When Smokey Robinson sings of his quest for true love, one can hear his total, unreserved devotion to the cause. Unlike most of us, though, Robinson never loses the tiniest bit of dignity or style as he throws himself into romance. Such a combination of romantic surrender and high style is rare indeed, but a legitimate heir to Robinson has emerged in the butterball form of Luther Vandross. The heir comes of age on his fourth album, "The Night I Fell in Love" (Epic FE 39882).
Vandross has updated his hero's brand of romantic soul with street-smart rhythm tracks and sparklingly modern production. Yet Vandross writes romantic confessions that are open-heartedly vulnerable in the best traditions of premacho soul. His big baritone pours out these pleas and exclamations as if he had just been overcome by the feelings; nonetheless his expert phrasing is never a smudge out of place. He too gives listeners the illusion of admitting uninhibited love without ever sounding foolish.
This illusion has never been stronger than on Vandross' new album. Vandross' previous album, 1983's "Busy Body," was weakened by the fact that the singer gave away his best songs to the albums he produced that year for Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin. After a year-long layoff, Vandross has written some glowingly romantic songs and kept them for himself.
On "Wait for Love," he sings forlornly in the verses of waiting in vain for romance to come his way. In the chorus, he finally spies his chance. His voice builds from astonishment to anticipation to ecstasy until his rippling voice totally collapses in a sigh of "Oh, my!" This same feeling of a giddy swoon in the face of unforeseen love is continued in "My Sensitivity (gets in the way)." By the end of the song, Vandross is purring with the pure pleasure of improvised mumbles.
The album's standout track is the closing six-minute ballad, "Other Side of the World." As he sings of falling in love unexpectedly with an old friend, Vandross pulls his huge voice back into a simmering whisper. As cowriter Nat Adderley Jr. lays down tastefully understated string and synthesizer parts, Vandross fills his words with sighs and glides through the lovely melody with the resignation of one exhausted by love.
Bassist Marcus Miller cowrote and coproduced the album's three dance tracks with Vandross. The singer's voice punches out the dance beat with the same precision and stimulation as the all-star studio rhythm section. The first single is " 'Till My Baby Comes Home," a vow of faithfulness that boasts Miller's clever syncopation pattern and Billy Preston's joyful organ solo.
Vandross always devotes one or two songs on each album as a tribute to older soul singers he especially admires. This time he pays tribute to his old employer, Washington's Roberta Flack, by singing her Brenda Russell-written hit, "If Only for One Night." Even better is his slinky version of Stevie Wonder's "Creepin' " that uses blues guitar fills, a lazy conga beat and rumbling scat singing to create a strange late-night reverie.
Though he has had three platinum albums, Vandross has never enjoyed the pop crossover success of another soul balladeer, Lionel Richie. When Richie daintily sings his vaguely uplifting lyrics and cloyingly sweet melodies, he sounds as if he's being nice without risking anything. When Vandross opens up and pours out his whole heart via his booming voice, he sounds as if he's risking everything. That's the difference between cheap sentiment and true romance.
Vandross makes a guest appearance as a backing vocalist on the Manhattans' new album, "Too Hot to Stop It" (Columbia FC 39277). The New York quartet has been blending vocal harmonies on romantic soul hits for 25 years now, and their voices still sound good together. They're only as good as their material, though, and their new album is at best a mixed bag of oldies, dance workouts and ballads without any predestined hits.
Vandross' keyboardist Skip Anderson cowrote and coproduced three of the eight tracks with Steve Williams. Their songs sound like Vandross imitations without the essential emotional commitment. Much better are the three songs produced by Morrie Brown. "Don't Say No" is a sensual if overextended ballad duet between lead singer Gerald Alston and guest female vocalist B.J. Nelson. The group succeeds in updating Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" with modern rhythm tracks, but the exercise seems pointless in light of the near-perfect original.
The album's real treat, though, is an a cappella version of "When We Are Made as One," which cuts out the busywork and lets the four fine voices do their wonderful work. When Winfred Lovett drops his depth charge bass notes and Alston slides up dreamily into his falsetto, the group achieves a romantic chemistry that the producers and all their formulas could not give them.