Gregory Porter pays tribute to Luther Vandross on what would have been the late soul legend's 70th birthday

THE velvet-voiced soul legend Luther Vandross would have celebrated his 70th birthday on Tuesday.

The master of the love song, who died in 2005 aged just 54, was a truly unique talent.

And in a special Radio 2 documentary tomorrow night, his life and music will be celebrated.

Grammy-winning jazz star Gregory Porter, a lifelong Vandross superfan, hosts the hour-long show Luther Vandross: So Amazing.

It includes interviews with his producer and friend Marcus Miller, as well as collaborators Fonzi Thornton, Lisa Fischer, Nile Rodgers, Richard Marx, Robin Clark and Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney.

Chatting to Porter, wearing his famous hat, via Zoom from his Californian home, he says: “Luther occupies a place in music that Marvin Gaye didn’t cover, that Donny Hathaway didn’t cover, that Stevie Wonder didn’t cover.

“It’s his own place. It’s Luther’s place. It’s amazing.”

Songs such as Never Too Much, So Amazing, Give Me The Reason, I Really Didn’t Mean It and Any Love are classics.

“I used to hear his voice on commercials,” says Porter of Vandross, who used to write and sing infectious jingles for KFC, Burger King and Juicy Fruit in the late Seventies.

“And I was like, ‘Who is that?’ I used to hear that voice and need to connect it.”

Vandross was a huge influence on Porter and his career.

“When I started singing in college, ‘Luther’ was my nickname. That’s what they would call me. I ceased to be Gregory.

‘Huge influence’

“People would scream across campus, ‘Yo, Luther!’ and I’d be looking around and they’d be talking about me.

“So it was a real honour to be asked to present this documentary, as I’ve sang his songs and in many interviews I’ve mentioned and referenced Luther Vandross. He was a huge influence on my singing.”

Luther Ronzoni Vandross Jr was born in 1951 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York, the youngest of four children. His father Luther Snr passed away when he was just eight.

Self-taught, Vandross used to sing and play the piano for his mother Mary’s friends and soon made his name singing backing vocals for David Bowie, Chic, Chaka Khan and Roberta Flack, who famously “sacked” him for getting too comfortable as a background singer and encouraged him to finally put together a demo.

Working with Bowie happened by accident. It was 1974. He was visiting a friend in Bowie’s band at the studio and discussed how Bowie’s song Young Americans needed a hook.

Bowie overheard them, loved the idea and Luther was hired.

He was put in charge of vocal arrangements for the entire Young Americans album and wrote the track Fascination with Bowie.

Vandross grew up loving The Shirelles but was seeing Dionne Warwick at the Brooklyn Fox was a life-changing moment.

And Porter says Vandross’s music was life-changing for him.

“He has a special place in my heart,” he says. “Luther had this sophistication and a vulnerability. He existed between tenor and baritone — and what a falsetto!

“Most singers don’t have everything but Luther had the ability to go from the deepest depths to the highest highs with no break in his musical conversation.

“It’s difficult for me to place him in a hierarchy in music. In terms of what he means to people, in a way he stands alone.”

Following releases with his group Luther, he put out his debut solo album Never Too Much in 1981, followed by Forever, For Always, For Love (1982), Busy Body (1983) and The Night I Fell In Love (1985).

King of the love song

He didn’t enjoy a huge hit until Give Me The Reason reached No3 in the UK charts in 1986 (No14 in the US) followed by Any Love (No3 in 1988), which also gave Vandross his first Top 10 album.

“We used to wear out his tapes so much,” Porter says.

“We knew all his songs and the sequencing. Luther’s music was definitely in my house.

“My mother was hard on us about what type of music we’d bring into the house. But she was always particular to a voice that clearly was trained in gospel and classic soul. She loved Luther.”

It was Vandross’ life-long dream to crossover into the mainstream and become more than a soul singer. He often felt overlooked as a songwriter and producer.

“If you see him at his peak, you know, he’s one of the great voices that has ever existed,” says Porter.

