African American News

"Remembering Luther Vandross - by Joseph C Phillips"

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Friday afternoon I was seated at my computer preparing to pound out a column on the retirement of Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor and the pending blood letting that will be the fight over her replacement. Suddenly the news of the death of Luther Vandross crossed my computer screen and I lost my taste for politics.

For those who have been out of pocket for the last week, the singer passed away on Friday July 1st at the age of 54. His death is made more tragic by the reports (I think motivated by grief) circulating that his healthcare following his stroke in 2003 was mismanaged and that his death may have been unnecessary.

In the onward rush of current events some would argue the retirement of Justice O’Connor was monumental and that decisions made by our representatives in Washington D.C. impact our lives far more than the death of an R& B singer. Justice O’Connor was the first woman to serve on our Supreme Court and her retirement sets in motion a series of events that will ultimately determine laws governing our environment, private property and a host of other issues. The impact of law, however, is often circuitous. It is often diluted through time and relevance. And Luther was not simply any R&B singer. He was an artist whose voice was to me the sound of pure joy. To hear Luther was to ride a wave of exhilaration in one of his famous vocal runs, to know the pain of yearning when he hit a high note as delicate as fine china. The law and politics I feel in my head. I felt Luther in my gut.

In 1981 I was a transfer student at New York University living in a 6 X 10 cell at the Sloane House YMCA. I was suffering from homesickness and culture shock when I discovered Luther Vandross. Every morning without fail the DJ played his hit “Never Too Much.” Each morning it was Luther’s voice -- the voice of a friend pouring through the speaker on my clock radio that sent me off to face the mean streets of New York.

I had the opportunity to share that story with Luther. In early 1990 I found myself backstage at some celebrity event standing next to him. He had just lost a great deal of weight and was mixing one of his powdered diet drinks when I stuck up a conversation. Between you and me I always preferred Luther with a little meat on his bones. I teased him about his aversion to exercise and he laughed. No, we did not become friends, but in the few moments we chatted there was no pretense in him, no superstar ego. He talked to me just one man to another and we laughed together like old friends. He was all class.

“Here and Now;” “Love Won’t Let Me Wait;” “Since I Lost My Baby;” “There’s Nothing Better Than Love;” “Dance With My Father Again.” Each Christmas my wife and I watch our children dance around the house to Luther’s “Mistletoe Jam” from his Christmas album “This Christmas.” In our home this album is second only to Nat King Cole’s album “The Christmas Song” in popularity. The list of great songs goes on and on.

54 was too young! I wanted more –more music, more joy, more of those vocal runs; I wanted more time.

You will have to forgive me for indulging my grief, but the Supreme Court will be here next week. The Senate battle will last into the fall. There is time enough to talk politics. Today is a day to remember a legend. R& B will not be the same without Luther Vandross. God Bless you Luther. We love you and you will be deeply missed.

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