LUTHER VANDROSS-NEVER TOO MUCH.

LUTHER VANDROSS-NEVER TOO MUCH.

Luther Vandross’ route to a solo career which saw him sell over 25 million albums, including his debut solo album Never Too Much, is a quite fascinating story. Born in April 1951 in New York, Luther grew up in a musical family. He started playing piano aged three, joined the group Shades of Jade in high school, who played Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. Later, he was part of Listen My Brother, a theatre workshop who released two singles, Only Love Can Make You Better and Listen My Brother. Aged eighteen, Luther appeared in the second and fifth episodes of Sesame Street in 1969, before heading to Western Michigan University. After a year at university, Luther dropped out, having decided to pursue a career in music. 

Soon, Luther began appearing on albums by some of the biggest artists of the time. His first credit as a solo artist was on Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway in 1972, sing backing vocals on Delores Hall’s Hall Mark album. On Hall Mark, Luther cowrote Who’s Gonna Make It Easier For Me, which he sang on. By 1974, Luther was working with David Bowie, co-writing Fascination for Bowie’s Young Americans album, and later toured as one of Bowie’s backing vocalists. A year later, 1975 saw Luther write Everybody Rejoice for the musical The Wiz and appeared in the film as part of the choir. His next project was as part of the group Luther, who had some commercial success with singles, released two albums 1976s Luther and 1977s This Close To You which weren’t commercially successful. During this period, Luther sang backing vocals for among others, Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Chaka Khan, Chic and Greg Diamond’s Bionic Boogie. Towards the end of the seventies and early eighties, Luther would even write and sing jingles, before joining a group which would help see Luther finally, find commercial success, Change.

Change were a studio band created by Italian businessman Jacques Fred Petrus. They’d two hits in 1980, with The Glow of Love and Searching, which Luther sang lead vocal on. Their 1980 album The Glow of Love reached number twenty-nine in the US Billboard 200 and number ten in the US R&B Charts, resulting in the album being certified gold. Luther was meant to sing on Change’s second album Miracles, released in 1981, but didn’t, due to a dispute with Jacques Fred Petrus over money.  This lead to Luther deciding to try to kickstart his solo career, signing a recording contract with Epic. Luther still appeared on Change’s second album Miracles, but only singing backing vocals. He would also feature on another of the groups Jacques Fred Petrus created the B.B. and Q. Band’s 1981 debut album B.B. and Q. Band. However, later in 1981, when Luther released his debut album Never Too Much, it would transform his career.

Never Too Much featured seven tracks, six which Luther had written himself. The only cover version was A House Is Not A Home, which Burt Bacharach and Hal David cowrote. Recording took place at New York’s Media Sound Studios, with Chic’s Fonzi Thornton and Norman Jean Wright adding backing vocals. Joining them on backing vocals was Cissy Houston, while guitarist Steve Love and bassists Anthony Jackson and Marcus Miller all played on the album. Arranging horns and strings was Paul Riser, while Luther arranged and produced Never Too Much. With the seven tracks on Never Too Much recorded, it was scheduled for release on 12th August 1981. Probably, Luther never expected Never Too Much to be the huge commercial success it would be.

On the release of Never Too Much on 12th August 1981, it reached number nineteen in the US Billboard 200 and number one on the US R&B Charts. This resulted in the album being certified double platinum, having sold over two million copies. Three singles were released from Never Too Much, with the title track Never Too Much reaching number thirty-three in the US Billboard 100 and number one in the US R&B Charts. Don’t You Know That was the second single, reaching number 107 in the US Billboard 100 and number ten in the US R&B Charts. The third and final single released from Never Too Much, Sugar and Spice (I Find Me A Girl) reached just number seventy-two in the US R&B Charts. Overall, Luther’s debut album Never Too Much had been both critically acclaimed and a huge commercial success, and was to prove to be just the first step in a highly successful solo career. Once I’ve told you about the music on Never Too Much, you’ll realize just why it was such a huge commercial success.

Opening Never Too Much is the number one US R&B hit single and title track Never Too Much, arranged by Luther and Nathaniel Adderley Jr. The track literally bursts into life a mass of cascading strings, funky rhythm section and guitars, while stabs of piano augment the arrangement. When Luther’s vocal enters, his delivery is quick, impassioned and heartfelt. Behind him, the lushest of strings sweep and swirl, while his rhythm section, guitars and percussion contribute some funk to his soulful vocal. Adding to the soulfulness of the track are backing vocalists, that include Cissy Houston, Yvonne Lewis, Brenda White and Michelle Cobb. They provide just the finishing touch to the arrangement, as Luther delivers one of his best vocals on the album, accompanied by a tight, polished band who combine funk and soul seamlessly, resulting in one the true highlights of Never Too Much.

From one of Never Too Much’s singles to another, Sugar And Spice (I Found Me A Girl). How this track never fared much better than number seventy-two in the US R&B Charts seems quite incredible. It’s just piano and drums that combine as the track opens, before quickly, things change. From there, the rhythm section, chiming Niles Rodgers’ like guitars, punchy blazing horns, sweet sweeping strings combine. Then Luther’s powerful, joyous vocal enter, while augmenting his vocal are beautiful backing vocalists. Meanwhile the tempo slows and then quickens, as if reflecting the joy and happiness in Luther’s vocal. Again, his band mix funk and soul during the track, while Luther’s delivery veers between smooth and polished, to powerful and passionate. Truly, it’s five minutes of beautiful, joyous music, demonstrating that all Luther’s years learning his craft as backing vocalist for the best in the business had paid off.

