“I love background vocals so much that I can’t breathe.”
By phone from Luther’s apartment in Manhattan
The recent must-see documentary “20 Feet from Stardom” explores the plight of the great backup singers. Millions have heard their voices, but not their names. They ply their art in the shadows in near anonymity. Despite their talent, very few manage to make the leap to solo stardom.
Luther Vandross was one backup singer who did. When I saw “20 Feet from Stardom,” Luther’s name inevitably came up and I thought of this interview and Luther’s wonderful recollections of his early days in the music business.
Some say your name is your destiny. I don’t fully buy the theory, but consider Luther’s middle name: Ronzoni (which, if you never ate it, was the most popular brand of dried pasta in and around New York City back in the day; it may still be). Luther struggled with his weight throughout his career and the diabetes that killed his father was likely a major factor in Luther’s own death in July, 2005 at age 51.
I spoke to the then-43 year old Luther in mid-1995, during the artistic nadir of his recording career (though, it must be said, even his worst records are pretty damn good). His 1993 album “Never Let Me Go” was his weakest solo release, that is until the followup, “Songs,” a 1994 cover collection that featured some of his — allegedly — favorite songs. I found this was not quite true.
It was not the smoothest of interviews. Luther quickly turned prickly. But he warmed up, especially when I got him to reminisce about his years as one of the top session singers in the world, adding his voice to recordings by Diana Ross, David Bowie, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Chic and many others.
This interview took place in advance of Luther’s show at Great Woods (now branded the Comcast Center) in Mansfield, Massachusetts, where he was backed by a 40-piece orchestra. After asking about the tour, the conversation turned to “Songs,” which featured Luther singing songs originally done by the likes of Lionel Richie, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack. “Songs” sold two million copies and yielded a No. 2 single, “Endless Love,” a duet with Mariah Carey. But critics panned the bland song choices and the synth-heavy arrangements by producer Walter Afanasieff. By Luther’s exalted standards, “Songs” was a disappointment because it was not the elusive No. 1 pop album Vandross craved and his record company promised him.
I know you’ll be backed on this tour by a full orchestra. Are you hiring players in each city you go to?
No, the orchestra will be traveling with us from city to city the whole tour. There’s six people in the rhythm section, five singers — six if you include me — and the orchestra is about 30 pieces.
Did you want to use real musicians rather than the synthesizers you used on “Songs”?
Yes, to make it sound more organic than the album sounded. The album didn’t sound, well, raw. It was really homogenized in a way. [Bandleader] Nat [Adderley] has revamped some of the arrangements and is using his arrangements of the older songs. It sounds really good. It worked out really good in Europe. We were there on tour for a month.
What was the thinking behind not using your regular band on the album?
Tommy Mottola [Sony CEO at that time] and Sony love Walter A. [Afanasieff]. I had talked to Tommy. He said, ‘Look, what’s the matter?’ I said what’s the matter is a lot has not been accomplished here. I just feel that I haven’t had a No. 1 [pop album] yet, yet I’ve sold out arenas in excess of people who have had several No. 1’s. We’re not accomplishing something here we should be. He said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you how we’re going to accomplish it. I’ll tell you! You let Walter produce the next album and make it cover songs. I guarantee it.’ I said what I want is the same triangle and 5 in Billboard [signifying sales of 5 million] that Michael Bolton has, that Billy Joel has. There’s no reason that shouldn’t happen. The regard for me is as high as it is for anyone. The missing link is the performance of the company to get that for me. He said, “I will get that for you. You do what I say and I will get that for you.” And that’s why I did it.
What’s driving you? Ego? Or do you see a No. 1 record as part of a natural progression for you?
It’s more the latter than the former. It comes out of the fact that this is not a bookended endeavor. It’s not like a hundred yard dash. You don’t cross a finish line and know you’ve accomplished what you needed to accomplish. This is an ongoing thing. Music. The art. It’s not like a basketball player who has a few good years and retires. Music stays in you. It’s in your chromosomes. Evolving is an ongoing thing. And I do want a No. 1 record, just like Lionel Richie and Bobby McFerrin and Natalie Cole and Whitney Houston and James Ingram and all of my friends who come to my house. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. I think the record company should know that this is something I aspire toward. I mean I do have ten double platinum albums in a row. That’s its own unique accomplishment. But I still want a No. 1 record.
