Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Luther Vandross Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Like Lionel Richie, the late, great Luther Vandross was both a charismatic singer who alternated from tender, lovely ballads to fun, danceable lite-funk tunes with ease and a tremendously talented songwriter and producer as well, one who even such iconic artists as Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick recruited to their cause in the early ‘80s (Vandross even giving the Queen of Soul her first Top 40 hit in over six years with 1982’s “Jump to It.”) And, like Richie, Vandross has tended to be somewhat overlooked by critics merely because he didn’t aspire to be an artistic revolutionary figure akin to Stevie Wonder or Prince or Marvin Gaye. Luther was not the type of R&B artist to typically make sociopolitical commentary in his music or push cultural boundaries or even do anything terribly experimental – in fact, Luther, like Lionel, really didn’t aim for anything other than to simply make listeners smile or dance or give the world a soundtrack for life’s most romantic moments. But therein lays Vandross’ genius as a craftsman: Luther was very much to the ‘80s what Al Green was to the ‘70s. He may have never fully delved into gospel territory the way Al eventually did, but he was just as capable as Green of making peoples’ toes tap – just listen to “’Til My Baby Comes Home” if you’ve never thought of Vandross as anything but a balladeer – and, like Al, he undeniably mastered the art of the sultry slow jam. (Heck, Luther’s name is chronologically second only to Marvin Gaye’s in the vast array of artists name-dropped in the Kanye West, Twista, and Jamie Foxx mood-music-tribute “Slow Jamz.”) It’s also worth noting that, before he ever became a solo star, Luther was one of the most wildly in-demand background vocalists and vocal arrangers in the record business, pop and R&B artists alike coveting his skills. Luther was actually quite instrumental in David Bowie’s mid-‘70s musical makeover as a soul-pop star, Luther serving as the vocal arranger on the Thin White Duke’s Young Americans album and even co-writing the track “Fascination.” Though he would sadly leave this world much too early, Luther was truly one of the finest and most consistently solid R&B album acts of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and his many best-of packages issued to date have all suffered from some glaring omissions, so you really need to delve into his studio albums in order to gather all his biggest hits and greatest vocal performances.

Never Too Much (1981, Epic)

A +

Vandross hit it out of the ballpark on his very first try as a solo artist. [He’d previously served as one of several vocalists in the short-lived late-‘70s disco/funk band Luther, which lasted just two albums, 1976’s Luther and 1977’s This Close to You.] Surrounding himself with a top-notch band boasting the likes of keyboardist Nat Adderley, Jr. and bassist Marcus Miller, Luther’s already figured out his musical identity as a recording artist – one comparable at times here to a more silky-smooth version of the Jeffrey Osborne-fronted ‘70s band L.T.D. – and has the material to go with it, too, and from the opening notes of the disco-tinged lite-funk of the album-opening title cut, an instant classic (and enduring smooth-jazz-radio favorite) that not only topped the R&B charts but crossed over to the Top 40, it’s obvious that this newcomer is something special indeed. It’s hard, in fact, to tell what Vandross does best since he does it all so well here. The soulful disco of “Sugar and Spice,” the lushly-orchestrated mellow groove of “Don’t You Know That,” and the sunny shuffle of the toe-tapping “I’ve Been Working” initially make you think that Vandross’s forte is tasteful, soft dance numbers.  But as you get closer to the end of the disc and the beats suddenly slow down, Vandross’ versatility becomes all the more apparent, and the last track is the biggest eye-opener of all, a dramatically re-arranged, slowed-down seven-minute rendition of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David tune “A House Is Not a Home,” first recorded by Dionne Warwick. Vandross’ vocal performance on the cut is so emotional and passionate that he makes the song all his own, and by the time the last notes have faded out, you’ll have forgotten that anyone else had ever done the song before, and though others since him have tried, absolutely no one – no one – has ever managed to top Luther’s version of this song.

Forever, for Always, for Love (1982, Epic)

A –

Only mildly inferior to the debut, Luther might actually sound even better here vocally than he did on his debut, but the disc lacks a single quite as instant a classic as “Never Too Much,” and there were no consequently no major crossover hits this time around. But the material’s not bad – far from it, actually – and the disc gets off to a magical start with a clever medley that fuses Vandross’ own groovy original “Bad Boy” with a gently-funked-up cover of Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party.” The disco beats of “You’re the Sweetest One” keep the fun coming, but then Luther throws a curveball and takes the Temptations’ Smokey Robinson-penned classic “Since I Lost My Baby” and unusually slows the tempo down to stunning results, the lyric having much more power in this form than it did in the original. The lovely strings-laden balladry of the title cut sounds like a great lost Philadelphia International side from the mid-‘70s. The funky “Better Love” hearkens back to the title cut of Never Too Much, while “Promise Me” is one of the most underrated ballads in Luther’s entire catalog.

