R & B
Luther Vandross Andrew Chan

Haunting beauty and despair in two of the singer’s long-lost
albums from the 1970s.

Luther and This Close to You, by Luther Vandross, Legacy Recordings

•   •   •

The first album to showcase Luther Vandross as a singing, writing, and producing dynamo—Luther (1976)—kicks off with an earnest ode to the power of song. Groovy and corny in equal measure, “Funky Music (Is a Part of Me)” finds the vocalist, then in his mid-twenties, declaring that he “just can’t stand still” in the presence of a beat. He seems to recognize that not everyone shares his bone-deep, spiritual connection to music: confessing his tendency to lose all sense of propriety and look “a little crazy” in public spaces, he wants us to know that this relationship, perhaps more than any human one, makes him feel special, gives his life meaning. David Bowie introduced the world to Vandross’s “Funky Music,” reworking it as “Fascination” on his 1975 album Young Americans, an homage to soul that gains some of its flavor from a then-unknown Vandross’s background vocals. On Luther, the young artist reclaims his song for Black audiences, placing it in dialogue with the O’Jays’ “I Love Music,” Sister Sledge’s “Lost in Music,” and other ’70s anthems that extol the intoxicating properties of club-oriented R & B.

“Funky Music” represents an important turning point in Vandross’s fortunes as an entertainer, but soon after his star began to rise in the early ’80s, he sought to expunge Luther and its 1977 follow-up, This Close to You, from his discography. Perhaps embarrassed by their failure to make a dent in the charts (or by Luther’s bafflingly hideous cover art, which features heavy metal–style gothic lettering slapped onto an image of a barren stage), he purchased both albums from the boutique label Cotillion with the intent of suppressing their availability in perpetuity. Though Vandross is the primary creative force behind every track on these records, they were issued under the band name Luther, and created in collaboration with a motley roster of musicians (Anthony Hinton, Diane Sumler, Theresa V. Reed, and Christine Wiltshire). Released without much promotional support, and resulting in the band’s dismissal from Cotillion, Luther and This Close to You aren’t nearly as refined or visionary as the music that Vandross would become known for in the next decade. Nevertheless, they offer intriguing insights into what made him so influential—and, thanks to their recent reissue, fans can see just how fully developed his talents were this early in his career.

Vandross was an unfailingly euphoric performer, a singer perpetually at play. This was one of his most distinctive gifts—a virtue he has never gotten enough credit for—and it can be heard right off the bat in “Funky Music.” There’s something downright onanistic about how he manipulates the grain and color of his instrument; you can sense that his main goal in making sound is not to express a predetermined set of emotions but to delight his own ears, to tickle his own fancy. In each elaborately ad-libbed passage—constructed from improvised dips, glides, leaps, and bends—he’s feeling himself. Whereas many of the great male soul singers of previous generations—Solomon Burke, Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, James Carr—emphasized the music’s gospel roots, with throaty, vein-popping wails and squalls that strained toward catharsis, Vandross took his cues from more subdued artists like Smokey Robinson, whose quiet-storm hits in the ’70s felt like sonic foreplay, opening up possibilities for a softer, more meditative approach to the R & B love song.

Part of Vandross’s brilliance was how he combined the methodical, sometimes glacial pacing of his slow jams with an almost naive effervescence—a quality that is on full display throughout Luther and This Close to You. As he went on to perfect a brand of slo-mo pop opera in subsequent records—including his breathtakingly original, deconstructed takes on torch songs like “A House Is Not a Home” and “Superstar”—he proved he could wrap his heartbreak in a mood of elation; even in his saddest songs, it’s as if his voice were stroking the surface of some very expensive luxury good.

Aside from “Funky Music,” the up-tempo cuts on Luther and This Close to You are almost uniformly forgettable and, in accordance with the excesses of the era’s Philly soul and disco, overlong. Ballads dominate, and though Vandross hadn’t yet worked out all the intricacies of his signature aesthetic, these songs have their own haunting beauty. Two outstanding tracks stop short of full-blown despair, instead drifting in a mist of bewilderment and ambivalence. In “I’m Not Satisfied,” Vandross conjures a muted sound from the back of his throat, evoking an experience of abandonment that seems all the more deflating because it comes as no surprise. “This Strange Feeling” generates queer electricity by contrasting two very different male vocalists (Vandross is accompanied by Hinton, whose thin, nasal falsetto resembles that of Eddie Kendricks) struggling to describe a shared malaise that only the sight of the beloved can penetrate.

The song at first seems like a kind of boast—Vandross and Hinton insist they are typically “uncompromising,” “untouchable,” “not the least bit affected”—but their exaggerated efforts at being aloof are undermined by the track’s pining, wistful tone. This tension between desire and detachment, emotional transparency and elusiveness, recalls the hazy details of Vandross’s own life. The fact that, up until his death in 2005, Vandross assiduously dodged all questions about his sexuality hasn’t stopped him from being canonized as one of the most important queer icons in American pop. Famously, despite his legacy as a patron saint of eros, he never had a long-term romantic partnership, and no matter the pitfalls of facile biographical readings, it’s nearly impossible not to draw a line between what we imagine to be his unfulfilled longings and the fetishistically ornamented vocal style that allowed him to summon love’s substitute.

The title track on This Close to You, another highlight in this trove of long-buried material, reminds me of what I cherish about a certain attribute of the Vandross catalog: how songs like “Wait for Love” and “Any Love” chart the mental spirals of someone wrestling with his romantic hopes and ideals in the face of prospects that remain tauntingly beyond his reach. In “This Close to You,” engulfed in a thick atmosphere of ominous strings, he admits that the possibility of falling for the song’s addressee “ain’t never even crossed my mind.” Repeating the line over and over again with slight rhythmic and melodic variations, as if to examine its meaning from every angle, he seems at once swept up by sudden passion, frustrated by his previous lack of self-awareness, and fearful that the chance for intimacy could destroy him. This is not the music of an artist running away from his shadow self, but the urgent, honest work of a man navigating the contradictions that love lays bare within us.

Andrew Chan is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of Why Mariah Carey Matters, published by University of Texas Press.

Haunting beauty and despair in two of the singer’s long-lost albums from the 1970s.
Follow us Facebook Twitter Instagram