CDs by Luther Vandross
Never Too Much
Forever, For Always, For Love
Dance with My Father (2003) /
Live at Radio City Music Hall
The Essential Luther Vandross (2003)
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The Sensitive Luther Vandross
Interview With Luther Ronzoni Vandross, Jr.
By Kalamu ya Salaam
interview was initially published in February 1982 in
The Black Collegian Magazine.]
Luther Vandross represents a new
breed of male singer. He has established himself as a major
force in background singing, a field within which most of the
artists are women. His current solo album,
Never Too Much,
went gold with weekly sales exceeding 36,000 records. The
distinguishing characteristic of Luther Vandross is that he is a
singer’s singer. Luther, like Jerry Butler before him, does
not rely on gimmicks or vocal tricks, but rather projects an
intense and sensitive feeling through beautifully crafted songs.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Luther Vandross’ music is
as enjoyable to listen to as it is to dance to. In this
interview, Luther Vandross talks about how he broke into
professional singing and what his vocal influences are.
* * *
When did you make a decision that you wanted to be a singer?
There was always a subconscious urge to do that. As a child I
always sang. I can remember Baby Washington records. And my
sister Pat was in a group called the “Crests” and they had
out a record called “Sixteen Candles” and I was singing
along with that.
At any time did you pursue anything else besides music?
What about school?
I found myself sitting in the student lounge listening to
Aretha’s new album, which at that time was “This Girl’s In
Love With You”, and listening to the Sweet Inspirations’ new
album, which was called “Sweets For My Sweet.” For some
reason that was like the dominating force for my whole college
career and it was like that was telling me something. That was
the year Diana Ross had left the Supremes.
those things were more important to me than anything academic
and I just decided I was there for the wrong reasons—doing the
right thing for the wrong reason, so I decided to drop out. I
went home and told my mother I don’t want to go back to
school. She was very encouraging and said, “Well, don’t go
back.” I started working on a nine to five job. I was a
defective merchandise clerk for S&H Green Stamps. Some of
the products they give you are defective. A lot of people have
to return a toaster or something because it’s not working. So
they have to fill out a blue form, which is a defective form.
Somebody has to file that form and there I was.
Did they have the radio on in the area you were working?
So you were back there filing those little blue forms and
thinking about singing each day.
Everyday, everyday. I had done that for a couple of years, and
finally…you see one of the conflicts in my own mind was that
some of my friends were doing musical things. I was like one of
the last arrivals.
Didn’t you quit school because you wanted to be in music?
I hadn’t then confronted that I was ready. Yes, that was the
underlying reason but it’s only in retrospect that I can say
that was the reason.
You weren’t satisfied…?
Yes, I wasn’t getting any satisfaction out of school. That was
my reason. Looking back on it, I realize that there was nothing
more important than Dionne Warwick.
How do you think people such as yourself, who are very, very
talented, finally make a decision to proceed or not to proceed?
Well, motivation levels are different. That’s the variable,
given equal talent and different motivation levels you’ll
achieve differently. My motivation level was unconditional. I
was absolutely ready to sing or die.
So back in high school, did you sing semi-professionally?
It wasn’t semi-professional in terms of us getting any money
for it but it was mega-professional in terms of artistic quality
because we used to like to sing in the hallways at school. Kids
would sing in the hallway in between classes and the teachers
would shut them up. But let me tell you, we used to get in the
hallways and nobody would say anything cause it was sounding so
good. It was me and two girls and it would sound amazing.
So, how did you get the break with Bowie?
Okay it was ’74. My friend Carlos, whom I had grown up with,
got a job playing guitar for David Bowie. Carlos invited me to
the studio. He and his wife, Robin, had gotten married a couple
of years before and he is also a singer. As a matter of fact,
Robin is one of the girls with whom I used to sing in the
hallway. I started making little vocal arrangements and showing
them to Robin. I didn’t know that Bowie had overheard all
this. He was sitting right behind me at the board, and he said,
“That’s a great idea. Put that down.” So I put it down and
next thing you know one thing led to another, and I was doing
the vocal arrangements for the whole album. I wrote one of the
songs on the album. Bowie overheard it and said, “I want to
record that. Do you mind?”
So this was after he had hired you to do the backgrounds?
Absolutely. As a matter of fact, Bowie went back in the studio
to add this song. The album was finished.
What is the name of the song?
“Fascination,” aka “Funky Music.” When I did it, it was
called “Funky Music.” Bowie changed it to “Fascination.”
He said he didn’t want to be so presumptuous as to say
“funky music” since he was a rock artist.
Were you familiar with Bowie before…
Why do you say, “Oh yea!”?
Because my musical awareness was broad. It extended to the left
and right of the people whom I like, and whom my mother likes.
