So Amazing


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