Here and Now, Luther Resonates In Fan's Heart

By Donna Britt
Friday, July 15, 2005

Talk about the "Power of Love."

It's been two weeks since Luther Vandross left us. Apparently, everybody -- including the radio stations that did retrospectives of his hits, the celebrities like Usher and Erykah Badu who appeared at his star-packed funeral, and even the blog author who half-jokingly suggested that Vandross be deified -- has moved on.

Everybody but me. Somehow, all that's been written about the man who sang "Never Too Much" wasn't enough. Something about Luther's spirit -- or is it that voice ? -- won't let me go.

Maybe it's because after he died, Luther -- I never met him, but we were on a first-name basis -- repeatedly was described as his generation's "best R&B vocalist" or "most accomplished soul singer." In fact, no modern singer of any genre sang more beautifully. No one's phrasing was more fluent or technique more accomplished. No one infused more passion or romance into a song.

What other modern male vocalist could sing about dancing with his father, or warble, "I vow to be one with thee," and make it sound ardent, not asinine?

No one.

Maybe Luther, who was 54, won't let me go because I know how much the world needed his heart-on-his- sequined-sleeve innocence so much. He was one of the few remaining black artists whose music -- suggestive but never raw -- hinted at little-recognized truths that, BET and MTV notwithstanding, still resonate with millions. His songs acknowledge the women who'd never unthinkingly slide between some bling-wearing playa's sheets, and the guys like a friend of my teenage son who's "saving himself" for the right woman.

In a world in which the supposedly classy Beyonce, who accompanied Luther on the Grammy-winning duet "The Closer I Get to You," gives actor Terrence Howard a lap dance at an awards show, and alleged child pornographer R. Kelly enjoys unprecedented approbation -- innocence matters.

Or perhaps the real reason I'm stuck is that the night before Luther died, I sat with the love of my life in a darkened car, holding hands as we listened to "Here and Now."

Some things you don't get over in two weeks. Some small, surprising part of me is in mourning. Why do some singers snatch our hearts and refuse to relinquish them? Is it because they get to us when we're young and open? However tightly we slam the door to our feelings, they can slip inside the sliver we haven't quite sealed off.

To me and to millions like me, Luther was family, as surely as Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole were family to millions of my parents' generation. The singer's roller-coaster weight, health problems and rumors about his personal life only increased our sense of closeness.

When a family member dies, you want acknowledgment of all that he meant. You crave, as another "family member" of millions once sang, respect.

Like my mother, who every few months reminds me that sexy crooner Billy Eckstine, prominent in the 1940s and '50s, "would have as big as Sinatra if he'd been white," black folks have long been suspicious of mainstream America's response to our beloved stars, in life and in death. I still remember being outraged in 1979 that Minnie Riperton's passing, at 31, was relegated to the inside pages of the newspaper for which I then wrote.

But the mainstream is melting. Many of Luther's most bereft fans are white -- and brown and yellow. Goodness knows Luther himself was colorblind when it came to taking ballads that were perfectly wonderful in their original versions and making them his own. I grew up adoring Karen Carpenter's poignant "Superstar" and Dionne Warwick's lovely "A House Is Not a Home."

Luther's buttery baritone transformed each into a different song entirely.

People in mourning need help. I would talk with a friend, but mine are useless because they miss Luther, too. So I called a shrink.

Darn. As luck would have it, Washington psychotherapist Diane Kern is a first-name-basis Luther fan, too.

"There was an innocence to his music," says Kern, whose favorite songs by the artist include "Superstar" and "Power of Love." Even so, "adults knew what he was talking about in 'If Only for One Night'. . . . Some of us who wouldn't think about having a one-night stand heard the way Luther put it, and it appealed to that part of us that has that fantasy."

Certain singers have "a charisma that gives us a sense of feeling connected to them, which helped us feel connected to others -- and to the first time we fell in love, and other experiences," she continues. "Luther spoke to the romantic part of me, to that part that wants to be in love. We feel a loss when somebody who can speak to that need dies. We didn't know him, but he connected us to something that's important and life-sustaining.

"When an artist is able to communicate that . . . he isn't really a stranger."

Luther, the romantic, would understand. When you've truly loved and lost, your house is not a home without your beloved inside it. When a singer whom you adored passes away -- perhaps to sing, finally, with a choir worthy of his gifts -- he isn't really gone.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company