(An edited version of a feature that was originally published on a previous iteration of SoulMusic.com in 2005).
I can’t say that I was completely surprised or shocked. I dealt with that when I first learned that Luther had a stroke in April 2003 just weeks after we spoke for the last time when I was writing his bio for the “Dance To My Father” album. But nonetheless, it’s just tough realizing that someone who was a part of my life for almost 30 years is gone. Someone of my generation, someone with whom I must have spoken dozens of times ever since we discovered we were neighbors on W. 56th St. in 1976. That was the year we did our very first interview. It was for Britain’s “Blues & Soul” magazine and Luther was just enthralled that he was actually being interviewed for a U.K. publication! Not that he hadn’t had any dealings with us Brits: a few years earlier, he had worked with David Bowie and no doubt that association that opened quite a few doors for him.
We were there in publicist Simo Doe’s office at Atlantic Records in the 75 Rockefeller Plaza building, me, Luther, Anthony, Diane, Christine and Theresa – for at the time, the group Luther was a quintet. A year later, it would become a trio and after we discovered we lived in adjoining buildings, one of my fondest memories was seeing the group open for Marvin Gaye at Radio City Music Hall.
Quite naturally, being neighbors, we would run into each other a lot. We quickly discovered our mutual love for the divas – especially Aretha and Dionne, my longtime favorites and clearly among Luther’s primary musical influences. As if it were yesterday, I can remember sitting in his living room, listening to old Dionne and Aretha albums, playing cards (gin rummy, which I always always lost!), yes, back then, munching on some Kentucky Fried Chicken! Luther would share with me his dreams of being in the studio with Dionne, Aretha and Diana Ross – and of showing audiences how much he loved to perform by going on the road.
I got a chance to see Luther in action in the studio around this time: I fondly recall stopping in at Chic rehearsals at a studio on W. 52nd St., four blocks from where Luther and I lived. My good friend Josh Pridgen (a former member of the group The Reflections and a die-hard Aretha Franklin fan, a passion we clearly shared) worked there in the evenings so I’d often stop by to chat about music and stop in to see who was around. Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were working diligently on perfecting Chic’s ‘sound’ in preparation for hitting the road, circa early ’78. Luther was always in fine form, making jokes, bring humor to the sessions while displaying an amazing ‘ear’ for harmonies that was clearly one of his greatest gifts.
Having success with Change (via “The Glow of Love” and “Searchin’) was great but Luther himself was deal-searching, encouraged by Roberta Flack, with whom he had toured as a background singer: no longer with Atlantic’s Cotillion label, he was ready for a solo career and I still recall vividly conversations with him about possible deals that looked like they would materialize with labels like 20th Century (then home to Barry White) but never did. In fact, at one stage around the turn of the ‘70s, I took demos Luther had done with me to the U.K. in hopes of getting him a record deal in Britain. We had talked about the passion and love that us Brits had for soul music and I was hopeful that some foreward-thinking record exec would ‘get’ Luther’s sound. I can recall playing his music to someone I had known for years who worked at now-long-gone Pye Records. Dave McAleer listened intently, loved the production work on what were essentially master recordings posing as demos on songs such as “Bad Boy” and “You Stopped Loving Me” and his verdict at the time was that they were simply ‘too American’ for the U.K. market. Luther was disappointed when I returned without having sealed a deal but he soldiered on regardless, continuing to do jingles and of course, being one of New York’s premier session singers.
Finally, a change of management and an introduction to attorney David Franklin via Roberta Flack brought Luther the break he had been seeking. Franklin took Luther’s ‘demos’ to Larkin Arnold, then in charge of black music at CBS who heard the magic; it was hardly surprising since Larkin had been the man who had jump-started the first black music department at Capitol Records, responsible for launching the recording careers of Natalie Cole, Tavares and Maze among others. Luther was over the moon! I remember vividly our conversations and how excited he was at finally landing a deal with Epic Records. Not only that but he was going to be given the opportunity to essentially produce his own album, an unprecedented move for a ‘new’ artist. Larkin recognized Luther’s skills as a producer and writer thus “Never Too Much” became the general public’s first introduction to his talents; while the Change had done well, this would be Luther’s grand entry into the marketplace.
And what an entry it was! I can remember Luther’s excitement the night he finished his now-classic recording of “A House Is Not A Home,” the Burt Bacharach-Hal David song that Dionne Warwick had cut in 1964, a song that both Luther and loved. He invited me over to listen to it and I sat there in his apartment on W. 56th Street completely and totally mesmerized. I couldn’t believe what he had done with the song and I specifically recall Luther sharing that there was one particular musical change that had been very challenging. The very first note that followed the song’s bridge (“But it's just a crazy game, when it ends, it ends in tears”) was tough for most singers, dropping as it does into a different key (typical of a Bacharach melody). Luther confided that he inserted the words “Pretty little” before the original “Darling, have a heart” as a way to comfortably ease into the final verse; he confessed that he didn’t know how Dionne had achieved it with her recording, quickly correcting himself as he recalled that she was a trained singer who had studied and could read music, as he himself did.
