So Amazing

Why Luther Vandross's Legacy Matters

You'll need to turn the volume up on your CD player to hear my favorite Luther moment. At 1:13 into his 1994 interpretation of Mitch Leigh's "The Impossible Dream," Vandross reflexively exhorts a "hmmph" on the heels of the phrase "to bear with unbearable sorrow," the same way gospel preachers utter "well" or "amen" after expressing some deep truth. It's a wordless confession of the blues with which he lived and a defiant assertion that the blues ain't never been nothin' too deep to handle. Vandross, who left us age at 54 two years after suffering a diabetes-related stroke, made music that was equal parts abject melancholy and joyful faith--faith in the power of love to redeem all.

Launching his solo career in 1981 at age 30 (after a false start with Atlantic), sensitive Luther (or Loofah, as his fans called him) was a perpetual anachronism: a fastidiously clean-cut crooner hawking earnest r&b ballads and suave dance tunes while poverty, crack, AIDS, and other social blights ravaged black communities. Evading both Rick James's cock funk and Stevie's boho agitprop, Vandross lived by an upward mobility creed that harkened back to pre-1968 Motown: spit-shined refinement and gentlemanly respectability were the quickest trains to crossover success. He emerged as the greatest romantic balladeer of his generation largely because of his silken second tenor, as richly textured as Donny Hathaway's minus the gospel theatricality, as plaintive as Lenny Williams's minus the gutbucket hysteria. Tried in the fire through workhouse years as an in-demand jingle and session singer, Vandross's distinct phrasing was a lifetime spent emulating the veiled vulnerability of first-name-only r&b divas like Aretha, Diana, and Dionne (each of whom he later produced). As today's rough-hewn hip-hop crooners relegate women to the status of video honeys, they would do well to recall that Luther once characterized the black female voice as one of this planet's great possessions.

I've written before Luther was both an archivist and reconstructionist. Just as Sinatra transformed Tin Pan Alley blather into standards, Vandross rescued AM radio schmaltz like Dionne Warwick's "A House Is Not a Home" and the Carpenters' "Superstar," transforming them into expansive, apocalyptically melodramatic Quiet Storm standards replete with string lines and opulent vocal arrangements. Crafted with delicacy, precision, and loving experimentation (his visionary production career remains underappreciated), Vandross's arrangements should be studied and deconstructed by future generations alongside those of Brian Wilson, the Beatles, and Paul Simon.

Still, Vandross often struggled to come up with songs that challenged him. Though he had many memorable singles, he never released a flawless album, and he had a weakness for filler. His monomaniacal--and largely elusive--quest for crossover success sometimes made his choices appear desperate, as on his shallow 1994 cover album Songs. Vandross only struck pop gold when his omnipotent larynx took the backseat to a treacly song concept--such as 2003's Grammy-winning absentee fatherhood narrative "Dance with my Father" or 1990's "Here and Now," a wedding anthem so straight- and-narrow that Vandross was displaced in his own video by two frolicking Caucausian newlyweds.

Image-obsessed MTV-era record execs were generally clueless about how to market a rapidly aging black crooner. A binge eater who swelled up if he lost a Grammy or a lover, Vandross rarely looked like the romantic lead his songs suggested. Execs likely stalled at his closetedness: like an r&b Cary Grant, Vandross wasn't the passionate heterosexual that his music suggested. Though he never came out as gay, bisexual, or even straight, you had to be wearing blinders--as many of his fans, particularly female, must have been--to overlook his queerness. The sequined Liberace suits were a clue, as were the highly publicized bitch fights he waged on tour with Anita Baker and En Vogue. The dead giveaway for me was his admission that his high school grades plummeted because he was in anguish over Diana Ross leaving the Supremes.

Vandross likely felt that confessing his sexual preference would destroy his crossover ambitions, and he was probably right. But those same crossover ambitions forced him into an exhausting two decades of spin control, warding off AIDS rumors, never able to bring preferred company onto red carpets. He admitted to biographer Craig Seymour that the taxing offstage maintenance of his open secret reinforced the onstage melancholy that made his records go multiplatinum--a vicious cycle, to be sure. Journalist Barry Walters tells the secondhand but probable story of how in the middle of the night Luther would seek phone advice from disco legend Sylvester, one of the few out gay black men in popular music. Vandross was lucky enough to have the kind of voice that conveyed truths that he kept unspoken: he instinctively knew that what gives love songs their zing is the subtextual terror of loneliness. Take another listen to his gravitas-ridden reconstructions of "If Only for One Night" or "Since I Lost My Baby" and you'll discover more than you may want to about the rent of living in a society that that relegates same-sex desire into the shadows, parks, and darkened subway platforms.

If the authenticity creed of blues-based music is to live the life you sing about in your song, one wishes Vandross--who adopted a don't-ask-and-if-you-do-I won't-tell stance in interviews--had taken the opportunity to sing explicitly about the life he lived. Gay pride cheerleaders had no use for Luther, painting him as an apathetic, shame-ridden, pre-Stonewall holdover who dropped the ball on AIDS. But Luther never purported to be the r&b's Chuck D. Luther's only politics were music and love: he lived for the love of music and believed resolutely in the power of music to heal by affirming love. In that sense, Luther was an ethicist who taught any of us who would listen as much about love as did James Baldwin or Marlon Riggs or Marianne Williamson any other seer for whom Love with a capital L is the ultimate act. It's worth noting, I think, that Johnny Mathis and Luther Vandross--two of the greatest balladeers of the rock era--have been queer black men.

Sophisticated r&b will march on despite the loss of its greatest romanticist, at least insofar as we financially support struggling torchbearers like Ledisi, Kem, Rahsaan Patterson, and Lalah Hathaway. But there are other challenges to face. In the world Vandross left behind, 49 percent of metropolitan black men who have sex with other men are HIV positive, according to a recent study. Not only on this continent but around the globe, we who are darker than blue--not just men, but women and children too--need to be exposed to new ways and stylistic approaches to what it means to be a man. What the hip-hop generation can learn from Luther-- besides the importance of musicianship and the pursuit of artistic excellence--is that genuine respectfulness toward women, the embrace of all things feminine, and the naked expression of romantic vulnerability are not, and have never been, signs of weakness. They are badges of courage. When Luther titled one of his most personal tunes "My Sensitivity Gets in the Way," he was naturally being tongue-in-cheek. As Sethe might have said in Beloved: Luther, sensitivity was your best thing. His records are all the evidence we need that he must have been one hell of a lover.

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