Are you disappointed that the record has not sold well?
Yeah. It did not sell in that way. There was no No. 1 single off it. It did not outsell any of my previous records and that’s the state of affairs. It wasn’t a flop. It was platinum. But in terms of accomplishing what I was promised, no. It did not happen like that.
Recording covers is usually considered a surefire way to get a hit. But it backfired.
Backfired is your word, not mine. That’s your description.
Was it fun to record old favorites?
It was something I loved. None of these songs were any that I had any less of a regard for than intense. It was great. In terms of me, the microphone, the engineer, it was just a fantastic experience.
Did you pick the songs?
No. This is Tommy Mottola’s vision. These are songs he and Walter Afanasieff and I mutually agreed on. I wouldn’t sing anything I didn’t want to, but these are songs that got Tommy excited.
So if you did another album of covers we’d get a different choice of songs?
Ooooh, you have a unique way of putting words in my mouth. First backfired. Now this. I didn’t say that at all. This album has its own intrinsic value and none of what you just said am I willing to say. It’s not what I mean and not what I feel. If I felt that way I would verbalize it as such. It has a negative connotation. It slanders the album in a way I don’t want to. I’m not saying, well, if I had produced it instead of Walter and Tommy it would have been completely different.
I heard that when you recorded the album you sang the climaxes first instead of doing the song all the way through. True?
I didn’t do that on all of them. But sometimes if you have a song with big peaks and valleys, big parts and mild parts, being in touch with the mild parts is always going to be easier to approach. You want to make sure that before your energy is depleted in a day….let’s say you’re me and you wake up and you know you have to sing a song that has some real high notes in it and some big peaks. I prefer to start with those things and wrestle those into submission as opposed to singing the rest of the song and then when it gets to the hour of the night when you’ve finished the conversational parts of the song you’re more fatigued. You’ve been standing up all day and now you have to address this big part of the song and you don’t have as much energy as you did when you first walking through the door. That’s why I go ahead and wrestle with the hard parts of the song when I have the most energy. LIke the end of “The Impossible Dream.” I walked from the car up to the microphone and said, “Turn it on.”
Luther nails the big finish (start at 3:20)
Don’t you need to warm up?
Oh no. There’s nothing to turn on. You have to understand, I’m not acting. Music fills my life. Music permeates my whole fiber. There’s nothing to turn on. I am the same person at the microphone that I am in the car singing along to old Motown records. There’s nothing to turn on. I’m not a Robert De Niro singer [laughs]. I’m not a method singer. I’m a soul man. It’s always there.
Was it difficult making the transition from being a background singer to a solo artist?
All the record companies passed on me, turned me down, including CBS, both Epic and Columbia separately. I went back to a different person at Epic with “Never Too Much” — that was my song — and “Sugar and Spice.” I went back and spoke to different people at the same company and they loved it. That was how I got signed. I saved my money from being a jingle singer and session singer and it came to them already done. It was really an easy deal. They loved what they heard and that was that.They didn’t have to match me with a producer or anything. It was all there.
After all the double platinum albums you’ve had the record companies that rejected you must be kicking themselves now.
I can’t say. I don’t know how they feel.
Did you yearn to be a star when you were a session singer in the ‘70s?
Let me tell you something. I love background vocals so much that I can’t breathe. That’s like one of my favorite things to do. I used to buy records for the background vocals. I used to love the Temptations for the background vocals. I used to buy Aretha Franklin records and loved them, but I loved them for the Sweet Inspirations as much as Aretha. I mean when you hear a song like ‘Ain’t No Way’ and you hear Cissy Houston on those high C’s way in the background wailing, I’m sure standing 18 yards aways from the microphone, it’s just incredible. So when I got the chance to do background vocals on a professional level, in my mind I had made it. There really was no seed of discontent. The fact that I had admired background singer to that degree, when I got to sing for Roberta Flack and the J. Geils Band and David Bowie and Todd Rundgren and Carly Simon and all those people, I had made it in my mind. It was absolutely fine for me. If nothing else happened I was okay with what I was doing.
