#362: Never Too Much, Luther Vandross
I get the most out of this project when I’m tackling genres and artists that I don’t have a lot of experience with. Here we have the slow jam — that’s one of them. I didn’t even know who Luther Vandross was.
This was his debut solo album, but Vandross had had plenty of experience in the music business prior to this. He was a backup singer with a wildly impressive resume, having sung with Roberta Flack, Chakha Khan, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and Donna Summer, among a litany of others. He also sang lead for the band Change, which was made up of fellow session musicians, before leaving to make this record.
And Vandross’ musical experience is evident. He wrote every song on this but one (we’ll get to that later), and each one has a distinct song structure, clever harmonies, innovative instrumental parts. R&B and disco had yet to be married successfully, but “Never Too Much” was a soulful dance club hit. My favorite genre crossover, though, is actually “I’ve Been Working,” which features a synth solo that simply cannot be denied. The former backup singer also knows exactly where his own backup vocalists will be the most effective. See: Literally every song, but particularly “Sugar and Spice (I Found Me a Girl)” and “Don’t You Know That?” for my favorites.
Like I said, I’m not the greatest slow jam fan. The slowest song on any album (see: “You Stopped Loving Me”) is inevitably my least favorite song, no matter how great it is. No, I much prefer the fastest song on the album, something you can wiggle a little to. In this case, “She’s a Super Lady.” (I put on make-up to this song today, which is probably why I put on much too much.)
Like I said, Vandross wrote every song on this but the one that’s widely considered to be his masterpiece: “A House Is Not a Home,” a song originally written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, then performed by Dionne Warwick. Vandross’ cover was so beautiful that Warwick was moved to tears when he performed it at the 1988 NAACP Awards. He took those songwriter instincts and stretched it out to more than double its original length, with multiple fake-out endings and some vocal riffing. It’s a slow one, but even I can’t deny it’s genius.
Another fun fact: Vandross was the founder of the very first Patti LaBelle fan club! After rising to stardom, he would eventually become friends with LaBelle, who got into some hot water some years after his death for outing him as a closeted gay man on Watch What Happens Live. Poor Vandross was dogged by rumors surrounding his sexuality throughout his whole career, which would eventually extend to nasty rumors that he contracted AIDS.
LaBelle (who I think had the best intentions for her late friend) explained that Vandross “didn’t want his mother to be [upset]–although she might have known.” In a tragic turn of events, Vandross passed away of diabetes complications in 2005, meaning that his mother actually outlived all four of her children. (She eventually passed in 2008.)
I’ve always thought that speculating on someone’s sexuality is the wrong thing to do. I hate that people used to go their whole lives dealing with stigma. It took nearly thirty years for a Black artist to publicly come out — and even still, we have a long way to go.