For a man who sold well over 25 million records in his lifetime, won eight Grammy Awards and functioned as R&B’s chairman of the board for the better part of two decades, Luther Vandross goes strangely undermentioned today as a giant of urban music.
Yet the star, who died in 2005 at age 54 and is only now receiving his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, represented the vanguard of R&B during a time when it was relatively absent from the mainstream pop music conversation, erecting an indelible bridge between the great soul troubadours or disco mavens of the ’70s and the crossover-friendly R&B divas of the present day.
“There are a lot of trumpeters who play with a lot technique, and there are a lot of singers who can riff all over the place,” longtime collaborator Marcus Miller once said of Vandross. “But Luther and Miles (Davis), they could play all the notes, but they just played the right notes. They found the notes that would affect you, emotionally.”
Thanks to his seemingly effortless talent, Vandross experienced a lengthy career in music long before he cut his first record. In addition to work as a producer and a flourishing side career as a singer of radio and TV jingles, Vandross was nearly omnipresent in the late ’70s as a backing singer. Ironically, considering his initial lack of pop crossover appeal as a solo artist, Vandross was particularly adept at straddling genres, appearing on albums by Chic, Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Quincy Jones, Sister Sledge and Average White Band. A featured spotlight on David Bowie’s “Young Americans” even led to a supporting slot with the Thin White Duke on tour.
In advance of his 1981 solo debut “Never Too Much,” Vandross hooked up with former high school classmate (and nephew of jazz legend Cannonball Adderley) Nat Adderley Jr. and jazz bassist Miller, who also worked frequently with Miles Davis throughout the decade. The three would be inseparable collaborators for the rest of Vandross’ career, racking up seven straight R&B No. 1 albums in 1981-91, and finally notching a Billboard No. 1 in 2003 with “Dance With My Father.”
By the mid-1980s, just as Vandross’ star was cresting, R&B was suffering from an acute dearth of male stars: Marvin Gaye had been shot dead, Al Green was focused on his ministry and abstained from secular music, Barry White had begun a period of commercial decline and Stevie Wonder’s golden era had ended. Vandross somehow managed to fill that void by taking a sharp turn away from his male predecessors, boasting a heart-on-sleeve femininity and a willingness to let his voice crack into weepy whispers and almost kitschy overflows of emotion, providing an unsung blueprint for the uber-sensitive likes of Maxwell and D’Angelo who followed his lead in the 1990s and beyond.
“I love Stevie Wonder and I love Teddy Pendergrass and I love Donny Hathaway and Tony Bennett for that matter,” Vandross said in a 1982 interview, “but they were not the ones to arouse my musical libido. It was those nights with the earphones listening to Aretha (Franklin) sing ‘Ain’t No Way’ and listening to Dionne Warwick sing ‘People’ and listening to Diana Ross sing ‘Reflections.’ It was those nights that just knocked me down. I emulated these people. And as a result of having a lot of female singers as my idols, my sensitivity level is much different than a lot of other guys singing.”
Luther Vandross receives a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
11:30 a.m. June 3
1717 Vine St.