ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Luther was about love, Tamika said. [He inspired] people
to love each other, to be inspired by love.”
Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick, Gayle King
CDs by Luther Vandross
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Thousands Bid Farewell to Luther Vandross
By Jamie Walker
When I say goodbye, its never forever . . .
because I believe in the power of love.
New YorkThousands of mourners, well-wishers, family members, celebrities, and fans gathered in Harlems Riverside Church on Friday, July 8, 2005 to pay final respects to Luther Vandross, 54, who died of stroke-related complications at John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Edison, New Jersey on July 1.
Those in attendance at his deeply moving home-going service included, but were certainly not limited to: the Rev. Al Sharpton; Dionne Warwick; Patti LaBelle; Stevie Wonder; Alicia Keys; Jamie Foster from Sister 2 Sister magazine; Usher; Cissy Houston and her beautiful gospel choir; Stephanie Mills; jazz musician Nat Adderly, Jr.; Gayle King (Oprah Winfreys best-friend); Herb Boyd from The Black World Today; Fonzi Thorton; Maya Angelou; the Rev. Jesse Jackson; the Rev. Dr. Henrietta Carter; Brother Kojo; Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson; and countless others.
Born on April 20, 1951 in New Yorks lower East Side, Luther Ronzoni Vandross was the youngest of four children. He developed early a love for music, singing, songwriting, and producing. In his 1982 interview with poet Kalamu ya Salaam, Luther reveals his early influences: As a child, I always sang. I can remember Baby Washington records. And my sister Pat was in a group called The Crests and they had a record out called Sixteen Candles, and I was singing along with that.
It was at William H. Taft High School in the Bronx, however, where the immensely talented teen began exploring his singing voice when he and fellow classmates (Robin Clark, Diane Sumler, Anthony Hinton, Carlos Alomar, and Fonzi Thornton) formed a singing group called Shades of Jade. The singing collective was so popular at Taft (and around the local community) that they were invited to join The Apollo Theaters youth performance group, Listen, My Brother.
Singing with Listen, My Brother opened Luther up to a world of infinite possibilities. Listen, My Brother was asked to open for countless artists at The Apollo like Isaac Hayes and Sly and the Family Stone. They were also invited, in 1969 (during the height of the Civil Rights-Black Arts-Power movement) to appear on the very first season of Sesame Street. There, on one of the shows very first episodes, one can easily spot Luther Vandross, a tall, shy teen whose silky voice captured youthful audience listeners as he danced, rocking back and forth, while snapping his fingers and singing a tune in harmony called Everybody Loves Children.
During his time spent at The Apollo, Luther became empowered watching all-girl groups like the Sweet Inspirations (led by Cissy Houston); the Shirelles; Diana Ross and the Supremes; Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells; and other artists like Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick, who awakened within him a deep appreciation for love songs.
In his interview with Salaam, Luther explained: It was those nights with the earphones listening to Aretha sing Aint No Way and listening to Dionne Warwick sing People and listening to Diana Ross sing Reflections. It was those nights that just knocked me down. I emulated these people. But I didnt just sit down and try to copy their stuff.
Luther said that as a result of having a lot of female singers as my idols, he developed a sensitivity level that was much different than a lot of other guys singing.
His sensitivity remained while he was still a student at Western Michigan University at Kalamazoo. He dropped out of college, however, to pursue his love for music, and his first big break came when he was chosen to tour, arrange vocals, and sing backup for David Bowie.
Bowie allowed Luther, who is featured on his Young Americans album, to open for him while on tour several times. Bowie wasnt the only artist for which Luther sang backup. His soulful voice can also be heard on disco hits like Chics Le Freak, as well as Sister Sledges We Are Family and Hes the Greatest Dancer.
Other singers for whom Luther sang backup or helped to arrange vocals include, but are certainly not limited to: Chaka Khan, Donna Summer, Bette Midler, Barbara Streisand, and Roberta Flack, who inspired him to pursue a solo career. Years later, he would also sing with Frank Sinatra, Mariah Carey, Beyonce Knowles, and countless other performers.
