the "Pavarotti of Pop" by People magazine and the "Colonel Sanders of Soul" by Eddie Murphy. Luther just pre-empted the jokes by appearing on stage dragging a huge Kentucky Fried Chicken box behind him. On medical advice he lost almost nine stone. The less reputable sections of America’s press decided he had AIDS. Anxious to dispel such talk, the singer went on TV to set the record straight. Luther Vandross was paying the price of celebrity.
Now a slight 14 stone, he looks every inch the lover his songs have always painted him. But, as his concerts and records prove, Luther Vandross isn’t just low lights and sad songs. His seven-year collaboration with brilliant bassist Marcus Miller throws up some taut, rhythmic dance tracks able to hold their own on any floor. And with songs like ‘Wait For Love’ and ‘So Amazing’ he’s shown he can match the pop-soul sensibility of a Stevie Wonder.
But most important, Luther Vandross is a voice equally happy sweetening one of Miller’s active rhythms or stretching a Bacharach-David song like stage favourite ‘This House Is Not A Home’ into a tear-jerking ten-minute epic.
During such moments, it’s clear that Luther Vandross can sing. In the end, it’s all that matters.
© John McCready, 1987
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