October 16, 2007

Forever, For Always: Luther Vandross - Love, Luther [4-CD Box Set]

When Luther Vandross died on July 1, 2005, soul music lost one of its preeminent exponents. An incomparable vocalist as well as a consummate songwriter, producer, and arranger, Vandross instilled his gifts into songs that will forever symbolize authentic romance.

Released on October 16, a superb four-disc box set highlights every phase and facet of the late legend’s career. Appropriately, it’s entitled, Love, Luther.

Quite possibly the finest male vocalist of his generation, Vandross possessed one of music’s most unaffected, inherently brilliant voices. His resonated with astonishing depth and range while, at the same time, being a masterful instrument of intricate and intelligent phrasing.

Listen to how his voice soars and descends in measured tones on songs like “Never Let Me Go” and “Wait For Love”. On up-tempo tracks like “Never Too Much” (which comes in an extended version here) and “Stop To Love,” you can hear how Vandross reins in his vocal might to favor each of their dominant grooves. And to behold a flawless confluence of technical skill and intuitive soul, look no further than the stunning live medley of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David classics, “Windows Of The World/What The World Needs Now.”

Indeed, Vandross interpreted other artists’ material so well and with so much conviction that, in many cases, his renditions surpassed the quality of the original versions. With some covers, he even wound up delivering the definitive versions.

“Always And Forever,” a popular hit for Heatwave, reached an even wider audience once the Vandross version hit the airwaves in 1994. The rendition included here, recorded live at London’s Royal Albert Hall, makes one almost forget that this wasn’t his song to begin with.

Undeniably, though, the full force of his interpretive ability was demonstrated on “A House Is Not A Home.” Dionne Warwick, the song’s prior most-familiar interpreter, lost her primary claim to it once Vandross released what ultimately became his signature song. Two renditions of this classic are featured in this collection, the original studio version and a heart-wrenching live performance recorded at Radio City Music Hall in 2003.

Perhaps because of his interpretive and vocal prowess, Vandross often found his own songwriting abilities overshadowed and vastly underrated. Nevertheless, he wrote (or co-wrote), produced, and arranged the majority of his material as well as doing the same for several other artists. From the aching loneliness in “Don’t Want To Be A Fool” and “Any Love” to the joyful affirmations in “She Loves Me Back” and “So Amazing,” he suitably proved himself a songwriter of distinguished talent.

Even with such talent, what ultimately set Vandross apart from many of his contemporaries was, simply, his integrity. The personification of class in an era that didn’t always espouse it, he never sacrificed his creative or moral standards by singing explicitly about sex. His music certainly inspired and implied genuine romance and passion, yet it never relied upon intimate or gratuitous expression to do so. His exquisite performances of “If Only For One Night” and “I Want The Night To Stay” are prime examples of such sophistication.

Listening to this collection not only confirms the indelible contribution that Vandross made to music, it also offers striking insight as to some of the creative efforts he never finished to his satisfaction. “Ready For Love,” a cloudy-sounding demo discovered on a cassette tape dated 1979-1980, finds Vandross singing in remarkable form to a piano accompaniment.

Also, “There’s Only You,” recorded in 1985, sounds utterly spellbinding, with a metronomic synthesizer underscoring a riveting and ominous vocal. “I’ll be missing you,” Vandross sings as the song ebbs towards its end.

On the day of his memorial service, thousands of mourners braved a New York City rain shower to witness the funeral procession as it rolled past the Apollo Theater in Harlem, on its way to Riverside Church. During the service attended by 2,000 guests, Aretha Franklin sang “Amazing Grace.” And, at the service’s conclusion, the entire congregation rose to sing “The Power Of Love/Love Power,” one of the most familiar songs in the career of Luther Vandross.

Love, Luther represents a lifetime devoted to music. This music inspired people to stand in the rain to pay their last respects to a man they’d likely never met, but with whom they felt a bond. This music inspired the Queen of Soul to sing the most revered of gospel standards, even as she grieved the passing of a friend. This music inspired everyone inside Riverside Church to pay homage to Luther Vandross by singing one of his own songs.

And now, in our own ways, this music can inspire us as well.