Still shy in his mid twenties, Luther was requested to sing jingles for numerous commercials. The offers, which came from places like AT&T, NBC, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Revlon, and even Welchs Grape Soda, allowed Luther to financially support himself while honing his singing talent. As author Craig Seymour reveals in his deeply insightful biography, Luther: The Life and Longing of Luther Vandross (HarperCollins 2004), It was while singing jingles that [Luther] created what would become one of his trademark techniques. He was recording an ad for Genos pizza, singing the line Genosyoull go for the food weve got / Genosyoull go for it sizzling hot.
Luther, however, with his creative personality and soulful spirit, changed the line to: Genosyoull go for it si-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-zzling hot.
Everyone knew Luthers voice then. Although he was frequently requested to sing backup for others, helping to arrange their vocals and further their careers, very few in the public knew his first or last name. Little knew, for instance, that it was Luther who wrote the catchy tune, Everybody Rejoice, for the all black musical on Broadway called The Wiz.
When he debuted with his first solo album, Never Too Much (Epic Records 1981), Luther was overjoyed. He worked so hard to maintain control over his own songs and it finally paid off. His first album, which included songs like Never Too Much, Dont You Know That, and A House is Not a Home sold over 1 million copies.
Luther won his first Grammy for Best of Luther Vandross (Sony Records) in 1989. As one of the premiere R&B singers of his time, Luther would go on to sell over 25 million records, garner 8 Grammys, and countless BET, Soul Train, NAACP Image, and American Music Awards.
I have always loved Luther Vandross, said Ann Witherspoon, a Luther fan who traveled all the way from the Bronx in the pouring rain with her twenty-something daughter, Tamika, to bid Luther a final farewell. I love his heart, his spirit, and his music.
Her daughter, Tamika, agreed. Like many of my generation, she, too, grew up listening to her mother play countless Luther Vandross albums that were moving, catchy, and deeply entertaining. Her favorite songs include Stop to Love and Dance With My Father, a song Luther recorded for Clive Daviss J Records in 2004, which is featured on Luthers Dance With My Father album that received 4 Grammy awards and sold over 3 million copies worldwide.
Luther was about love, Tamika said. [He inspired] people to love each other, to be inspired by love. He wanted to be remembered as one of the premiere singers, and he definitely will be.
Singer Patti LaBelle testified to this fact at the funeral. After Luthers niece, Saveda Williams spoke fondly about her uncle from the podium, LaBelle walked in the front of the church and tried to hold back tears while reading a moving poem Luthers mother, Mary Ida Vandross, wrote for her son called You Kept Your Promise. LaBelle, who was clad in a gorgeous saffron-colored dress that she had especially made for Luther, aroused a jubilant call and response from the audience when she concluded her sentiments by singing, No Ways Tired.
It was then that Cissy Houston humbly walked up to the stage. Clad in a beautiful black and white outfit, she slowly gestured for her amazing gospel choir, who were dressed in beautiful white garb, to begin singing. When Houston opened her mouth, the most beautiful, sacred, holy, and sweetest soprano sound came out. She sang, Deep river . . . my home is over Jordan . . . deep river . . . lord . . . I want to cross over into campground.
When Dionne Warwick got up to read the obituary, she, too, received a wondrous call and response from the audience, who cheered and celebrated each and every Luther Vandross achievement that she announced. Before she read the obituary, however, Warwick, who was a big influence on Luther as a teen, read a fax that she had received from singer Gladys Knight earlier that morning.
In the fax, Knight stated the Luther knew the true meaning of A House is Not a Home because he was so into his family, securely rooted in himself and in the faith that his mother taught him as a youth. Luther stayed on course throughout his music career, never having taken up cigarettes or fallen into drugs like so many other artists of his time. Because of the strong values he inherited from his mother and family, Knight claimed that Luther was able to make a difference in this life, touching those who touched him.
The Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr., Senior Minister of The Riverside Church, who delivered the opening prayer, and the Rev. Dr. Carl Flemister, who baptized Luther as a youth, couldnt agree more.
Flemister said, Luther reminded us to love, and his music still fills the air.
It was then that jazz musician Nat Adderly, Jr. sat down behind his lone, shiny black piano to play a few of Luthers most notable songs. Several members of the audience rocked quietly back and forth in the pews, remembering each musical note while singing along quietly in the background.
Stevie Wonder brought the church to their feet when after being escorted to a microphone standing in the front lower right section of the church, he condemned the recent terrorist attacks on subway stations throughout London (in the name of Allah). Wonder sang a heartfelt, soul-stirring rendition of Thank You, Lord and I Wont Complain.