Catching up with Luther on as a regular a basis after “Never Too Much” hit the streets was tough. We stayed neighbors for a few more months and then he moved to a much glitzier apartment on W. 60th St., which he proudly decorated himself, complete with pink walls and matching furniture. We did get the chance to talk professionally for “Blues & Soul” and we stayed in touch personally but less frequently. At one point, when I had started a live-in relationship, Luther invited me and my then-partner to lunch and we talked mostly about love, romance and relationships. It would be a topic that would always enter our conversations literally until the last conversation we had in March 2003 just weeks before his stroke. Without revealing the details of those highly personal conversations out of respect for Luther and our friendship, I can say that Luther was ever on a mission to find his own life partner. He felt that his physical size was a barrier to finding the love of his life and not liking his weight, he struggled to lose it.
On occasion, as he publicly acknowledged, it was a battle which he sometimes won and sometimes lost. When Luther would lose any significant amount of weight, he felt sure he would attract love; when it didn’t happen, he would go off his diet and gain the weight again beginning another cycle that would, in his own mind, take him further away from his quest for love. The hardest thing, Luther would often tell me, was standing in front of thousands of people who loved his music, working hard to bring his audiences the best show possible and then coming back to an empty hotel room where he could only find solace with food. I recall one particular conversation in which Luther asked me how I dealt with being single, a subject that would come up with some consistency when we spoke. I told him that while having a partner would be a wonderful addition to my life, I was not on a ‘mission’ to find love, that I was continuing to do the inner work, the tough work of resolving the stuff that had kept me from learning to love myself. Luther listened intently and seemed to understand that I had long ago stopped looking for someone or something outside myself that could make up for the pain of my childhood and that finally, I was beginning the process of learning to love myself and that having a partner would be an addition to my life but not a requirement for my fulfillment or happiness.
While our conversations would always touch upon love and relationships, Luther would always always bring humor to whatever chat we had! Not being in the business of gossip, I can’t reveal all that we talked about but, boy, could Luther make me laugh! Of course, music was always heart and center every time we spoke. Way back, I remember playing Luther some demos I had done on an occasion when I was visiting his friend Fonzi Thornton and while the look of his face indicated that he was not exactly ‘taken’ with my vocal attempts, he was polite, nonetheless! After the success of his first album, undoubtedly the most exciting event in Luther’s life was the first chance to produce Aretha. He called me up and was just beside himself that he was finally going to work with one of his musical idols. I can still recall the day he called me, having finished “Jump To It.” As would become a custom from that day till the time he was working on his J Records 2001 debut, Luther and I got together and would take a ride – either in New York, if I was there or in Los Angeles after both he and I made it our home in the mid-‘80s. It was a special treat, riding around with Luther listening to the music he had just finished, commenting on particular songs with Luther clearly proud of whatever he had done in the studio.
“Jump To It” was an obvious smash and as we rode around Manhattan’s West Side, Luther must have played it for me a dozen times or more! I loved it and was so thrilled, remembering how he had shared with me years before how producing Aretha had been a lifelong dream. That it became a massive hit just added to the joy and when he finished the album with Aretha, I got a chance to hear that too – and I loved it! Then it was time to move to producing Dionne and Luther was again elated at the chance to work with the woman he acknowledged had been one of his prime inspirations for pursuing a musical career. He shared how he had see her at the long-defunct Brooklyn Fox Theater and hearing her sing “Anyone Who Had A Heart” had literally changed his life. I had my own Dionne story, telling Luther how “Walk On By” had been essentially my introduction to the music of black America and that I too owed my whole life direction to hearing that one song…
There was only one Luther-produced album I didn’t get to hear as a special preview – and that was Luther’s second Arista LP with Aretha. What I did hear were the reports on how the sessions at Media Sound on W. 57th Street went from my friend Philip Ballou, who would tour with Luther for many years as a background singer and who himself sadly made his transition a few months ago. As documented in my 1999 book “The Soulful Divas” on the chapter on the ‘Queen Of Soul’ and referenced in Aretha’s own autobiography, “From These Roots,” Luther and Aretha had a little confrontation when he asked her, as the producer, to sing a particular note. When she refused, Luther – known for his own ‘diva/divo’ moments – reminded her that he was producing the record and when Aretha reminded him of how many gold records she had, the situation quickly escalated as Luther pointed out that he had just given Aretha her first gold album in years with “Jump To It.” Fur coat in hand, Aretha left the studio and next day was on her way back to Detroit, leaving Luther with an unfinished album and had it not been for the intervention of longtime friend Cissy Houston, “Get It Right” might never have seen the light of day as a completed album.