It was funny because there is a marked difference between Black
families and white families. To me the difference is this: in
white families, the mother and the father like Frank Sinatra and
Liza Minnelli and the sons like Pink Floyd and the Rolling
Stones, whereas in Black families the mother loves Aretha
Franklin and the sons and daughters love Aretha Franklin. The
mother loves Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the sons and
daughters love Gladys Knight and the Pips.
You’re talking about musical continuity?
I’m also talking music as an integral part of a culture as
opposed to a trendy contribution to the culture.
So, you’re saying that Aretha is more than entertainment for
This woman ain’t entertainment. She’s done opened the books
to my life and told everybody. Like Roberta Flack used to say in
“Killing Me Softly,” “I thought he found my letters and
read them all out loud.” We can relate that to everybody. She
was the spokesperson for a lot of people and how they feel.
How did you extend your listening?
I watched the Supremes on Ed Sullivan and the Beatles would come
on. What happened is that I kept my ears open. I was not closed
to other peripheral considerations. I just listened. I didn’t
like all of that but I found a lot that I did like.
Did David Bowie take you on the road with him?
The whole background unit. I had had a little group at that time
and I brought two of the singers with me. It was the group that
ended up being “Luther” on Atlantic Records and it was a guy
and a girl and I told Bowie I wouldn’t leave my group at home
to go on the road, so he said, “Well bring them ‘cause I
really want you.”
How as the road?
On certain levels it was amazing. Bowie made me go out and do an
opening forty-five minute act for him every night with my own
material. I remember the first night I went on stage and did my
thing. Some of the people, it was scattered, were shouting
“Bowie, Bowie.” That was very disconcerting to me that
night. Bowie said, “Please. Later for these people. Later for
them. You go out there and get your art together.”
After the tour what happened?
When the tour ended life was wonderful. Bowie introduced me to
Bette Midler and Bette had me sing background for her on her
album “Songs Are An Expression of Things In The Night.” Then
word of mouth started getting around—there’s this guy named
Luther who does that number. But now one of the contexts you
have to understand that the background singing has always been a
female dominated area. I was bringing stuff of my own to the
sessions that was kind of unique in terms of how to do
So you were bringing more than a voice…
yea. And later I learned never to give away anything you can
sell. So I started charging for this extra bit of approach,
which was fine because by this time everyone wanted it so bad
that they were willing to pay for it. This was unheard of. As a
background singer, they expect you to come in and just make your
suggestions and stuff, for free, you know, but I didn’t look
at it that way.
How did you get into commercials?
Patti Austin had called me to sing on a job with Quincy Jones.
She was organizing a session and so we got there to do the
record and did the record and we did the duet and there were two
jingle producers there. One named Leon Denderaimdes and one
named Bill Eaton. Leon started hiring for a lot of jingles and
started taking me around on the jingle circuit and once again
word of mouth took over and I started getting calls.
I’ve read that you were influenced by female rather than male
Vandross: I was being very candid. I
mean, I love Stevie Wonder and I love Teddy Pendergrass and I
love Donny Hathaway and Tony Bennett for that matter, but they
were not the ones to arouse my musical libido. It was those
nights with the earphones listening to Aretha 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. But I
didn’t just sit down and try to copy their stuff. 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. That’s what I think people hear when they hear me
singing. They say this guy sings really sensitively. I think
that that is part of it.
sing and I write and I think I’m really good but I don’t
think I’m pioneering. I look at Aretha as the Daniel Boone of
R&B. This woman got on TV and pioneered that type of singing
to a mass appeal. Did you see Aretha in the “Portrait Of A
Legend” flick? It showed how she was very young and out there
singing her brains out to pop audiences, but she didn’t
compromise any of her musical feelings. She was Aretha from day
she said well, you’ll come around so I’m not going to.
You’re going to come around to what I do. That’s why I
respect her so much.
also respect Dionne Warwick so much for not falling into another
type of trap. Dionne Warwick is one of the early pioneers, along
with Diana Ross, a Black singing pop. Of course, there is Lena
Horne and those earlier people, but Dionne Warwick and Diana
Ross pioneered. Dionne Warwick did grow up singing in church but
her records were some of pop music’s biggest assets and I just
absolutely love that about her. I love the fact that she sang
How did you hook up with Nat Adderly, Jr., who arranged some of
the music on your album?
We grew up together. I always respected Nat’s father. Nat was
the little genius of the bunch of us, even at the early age. I
guess being with his daddy and stuff and talking that “B flat,
F sharp” talk, Nat always knew music, even at age thirteen.
Nat would tell you he’s going to play a C flat, major ninth
and augment it and go through all of that, even at that young
age. He was like the neighborhood resident genius.
Who was responsible for the bass parts on “Never Too Much”?
Did you write it out or what?
Well, I specifically sang all the notes I wanted them to play.
