Main | Friday, July 08, 2005

Instant Disco History, Vol.2

In the '70s, before the era of music videos, and much, much longer before the true information age spawned by the internet, music fans had only one resource to scour if they were interested in finding out the minutia of their favorite recordings. That was, of course, the liner notes.

In my case, being a raging fan of the largely faceless, often nameless brand of music then called "disco", it was the singers that interested me the most. It became an almost relentless obsession for me, to pore over my liner notes, as I would cross-match different vocalists to different recordings, marveling at my ability to pick out the same diva (is a male diva a "divo"?) on several different recordings.

And so, around 1980 or so, I had my biggest "Eureka!" moment in my entire love affair with disco vocalists. That's when I finally realized that the deliciously smooth vocalist I had fallen in love with a couple of years earlier, on massive hits for Bionic Boogie, was the same impossibly glorious vocalist that I was then quavering over on the biggest dance album of 1980, "The Glow Of Love", by Change.

Name in hand, I pawed through my collection, my wonder growing as I continued to find this vocalist's name on many of my other records, often listed as a back-up vocalist. A partial list of the albums on which I found this vocalist listed included albums by Donna Summer, Bette Midler, Chic, Vicki Sue Robinson, Michael Zager Band, Lemon, Peter Jacques Band...and on and on and on. Then I found this vocalist's name ALL over my David Bowie records! Songwriting, vocal arrangements, back-up singing. How did I miss this? How could I not *hear* that it was the same vocalist over and over? I mean, I was in LOVE with this singular voice. Its tone, its range, its sexiness.

That voice belonged to Luther Vandross.

In 1978, part of my post-clubbing ritual was coming home and kicking off my shoes, and with my bar buddy Todd, doing a sock-sliding shuffle all over my living room to Bionic Boogie's (now classic) "Hot Butterfly". Luther's silky voice would cause Todd's eyes to roll back in his head, and he would slide around in front of my sofa, in one hand his "nightcap" vodka/tonic, and in the other his ever-present Pall Mall. I could never resist joining him (in the dance, not the drink or the ciggie), and sometimes we'd play "Hot Butterfly" five or six times, before Todd would finally say goodnight. After Todd would leave, I'd pull out the previous Bionic Boogie album and play "Risky Changes" for myself, a song that Todd hated, but only because the DJs at the local gay bars had been playing it twice nightly for at least a year.

Then, in 1980, came Change's "The Glow Of Love". The debut single was "Lover's Holiday", and while it featured Luther's voice, he was buried with other singers, only on a couple of notes was he clearly identifiable. It was the follow-up singles, "Searching" and "The Glow Of Love" that finally made the Bionic Boogie connection click for me. And it was the lyrics of "The Glow Of Love" that first made me suspect that Luther was gay.

Flower’s bloomin’, mornin’ dew
And the beauty seems to say
It’s a pleasure when you treasure
All that’s new and true and gay

I mean, come on...."It's a pleasure when you treasure all that's new and true and GAY"?

The following year, 1981, Luther Vandross, upon the insistence of his friend Patti Labelle, finally released his debut solo album, "Never Too Much" which he produced himself. Buried on the B-side of "Never Too Much" is my favorite of many favorites by Luther, his complete redrawing of the already classic Burt Bacharach song, "A House Is Not A Home", his version of which can still, almost 25 years later, bring me to tears. It's also a staple on the late night Quiet Storm format FMs, as are so many of his later recordings.

I should reveal here that for about a year, "Never Too Much" was my personal fuck record. By that I mean that before I went out clubbing, I would go through a checklist, in case I brought a guy back home with me. Bedroom tidy? Check. No dishes in the sink? Check. Living room shag carpet properly vacuumed and left with vacuum tracks? Check. And "Never Too Much" on the turntable, needle ON the record? CHECK.

I spent the last decade waiting for Luther to finally come out of the closet. Although, I always respected the way he handled the non-stop speculations of the media. In my opinion, it's not the responsibility of every gay artist to come out of the closet, even though I wish they would. For me, as long as they aren't denying the truth, but merely keeping their personal life personal, I can live with that.

And Luther Vandross handled the questions with dignity and quiet reserve. He handled them with class, even though his secret life was torturing him. I had expected that like Johnny Mathis (he and Luther are probably responsible for more baby making than anybody except Barry White), Luther would probably come out long after his career had any real commercial life. I had fantasized about seeing Vandross and Mathis perform a side-by-sissy duet on a gay variety show.

But that won't happen. As you all know, Luther died last week, at the age of 54. Today his memorial is taking place on Manhattan's Upper East Side, and a born and bred NYC boy will come home for the final time.

I hope you listen to these early Luther Vandross records that I have posted. They provide a glimpse not only into Luther's early career, but a look at the types of records that gay clubs were playing at the time. They are smooth, they are timeless. They are Luther Vandross.

Bionic Boogie - "Hot Butterfly" Polydor Records, 1978

Change - "The Glow Of Love" Warner Bros. Records, 1980

Bionic Boogie - "Risky Changes" Polydor Records, 1977

Change - "Searching" Warner Bros. Records, 1980


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