Luther Vandross, My Family, and the Awkward Power of Love Songs

Luther_Workin

All I need to pick out Luther Vandross’s graceful, rotund tenor is a moment. I know its steady, controlled timbre, its rounding curves of Billy D-smoothness even when it dopplers past me from a Lexus RX doing 60 up Bedford Avenue. It’s about as familiar to me as the left and right turns I have to take to get myself home from the G train at night.

Speaking of home, I was raised on the southwest side of Atlanta, in part, by a motley bande femme of the women surrounding me. Women who just so happened to (shocker) really love Luther Vandross. They were on a first name basis with dude.

“Is that Luther on the radio?”

“Oh, wait, that’s Luther! Turn him up!”

For me, Luther Vandross’s sound is how I learned what music should be–about how it needs to be about things bigger than yourself and just how deftly a talented musician can get his message across. Luther mostly wrote love songs, but he gave love songs one hell of a range: they could be sexy or romantic, star-eyed or simple, dragged in lament, heart-breaking, or written from a bottomless well of hope.

Never_Too_Much

For all the current familiarity between Luther and I, we did not start off all that close. Vandross hit solo stardom in the early ‘80s’. I was born in ‘83, a little fresh to understand his lyrics of companionship, desire, lust, sex. But, by the time I was born, the women in my family — my grandmother, my aunts, my mom — they’d been made to feel some type of way by Luther’s ballads for a little while. By 1993, when I first began to appreciate music, the rapture that took place in those ladies during a Luther song was as tight as kudzu hugging trees.

Never_Too_Much_AlbumAnd who can blame them. I mean, have you listened to “Never Too Much”? Really listened to it?

That was our guy’s first big hit. It came after years of toiling in background vocal and composition work for folks like David Bowie and Barbara Streisand, not to mention a long wave of failed group acts and solo career false-starts. Luther was literally burning to break through, and you could hear it in his music.

“Never Too Much” is but one song from one 1981 album(same name), but that album netted Vandross double platinum sales and two 1982 Grammy nominations. It also solidified a style that would become a decades-long legacy of love music. And “Never Too Much” the song? That was the blueprint for it all.

Love seldom lasts forever. That we all know. But “Never Too Much” is so confident an expression of commitment, it tricks you into thinking love’s road is as free as the Autobahn, as long as Route 66. You probably have an ex who, today, you want to char up with a lighter and some spray paint. But, listen to this song, and, no matter how wrong that past love did you, you’ll be transported back to a time when you would curse out a stranger and their mother just for the small act of bumping your boo one tiny inch off the rose-sprinkled path he or she was so right to walk.

And the lines! Lines so good, you can put ‘em on this year’s Valentine’s Day card and watch faces turn to mush.

  1. There’s not a minute, hour, day or night that I don’t love you
  2. I still remember in the days when I was scared to touch you / How I spent my day dreamin’, plannin’ how to say I love you
  3. Love is a gamble and I’m so glad that I’m winnin’ / We’ve come a long way and yet this is only the beginnin’
  4. A thousand kisses from you is never too much / A million days in your arms is never too much.

Here, those are just words on a screen, sure, but the romance hits you in the chest when you hear Luther hit those notes. Listen to the way he weedles down on the word “Love” at the end of the second verse (2:45).

We have a gagillion ways to say “I love you”, but the way that word burns under Luther’s impassioned control: low, wispy, smoldering, pressed down by a desire so moving, the word almost burns out under all its pressure.

That right there is music magic, you guys.

I still remember the first few times I heard Luther work that conjury.

SpentDayDreamin

I was a kid, somewhere between 8 or 12 years old, squished with my mom, my grandmother, and my mom’s two sisters in the family’s beige Honda Accord. About once a month, we’d visit my great grandmother in Milledgeville, a small town two hours east of Atlanta. We called it “Going to the Country” because of all the cow-grazing land swaths and desolate winding roads we passed to get there.

The drive back to Atlanta was always at night, when nothing but black sky painted the world outside our car. Headlights, on occasion, washed us in light, but the only steady beacon inside the Accord was the jade gleam of the radio console.lights_original

Everyone would be geeked up and chatty from the day. Milledgeville is home not only to my great-grandmother but also to plenty of great uncles and aunts. There were always tons of updates: which cousins were getting married, what new jobs my uncles worked, which neighbors were sick, what townspeople passed on. As the five of us floated together through blanket night on Georgia’s highway 129, all that news made for jazzed up, buzzy conversation.

And always, in the midst of all that noise, someone would pick out his voice… and then the question:

“Is that Luther?”

Conversation faded out. Luther’s meringued vocals turned up.

It didn’t matter what song: the punched pauses of “Wait for Love”, the contemplative longing in “If Only for One Night”, “Till My Baby Comes Home”, “Having a Party”. We always sat there, quiet as stone.

sky

A few times my young self tried to cut that silence. Even my grandmother, who was patient with my shenanigans under most circumstances, would hit me with an immediate “Shush!”. Other times, the whole car outright ignored the lil’ jerk in the backseat.

I didn’t know it then, but there was a reason the car was on an all-of-a-sudden timeout. When Luther played, the adults riding along with me disappeared. They were off in memories, or lost in daydreams, even lingering in a fantasy or two, probably. To be polite, they were each off in their own Midnight Love music video.

At first, I’d just sit there in the backseat, not able to talk, forced to listen, bored. Later, though, I started to hear what they heard. It’d still be a spell before I’d know what a Luther song was really about, but with each listen, his craft became more and more obvious–and impressive.

HourDayNight

There is a sun-and-moon balance between his vocal execution and the backdrop of the music, with all its layers of pianos, synth, and guitars. That unity had not a single seam, and the results are timeless tracks, a long series of perfect sonic packages.

Now, as an adult, when I hear the same songs, I shush folks too, just like G Mama-ma. Hell, sometimes I come close to “STFU. Now, please.” Those songs are an excuse–a compulsion, really–to walk back through things: first affections, scabbed-over heartache, rushes of passion, the women I chased, and, for sure, the loves obtained.

But that happens to everyone who hears Luther. What’s more shocking is the way his music, for me, folds up time across generations. I am one thousand miles and 20 years removed from those car rides on dark Georgia highways. But even in the split second Luther’s music spills out of an SUV on its way to a speeding ticket from Brooklyn PD, his voice takes me back to that Honda Accord and the crew of ladies riding alongside me. What I’m saying is it takes me home.

Like folding up time so that 1994 there touches 2014 here. That’s not exactly the power of love Luther sings about in another of his classics, but it’s certainly a power all its own.

Image and background credits, top downward: LutherVandross.com, VAW Photography@ Society6, Conor O Mara Photography@ Society 6, and WillBoisture.com