For the most part, I don’t trust most people’s taste in music.
To debate a musical topic or question with someone is to know for sure that you and your opponent have a shared music-listening lineage and appreciation or, at the very least, the two of you share a mutual understanding and interest for the music that one of you likes that the other person doesn’t.
For me, someone with a baseline understanding of many musical genres, the mutual understanding thing is tricky, especially when the mutuality is to be established with:
1. A non-black person — especially a non-black person who hasn’t spent much time around black people.
2. A black person who hasn’t spent much time around non-black people
3. A much-younger person — any race, doesn’t matter.
3a. Case in point: my much-younger white coworker who didn’t know Bananarama’s “Venus” outside of the razor commercial (which until writing this piece and being schooled by our beloved EIC Margit I didn’t know was originally sung by the Dutch garage band Shocking Blue)
3b. Case in point: my much-younger black rapper friend who didn’t know Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation.” I do believe that the younger generation now could care less about diggin’ in the crates. They’re more interested in eighty-sixing the crates. (Speaking of eighty-sixing, if 1986 is not a year for which you have an adolescent fondness or frame of reference, then you probably don’t know what “diggin’ in the crates” even means).#GetOffMyLawn
So imagine my surprise when last winter, I found myself enjoying a margarita-fueled debate with a 20-something year-old at a restaurant in Chelsea who met all the prerequisites. He is a black person who has spent a lot of time around non-black people and who shares my music-listening lineage. He’s an incredibly astute, old-soul type; the kind of young brother who belongs to the cannon of vintage gospel music and 80s/90s R&B cuts. He even remembers Tevin Campbell.
The young man and I were debating this question: Who has the all-time best male R&B voice?
“Stevie Wonder wins hands down,” he argued.
Now, if there is one person for whom I’m a diehard fan, it’s Steveland Morris. When Stevie passes to the other side, I will promptly stop whatever I’m doing and take several sick days, if not an entire sick month, to mourn his death by immersing myself in nonstop listening to any and all of his albums on Spotify. Stevie’s music is perfection. But Stevie’s voice is not. (Penny pauses here to allow people to gasp, hurl accusations of blasphemy, clutch pearls and say Hail Marys.) If you ask me, Stevie’s imperfect voice is what makes his songs so damn perfect.
And if you ask me to evaluate the best voice, then you’re asking me to pick out the shiniest and sparkliest diamond, the most blinding and blingy-est of the bunch. So for that, my choice is Luther Vandross. Not Stevie. Not Marvin. Not even Donny Hathaway. If I pick one voice, I pick Luther.
Luther. He’s a first-name-only artist among Black women of a certain age and their Black daughters who are now of a certain age themselves.
There is not one Luther Vandross recording that sounds like anything other than…butter. But not butter that’s just out of the refrigerator, all hard to cut and impossible to spread on toast without your knife poking holes in the bread. Luther was room-temperature butter, perfectly microwaved butter with the right level of power and the right number of seconds to soften but not to melt. Perfectly held together, still in tact but yielding.
I dare you to find a subpar live performance on YouTube. The closest you’ll get to a bad showing is a 2004 video of Luther’s Grammys message via satellite when he was hospitalized after a severe stroke. But even then, slurred speech and all, Luther delivered a steady vocal. He died a year later.
Admittedly, there are two Luther Vandross songs that I don’t like: “Dance with My Father,” which Luther thought of as his magnum opus. My second least favorite: “Here and Now” which was to Black folks’ weddings circa 1990 what Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” was to white folks’ weddings circa 1997.
But on both of those chart-topping hits, despite their saccharine lyrics, Luther’s voice is flawless.
Luther is the brightest star in the pantheon of underrated R&B singers. And by underrated I mean unheralded. Whenever newcomer R&B singers begin naming names of influential musicians and recording artists, they always seem to skip over Luther. (And don’t get me started on how there needs to be a t-shirt that says “Make Luther Great Again.”) You could always tell he was less interested in playing the part of an icon or heartthrob and rather wanted to be a walking, breathing, singing vocal instrument.
The Luther of my childhood: Give Me the Reason Luther. The album’s first song, “Stop to Love” with its lead guitar solo and Casio keyboard-sounding music, was peak 80s light R&B.
Years later, I discovered late ‘70s Luther and pre-solo Luther via one song in particular: “Glow of Love.”
Funny thing about “Glow of Love,” it’s technically not a Luther Vandross song. It’s a Change song. To some, the band Change was an Italian knockoff of Chic. And you know Chic. “Ah Freak out! Le Freak, c’est Chic.” Change hired American singers and musicians to help create its Nile Rodgers-inspired soulful disco. When the band released “Glow of Love,” Luther Vandross was a 28-year-old session singer. The two songs Luther recorded with Change, “Glow of Love and “Searching,” often receive short shrift as a blip on the Luther timeline. If you want to light up a dance floor with a Luther Vandross song, don’t p’shaw “Glow of Love.” It’s not every DJ’s top-of-mind old school jam in the same way that Luther’s “Never Too Much” is but it’s every bit the party-starting MVP.
It’s wistful but hopeful.
Flower’s bloomin’, mornin’ dew
And the beauty seems to say
It’s a pleasure when you treasure
All that’s new and true and gay…
It’s sexy but pure.
By a fountain, climbin’ mountains
As we’ll hold each other near…
It’s sinful yet spiritual.
Sippin’ wine, we try to find
That special magic from above…
There’s a lot of talk these days about self-care. I don’t take kindly to the term, but let’s pretend I did. In which case, let me tell you what self-care is: Self-care is singing along to “Glow of Love” on a day when life doesn’t make sense and you’re not as thin as you used to be and you’re not where you thought you’d be at your age. Because above all else, “Glow of Love” is a life-affirming six-minutes-and-15-seconds vacation
You’re a shinin’ star!
No matter who you are!
The above couplet, it should be noted for the melomaniacs in the house, is likely a lyrical homage to Earth Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star.” (And don’t get me started on the 1st quarter of 2016 and its spate of deaths that included EWFs Maurice White in February, preceded in January by David Bowie for whom Luther sang backup on “Young Americans” and culminating in April with Prince, The Purple One.)
In the heaven of it all, I imagine a set list, a processional if you will, wherein “Glow of Love,” is played upon a new member’s arrival into the blessed afterlife. I like to think that Bowie and Maurice and Prince basked in the Glow as they crossed the threshold.
All the people meeting people
Laughing, dancin’ till the dawn
And we’ll always be like this
Glowing in the glow of love
…We are one havin’ fun
Walkin’ in the glow of love
In the great musical debates between generations—the who sung it best (or saaaang it best), rapped it best, strummed it best, crooned it best — I suppose capturing the divine is part of the point. Anything that we deem “the best,” musically or otherwise, is only is good as our version of heaven. “The best” is a slippery notion. It’s 70% imagination, 20% regret and 10% nostalgia. We don’t know the best until we see/feel it, and we often don’t take time to appraise it until it’s already slipped through our fingers. And who are we to say “the best,” a categorization that should encompass things known and unknown.
The distinction of being “the best” signifies achievement of the highest of ascensions. So I guess “the best in the world” of music depends on where your musical terrain stops and your musical eternity—your glow, if you will—begins. All I know: Luther is heaven to me.