With losing Phoebe Snow this week, I am reminded of another voice gone too soon. Luther Vandross.
I met Luther in 1976 through another singer, Tasha Thomas. She called me to let me know that a friend of hers was starting a singing group and offered to introduce us. Tasha was very generous towards me as I was making my transition from Broadway to a studio singer.
Luther was wonderful and his voice was more than I expected to hear. Yes, he wanted to start a singing group but I had other plans. I had just signed a contract to join a national tour of Godspell and I knew what would become of that job but I wasn’t so certain about staying in NYC and hoping to get a job to sing. That was my thinking at the time.
When I returned from the tour, I turned on the TV and heard David Bowie singing, “Young American” THEN I heard the backup singers…it was LUTHER and his singing group. Oh how I regretted for years doing Godspell rather than working with Luther.
In the years after that, we would run into each other. He always called me Zenobia Conkerite while I was trying to be just Zenobia. He made me laugh each time.
There was one session we sang on together that I will never forget. I was asked by Marc Shaiman of Bette Midler and “Hairspray” musical fame, to sing on a few of his demos. I arrived at the studio to see an old friend, Ula Hedwig who I was in HAiR with and there was Luther. Smiles and hugs all around.
When you’re in a session, it becomes clear pretty quickly who will be leading and arranging the vocals. Sometimes we share the duties because when you’re working with professionals, great input can help to create a significant piece of music. Luther was the leader. I’ve heard others comment on his skill in the studio and I got to witness it first hand. He was like a seamster, shaping the background vocals around the track that the lead singer laid down (recorded) earlier. In this case it was Marc’s co-writer Ina May Wool. An experience and song that I will never forget. Like Phoebe, Luther had no problem coming in to sing on a jingle…if he was available.
In late 1999 or early 2000, I was in Las Vegas and heard the DJ announce Luther’s passing. I got on the phone immediately and called Janice Pendarvis, a friend of Luther’s who sang with him, and asked her if it was true. She told me (this is not verbatim) that she just saw him, like moments before and that he was alive. I called up the local DJ and set him straight.
Then a year or so later, Luther had the stroke. Janice and other friends went to visit him, bringing good cheer. She was looking forward to visiting with him again. Then it happened for real. Luther died weeks later in 2005.
His funeral took place at The Riverside Church of New York on the upper Westside of Manhattan.
I sat next to Janice and David Spinozza. Will Lee and Arnold McCuller sat in front of us. It was a solemn and at times awkward. We were happy to see each other but not in this situation.
As they carried Luther’s coffin into the sanctuary, a song blew into the air, voices like angels started. I can’t tell you what the song was or who even was singing it but it was for sure a time for joyful tears as our friend and colleague finally made it home.