Black History Month: On Backing Vocals, Mr. Luther Vandross!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

In Rhino’s continued celebration of Black History Month, we decided to step outside the box to shine the spotlight on someone whose recordings aren’t even a part of our catalog…or, more specifically, his own recordings aren’t. Before becoming a superstar singer in his own right, Luther Vandross carved himself a niche as the go-to guy for soulful backing vocals, so much so that it didn’t take long to pull together a list of 10 examples of his work, all of which are found within Rhino’s catalog. Hooray for Luther Vandross!

1. David Bowie, “Young Americans” (1975): Although Bowie had plenty of MVPs in his midst during his recording sessions and live performances, there was no question that Vandross had the pipes to be a star, and Bowie offered him plenty of support as Vandross was finding his own footing. In fact, according to Craig Seymour’s book Luther: The Life and Longing of Luther Vandross, Bowie actually told Vandross in December 1974, “You’re going to make it…next year is your year!” Indeed, it was the year that Vandross’s career as a background vocalist kicked into gear in a big way, and in no small part because of his contributions to Bowie’s big hit.

2. Bette Midler, “Strangers In The Night” (1975): In a February 1982 interview with The Black Collegiate Magazine, Vandross credited Bowie with introducing him to Midler, who had him sing background vocals for her cover of “Strangers in the Night” on her album SONGS FOR THE NEW DEPRESSION. “Then word of mouth started getting around: ‘There’s this guy named Luther who does that number,’” recalled Vandross. “But now one of the contexts you have to understand was that the background singing has always been a female-dominated area. I was bringing stuff of my own to the sessions that was kind of unique in terms of how to do background vocals. And later I learned never to give away anything you can sell, so I started charging for this extra bit of approach, which was fine, because by this time everyone wanted it so bad that they were willing to pay for it.”

3. The J. Geils Band, “Surrender” (1977): In a June 1995 interview with journalist Larry Katz, Vandross spoke at length about his career as a background vocalist, putting tremendous emphasis not only on how important it was at the time but, indeed, how strongly he still felt about his experiences working with such artists as – among others – The J. Geils Band. “When I got the chance to do background vocals on a professional level, in my mind I had made it,” said Vandross. “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.”

4. Chic, “Everybody Dance” (1977): Vandross became good friends with Chic member Fonzi Thornton over the course of his life, with the two having known each other since they were kids, but one has to presume that it was a particularly special experience when they got to work together on the first few Chic albums. (In addition to the band’s self-titled debut, Vandross can also be heard on 1978’s C’EST CHIC.)

5. Average White Band and Ben E. King, “Get It Up For Love” (1977): Vandross’s work on this awesomely funky collaboration was not an isolated experience in terms of the time he spent with King. In short order, King got to work on a solo album, and when the time came to put together the crew to do it, Vandross was right there in the mix.

6. Ringo Starr, “Drowning In The Sea Of Love” (1977): Ringo’s recorded output during his stint on Atlantic Records was not burdened by chart-topping material, but it was nonetheless full of contributions by talented individuals, including Vandross, who – given that he watched The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show like everyone – was probably just as excited to work with Ringo as you’d expect.

7. Carly Simon, “De Bat (Fly In The Face)” (1978): This wasn’t the only time Vandross worked with Simon – he also contributed to her 1985 song “Can’t Give It Up” – but this is definitely one worth hearing if you’re unfamiliar with it. We’re not sure if it officially qualifies as calypso, but that’s clearly what Simon was going for, so we’re giving her belated kudos for making a concerted effort to try and step outside the box.

8. Roy Buchanan, “Down By The River” (1978): Vandross first worked with Buchanan on the latter’s 1976 album, A STREET CALLED STRAIGHT, but here he joins forces with Alfa Anderson, David Lasley, and Krystal Davis on backing vocals while Gary St. Clair takes lead vocals.

9. Roberta Flack, “You Are Everything” (1978): Vandross participated in a number of sessions with Flack…so many, in fact, that she reportedly encouraged him to start his own career. Per SongFacts, Flack accused Vandross of getting "too comfortable" in his career as a backing singer, at which point he decided to make a move toward doing something about his situation. In turn, he recorded demos for the songs “Never Too Much” and "Sugar And Spice,” and not only did the former song end up serving as the title track to Vandross’ self-titled 1981 debut album, but it became a #1 hit on Billboard’s R&B Singles chart.

10. Carole Bayer Sager, “One Star Shining” (1978): Vandross was always a guy who knew his way around a good song, so he’d naturally appreciate Bayer Sager’s gift for penning hits. While her own work as a singer never hit the same chart heights, Vandross happily contributed his vocals to the LP.