Don’t You Know That has a quite different sound and style. The tempo drops, with the song a ballad delivered thoughtfully and emotively by Luther. Cascading strings, rhythm section and guitars accompany him, while Tawatha Agee’s backing vocals drift in and out of the track, answering Luther’s call. She’s joined by Phillip Ballou and Luther, while the strings that play such a vital part in the track’s sound are arranged by Paul Riser. Another thing that’s key to track’s success, is the interplay between the dual guitars, that can be heard throughout the track. Although the style and sound has changed here, Luther doesn’t disappoint, delivering a thoughtful and emotive vocal on this quality track.

On I’ve Been Working, the style changes again, with the arrangement combining elements of jazz and funk. Here, Gary King arranges this mid-tempo track, with a the rhythm section fusing jazz and funk, while Luther’s vocal is laden with emotion, drama and passion. He’s accompanied by some of the most soulful backing vocalists on Never Too Much. Fonzi Thornton, Norma Jean Wright, Tawatha Agee and Phillip Ballou are responsible for these soulful, punchy interjections. While they deliver their backing vocals, Luther vamps his way through the track and his band deliver an arrangement that just swings. When all this is combined, the result is a  jazz tinged track, that’s beautiful and swings along beautifully.

As She’s A Super Lady opens with the funkiest of bass lines, drums and guitar, you think Luther’s about to unleash a slice of the fattest funk. Then, when keyboards, blazing horns and swirling strings accompany Luther’s powerful vocal, the track starts to combine funk and soul. It mixes bursts of drama, with the emotion and passion in Luther’s voice. From there, things get even better, with Luther, his band and backing vocalists really finding their A-game. The rhythm section give a funk masterclass, while the backing vocalists attain new heights of soulfulness. This seems to spur Luther on, as his vocal is full of feeling and passion, augmented by the backing vocalists, who soulfully respond to his call. By the end of this dramatic, impassioned track, you realize that you’ve just heard one of the best tracks on Never Too Much.

You Stopped Loving Me sees Luther drop the tempo, on one of the saddest and emotive tracks on Never Too Much. As lush cascading strings, piano, percussion and the rhythm section combine, Luther gives one of the most heartfelt and emotive vocals on the album. His voice is laden with sadness and regret, while backing vocalists add to the sadness, delivering punchy and then soaring backing vocals. The use of strings adds to the sadness of the track, so much so, that you start to feel sorry and sympathize with Luther. Although full of regret and heartache, this is also a really beautiful, irresistible track. Not only that, but it’s one of the best break-up songs you’ll hear, and next time you’re heart is broken, play this track.

Closing Never Too Much is the only track Luther didn’t write, a cover of A House Is Not A Home, co–written Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Here,  Luther transforms it into a seven minute Magnus Opus, scatting against a slow backdrop of piano, subtle cymbals, a meandering, thoughtful bass and the lushest of strings. This backdrop is perfect for the song, and when Luther’s vocal enters, the arrangement is still subtle. His vocal is drenched in sadness, loneliness and drama. The arrangement allows his vocal to take centre-stage, with the piano playing a prominent and important role in the song. So do occasional flourishes of harpsichord and the strings. Later, the arrangement grows in drama, as Luther almost emotionally vamps his way through the track, the sadness and regret almost tangible. However, it’s Luther’s delivery that makes this version of the song one of the best I’ve ever heard.

Listening to Luther Vandross’ debut solo album Never Too Much, it’s a cumulation of a decade spent learning his craft as a singer, songwriter, arranger and producer. He’d spent those ten years working with some of the biggest names in music, and had learnt so much. Whether it was singing backing vocals, co-writing songs or watching some of the best arrangers and producers of the time working, some of their magic had rubbed off on Luther. Working with Niles Rodgers and Bernard Edwards must have helped, given their production skills. The Chic influence can be found here, with Fonzi Thornton and Norma Jean Wright singing backing vocals. Along with Cissy Houston, who also sang backing vocals and one of the tightest, most polished bands, Luther laid down seven tracks which ranged from jazz, funk and soul, plus some stunning, beautiful ballads. Of these seven tracks, Luther wrote six of them, while arranging and producing the album. Among Never Too Much’s highlights are two of the album’s singles Never Too Much, Sugar And Spice (I Found Me A Girl). However, there’s much more to the album than that, with the jazz-tinged I’ve Been Working and fusion of funk and soul that is She’s A Super Lady, are both among the best on the album. One of the most emotive and powerful tracks was Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s A House Is Not A Home, which Luther delivers brilliantly. In truth, there isn’t a bad track on Never Too Much, which is remarkable for a debut album. For anyone whose never heard Never Too Much, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s now available as part of a three disc box set Original Album Classics, which also includes Give Me the Reason and Power of Love. This gives you the perfect opportunity to let a little Luther Vandross into your life. Standout Tracks: Never Too Much, Sugar And Spice (I Found Me A Girl), I’ve Been Working and A House Is Not A Home.

LUTHER VANDROSS-NEVER TOO MUCH.

4 Comments

  1. Luther also sang back-up vocals on J.Geils Monkey Island LP, he could rock too !

    • Hi Dennis,

      I never realised that, I remember the J Geils Band really well and must check out that album. Luther was a really versatile vocalist, capable of singing all styles of music, and doing it really well. Thanks for that. Keep looking my blog as there’s some great stuff coming really soon.

      Best Wishes,
      Derek Anderson.

  2. Will

    Do you by chance know who played drums/percussion for this album?

    • Hi Will,

      Buddy Williams played drums on Never Too Much. Bashiri Johnson and Crusher Bennett played and percussion and congas. Billy King also played congas. Hope that helps.

      Best Wishes,
      Derek.

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