Years later, there would be a couple of other ‘moments’ between the two: when they did a duet together on the Vandross-penned song “Doctor’s Orders” it had been on the specific understanding that it would come out on Luther’s next album before it came out on Aretha’s. Record company politics came into play and I remember the call from Luther furiously explaining how Arista had tried to get Narada Michael Walden to re-do the track with James Ingram as Aretha’s duet partner! When Narada called to ask Luther about the track, Luther told him in no uncertain terms that if he touched the track, he’d be in deep doo-doo: those were not his exact words but out of respect, I won’t repeat exactly what he said to Narada! Nothing more happened until I started working on Aretha’s bio for the album “What You See Is What You Sweat” and saw that “Doctor’s Orders” was on the CD I had been sent. With some trepidation, I called Luther since he was my friend and I felt obligated to let him know. He went, understandably, into a rage and had Epic send Arista a ‘cease-and-desist’ letter but in spite of all best efforts, the duet came out on Aretha’s album but never was issued on a Luther Vandross album. My only Franklin-Vandross memory comes from the time I was interviewing Aretha in 1985 in her home outside Detroit for the “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” album and the phone rang. Of all people, it was Luther informing her that he was coming to the Motor City. With much gusto, Aretha informed him that she would make sure to cook up “a mess of chicken” for him and that she also had a lady friend she wanted to introduce to him. When Aretha handed me the phone to say ‘hello,’ Luther had a definite response to impart to me about Aretha’s apparent plan for match-making but out of respect, I won’t divulge his exact words on the subject – sorry, y’all, some things gotta remain private!
Luther had some occasional ‘moments’ with other divas. His ‘feud’ with Anita Baker was well known and I went to some lengths to detail it in my chapter on her in “The Soulful Divas,“ omitting some information out of my concern for maintaining a relationship with both parties. Of course, I was thrilled that Luther chose to write the foreword for the book but as he wrote, ‘for the record,’ he wanted it known that my ‘version’ of what had happened during their famous “The Heat” tour still differed from his own interpretation of what had gone down. What I didn’t reveal in that chapter was the background to a relationship that had not gotten off to a good start after the two had rehearsed for a duet to be performed at the Grammys: after working on a Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell song at Luther’s palatial Beverly Hills mansion, they were ready to go – until Anita, for whatever reason, changed her mind the day before or the day of the show. Even earlier, when the two had first been on a Budweiser show together in ’87, Anita had sung Luther’s “Stop To Love” in her set as she had done for months prior and had not taken it out when on the same bill with Luther. When he found out, he was understandably not happy, thus setting the foundation for a relationship that truly had its share of peaks and valleys. A few years after the famous tour, when Luther was getting ready to record the song “I (Who Have Nothing”), he and Anita had made up and she was due to do it as a duet with him for the 1991 album “The Power Of Love.” For reasons best left unsaid, it didn’t happen and Luther expressed his displeasure to me during a phone conversation, just happy that Martha Wash had stepped in to complete the recording with him. Subsequently, Anita and Luther did get a chance to speak and after his stroke, she reached out to him ensuring that whatever healing was needed between them had taken place.
There were likely others who had their own ‘moments’ with Luther, notably members of the group En Vogue who left a tour with him amidst much turmoil. Luther and I never spoke about what happened with the group and indeed the only recollection I have of a disappointment he shared with me was that, although he had written and produced one song for Diana Ross (the beautiful “It’s Hard For Me To Say” which he personally revived for the 1996 “Your Secret Love” album), he had wanted to do a whole album with his third childhood favorite diva. I can’t recall the specific song but I remember that me in 1992, Luther did work on the backgrounds for a track on one of Diana’s Motown albums and I went to the session to drop off a “Sweet Inspirations” album I had compiled for the Ambassador Soul Classics. It was probably one of two or three times when Luther was actually a little ‘snippy’ with me; he was clearly frustrated that the session was not going well and the singers had to go over one line over and over again. Sensing that our dialogue was a little tense, I chose to leave and my friend Johnny – who had accompanied me to the session – commented on Luther’s attitude. I put it down to his being a perfectionist and his irritation at not getting what he wanted in the studio but I was also well aware that there were times in my conversations with Luther that I did have to ‘maneuver’ since his biggest ‘complaint’ was that I would always take everything he said ’literally’. I can still remember Luther sly berating me with a hint of humor in his voice: ‘David, why do you have to take things SO literally?’ The comment didn’t warrant a response so we’d just move on to the next subject!
