Today, July 1, marks the 1o-year anniversary of the death of Luther Vandross, who passed away in 2005 after suffering a heart attack. An unparalleled singer, songwriter, and producer, Vandross released 13 albums, recorded hundreds of songs, and won eight Grammy Awards in his lifetime. He was the rare artist who had it all: the voice, the stage presence, and countless hits. But whether you were Team Big Luther or Team Slim-Down Luther, we must all agree that no other song better captures the glory and greatness of Vandross than “A House Is Not a Home.”
The final track on his 1981 debut album, Never Too Much, it was never released as a single, yet became a sleeper radio hit, one movement of the ever-rumbling quiet storm. “A House Is Not a Home” was an aching, pleading, seven-minute entreaty that felt—still feels—real. Yet by the time Vandross had released this song, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for Dionne Warwick, it had already been recorded over a dozen times, by Ella Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand, Dusty Springfield, Stevie Wonder, and many others.
What is it about Vandross’s version—about Vandross—that made it so special?
I talked to three Luther lovers of three different generations to get their perspectives: Raydar Ellis, producer, DJ, and professor of hip-hop at Berklee College of Music; Derek Wright, a Boston-area DJ circa 1981; and Guy Routte, C.E.O. of WAR Media, and co-host of the new Riot Radio Show. Our conversation appears below.
Kyla Marshell: What was your relationship to “A House Is Not a Home” when it first came out?
Derek Wright, 62: After you had danced, like, 20 records in a row, you wanted a slow record. And if you were a DJ, you wanted a long slow record so you could rest. And that one by Luther was both. It was a good record, seven minutes long, and you could take a rest.
Guy Routte, 45: I had felt the longing of losing a girl that I really dug. I remember, there was this girl who lived in New York from Michigan, and she left to go back to Michigan. We used to roller skate together at the Rich Roller Skating Rink. They used to have couples only, and she was the one girl I could skate with. We’d hold hands. So I had felt that losing of someone I thought was—I don’t know if I knew the word “soul mate” at the time, but that’s what I felt.
Raydar Ellis, 33: My family was in White Plains at the time. And a year later, we moved to Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. And being African Americans in a middle-class white neighborhood, it was interesting to see what kind of black artists broke through when you’re in that neighborhood, when you’re not around a community of your own that can hip you to the next artist. Luther was in that world. He was that soundtrack, that holdover where these black folks who were living in mostly black communities in the 70s were now living in mostly white communities in the 80s. [People like him] were like new artists, at least in my neighborhood; I can’t speak for everybody. I just know that that’s where I first heard it, and that’s what I associate it with. With black people being excellent.
I don’t think I was really able to appreciate the song until later because of the racist nature of what MTV was at the time. It’s ‘81, MTV showed up around that time, and they weren’t playing black artists. They never really got into a rhythm of establishing Luther Vandross as a star. Then we got BET as a package later. Then I was finally able to see Luther Vandross. It was a big deal. It’s not like today where you can look at YouTube. He was a still being on a 12-inch vinyl album cover until the 90s. There was a whole decade where I never knew how he walked, or anything like that.
KM: So what was it like when you first saw Luther move?
RE: I was like, “Oh—this cat is smooth.”
Vandross was indeed a smooth performer and a talented arranger. In addition to arranging vocals for David Bowie and writing jingles for Juicy Fruit and McDonald’s, he made a name for himself early on as one of the great re-interpreters of song. His musical acumen meant that he could bring out nuances in fairly straightforward songs—“Since I Lost My Baby,” “Superstar,” “Power of Love”—and make them resonate, fully his own.
RE: “A House Is Not a Home” it falls into a well of great covers. Not to diss the original versions, but the [new version] just becomes that standard. Like Isaac Hayes doing another Burt Bacharach-Hal David song written for Dionne Warwick, “Walk on By.” Everyone looks to Isaac Hayes’ version as that piece. And I think what makes “A House Is Not a Home” that record, is first off, it’s Luther Vandross, and him singing anything, it’s like if he sang it, it would be true.
GR: The Dionne Warwick version of “A House Is Not a Home” didn’t even compare for me. Sometimes, it’s how you enter, and I entered from her version, so her version sounded kind of eh.
KM: I feel like she had a number of songs that were written for her, but that other people did better.
GR: Well, she was really, really influential. It’s easier to do a song better after. She had a very specific style that was very specific to that time. And it was very pop. “Do you know the way to San Jose?” Very trying to be non-racial, so to speak. Doris Day could have sang these songs, you know? And it was of the time. But she had a great instrument.
Luther gets in at a time where he can do whatever he wants. He’s not in that box. Up until “Here and Now,” Luther always seemed like he didn’t give a fuck about white people. He didn’t care about pop radio. It was like he was totally secure in this life. And then “Here and Now” was like, “I need a fucking hit.” …He always had number ones, on the black charts. But that’s what I liked about him. I liked the fact that he was ours.
KM: What’s the difference between “Here and Now” and the songs before it?