Fonzi Thornton from Shades of Jade and Luthers vocal contractor for more than 16 years, read a loving and quite humorous tribute in memory of Luther, his childhood friend. He recalled Luthers classic story from his college days when he told roommates (and several other students at Western Michigan University) that Dionne Warwick, his idol as a child, was his sister. Thornton also recalled how Luther loved vacationing in Hawaii because the peaceful sound of the ocean always quietly lulled him to sleep.
Luther was a visionary, said Thornton, who brought soul . . . and elegance . . . to R&B music. Thornton concluded stating, The super band in Heaven finally got their lead singer.
Aretha Franklin, who most recently held a prayer vigil for Luther after his stroke in 2003, then walked up to the podium in her lime green suit and cute lime green hat that sat just above her beautiful brown eyes. Her deeply soulful rendition of Amazing Grace was so moving that the choir continued to sing (and the band continued to play), picking up momentum and tempo, long after she returned to her seat in the audience. Still inspired by her song, the audience continued to stand, clapping, and waving their hands with praise as one man sitting on the stage was moved into a spirited dance. He was so moved by Franklins song that he danced in place and then danced circling Luthers stunning gold casket while giving praises to the silky-voiced crooner who had given so much to the people.
Humming, Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! There is power in His holy name . . . . The family that prays together sure will stay together, Franklin, like so many who preceded her, aroused a resounding applause and standing ovation from the filled-to-capacity church congregation.
It was then that the Rev. Dr. Henrietta Carter delivered her powerful eulogy. After she finished, Nat Adderly, Jr. returned to play The Power of Love on his piano. Adderly invited everyone who sang on the program (as well as other members from the audience like Usher, Alicia Keys, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson) to join him behind his piano, as the entire church began to sing along with the chorus: I believe in the power of love.
It must be noted that all of Luthers songs were about love. Luther knew that the power of love could knock us off our feet and frequently reminded us to love each otherabsent of labels, lies, or restrictions. Whether he sang about ecstatic love (as in Love Wont Let Me Wait, wondrous love (as in So Amazing), the sweetness of love (as in Never Too Much), or a love that could make one bubble up with sheer joy and delight (as in the finger poppin tune Til My Baby Comes Home), Luther believed that it was important for everyone to Love the One Youre With. More importantly, he knew that true love was reciprocal and could last for an eternity, as expressed most profoundly in For Always and Forever.
Luthers love ballads were especially touching and sentimental. Several became popular wedding songs, which reflected his deepest humanity and revealed his incredible sensitivity.
In A House is Not a Home and Since I Lost My Baby, one can hear Luther singing about the pain of love lost. However, they can also hear a deep yearning to finally feel full or completed by love, as in the song Any Love. In Creepin, Goin Out Of My Head, and They Say You Needed Me, Luther sings about being haunted by past loves. However, in Give Me the Reason and Its Over Now, he sings about absolutely refusing to suffer from unrequited love.
In I Can Make It Better and If Only for One Night, Luther sings about wanting to extend the deepest love to someone else. And in Sometimes Its Only Love, he sings about the beauty of making love work, together. In I Really Didnt Mean It, Luther reminds us not to take love for granted.
But it is in his finger poppin tunes like Nights in Harlem and Bad Boy/Havin a Party that Luther expresses the powerful love of family, heritage, and community.
According to Rev. Forbes, Luther filled the world with divine love . . . . Anybody who ever knew love, lost love, felt love, wanted or yearned or suffered for it . . . could identify with Luthers music to the core. They could identify with it because his song has always been our song, too.
Mary Ida Vandross (Luther’s mother) and her sister
It was fitting, then, for Nat Adderly, Jr. to conclude Luthers home-going service by playing The Power of Love on his wondrous piano. For all in attendance knew that Luthers spirit had already ascended up high to dance with his Father in Heaven. Truly, the greatest love of all.
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A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family thats about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrinas inexorable winds is the voice of Wards narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her familys raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brothers blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt. Her fathers hands are like gravel, while her own hand slides through his grip like a wet fish, and a handsome boys muscles jabbered like chickens. Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isnt usually just metaphor for metaphors sake. She conveys something fundamental about Eschs fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, whats salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.
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By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarcerationbut her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.Publishers Weekly
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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updated 2 October 2007 / update 13 January 2012