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Crooner Luther Vandross, who passed away July 1 at 54, forged a career trademarked by showbiz glitz and emotional melodrama. So it was entirely fitting that his majestic July 8 memorial service at Riverside Church struck a balance between diva spectacle and holy spirit. Hand-picked by Luther’s now childless mother Mary Ida (her offspring have all died from diabetes-related illnesses), the list of performers was a who’s who of r&b royalty: Dionne Warwick delivered the obituary and a fax from Gladys Knight in absentia; Patti LaBelle recited an original Mary Ida poem then ripped into “No Ways Tired”; Cissy Houston offered a magisterial, semi-operatic “Deep River”; Stevie Wonder punctuated his excoration of the London bombings with a scorching “I Won’t Complain”; sore-throated Aretha Franklin roused the house with “Amazing Grace.” Any remaining superstar vocalists in attendance–from vets like Ashford & Simpson to newbies like Alicia Keys–leapt out of the pews for a final, celebratory jam on Luther’s “Power of Love/Love Power.”
In one of the service’s most affecting moments, Luther’s vocal contractor and running buddy Fonzi Thornton offered a voluptuously detailed chronology of their lifelong camaraderie. Beginning with their initial meeting as aspirant teens who would crank up the volume at the fade of Sweet Inspirations records to catch every last riff and harmony, Thornton’s speech was a potent reminder of the behind-the-scenes passion and labor that underwrote Luther’s journey from Lower East Side projects to Grammy awards. You could also hear a pin drop during longtime Luther arranger and pianist Nat Adderley Jr.’s aching, jazzy “A House Is Not a Home,” wordlessly channeling the audience’s collective melancholy for the closing of a musical era.
Brimming with stories of Vandross’s quirks (like his PacMan addiction and dreams of becoming a wrestling champion), the service emerged as a mirthful rebuke to Kelefa Sanneh’s mean-spirited July 4 New York Times dismissal of Vandross as a “disembodied voice,” complete with kneejerk mischaracterizations of the singer as a accessory to the wrongful death of soulful ’70s r&b. (Given the open secret of Vandross’s sexuality, Sanneh’s casual homophobia is also noteworthy: it’s hard to imagine him calling Al Green or Otis Redding “disembodied”). The thunderous applause that erupted when pallbearers hoisted Luther’s golden casket confirmed that attendees–including a phalanx of nephews, nieces, devoted backup singers, and fans–came to exalt the body and soul of a real human being, not an abstraction.
After the service, my friend and I disappeared into the rain-drenched Manhattan streets, and we scratched our heads trying to come up with contemporary mainstream male singers who are continuing the tradition of romantic balladry Luther defined over the last 20 years. We’re still thinking about it.