GR: It feels way more poppy to me. It feels way more like an attempt to get crossover radio. I can’t even tell you why. I think it’s melodically, or something. They started marketing it as a wedding song. And I think up until that moment, he didn’t get a Grammy. And he was like, “How do I not have a Grammy?” So this was the Grammy song. And David Elliott wrote that song. David Elliott is Dionne Warwick’s son.
One of my other favorite songs he did was “Since I Lost My Baby.” Which was a Temptations song, but I didn’t know it was a Temptations song, because theirs was fast, and he slowed it down. The arrangements are so amazing. Maybe, ironically, his greatest gift, even though his voice was so pure and stellar, the thing that really made him stand out was being able to do these wonderful, wonderful arrangements. He was a great producer of music.
Maybe it’s a draw as to which of his talents was more powerful, the voice or the arranging. You could say that the songs were the bed that his silky, sultry voice lay so gently upon. That voice is what made women lose their minds. “Girls do scream when I sing,” Vandross said in a 1983 People Magazine interview. “I thought you had to have a 30-inch waist to get screams.”
GR: The beauty of Luther Vandross’ voice and his tone was that his instrument was so pure that he didn’t feel like he needed to do tricks. He never over-sang. There was clarity, there was sparseness in the production. The most contemporary singer at the time that was his competition, so to speak, was Freddie Jackson. And Freddie Jackson over-sang everything. I remember they asked Luther about it, one time, and he was like, “You know, I think sometimes, people do too much, and the melody and the song have to speak for itself.” He was gracious, but he was definitely dissing Freddie. It was R&B singer gangbanging.
DW: He could sing just about anything, and it would be good. I always remember saying that he’s the type of guy who could sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and it’s a hit.
RE: If he sang the phone book, it would be a hit.
KM: Did you ever see him live?
DW: Oh, yeah. Many times. One of the best shows, I saw him in Boston in 1988. It happened to be a tour with—this was incredible—Anita Baker, Luther, and the opening act was Sinbad. I mean, can you imagine two singers, Anita Baker, and Luther on tour, together? I mean, you can’t really get much higher.
GR: So, I went to high school with Luther Vandross’ niece, Seveda Williams. Dear, dear friend. Seveda used to take me to concerts all the time. I used to get to see Luther Vandross all the time. Met him backstage, in high school. To see him perform—and this is Fat Luther, during his big years—to see women literally almost fainting. He had a voice of glass.
KM: Did his production or arranging techniques influence you, working in music?
GR: Not the techniques, but the intent. What I got from Luther, and as well from the Jackson 5—don’t do a cover of a song unless you’re going to bring something to it. If you can’t change it, and make it your own, leave it alone. Most of the songs you want to cover are already perfect. I can’t stand when I hear a cover and it sounds just like the original. Or worse. You have to bring something else to it. Luther was almost like the first sampling dude. You wouldn’t even recognize the song in some instances. And that’s a real gift. It’s a real gift to be able to hear that way.
RE: I didn’t even know about music yet. But it felt familiar. He looked like someone that I would see on Sunday. He carried himself on stage like he was in front of a congregation. You felt like you were close to a holy spirit, but you weren’t actually in church. He stood there and he sang the song, and he made sure to address different sections of the room. He didn’t just look directly on. He worked the crowd without having to physically exert himself. And that’s something I pulled from when I started making music. You don’t have to physically exert yourself all the time. You can still have a presence and be commanding by being stationary.
KM: Any final thoughts about Luther you want to share?
GR: “A House Is Not a Home” is a sad song. “I hope when I get home, climb the stair, turn the key…”
KM: Oh yeah. You’re really rooting for him. Like, please somebody be at the top of the stairs when he gets there.
GR: “Saying you’re still in love me.” It’s heart-wrenching. More so in his version, than the others. He goes into this thing, like, “I’m not meant to live alone.” It’s desperate. And what’s amazing about Luther, is because he didn’t over-riff—he’s only riffing on the poignant parts—everybody had the mistaken feeling that they could sing along. Because it’s very simple in its approach. But that tone was so amazing. As long and as drawn out as that song is, it’s a sing-along song. We all think we can sing “Never Too Much.” But to think you can sing “A House Is Not a Home” is an amazing feat.
RE: Outside of music, I really wish he would have done some more film roles. I think he was probably the best bad guy in The Meteor Man.
KM: The Meteor Man?
KM: What’s that?
RE: You never heard of The Meteor Man?
KM: No. Is that a movie?
KM: Oh, god.
RE: Yeah. You already know where I’m going with this. Robert Townsend, Eddie Griffin, James Earl Jones, Bill Cosby, Another Bad Creation, Big Daddy Kane. A whole bunch of people. It came out in 1993. There’s all these bad guys, and they have this blond hair. Luther Vandross was the right-hand man of the main villain.
KM: I can’t imagine Janet Jackson and Luther Vandross on a song together. Does he blow her out of the water?
RE: I mean, he’s Luther Vandross.
[Image via Getty]