In 1964 Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote “A House is Not a Home” for the film of the same name. “House” was a radio hit for their muse Dionne Warwick and has been recorded continually since its debut. Yet to Luther Vandross’s (1951-2005) fans his 1981 rendition is the definitive version. His 7:08 minute performance is worth discussing because it outlines many elements of the Vandross aesthetic. In the first 22 seconds listeners hear an instrumental introduction followed by 34 seconds of wordless vocalizing (“Dun dun dun dun dun”). In these opening bars he massages the song wordlessly; it’s such a personal approach to the song that you know something special is unfolding…
At 57 seconds he sings, “A chair is still a chair…” and one is struck by the fullness, passion and control he conveys. Structurally he sings verse-chorus-verse-chorus from 57 seconds to 2:41. At the bridge (2:41) he builds toward the 4:31 mark where he sings a coda/tag with his own original lyrics from 4:31-6:49 followed by 19 seconds of an instrumental outro.
This description merely approximates the shape of his ambitious arrangement. In many ways his “House” is as close to an aria as pop music gets. He essentially arranges it as a suite. The 22 second instrumental and 34 second vocals serve as a kind of prelude, almost setting a theme. He sings the verses very intentionally, controlling their momentum like a man with a string. The verses begin quietly, climax, and then descend dramatically. At 3:38 he erupts singing the lyric (“I’m Not MEANT To Live Alone…”) explosively. Just when you think he is done he begins the tag/coda. I would hesitate to call a 2:37 improvisation a tag; it’s really a thoughtful deeply personal interpretation of bittersweet love.
The Vandross lyrics, and the carefully placed pauses, are worth quoting:
4:41-4:54: I said…Still…In…Looove Looove
4:57: Still in Looove…
5:08: With…meee… yea yeah
5:19: Are you gonna be/In love with me/I want you/I need you/To be yea yeah
5:29: Still in love with me
5:37: Say you’re gonna be in love with me
Its driving me crazy/To think that my baby/Wouldn’t be/Still in love with me
5:57: Are you gonna be/Say you’re gonna be/Are you gonna be/ Say you’re gonna be/Are you gonna be/Well well/Well well/Still in love/So in love/Still in love with me
6:16: Are you gonna be/Say that you’re gonna be
6:27: Still…In…Love…WITH…Me…yea yeah with mee/ooh ooh ooh
6:49: Still in love with me yea yeah
Through deliberate rhythmically parallel pauses, gospel embellishments (i.e. elongated vowels), structured repetition, and vernacular lyrics he builds to a stirring climax. You could get whiplash from listening to the way he skillfully weaves together, “Are you gonna be/Say you’re gonna be.”
Just when you think he’s done he extends the song again. At 6:27 he returns to the dramatic pause, milking it for everything he can. Then from 6:49-7:08, ~19 seconds, the song ends with the hushed wordless sound parallel to the prelude…
Vandross was born in New York City and became a staple of New York’s black music scene. He grew up adoring female singers of the ‘60s including Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick. He even established a fan club for LaBelle. Unlike most fans he developed his musical chops and worked hard to break into the biz. In high school he sang in a group called Shades of Jade; as a young adult he enrolled in the Listen My Brother workshop and appeared on an episode of Sesame Street in November 1969. But around 1972 he really set off a very successful career as a background vocalist and singer of commercial jingles. These experiences introduced him to industry heavyweights like David Bowie, Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand and opened the door for him to become a solo performer and composer. His group Luther failed to make a splash commercially with their two albums 1976’s Luther and 1977’s This Close to You. In between these efforts and his solo career he wrote a song for The Wiz, arranged vocals on hits like Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer’s 1979 #1 hit “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” and sang lead on Change’s dance hits “Searching” and “The Glow of Love.”
The 1970s was experimental as it gave him room to develop his voice, to balance funk with romanticism, to understand vocal harmonies, and cultivate his taste in material. By the time he debuted in 1981 with the fabulously propulsive “Never too Much” he already had an aesthetic blueprint for his sound. Unlike most dance songs “Never” has a clear melody, an engaging lyric and Vandross maintains great diction throughout. “Never” was a #1 R&B hit surrounded by the hit “Don’t You Know That” and the epic “House” on the LP Never Too Much. This auspicious debut was commercially popular, critically acclaimed, and earned him several Grammy nominations—a pattern he maintained throughout his career. From 1981-88 he amassed six albums and 20 singles on Epic Record that sold well and established him as the premiere romantic balladeer of ‘80s R&B. He was adored especially by female listeners. And like Johnny Mathis before him a chaste romanticism was key to his appeal. Unlike Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, and other predecessors his songs were more pure romantic fantasies of yearning songs rather than explicit, carnal songs.
Vandross also succeeded as both an interpreter and composer. In addition to “House,” “Since I Lost,” “Superstar,” he soared on interpretations of Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin’” andBrenda Russell’s “If Only for One Night.” His original classics of the decade included “Never,” “Bad Boy,” “Wait for Love,” “Give me the Reason,” “Stop to Love,” “So Amazing,” and “Any Love.” He was something of a superman during this era. In addition to singing, arranging and producing, often with a team of jazz oriented collaborators like Marcus Miller and Nat Adderley Jr., his talents made him an in-demand producer. His productions on 1982’s “Jump to It,” and 1983’s “Get it Right” got Aretha Franklin back on radio. Dionne Warwick scored a hit with her 1983 Vandross duet “How Many Time Can We Say Goodbye,” and he also worked with Diana Ross and Cheryl Lynn.
In less than a decade Luther Vandross established himself as a defining voice of contemporary R&B and an architect of ‘80s-early 90s R&B. His impact can be heard in numerous vocalists who followed him including Freddie Jackson, Gregory Abbott, and Keith Washington, among others. Though each of these singers has his own sound their careers are less possible and comprehensible without Luther Vandross…
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