Busy Body (1983, Epic)

A  

Just as solid as Forever, for Always, for Love, if not slightly superior, Busy Body is nearly just as fun for its cast as its material, Luther rounding up an all-star team of backing vocalists that includes the legendary Darlene Love, jazz-pop great Patti Austin, Cissy Houston, Chic’s Alfa Anderson, and disco diva Cheryl Lynn (“Got to Be Real.”) Like its predecessor, Busy Body has its fine up-tempo moments (“I’ll Let You Slide” being the most memorable here) but is ultimately most memorable for its ballads, the disc ending on a knockout punch with the Dionne Warwick duet “How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye” (a Top 40 pop crossover hit) and, even better, a dramatic nine-minute slowed-down reading of the Leon Russell-and-Bonnie Bramlett-penned classic “Superstar” (originally done by Delaney & Bonnie but made most famous by the Carpenters) that cleverly opens with a brief segment of Aretha Franklin’s “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).” The medley is nearly every bit as powerful a show-stopper as Never Too Much’s “A House Is Not a Home” and is the perfect way to close the disc. 

The Night I Fell in Love (1985, Epic)

A

Unless you happen to be listening to his albums back-to-back, you might not notice it, but the sequencing of this album is actually quite ingenious, the disc hearkening back to the closing cut of its immediate predecessor (“Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” by opening with the jaunty, upbeat pop of “’Til My Baby Comes Home,” which features an organ solo from the late, great “fifth Beatle” Billy Preston (“Will It Go Round in Circles?,” “Nothing from Nothing”) and is arguably one of Vandross’ most criminally underrated singles. [The song was a sizable crossover hit, reaching #29 – even besting the peak position of “Never Too Much”! – and yet somehow the song almost always gets left out of best-of packages. Go figure.] The disc also boasts what is arguably the definitive reading of Brenda Russell’s much-covered classic “If Only for One Night” – and one of the better covers you’ll ever encounter of Stevie Wonder’s criminally-underrated Fulfillingness’ First Finale cut “Creepin’.” There are two other R&B hits here in the dancefloor-minded “It’s Over Now” and the silky-smooth ballad “Wait for Love,” but those second-side songs actually get upstaged by the lite-funk of “My Sensitivity (Gets in the Way),” one of the catchiest and most criminally overlooked album cuts in Luther’s body of work. (Columbia truly dropped the ball by not releasing this one as a single.) The disc closes with another one of Luther’s greatest non-singles, the ballad “Other Side of the World,” the instrumental arrangement of which is a knockout, the song opening with a syrupy synthesizer gently oozing over Marcus Miller’s funky-yet-sultry bass playing before an oriental-tinged keyboard line kicks in, everybody dropping out momentarily as Luther’s vocal finally enters the mix. 

Give Me the Reason (1986, Epic)

A

This fifth outing from Luther tends to not get graded nearly as highly by critics as the first four, but it’s a bit head-scratching as to why that is. Sure, this may be a bit more pop-minded an affair and a little less R&B than any of its predecessors, but it never actually sounds like a selling out of any sort – less organic, yes, but not a selling out – and the material is just as high-quality as that of any the previous four discs. The disc gets off to a fun start with the shimmering dance-pop of “Stop to Love,” a Top 40 pop hit and one of Luther’s most enduring radio classics. The gentle stuttered grooves of the title cut (and Ruthless People soundtrack cut), a Grammy nominee for Best R&B Song, are just as appealing, while the disc also sports an unlikely – but surprisingly quite successful – duet with actor/tap dancer Gregory Hines, “There’s Nothing Better Than Love,” that deservedly topped the R&B chart and another fine Burt Bacharach/Hal David cover in the album-closing “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” But perhaps the most memorable of all the cuts here is the ballad “So Amazing,” which strangely missed the Hot 100 entirely (and, even more oddly, just barely even dented the R&B singles charts) but might boast the prettiest melody of any of Luther’s self-penned ballads; its lyric certainly is as great a summation of what it feels like to be in love as any set of words Luther ever wrote.

Any Love (1988, Epic)

A

Luther’s final full-length studio album of the ‘80s was every bit as rock-solid as its predecessors and nicely capped off what had been a remarkable decade of work for the R&B singer, one that sadly may not have seen him climb any higher on the pop charts than the #15 peak of “Stop to Love” but one that had seen him churn out six fantastic albums in a row and become the premier soul balladeer of the era. Any Love isn’t much of a departure musically from the slightly-pop-oriented Give Me the Reason, so it’s not quite as organic-sounding as his first four albums, but the material is every bit as appealing as usual, and the disc boasts another Top 40 pop crossover hit in the fun, up-tempo dance-pop of “She Won’t Talk to Me,” which, like “’Til My Baby Comes Home,” strangely always seems to get left off of best-of packages but showcases a charming side of Vandross we seldom encounter on the radio dial. The title cut, another Grammy nominee for Best R&B song, is another of Vandross’ winning ballads, and the ballad “For You to Love” – a Top Five R&B hit that criminally missed the Hot 100 altogether – is just as appealing.  The disc also sports a cover of Major Harris’ 1975 R&B classic “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” that is arguably every bit as good as the original and cleverly substitutes the infamous and eyebrow-raising moaning from the original recording’s instrumental break with a tasteful sax solo from jazz great Kirk Whalum.