The expressive breadth and emotional power of the Black male voice has long been a fascinating asset in soul music. Whether it’s the gutsy, hard-edged shout and belting style that defined the likes of Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex and James Brown, or the sensuous, gospel-inflected harmonization that made Al Green, Marvin Gaye and Eddie Kendricks popular figures in the 1970s, the way singers stamp their personality and feel onto a song directly affects the resonance it has.
In that spirit, the late, great Luther Vandross makes a notable revelation during this intimate concert film, “Always and Forever.” Reflecting on his place among other revered Black male singers when he first emerged as a solo artist in the early 1980s, he quips, “I was never heralded as the new Otis Redding, the new Sam Cooke, the new Teddy Pendergrass or Smokey Robinson. I wasn’t the new anybody. I was Luther.”
As soul music fell into a state of malaise after disco’s tumultuous backlash at the onset of the ‘80s, Vandross’ brand of soothing, slow-burn ballads and feel-good, uptempo grooves was more than welcome. Sidestepping the raunch and flashy pyrotechnics that ruled the era, Vandross embraced a yesteryear pop-soul style, recalling a halcyon period when singers were credited solely by their vocal abilities.
His approach was elegant, straightforward and conservative. His vulnerable tenor conveyed delicate sentimentality and heartfelt emotion. His dazzling vocal technique, typified by controlled velvety croons and shimmering runs, could make anyone swoon. And if his singular talents as a vocal stylist and arranger weren’t enough of a draw, he was a supreme producer and songwriter with a penchant for lushly arranged paeans to love and heartbreak.
Always a stellar live showman, he staged glitzy concerts replete with call-and-response tactics, dynamic background singers, classy choreography and bejeweled glamour.
By the ‘90s, Vandross was already a superstar. When hip-hop had a strong foothold in Black music, he amassed a consistent streak of platinum-selling albums and R&B hits that were beloved by his devoted fan base. Always a stellar live showman, he staged glitzy concerts replete with call-and-response tactics, dynamic background singers, classy choreography and bejeweled glamour. But even with commercial and critical success, Vandross craved greater mainstream success beyond his large R&B following.
It’s a telling sign that each album after his solo debut, “Never Too Much” (save for its 1982 follow-up, “Forever, for Always, for Love”), consciously tailored his sound to suit a wider audience without obscuring his pop-soul trademarks. The 1989 Grammy-winning wedding staple “Here and Now” gave him a crossover hit and became his biggest single at that point. But the most explicit demonstration of Vandross refining his adult pop-soul wheelhouse for crossover appeal might be found in this concert film, captured at London’s legendary Royal Albert Hall during his 1994-1995 world tour.
It’s no secret that a chunk of Vandross’ genius is associated with his masterful interpretations. A fervent admirer of popular divas from the 1960s and 1970s, he modeled much of his vocal and musical background after the likes of Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack and Diana Ross. When he recorded a cover of an old favorite, he usually put his own imprint on it, reshaping its original essence and structure.
Throughout this concert, Vandross chooses an eclectic mix of classic and contemporary pop staples to cover as he performs before a wildly diverse international audience. He breathes gospel-powered earnestness into Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” and the inspirational Broadway showstopper “The Impossible Dream.” His romantic soul prowess shines on other familiar tunes, retaining the unwavering emotion in Flack’s definitive 1973 take of Lori Liberman’s “Killing Me Softly with His Song” and Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen,” while unlocking lovelorn depth that was glossed over in Lionel Richie’s weepy hit, “Hello.”
Though some could say that none of these interpretations exhibit the inventiveness of his earlier covers, Vandross’ peerless vocal ingenuity is central to what makes them invigorating. No matter what audience he aimed to reach, or which song he sang, the tender emotionalism of his voice fueled his artistry and touched the hearts of many.