Believe it or not, there’s more I could share as I look back in my memories of Luther - like going to his home in Beverly Hills for a movie screening and meeting Bette Midler among others and having a less-than-wonderful interaction with “Soul Train” founder Don Cornelius; like another visit to that fabulous home for another movie screening with my colleague and friend Steve Ivory and bemoaning the fact that all Luther had to offer food-wise was Kentucky Fried Chicken and I wasn’t partaking anymore so had to settle for coleslaw and biscuits! Like wonderful times seeing Luther on shows with Shirley Murdock, Cheryl Lynn and the amazing Sounds Of Blackness and talking to then-lead singer Ann Nesby about all the great conversations she had with Luther. Like seeing him in The Bahamas for a special Sony Music show featuring Nancy Wilson, Nestor Torres and himself and laughing together as he tried to win money on the slot machines in the casino! Like trying to hook him up on a couple of dates with folks I knew that somehow didn’t pan out…and like introducing to Will Downing one day on the phone when we were taking one of our famous ‘rides’ to listen to one of Luther’s then-new albums. Like celebrating with him the release of his self-titled J Records debut at a wonderful party in Beverly Hills and feeling great when he won Grammy Awards and having the chance to congratulate him on such; and like being onstage with him in honoring Dionne Warwick, whose music had provided us both with the impetus to follow our respective creative passions.
No doubt, Luther had personal challenges: one of the times when we did have a legitimate problem was when a correspondent I had hired to write a gossip column for “Blues & Soul” went into print with the rumor that Luther had contracted AIDS leading to a brief lawsuit with the magazine and an immediate retraction. Fortunately, that incident did not put a permanent dent in our relationship and our almost-annual chats continued: oftentimes, we talked about Luther’s frustration with not gaining the ongoing mainstream pop success he felt he deserved. It was nice to have major hits like “Here And Now” and “Any Love” but somehow, Luther felt he had never been fully embraced by pop audiences. He couldn’t understand why others could sell four million copies of a record but he’d never get much past a million or so sales and he put it down to record companies’ inability to make him a mainstream artist. Doing the album of cover tunes, “Songs” had been his concession to Sony to see if they could finally make it happen but when the record didn’t achieve the same kind of numbers his previous albums had, Luther left for a one-album stay with Virgin. With J Records, he felt there was hope to achieve that crossover recognition and in our very last conversation in March 2003, he was adamant that “Dance With My Father” would be his enduring pop classic, regardless of how the record company was wavering about making it the title track for his sophomore album for J. The deeply personal song was, Luther told me, “going to be my ‘career’ song and I don’t care what the record company thinks!” Sadly, it would indeed become one of the two or three records that Luther could call ‘career’ songs but only after he succumbed to the stroke he had just a few weeks after we spoke.
As I told my colleague Craig Seymour, the author of the book,“The Life And Longings Of Luther Vandross,” there is so much more I could say about my relationship with Luther: we were friends but in the same sense that many of us in the music industry are ‘friends’ without the benefit of constant contact. We always respected each other’s work and I was honored to have written Luther’s bio many times over as well as writing the tour program for his “Any Love” trek. We shared lots of laughs, a few insights along the way and we always appreciated the passion we shared for music. Luther was loved by so many of his colleagues: his name must have come up dozens of times in conversations I had over the years with Dionne, Roberta Flack, Anita, Aretha, Will Downing, Patti Austin, Brenda Russell (whose “If Only For One Night” Luther turned into an unforgettable classic), Patti Labelle, Marcus Miller, Philip Ballou, Arnold MCuller, longtime friends Fonzi Thornton and David Lasley, Peabo Bryson (for whom Luther opened back in 1981 when he had just gotten his deal with Epic) and many many more.
He was a musical giant, a soul singer of the first order and as I often described him, ‘black music’s pre-eminent vocalist.’ He influenced hundreds of singers, he was always dedicated to giving his audiences a show they would never forget (complete with Vandross-designs gowns for the female singers and stylish outfits for himself and his male backup vocalists) and he contributed an amazing legacy of music to a world that loved his heartfelt lyrics, masterful production and gorgeous background harmonies. More than anything, I am reminded of the pure love Luther felt for singing and making music. Beyond any love he could have found, music was his first passion and it showed every time he stepped on a stage and delivered a song with nuances and subtleties that were truly his own.
I will miss the jokes, the laughs, the wit, even the gossip we shared but just as much, I will miss all the music he would have made that we will now never get to hear. . I will always treasure the memories of a truly soulful man.