“And you think, ‘Wow, why wasn’t he always there?’”

He was the king of the love song and his first greatest hits compilation was titled The Best Of Luther, The Best Of Love because his songs were so romantic.

Porter says: “Luther knew how to sing a breakup song and knew how to sing, ‘I miss you’. I’ve spoken to Marcus Miller about the importance of having people around you who have a sensitivity to what you’re doing.

“And you can tell that his producers and his musicians are for him. His songs have a lot of little tricks, twists and embellishments with preludes, repeats and stops.

“He’s like a very sophisticated gospel church conductor who has complete control of his choir.

“That’s what he does with the production and the musicians that work with him in his recordings.

“He takes his time to really express love and romance and really draw out the lyric or the meaning of the song.”

His desire for critical recognition lasted his whole career, in which he claimed eight Grammy Awards from 33 nominations.

Porter says: “For a person like me who’s always put Luther at the top of the heap, it’s difficult to understand why he didn’t win more.

“He had the ability to go pop and do songs that should have sold millions and millions and millions. But I gravitate to his gems that are less publicised, like Don’t You Know That (from the album Never Too Much). He’s a jazz singer, a soul singer, a gospel singer and an R&B singer.
Accolades

“He encompasses it all. And he’s waiting for the audience to catch up to what he’s doing.”

Vandross also duetted with some of the biggest names in pop: Janet Jackson on The Best Things In Life Are Free; Mariah Carey on Endless Love; Stevie Wonder on I Know; and Beyonce on The Closer I Get To You.

Some of Vandross’s biggest hits were covers he made his own, including Superstar/Until You Come Back To Me (The Carpenters and Aretha Frank-lin), Since I Lost My Baby (The Temptations), Creepin’ (Stevie Wonder) and Anyone Who Had A Heart (Dionne Warwick).

“Luther brought me to the meat of Dionne Warwick’s career because Luther covered so many of her songs,” says Porter. “Luther does exist on his own but his talent is refined and sharpened by the people he loved.”

Vandross went through some personal struggles. A self-confessed yo-yo dieter, his weight fluctuated and he said his relationship with food was an addiction.

He also suffered with high blood pressure and diabetes. In April 2003, he suffered a debilitating stroke before the release of his final album Dance With My Father.

It was the album that earned him the accolades he yearned but he died on July 1, 2005, at JFK Medical Center in Edison, New Jersey, from a heart attack. He was 54.

His final two albums, with Clive Davis’ J Records, were two of the biggest in his career. His personal favourite song was Dance With My Father, inspired by memories of his father and childhood. It won the Song Of The Year Grammy he longed for.

Porter says: “I was in New York when I heard Luther had died. It felt like I’d lost a family member. Then, people on the streets were like, ‘Oh man, you heard about Luther?’

“His music and songs were the backdrop of my life, the rhythm of everyone’s life.

“He had so many different moods of music.”

With Porter himself now a Grammy-winning singer, does he think a collaboration would be on the cards if Vandross were still alive?

He says: “I’d like to think so. He’d just need to call me up and I’d be right there. I didn’t get the chance to meet him when he was alive but he was in my heart always.

“I don’t know how many times I put on If Only For One Night to go to sleep.

“But I’ve had the opportunity to speak with people who knew him and it’s given me an insight. Much of his personality and who he was as a person is there in the music.

“So yes, I would love to have met him, to speak to him and to sing with him. But frankly, I’ve been doing duets with Luther since I could sing.”

  • Gregory Porter presents Luther Vandross: So Amazing tomorrow on BBC Radio 2 at 9pm and via the BBC Sounds app.

HIS TOP 10 TRACKS

  1. Give Me The Reason
  2. Any Love
  3. Never Too Much
  4. Busy Body
  5. A House Is Not A Home
  6. The Best Things In Life                 Are Free
  7. Creepin’
  8. Stop To Love
  9. I Really Didn’t Mean It
  10. Dance With My Father

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