From time to time my older sister and I used to spend childhood weekends with my Aunt Phyllis, a fun-loving woman who chewed and smiled hard. She had one son, Mister, named so 'cause she and former husband and her couldn't agree on a name for their dimple-faced child and being both stubborn, refused to compromise.
Mister, who might have been a year or two older than my sister, was as smart as he was fun and lil' man was hella smart. He was still a boy though and my auntie sometimes wanted a little girl (or two) to dote on so at her request sometimes my mama would drive me and my sis' the quarter mile to her townhouse. During these sleepovers my sister, to the consternation of my mama, learned how to chew hard too and I learned about brown-skinned, big bodied, and/or jheri curled singers like Jennifer Holliday, Vesta, and Luther Vandross. You see, my mama's tastes are exclusively old school-- Otis, Al, ReRe, 'nuff Gospel (think Mighty Clouds of Joy) with a dash of Jessye Norman-- and pretty conservative-- "In Between the Sheets" and "Sexual Healing" marked the end of my mama's interest in The Isley Brothers and Marvin Gaye respectively. But Aunt Phyllis was a little more worldly. She insisted on pressing me and my sisters usually meticulously cornrowed or pigtailed hair. Pressing at our age wasn't all that commonplace, might even be percieved a little womanish with the ole timey crowd (my mama excluded: braiding was just more practical than pressing) but me and my sis' had A LOT of hair and Aunt Phyllis preferred it long and straight. So I imagine late nights in the kitchen in between hard chews or waiting for the hot comb to, well, get hot on the stove we listened to Jennifer, Vesta, Luther and others. This wasn't entirely unfamiliar. Seattle had a black radio station, 1250 KFOX, that played everything you never heard on MTV or KUBE 93.3 (Seattle's former chalk pop station which recently converted to hip hop) but sitting there with Aunt Phyllis sticks with me more than afternoons tuned to the staticky AM station probably 'cause music for me like most of us catalogues experience: moods and moments.
Aunt Phyllis had Luther's The Night I Fell in Love, his 1985 release that included R&B gems, "If Only For One Night" (recently sampled on Bow Wow and Omarion's "Let Me Hold You"), " Wait for Love," and "'Til My Baby Comes Home." The title track was my jam or rather became it. At the time MJ had me on lock and playing (i.e., double dutch, swinging, blind man's bluff, freeze tag) superseded all interest in music but with the passage of time my Aunt Phyllis moved (she's a minister now!?), Mister moved to far away West Seattle with his dad and somehow I ended up with Mr. Vandross's 1985 album to add to my scant collection of MJ related titles. I was still young hadn't really got into pre-"I Just Called to Say I Love You" Stevie yet so this album kind marked the beginning of me looking for music not just listening to it. Nothing about Luther "Curl Ain't Quite Right" Vandross should have appealed to me. It seemed a little too much like grown folks music and I was blissfully young but I played the record anyway and it grew on me.
My second fav. girl group growing up En Vogue (1st is SWV) opened for the late Luther Vandross on his 1993 tour. Vandross still basking in the astounding success of his 1991 effort Power of Love, had just released 8th album Never Let Me Go smartly paired with En Vogue then riding high of the success of '92's Funky Divas. But according to Terri, Maxine, Cindy and Dawn, Luther was the true diva. As I recall they went on many a talk show (Arsenio maybe?) maligning the crooner as down right ornery. Their nickname for the sometime svelte/sometimes stout crooner, Lucifer, says it all. Aretha Franklin's page-turning autobiography suggests the same although she insisted no love was lost. I guess I say this to say that although we have lost a tremendous artist, a icon of post- civil rights soul music and of eighties excess and flash--a truly timeless talent--we are, or at least I am sad, I know that his life was no more or less weighty than anyone else who died Friday. I didn't know him nor did many of us whose hearts felt heavy when we heard the inevitable news that he had passed on and it's too easy to canonize him, celebrity that he was, in death. I don't know if Luther Vandross was a good man. I don't know if he was decent or kind but I do know that his artfully constructed and skillfully executed music reminds me of smoky kitchens, hard chews and kind aunties, play cousins, strawberry soda, frosted jeans, hot links, and decent but fool-acting uncles.
Funeral services for Luther Vandross will be held on Wednesday, July 6 and Thursday, July 7 in New York at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel at 1076 Madison Avenue (at 81st Street) with public viewings from 4 p.m. -9 p.m. (ET). The memorial service will be held Friday, July 8 at the Riverside Church. located at 490 Riverside Drive at 12 p.m. (Credit: BET.com)
The Night I Fell In Love (mp3)