A Tribute to Luther Vandross

Many consider R&B singer Luther Vandross the greatest of his generation. Vandross died earlier this month at age 54.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm ED Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

(Soundbite of "Wait for Love")

Mr. LUTHER VANDROSS (R&B Vocalist): (Singing) I remember not to long ago, I was just a lonely person with a lonely heart.

GORDON: A memorial service is scheduled in New York City today for the late Luther Vandross. Many consider him the greatest R&B singer of our time. When Vandross died last week, he left an extraordinary musical legacy. His trademark was his soulful, sophisticated and unmistakably silky voice. He was a master of the contemporary love song, a crooner who developed a reputation as the balladeer's balladeer.

(Soundbite of "Wait for Love")

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) And you're gonna get the chance to love me. Wait for love, wait for love. Oh, woman.

Mr. MARCUS MILLER (Songwriter, Producer and Musician): It's not just his voice, you know? It's his sense of drama.

GORDON: Marcus Miller was a major collaborator on what became known as the Vandross sound. Miller co-wrote, co-produced and played bass on many of the singer's most celebrated songs, including this one, "Wait for Love."

(Soundbite of "Wait for Love")

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) Now I remember spending all my time on a dream that kept me wishing that you could be mine.

Mr. MILLER: I would watch the audience, man, and watch them go through the range of emotions that he would take them to every time he sang that song. He would take you to the highest highs and the lowest lows, and you'd be crying and by the end of it you'd be completely worn out. And not too many people can do that. And, you know, he chose material that suited his taste. So, I mean, you didn't have any other black R&B singers singing Carpenter songs at that time, you know? He sang "Superstar" and he made it his own, you know? He had a sense of what his music should sound like, not just what his voice should sound like, and I think that's what made him special.

(Soundbite of "Superstar")

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) Don't you remember you told me you loved me, baby? You said you'd be coming back this way again, baby. Baby, baby, baby, whoo, baby, oh, baby. Yes, I love you. I really do.

GORDON: You and Luther collaborated on some of his biggest hits: "Any Love," "Here and Now," one of the remakes that he did, a favorite of mine, "Love Won't Let Me Wait."

(Soundbite of "Love Won't Let Me Wait")

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) And it's because of you that love won't let me wait.

GORDON: And I can recall Isaac Hayes saying to me once, `Man, I blew it.' And I said, `What do you mean, Isaac?' He said, `Man, I put "Love Won't Let Me Wait" on my album,' and it was the same time that Luther had done his. And he said, `I can forget about that.' What was it about remakes that made this man really steal them and make it his own?

Mr. MILLER: Well, you know, he had a healthy respect for the classic songs. But he also had a healthy disrespect. And what I mean by that is he wasn't afraid to change a song around to make it suit him, you know? If this phrase had to be repeated a couple of times to make--to milk it, he'd do that. If he needed to add a new section at the end of the song so he could really, you know, tell this girl that he needed her to come back home, he had no problem adding that to the song. So he had a healthy respect and a healthy disrespect at the same time. I can't tell you how many artists contacted me and said, `Look, I'm getting ready to do a cover song. I just want to make sure Luther's not going to do it around the same time because I don't want Luther stealing the song from me.' So he absolutely would make a song his own.

(Soundbite of "Love Won't Let Me Wait")

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) My temperature's rising. My temperature's rising, baby. It won't let me wait. No, no. No, no, no, no, baby, baby...

Backup Singers: Love won't let me wait.

Mr. VANDROSS (Singing) ...it won't let me wait.

GORDON: The more you talk with people who knew Luther, the more you get a sense of his work ethic and his dedication to craftsmanship.

Mr. DAVID NATHAN (Music Writer and Historian): The passion, the absolute passion Luther had for singing--like, he loved his voice.

GORDON: That's music writer and historian David Nathan. He and Luther go back almost 30 years.

Mr. NATHAN: We used to sit and play cards in his living room on West 56th Street, and I would walk from my apartment to his. And we would sit and play cards and I always lost. He was a mean gin rummy player and took great pride in having me lose every single game. But we would sit and listen to music, and the music that we would listen to primarily were the classic albums by Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin--and particularly Dionne because Dionne was the inspiration, the catalyst, for him to choose to really do this as a career. And when he was preparing to do his first solo album, "Never Too Much," he told me, `Well, I'm going to do "A House Is Not A Home."'

And I actually remember having a conversation with him and asking him, `Well, what are you going to do with it?' Because, you know, it's kind of hard to do anything with it. She kind of did it. And, you know, we joked about it, and he said, `Well, you know, I'll come up with something,' and then he began recording. And I remember very specifically getting a phone call from him, saying, `You've got to come over. I just finished "A House Is Not A Home" and I want you to hear it.' And I'm, like, `OK,' drop whatever I'm doing and run next door and listen, and I was just floored.

(Soundbite of "A House Is Not A Home")

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) But, oh, a room is not a house and a house is not a home when the two of us are far apart and one of us has a broken heart.

