'Barry may be the walrus of love. But Luther is the real thing'

Probing, insidious and effortless ... Luther Vandross's voice caresses parts other vocalists cannot reach. His fluctuating weight, the visible emblem of his vulnerability, just makes you love him more - even though he's just stood us all up. By Phil Johnson

There's a character in a novel by the American writer James Purdy who is so exquisite that instead of talking he trills wordlessly like a canary in a cage, twittering cadences of the rarest art in place of conversation. The singer Luther Vandross is a bit like that, his voice so pure and beautiful that it transforms whatever he sings into a kind of vocal jewellery, the honeyed tones decorating the soul stand-bys of the love ballad and the mid-tempo groove with an incomparably sensuous filigree. Or at least they did until this week, when the honey appeared to run dry and Luther cancelled his British tour on the day before it was due to begin, pleading "severe laryngitis". Perhaps the cancellation makes an analysis of the extraordinary narcissism at the heart of his music even more timely than if the bird had actually sung.

While Barry White might be the walrus of love, his erotic status depends on a more than usual willing suspension of disbelief by the listener; as a result he's best appreciated ironically, as someone who boasts of far more than he can deliver. Luther, by contrast, is the real thing, the voice of bedroom soul par excellence, offering as much foreplay as you can take. Though successors and occasional partners like Mariah Carey have taken his vocal mannerisms several syllables too far, making the traditional melisma of gospel music into a cheap trick, Luther really does caress the words he sings with love and devotion. No mere canary, he usually writes the words, too, creating more than serviceable lyrics in a genre where the cliche is the norm.

Snobbishly written off by many critics because of what could be called the Essex factor in his large and varied audience (though an entrancing appearance on Jools Holland's Later last year might signal imminent rehabilitation), Vandross is also a victim of what is commonly seen as the debased context of contemporary soul.

Current R&B, whether hip hop or swingbeat, doesn't have much use for virtuoso vocalists any more, and the old, heroic tradition of smooth crooning and ecstatic testifying has largely been lost, or ceded back to the gospel music from whence it came. More than that, one suspects that Luther is seen as too commercial, too successful, too metaphorically well-fed (a sore point this, not least for Luther), for the adoration meted out to the suffering singers of the past. There's a kind of subtle racism at work here, whereby great singers like Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway are praised for the social concern of their lyrics and the masochistic sense of pain their voices brought to them - confirming social expectations that black artists should suffer for their art - while the feelgood factor evident in Vandross or Freddie Jackson is used to consign them as purveyors of content-less, radio-friendly floss.

It is, of course, within the feelgood factor, and the aspirational social context of contemporary soul, that the majesty of Luther resides. Here's music to get dressed, or undressed, to. Here's a car stereo soundtrack for a freeway journey into the purple night of Los Angeles - a notion that translates very well to the Essex badlands of the M11 - en route to a good time, with the promise of a sexy coupling between satin sheets shimmering like a mirage in front of you. There's a scene in the film American Gigolo that aptly summarises the narcissistic appeal of such music: Richard Gere is alone in his bedroom, and Smoky Robinson's "Mirage" is playing on the stereo. Gere sniffs a line of cocaine and sings along to the tune while laying out the contents of his wardrobe on the bed, matching different ties with different shirts in an unconscious homage to Jay Gatsby. Luther's music speaks of that kind of pleasure, of plenitude, of narcissism, in a way that great soul music has always done, from Tamla Motown to D'Angelo and Maxwell. And the key to it all is the primacy of the voice.

On a typical Luther track there are more backing singers than there are musicians, a tribute to his beginnings as a chorus singer labouring on productions by other, often far lesser, artists. Programmed drum and keyboard rhythms supply a smooth backdrop to the signature sound, decorated by percussive fills and the deep bottom of Marcus Miller's slapped bass. Then there is the voice, floating above the breathy oohs and aahs of the chorus; probing, insidious, and alive with seemingly effortless soul. When, at last, it rises to a high, sexy squeal, the effect is all the greater because of the previous reticence. On his greatest recordings, like the wonderful album The Night I Fell in Love from 1985 (though almost all of his records are of an unusually high standard), the musical formula is polished to a Turtle-Wax sheen of sensuality and sophistication. If this is true naffness, give me more.

Luther was born in New York in 1951, into a musical family. His sister sang with the doo-wop group The Crests on the hit "Sixteen Candles", and as a teenager Luther's admiration for Diana Ross was evidently so great that when she left the Supremes it is said that his school grades declined dramatically; a sympathetic identification with divas - the soul equivalents of Maria Callas or Judy Garland - has continued throughout his career. In 1972 he had a song accepted for the Broadway production of The Wiz, and after his friend Carlos Alomar became David Bowie's guitarist, he was recruited as a backing singer for Bowie's Young Americans album, recorded at Fame studios in Philadelphia. He ended up as an arranger of the vocal parts, and contributed a song, "Fascination", before accompanying the band on tour. Through this he met Bette Midler, and through her the great Atlantic Records producer Arif Mardin, who used him as a backing singer for numerous albums. He also did advertising jingles for TV, becoming the voice of Kentucky Fried Chicken, an incarnation that would return to haunt him as he later struggled with his weight. His solo career began with Cotillion Records in 1976, with whom he released two albums, although he later bought back the rights to prevent their re-release. Signed to Epic since 1981, he has become a worldwide star, while also entering the aristocracy of soul through writing songs for Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick. The divas he once admired from afar are now his friends.

If tradition decrees that all soul singers are expected to experience at least a modicum of pain and loss in their careers, Luther's fluctuating weight has become the visible emblem of his vulnerability. Typically slimmed to the point of anorexia for album-cover photographs, his form is still prone to inflation, as if his body grows to replicate the rich, rounded, phrases of his music. An appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show a few years ago, with Luther looking sleekly thin after a recent diet, was greeted by whoops of admiration from the studio audience and envious appraisal by the equally weight-prone Oprah. It was a moment freighted with symbolism: Luther had struggled successfully to meet the exacting demands of his mirror image once again; the narcissistic appeal of bedroom soul had been vindicated, and the aspirational tropes of modern R&B could be duly celebrated once more. Invited to take the stage for a song to close the show, Luther trilled exquisitely, as always, like a bird in a cage. As regards the postponement of the "Your Secret Love" tour (and what, one wants to know, was the secret?), it's tempting to imagine that the Luther in the mirror had once more become just too damn perfect to match.

Luther Vandross has cancelled his UK tour. The dates will be rescheduled later in the year and tickets will still be valid for the new shows. His new album, 'Your Secret Love', is available on Epic

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'