That’s Luther on the left in the blue leisure suit.
But was there a part of you that yearned to be in the spotlight?
No, to tell you the truth. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it, but neither was I thinking that should be me there and, boy, I should be doing that. No. See, I was adored by the people I sang for. I would come to the studio for a session or live gig with vocal ideas. I’d say, ‘Hey, Roberta, check it out.’ And I’d teach the part to the other two singers in the dressing room. And when we got to soundcheck I’d say, ‘Hey, Roberta, check it out. After you sing that middle bridge, what if we led back to the last verse like this.’ And she’d say, ‘Honey, please, get outta here. That’s fabulous.’ So they really wanted me. To pick my brain as well as for my voice. I felt very much appreciated.
The way it happened that I got a solo career was Roberta Flack used to have interviews and sometimes she’d be unable to come to soundcheck at that time of day. So I would test her microphone out. Once day they were testing out the lights. So the house lights were off. We were doing soundcheck and I was singing her song, ‘The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face,’ and I didn’t know Roberta was there. She came up and said, ‘I’m gonna tell you something, Luther. As much as I would love to have you sit behind me and sing oohs and aahs for the rest of my life, you are too much deserving of having your own career. You’re getting too comfortable sitting back there singing the oohs and aahs. I really want you to go and make your own record and pursue your own career because you deserve to have one.’ And she in effect fired me. I’m telling you, two weeks later I was off her tour and in the studio. I went into the studio with my own money and recorded two songs that I wrote. Everybody worked on spec,, the engineers and all the musicians and background singers. Cissy Houston, she sang for no money. And that’s what I brought to the record company to get a record.
I’ll never forget, there’s a place called Great Adventures, which was very popular then in Jersey. We were on a going there on a bus, Roberta, the singers and the band. We met in front of Roberta’s building, which was the Dakota, the one where John Lennon lived on 72nd Street. I said, ‘Roberta, I finished my demos. Wanna hear them?’ She said yeah. ‘Sugar and Spice’ was first. She said, ‘Boy, that really sounds good.’ Then ‘Never Too Much’ came on. She didn’t say anything afterwards. She rewound it , as if to say, ‘Wait a minute, let me see if this is really what I think I heard.’ She rewound it and started crying! This was sitting right in front of her building. She started crying with the headset on. I said, ‘Roberta, you’re embarrassing me.’ And everybody wanted to know what she was listening to. And the woman started crying. She goes, ‘Oh, a thousand kisses for you is never too much. Oooh oooh oooh!’ She played it like seven times. Then she passed it around the bus and everybody said, ‘Wow, this is happening!’ I took it to Epic and that’s that.
That’s Luther on the left in the blue leisure suit.
Would you be happy if you were still singing backup today?
Ooh, that’s a hard one. ‘Cause this is 15 years later. That’s a pretty tough question. Maybe, maybe not. I do know that the background singers I know today that are still singing background vocals still love it. They still thrive off it. It’s a skill that every lead singer doesn’t have. There’s a lot to learn from a background singer, a lot that the soloist could learn.
Was it lucrative or was it a struggle for you?
It would be kind of cute to say it was a struggle, but I’m sorry. If i’m going to be honest with you I can’t say anything like that. I made so much money it was obscene [laughs]. Yes, I made a barrell. It was great. I was among New York’s top three or four singers, It was great. I always came with ideas. I came with production angles. Producers welcomed that. It was very lucrative. I used to do Miller Beer spots with Roberta Flack and Valerie Simpson and Patti LaBelle!
After doing an album of cover songs, does that mean you have a backlog of originals for your next album?
I know it would seem like that, but it doesn’t work like that for me. I’m sort of a rise to the occasion writer. I don’t have eighteen songs already written and laying there. When it comes time to record and I know the song is going to the microphone, for some reason that’s when I feel inspired to finish a long. Like now I’m writing Christmas songs. Hopefully a Christmas album this year.
[“This Is Christmas” came out in October, 1995. It reached No. 28 on the Billboard Top 200. Luther, however, lived to realize his No. 1 dreams: his last album, “Dance With My Father,” topped the pop album chart in 2003.]