Mr. NATHAN: I mean, I just couldn't even--I looked at him, like, `Whoa!' And he talked a little bit about some of the challenge of coming up with the arrangement and even about how he got a new respect for Dionne Warwick once he was recording the song himself, at the technical feat of what's required to come out of the bridge into the third verse. I remember that conversation. But it was just--I mean, because I didn't know, and nor did he, that it would become the quintessential piece of his repertoire for, you know, the rest of his career.

(Soundbite of "A House Is Not A Home")

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) I'm not meant to live alone, oh, turn this house into a home. When I climb the stairs and turn the key, oh, please, be there, still...

GORDON: Music ran in Luther's family. His sister sang with a girl group, and he formed a vocal ensemble in his Bronx high school. For years, Vandross labored in the corners of the music industry. He sang advertising jingles and did backup vocals for Barbra Streisand, Chaka Khan and David Bowie, among many others. He composed, arranged and produced. Roberta Flack, for whom he also sang, insisted that he finally move into the forefront and seek his own recording contract. After two unsuccessful solo efforts, he gained attention by lending his voice to two songs for the group Change. After that, Vandross would find the magic. He released the album "Never Too Much" with a cover of Burt Bacharach's "A House Is Not A Home" as its cornerstone. From then on, every R&B fan knew the name Luther.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) If I could get another chance, another walk, another dance with him...

Mr. REX RIDEOUT (Music Producer): This is a person that just musically speaking trusted his voice and his tone until the last breath.

GORDON: Rex Rideout is a producer who worked with Luther on "Dance with My Father," Vandross' last Grammy-winning CD. By the time Rideout got a call from Luther, the singer was already a superstar.

Mr. RIDEOUT: And they didn't let a lot of people in the camps. You know, it was really hard to get in there, and once you do, you know, you don't want to have a lot to say. I can remember we're changing the bridge on a song, and he's standing over my shoulder and I'm playing the piano and my fingers were shaking because, you know, you're hoping that he'll like the first thing you play right off the bat. But the thing that was cool was that when he liked what you did, he let you know how much he did. So, you know, he didn't call me because I had a string of number-one songs or whatever. It just--he went on his feeling of what he thought was right. And I miss that call--not for the money and not for the fact to say I'm on a Luther record, but it was just--that was a really cool thing to happen.

(Soundbite of "Never Too Much")

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) I just don't want to stop. Too much, never too much, never too much, never too much.

GORDON: I lot of people I talk to--and I know this holds true for me--I remember the first time I heard "Never Too Much." I mean, I remember hearing that voice and saying, `Man! Who is that?'

Mr. RIDEOUT: I know, man. You know, I was thinking about that today because--and I was working with this gospel group in a little town called Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and I remember this girl, she played that album over and over again. And I can just remember she had a little raggedy turntable, you know, in her kitchen, and we would play that album back and forth. So I remember it vividly.

GORDON: And truth be told, so many of us didn't know it was Luther Vandross, but the hits he had with Change...

Mr. RIDEOUT: Oh, yeah.

GORDON: Clearly, you knew it was a special voice then, but as times were, they were pushing the group and they didn't say `Luther Vandross up front.' It was just Change, Change, Change. But you knew that voice was special from the moment you heard it, even in a group setting.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) Flowers blooming, morning dew, and the beauty seems to say it's a pleasure when you treasure all that's new and true and gay.

Mr. RIDEOUT: It's no mistake when an individual comes out from a group, whether it be Luther or Lionel Richie or whatever. You know, there's just something special about certain individuals and it can't be denied for long, you know. They'll be in a member of a group; they'll be a member of a duo or something like that; and the next thing you know, they're a household word. And Luther was definitely one of those. He was our living legend.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) As we share our affair, talking in the glow of love, oh.

GORDON: But with all the adulation and wealth that came with being the world's best-loved contemporary R&B singer, Luther was not content. He wanted, but never achieved, a number-one hit on the pop charts.

Mr. MILLER: There was always some male singer at the top of the pop game that Luther would be talking to me about.

GORDON: Here again, Vandross' producer, Marcus Miller.

Mr. MILLER: You know, one year it was this guy. The next year it was that guy. And after about 10 years of it--and I said, `OK, Luther, you realize you're talking about this guy now, but you've been talking about a different guy every year. In the meantime, you've got a career that spans like 10, 15 years.' And it went on to be a 20-year career. And to me, that was so much more valuable than being, you know, at the top of the pop game for a year or so.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) Love has truly been good to me.

GORDON: On a selfish end, it is hard to believe that we will not--even though we will cherish what we have now, we won't hear another new song from Luther Vandross.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah. We have to understand that this is how it works and we don't really have a lot of say in these kind of things, and just be happy that we were blessed with what he had to give us when he was here.

GORDON: Musician Marcus Miller, music writer David Nathan and producer Rex Rideout talked to us about Luther Vandross, who died last Friday. The singer was 54 years old.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) Got to tell you how you thrill me. I'm happy as I can be. You have come and it's changed my whole world. Bye-bye, sadness. Hello, mellow. And what a wonderful day. It's so amazing to be loved. I'd follow you to the moon and the sky above. Ooooh, I'd go and...

(Credits)

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NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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