We should all go like Luther Vandross. Not at the age of 54 -- that is far too young -- but with a sendoff as affectionate and stirring as the service held Friday in his memory at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. It was a tribute, an all-star concert, a fan gathering and an old-fashioned revival, all rolled into two hours of speeches, tributes and songs.
It's not every funeral that ends with a finale, but this one did. Stevie Wonder was up there at the pulpit, along with Cissy Houston and Dionne Warwick, all of them swaying to Vandross's "Power of Love/Love Power," a tune gospel enough to come straight out of a hymnal. A crowd of hundreds swayed along with them, all joy and sniffles.
Vandross was known as one of modern R&B's great lovermen, and with some 25 million of his albums out there, the man provided the soundtrack to more candlelit seductions than the Census will ever count. He had a soothing tenor and lyrics that tended toward the nakedly emotional on hits like "Here and Now" and "Don't Want to Be a Fool." He never fully crossed over into the realm of pop, concentrating instead on the ballads and serenades that made him one of the most successful soul singers of the 1980s.
Vandross suffered a stroke two years ago, and his health continued to wane until his death July 1.
"I'd like to hear his voice when I take my last breath," said Sonia Young, part of a crowd of hundreds who lined up around the block at Riverside, in the rain. Young then pretended to take her final gulp, which she did with the trace of a smile on her lips, as though she could hear Luther in the background. "That's how I love him," she exhaled. "I'm soaked, but it's worth it."
The event started at 10:30 Friday morning with a motorcade procession from a funeral chapel at 81st and Madison. It wound its way past the Apollo Theater in Harlem and then puttered on to Riverside.
Friends and family who took turns eulogizing Vandross described an unabashed romantic, a man of deep faith; a musical perfectionist who knew exactly what sound he wanted each time he went into the studio. A lifelong friend and collaborator, Fonzi Thornton, recalled from the pulpit that as kids the two of them eagerly awaited each appearance of the Supremes on "The Ed Sullivan Show" -- there were 16, he said -- and Vandross would call on the phone just as soon as the trio finished their last song.
"He'd say something like 'Didn't Florence miss a step?' " Thornton said, referring to Supreme Florence Ballard. "Or 'Did you see the size of Diana's hair?' "
He noticed stuff like that, and he was forever fine-tuning his own style, even in the group he started in high school. But if he had singular focus, he was hardly one-dimensional. He watched professional wrestlers on television and wanted to mix it up in the ring, said a relative named Seveda Williams. And he didn't just want to wrestle, she added. "He wanted to win." He also aspired to the world championship crown in Pac-Man, and on those nights that he couldn't sleep, Williams said, he'd wake you up and make you talk until he got drowsy.
There was enough talent on hand for another Live 8 concert. Alicia Keys and Usher sat in the front row. Patti LaBelle shuffled to the pulpit wearing a froufy yellow dress that she said Vandross adored. Before she read a poem written by Vandross's mother, LaBelle told the assembled: "There are no sad faces here today. It's not a mournful service. I'm celebrating because Luther would want us to."
Stevie Wonder took the microphone and, in the day's sole reference to the bombings in London, said that the God of Islam would never condone such murder. Then he sang the gospel song "I Won't Complain," accompanied by a piano and organ. Everyone was shouting by the time he reached the second verse.
That turned out to be the warm-up. Aretha Franklin came next, in a lime green hat pulled low enough to cover her eyes. After apologizing for a sore throat, she sang "Amazing Grace" -- improvising a few words of solace for the Vandross family -- as the choir nearby fanned her and dozens of attendees stood to cheer her on. When Franklin was through, one of the preachers onstage started to dance, which led the organist to vamp a bit, which led everyone in the crowd into a spontaneous jig.
"That," said the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr., when the excitement had tapered off and people had retaken their seats, "was not on the program."
They could take this show on the road. The only voice missing was the voice of Vandross and to hear his admirers tell it, nobody will ever sound quite like him.
"That one sound -- 'woo woo woo woo' -- only Luther could make that sound," said Joanne McElwain, part of the throng of very wet fans. "It was about love. That was Luther. L-O-V-E love."