Since his days as a 2003 “American Idol” contestant – and subsequent victor – Ruben Studdard has received one request: cover the music of singer-composer Luther Vandross. Studdard even heard as much from his mother Emily after his “Idol” win. The resemblance of two big men with dynamic tenor voices and winding interpolative skills is certainly striking. Studdard all but sealed his fate in regard to the late Luther when a licensing snafu caused the then-contestant to cover “Superstar,” the 1969 Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell tune for which Vandross lent his grand interpretative skills in 1983.
From the stage of the Keswick Theatre in the Philadelphia suburb of Glenside, Penn. on Saturday, Studdard confessed to all-of-the-above while elegantly channeling Vandross for his “Ruben Sings Luther” showcase. Based on the recently-released SEG Music album of the same name, the “Velvet Teddy Bear” appropriated much of the late tenor’s nuances without mimicking too much of Vandross’ athleticism.
Let’s praise Luther Vandross for a moment. Born and raised in the Bronx, with an equal appreciation of R&B’s delicious divas (you don’t start a Patti LaBelle fan club otherwise) and cosmopolitan ’60s pop (think: Bacharach-David standards), Vandross came to make solo music with a similar sophistication in the 1980s. For his efforts, Vandross won eight Grammy Awards (including Best Male R&B Vocal Performance four times), and sold 35-plus-million albums before passing away from the after-effects of a stroke in 2005.
Along with a stunning solo career and production credits, Vandross was a recognizable background voice in television commercials (clients including Mountain Dew and Kentucky Fried Chicken), and for artists such as his boyhood friends in Chic, as well as Roberta Flack, Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, and – most famously – David Bowie and the Brit’s 1975 plastic soul album, “Young Americans.” Now, 18 years after his death, Vandross is being celebrated by his closest collaborators and pals (e.g. Carlos Alomar, Robin Clark, Nat Adderley Jr., along with Chic singers Norma Jean Wright and Alfa Anderson) during the inaugural FANDROSS Festival, presented by the Vandross Family Estate and Divabetic, May 10-13 in New York City).
That’s some legend Studdard, 39, has chosen to live up to.
Backed by MD/pianist John Jackson and a quartet of crack musicians with the ability to invoke era-appropriate tics (’80s synth lines, finger-popped bass, etc.), Studdard’s show started with a quickstep: the heartily up-tempo “Give Me the Reason” and “Stop to Love.”
Dressed in a sequined tux jacket, Studdard immediately proved his willingness to pay tribute to Vandross (minus any copycatting) with a smooth, deep burr without any real somersaults. Having three lively backing singers (Maurice Smith, Karmessa Padgett, Kwamika Fletcher) mirror the full sound of Vandross’ favored vocalists (Fonzi Thornton, Tawatha Agee, Michelle Cobbs) gave Studdard the ability to stretch the Luther concept without straying too far afield.
Not long after show’s start, Studdard truly took wing and made the music of Vandross his own. He did this, in part, by discussing how his mother, Emily – a Birmingham, Alabama teacher-turned-manager – loved Vandross. “I didn’t care for Luther to be honest,” cracked Studdard. “I thought my mother was cheating on my father with him.” While entering into “my mama’s mix” of favored, lustrous Vandross ballads “If Only for One Night” and “Creepin’” – the latter, complete with Luther’s sultry vocal vamps and soda bubbling percussion – Studdard teased his adolescent history of being booked for freebie Alabama church engagements and weddings by his mother. “If you got married in Birmingham’s Rising Star Baptist Church, I probably sang at your wedding for free,” he joked.
It was homespun moments such as these that made the “Ruben Sings Luther” as much Studdard’s experience as it was Vandross’.
Studdard was a cool customer with a winning presence and a way with a good family/church based story without relying on reverence or corn. Before continuing with the epic “Here & Now” – the most favored of wedding freebies – Studdard claimed that he once had a great distaste for the doleful cut. “I would have rather sung LL Cool J’s ‘I Need Love’ – that’s a song with the word ‘love in it,’ he said with a smile. “It’s not until you grow up and fall in love,” that the yearning emotionalism of Vandross’ signature slow song came shining through. With that, Studdard took his time with “Here & Now,’ aging like a heady Merlot with each note.
When it came to taking his time, no moment sauntered, while stirring his audience, than when “Superstar” was followed by “A House is Not a Home.”
Mid-tempo groovers such as “Bad Boy / Having a Party,” were fun and brought the mostly-over-40 audience to their dancing feet, but Vandross’ theatrical ballads elicited tears and cheers.
Telling the story of “American Idol” and his initial contestant’s choice – Donny Hathaway’s black pride anthem “Someday We’ll All Be Free” – allowed him entrée into the public’s current psyche, as well as the soul-filled schematic of his past.
Almost as a throwaway, Studdard sung out a few lines from the Hathaway classic (“Keep your self-respect, your manly pride / Get yourself in gear / Keep your stride”), but, with an impassioned sensitivity and command that made you aware of what this singer’s next cover project should to be. Then Studdard proceeded to lay into “Superstar” with all the respect for Vandross’ version he could muster, while considering how that tuneful plea for love changed his life. No sooner than “Superstar” faded, “A House is Not a Home” came up in the mix, with a piano’s simple rhythms acting as a weighty dramatic counterbalance for Studdard’s light and slippery scats. As far as drama goes, when Studdard introduced the bridge (“Now and then I call your name/And suddenly your face appears/But it’s just a crazy game”), then the finale (“Are you gonna be/Still in love with me”), it was as if you were watching a beloved, familiar film, where anticipating its ending still left you breathless.
If that all seems a bit much, consider the source material (Vandross), and his logical successor (Studdard) who found inspiration and innovation all in one place.