Luther left us a world of love and romance

Music Notes

July 07, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison

I had just put my bags down in the cool hotel room when my cell phone rang. It was Mama, calling from her comfy apartment in southwest Little Rock. No hello, no how-you-doin'. Sounding a bit distressed, she immediately wanted to know: "Why didn't you call to tell me Luther Vandross died today?"

"For real?"

"Yeah. You didn't know? I thought you were supposed to be the pop music critic. Here I am telling you what's going on."

"Mama, I'm in Philly. Just got here to cover Live 8," I said, kicking my sandals off. "I ain't heard nothing about Luther."

"Oh. Well, it was all on the radio here. I had just been playing his greatest hits this week. I thought he was doing fine."

But Luther (in the soul community, he was always known by one name) never fully recovered from the debilitating stroke he suffered two Aprils ago. Surrounded by family, friends and a medical support team, the silk-and-satin-voiced balladeer died Friday at JFK Medical Center in Edison, N.J. He was 54.

I can't remember a time when Luther's music wasn't around me. Mama absolutely adored the man and played his records often. Her chatty, gay friend Tim used to come over from time to time with a stack of albums tucked under his skinny arm. "Dianne, I got that new Luther," he'd say, heading to the stereo. Miss Betty Wells -- the unemployed, Newports-smoking diva who lived next door to us in the projects -- blared "Never Too Much" and cuts off The Night I Fell In Love LP day in and day out. My older sister Dusa would scream any time the singer appeared on Solid Gold or award shows.

Coming of age in the '90s when R&B really started to wither, I appreciated the crooner's smoothness, the lushness of the strings that cushioned his fluid melodies, the sincerity and vulnerability in the lyrics he wrote. His soul serenades were escapism from the crassness of R. Kelly, the gangsta cartoons of NWA and Snoop Dogg. But underneath it all -- Luther's fluttering notes, the popping, elastic bass lines, the full, powerful background vocals -- there was this undeniable sense of longing.

During most of his 30-year career, Luther was dogged by the rumors: He's gay, right? He's got AIDS; that's why he's losing so much weight. The performer either cleverly evaded or angrily dismissed questions about his sexuality. He was a proud, very private man. But it didn't matter what or whom he preferred. And it was really nobody's business in the first place. Listening closely to songs like "Other Side of the World" and "Once You Know How," it was clear what Luther desired, what seemed to elude him: romantic love, the very thing he made millions singing about.

Born in New York City on April 20, 1951, Luther Vandross was no matinee idol. He crooned lyrics of sweet seduction and undying devotion, but it wasn't his looks that made the sistas (and some brothas) swoon. Luther's features weren't as refined as Sam Cooke's. He didn't possess Marvin Gaye's or Teddy Pendergrass' sweaty, upfront sex appeal. Luther battled the bulge most of his adult life. In the '80s, at the height of his fame, he weighed about 300 pounds, rocked a stringy Jheri Curl and sported tailored suits dotted with lots and lots of sequins. But none of that deterred you from That Voice.

Nobody sounded like Luther. That mellifluous tenor of his could easily, softly lift you into another space and time. Everything was all right because Luther was at the helm. His heart may have been bleeding in "Since I Lost My Baby" and "Promise Me," but there was still a glimmer of hope in all that dark longing. I'm not sure exactly how Luther soothed the ache in his heart, but his songs were surely a balm for me and millions of others.

In his music, Luther took his emotional cues from women. As a teenager in the '60s, he practically lived in Harlem's Apollo Theater, absorbing the electric live shows of his favorite female acts: Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, the Shirelles, the Supremes.

It was after seeing a young Dionne Warwick perform at the legendary venue that he decided to pursue a career in music. On Warwick's records, he studied Burt Bacharach's tricky, melodic arrangements and paid close attention to all the nuances of the singer's voice and how she interpreted Hal David's lyrics of unrequited love.

Another major musical influence on Luther was the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. He dissected her great Atlantic sides: Sista Ree's keen sense of timing and rhythm, the dynamic, gospel-suffused background vocals by the Sweet Inspirations, which included Whitney Houston's underrated mom, Cissy. Those private, informal music lessons informed his own sound years later.

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