Thursday, July 7, 2005

If Elvis Presley was the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll and Michael Jackson the King of Pop, Luther Vandross was most certainly the Prince of Rhythm & Blues — and much more.

Unlike the Bobby Soxers’ crooner, Frank Sinatra, Luther wrote and produced music, and he didn’t need a Nelson Riddle to arrange and rearrange songs penned by other writers either. Luther did the coaxing and cajoling himself, whether styling a duet with Extreme Diva Aretha Franklin (who walked out on a session because she didn’t want to follow Luther’s lead) or with the Princess of Vamp, Beyonce Knowles (who gave Luther much R-E-S-P-E-C-T).

Luther could manipulate his blessed tenor voice better than Dave Koz could blow his tenor sax. Perhaps that’s what drew the two artists together. Luther crooning of romance and love, and Koz, a regular on Arsenio Hall’s show who outed himself in 2004, in sync — as if he had been in the room when Luther wrote songs.

Luther was so incredibly delicious on background vocals that Washington’s own Roberta Flack urged him to step out. But when he did, recording labels told him he would have to let others produce his music. Luther, fortunately, told them thanks but no thanks.

The result of Mr. Perfection’s efforts? My favorite Luther album: “Never Too Much.” While I bought every album by Stevie Wonder, War, Marvin Gaye, Roberta and Donny Hathaway, Miles Davis, Earth, Wind & Fire and Chaka Khan (with and without Rufus), I got hooked on Luther when he sang with Change. It was during the disco haze, and the tunes of Donna Summer and Chic, with the redoubtable funk brothers Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, dominated the dance floor. Along came Luther and his amazingly recognizable lead vocals on Change’s “Searching,” a nine-minute track that outshone the signature glistening glass balls of discomania.

Renowned artists (Quincy Jones, Carly Simon, David Bowie, Barbra Streisand and Miss Flack, among them) already were familiar with Luther’s amazing grace and soulful sounds, and he had released two earlier albums (the self-titled “Luther” in 1976 and “This Close to You” the following year). He also had appeared at the Apollo written for Broadway and toured, before his 1981 breakthrough, “Never Too Much,” on the Epic label. (I fell so incredibly in love with Luther’s music and vocals, I bought two copies of the album, fearful that I would wear the first out. And Dave Koz’s 1999 album — “The Dance,” which features Luther, leaves listeners in sax heaven.)

As prolific as Luther was, and despite his soldout performances and award-winning ways, he seemingly never felt comfortable being, well, Luther. His 2004 “Dance with My Father” — a tribute to his mother, Mary Ida Vandross and his father, Luther Ronzoni Vandross Sr., solemnly revealed the inner turmoil of a man who not only missed his dad, but regrets that he had never married, never fathered any children, never felt loved and struggled, as diabetics do, with his weight. Whether Luther sang about the “Power of Love,” “The Night I Fell in Love, “Endless Love” or “Your Secret Love,” listeners sensed that the occasions of requited love for Luther were few.

His sexuality always questioned (and rumors that he had AIDS still spread unabated), Luther sang his romantic heart out, a more-than-welcome, old-school respite from the thug love of hip-hop and rap that now dominate urban radio, VH1, BET and MTV.

Luther Ronzoni Vandross Jr., 54, died July 1 in New Jersey. The viewings held the past two days in Manhattan for the native New Yorker were a mere virtual who’s who of the music industry. The line of fans and celebrities proved Luther was the premier vocalist of his day.

Today, his remains will be laid to rest. But his voice already is among the angelic orchestra that includes Frank, Miles, Elvis and Marvin — musicians, like Luther, so beloved (and so bedeviled) we reference them by only their first names. His lyric tenor quieted on this earth, his heart yearns no more. Hist tracks are timeless. Goodnight, Luther. Goodnight, Sweet Prince.

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