So, you knew exactly what you wanted to hear?
Absolutely. You hesitate saying that ‘cause you don’t want
to come off sounding strange. But that’s just the way it
happened. I knew exactly what I wanted to hear from the bass in
that song. There are other songs like “She’s A Super
Lady.” The stuff on “She’s A Super Lady” was as much a
surprise to me as it is to you when you hear it. The boy was
just fired and came up with these brilliant licks. But on
“Never Too Much,” every note is specifically the way I want
That’s the point. In other words you are not a frustrated
performer. Everything does not have to be your way?
What the real lesson is in that whole thing is that you have got
to be flexible. You can’t make it a rule of thumb that you
just sing everything to the bass because it happened
successfully once. In “Never Too Much,” I wanted something
very specific. In “She’s A Super Lady,” I just wanted my
chords followed. Go for yourself. Whatever feels good. It’s
that flexibility that allows both things to work well. That’s
absolutely the way I want it. I often have a specific idea, but
there are times when I don’t.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Well, my record is gold. I’m happier now than I’ve ever
been. It’s funny to start a career at thirty as opposed to
starting it at twenty-one like you thought you would.
What do you want to do next?
A new album and after that I’m going to sit down and assess my
career. I don’t want to be an artist who goes for just album
to tour to album to tour to album and then oblivion. I want to
do other things. I don’t know what that means right now. I
have a closet desire to be a standup comedian. I’m going to
give that a try. I mean when I get enough hits that I can
headline and take out ten or fifteen minutes to just try. I’m
going to try it. I’m definitely not afraid of falling on my
face but I’m not going to fall on my face. I want to try all
There you can also listen to a few cuts & read Kalamu's
Greenback Planet: How the Dollar Conquered
the World and Threatened Civilization as We Know It
By H. W. Brands
In Greenback Planet, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands charts the dollar's astonishing rise to become the world's principal currency. Telling the story with the verve of a novelist, he recounts key episodes in U.S. monetary history, from the Civil War debate over fiat money (greenbacks) to the recent worldwide financial crisis. Brands explores the dollar's changing relations to gold and silver and to other currencies and cogently explains how America's economic might made the dollar the fundamental standard of value in world finance. He vividly describes the 1869 Black Friday attempt to corner the gold market, banker J. P. Morgan's bailout of the U.S. treasury, the creation of the Federal Reserve, and President Franklin Roosevelt's handling of the bank panic of 1933. Brands shows how lessons learned (and not learned) in the Great Depression have influenced subsequent U.S. monetary policy, and how the dollar's dominance helped transform economies in countries ranging from Germany and Japan after World War II to Russia and China today. The Economy
* * * * *
A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention
By Jamal Joseph
In the 1960s he exhorted students at Columbia University to burn their college to the ground. Today he’s chair of their School of the Arts film division. Jamal Joseph’s personal odyssey—from the streets of Harlem to Riker’s Island and Leavenworth to the halls of Columbia—is as gripping as it is inspiring. Eddie Joseph was a high school honor student, slated to graduate early and begin college. But this was the late 1960s in Bronx’s black ghetto, and fifteen-year-old Eddie was introduced to the tenets of the Black Panther Party, which was just gaining a national foothold. By sixteen, his devotion to the cause landed him in prison on the infamous Rikers Island—charged with conspiracy as one of the Panther 21 in one of the most emblematic criminal cases of the sixties. When exonerated, Eddie—now called Jamal—became the youngest spokesperson and leader of the Panthers’ New York chapter. He joined the “revolutionary underground,” later landing back in prison.
* * * *
Ghosts in Our Blood
With Malcolm X in Africa, England, and the Caribbean
By Jan R.
activist, scholar, and journalist, met Malcolm X
during his last trip abroad only a few weeks before
he was killed in 1965. It made such an impression on
Carew that he felt compelled to search out Malcolm's
family and friends in order to flesh out the family
history. He interviewed Wilfred (Malcolm's older
brother) and a Grenadian friend of Malcolm's mother
named Tanta Bess. Comparing his family's experiences
with that of Malcolm X, he gives the most complete
picture yet of Malcolm's mother. Carew also offers a
tantalizing glimpse of Malcolm X's transforming
himself into El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, a man less
blinded by his own racial prejudices yet as
committed to the betterment of his race as ever.
Just before his death, Malcolm X became convinced
that a U.S. agency was involved with those trying to
kill him, and Carew here reveals the evidence
Malcolm X gave him to support these beliefs. The
mystery of Malcolm's death remains unresolved, and
we are once again filled with regret that he was cut
down before he could fulfill the promise of his
later days. While this book will not replace
Autobiography of Malcolm X (LJ 1/1/66), it is an
important supplement. All libraries that own the
autobiography should also purchase this one.—Library
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
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Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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update 17 April 2012