Luther Vandross, Pop Perfectionist, Didn’t Want You to Hear These Albums

Nile Rodgers’s very first professional recording session, in the late 1970s, got off to a bumpy start. He wasn’t the only guitarist booked to work with Luther, a group fronted by Luther Vandross, but Rodgers was the youngest, making him an easy target when Paul Riser, the Motown veteran arranging the session, noted something he didn’t like.

“He heard some things that were not correct on the chart,” Rodgers said, and “assumed it was me.” After an expletive-peppered exchange, Vandross stepped in and smoothed out the discord. From then on, Rodgers and Vandross were good friends and collaborators. (Rodgers said Vandross taught him everything he knows about “gang vocals,” the thrilling, unison shout-singing that made zesty singles like Chic’s “Everybody Dance” become enduring dance-floor staples.)

The session yielded “This Close to You,” a long out-of-print album originally released in 1977, which will hit streaming services on Friday. Vandross’s short-lived group also cut the self-titled “Luther” (1976), which was rereleased in April. Both albums, made for Cotillion Records, are receiving new attention ahead of the 20th anniversary of his death.

“Luther” includes the only known recording by Vandross of “Everybody Rejoice,” his composition for “The Wiz,” which returned to Broadway this year. JaQuel Knight, the choreographer of the revival, singled out the climactic number as one of the few songs that has a life of its own outside the context of the musical.

“Besides ‘Ease on Down the Road,’ it’s probably the biggest song in the production,” he said, before singing some of the triumphant hook. A documentary about Vandross’s life premiered earlier this year at Sundance and will be released in 2025.

But Vandross, an eight-time Grammy winner who worked his entire career to resolve the tensions between celebrity and privacy, between a desire for crossover pop success and a sublime ability for orchestrating in the background, may have preferred that the records never again saw the light of day.

As Vandross explained in a 1989 interview with The Times, he didn’t want this less mature work to be compared with the breakthroughs he had in his subsequent years: “One of the first things I did when I made any money was buy them back, so I didn’t have the problem of them releasing it.”

However, the Cotillion albums should not be dismissed as rough juvenilia. Rather, they prove that Vandross’s fundamental talents were evident from the beginning of his career. His sumptuous voice did not need aging, and, in his early 20s, Vandross already possessed a genius for vocal arrangements that commanded industry respect. Themes of deep longing and perfectionism that recurred in his lyrics and personality were present, too.

When Vandross was a child, much of his favorite music was made by groups like the Supremes, the Sweet Inspirations and the Temptations, who held him spellbound with sophisticated, intertwined vocals. In his teens, he formed the band Shades of Jade with his friend Carlos Alomar, who played guitar. They then joined a coed youth program at the Apollo Theater called Listen My Brother, and the experience taught Vandross how to orchestrate many voices. “He could easily mix and match which singers he wanted based on what tone they had,” Alomar said. Because the program was based in the Apollo, the members of Listen My Brother could attend concerts for free to study some of the most skilled performers of the ’60s.

By the 1970s, Vandross was one of the most sought-after singers and vocal arrangers in New York — for commercial jingles, for background vocals, for disco hits that privileged the producer and kept the singer anonymous. All those means of working “create a methodology of layers,” Alomar explained. Vandross applied that methodology as a backup singer for disparate artists like David Bowie, Bette Midler and Todd Rundgren, and later as a guiding hand for Chic’s signature sound.

When Cotillion, an R&B-focused subsidiary of Atlantic Records, returned in 1976 under the leadership of the respected Black record man Henry Allen, Vandross was one of the first signings. Vandross formed Luther with four other vocalists, gathering some of the most talented — and available — members of Listen My Brother and his high school peers.

The group released its self-titled album in the spring and discothèques responded well to the glossy strings and thudding piano on its lead single “It’s Good for the Soul,” sending the song climbing up Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart. “This Close to You” followed the next year, but Cotillion dropped Luther after that LP failed to perform.

Produced and written entirely by Vandross, “Luther” and “This Close to You” contain poignant moments that count among his most heartfelt material. (It’s not a coincidence that he revisited two of the Cotillion songs later in his career.) In particular, “I’ll Get Along Fine,” a duet between Vandross and Diane Sumler, is cherished by his old friends. “It makes me cry,” Alomar said.

Accompanied by the high tenor Anthony Hinton on the devastating ballad “This Strange Feeling,” Vandross weaves complex, volleying vocal harmonies to create the near-overwhelming sound of being driven crazy by a love they can’t bring themselves to act on. The song wades in one of the recurring themes of Vandross’s life and music: the nerve-racking challenge of throwing oneself into a romance.

The title track “This Close to You” expresses surprise at the spark between two people; Vandross’s elegant voice is full of yearning, but musically, the strings and ominous bass line sound almost afraid of what might happen between two bodies in proximity.

Throughout his career, Vandross, who died in 2005 at 54, was dogged by questions about his romantic life and tabloid gossip about his sexuality. In interviews, he said he felt as though fate had robbed him of love. “The consummate singer of love songs ever waiting for love,” is how his biographer Craig Seymour described him.

Vandross was a guarded perfectionist who could be especially demanding of his collaborators. Alomar called him a “hard taskmaster.” Slick hits like “Never Too Much” and “Here and Now,” Vandross’s first Top 10 hit, helped define the sound of ’80s pop, and his voice became recognized as one of the finest in music history. But he felt denied the mainstream embrace that so many of his beloved Motown icons enjoyed. He couldn’t find love; he couldn’t get a No. 1 single on the Hot 100.

Over a joint video interview with Alomar and the pianist Nat Adderley Jr., who both played with Luther, the pair wrestled with the question of how their friend would feel about these albums becoming available again. “I don’t know,” Adderley said after a long pause. “I wouldn’t like it. Other people say, ‘Oh that’s great — shows where you were then.’ I tend not to like that stuff. I think our producing skills are more advanced now.”

Alomar said that the albums possess historical significance. Listeners now “have the ability to go back and find out that Luther Vandross was always Luther Vandross, that’s a generational discovery,” he said. According to Alomar “the curiosity factor” is always enticing with early work. “I like to complete my collections.”

Adderley playfully retorted, “I don’t know why you think everyone is like you.”

When Vandross died following a debilitating stroke, his friends and family mourned a life that ended too soon. His final single “Dance With My Father” reached 38 on the Billboard Hot 100.

According to his estate, Vandross used his time in the studio judiciously and plotted his albums carefully; there is not a vault of unreleased material waiting to be doled out. The Cotillion records are the final pieces of his output that fans haven’t had access to.

Though Adderley has his broad reservations about early work, he admitted that he enjoys listening to Vandross’s performances on the Cotillion records. “It’s fantastic, but it’s not the same as the Luther who came and did ‘Never Too Much,’” he said. “That was years later and he was years better. That Cotillion singer could have had a lifelong career just sounding like that. But Luther actually stepped up.”

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