April 20th marked what would’ve been the 70th birthday of the late, great Luther Vandross. To celebrate his memory and musical legacy, we’re holding a giveaway for a one-of-a-kind prize pack, featuring Never Too Much and This Is Christmas on vinyl, plus a special plaque commemorating the icon’s gold and platinum singles. Visit here for more information and a chance to win. And in the meantime, enjoy Rashad Grove’s classic review of Vandross’ game-changing debut, Never Too Much, which will turn 40 later this summer.
Nobody aware of his backstory would ever characterize the emerging stardom of Luther Vandross as an overnight success. Vandross made his first television appearance on the inaugural season of Sesame Street with New York-based theater ensemble Listen My Brother. A virtuoso in the studio, he fine-tuned his arranging skills on David Bowie’s Young Americans album, co-writing “Fascination”. A much sought-after session singer, he performed on several of Chic’s hits, including “Dance, Dance, Dance”, and he penned “Everybody Rejoice/ Brand New Day” for hit 1975 Broadway musical The Wiz. As a jingle writer, he could even be heard on several popular commercials for companies like Burger King, Juicy Fruit, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
If all those dues weren’t payment enough for some limelight, Vandross also released two strong, under-the-radar albums under the group name Luther in 1976 and 1977, respectively, and stepped in as a featured vocalist on post-disco ensemble Change’s signature hit, “The Glow of Love”, in 1980. But all these credits — highlights for most any other performer — were mere footnotes to what Vandross would accomplish when he finally got the chance to deliver on the enormous potential that had long made him one of the “best-kept secrets” in the music industry. And it’s that same grind and experience that made Vandross ready for the moment when his debut album, Never Too Much, changed both his life and the R&B world forever.
Released by Epic Records on August 12th, 1981, Never Too Much proved a watershed moment for the modern R&B genre. In hindsight, it’s hardly a surprise, as Vandross used his relationships within the industry to assemble an all-star lineup of musicians and singers to help him execute a vision that was years in the making. Nat Adderly Jr., a descendent of the Adderley jazz dynasty, served as the primary keyboardist and musical arranger. He would go on to work with Vandross on every album and tour until the singer’s passing in 2003. Motown alumnus and orchestral arranger Paul Riser brought his classically trained soul arrangements, which melded exceptionally well with Vandross’ vocals. Bass virtuoso Marcus Miller came aboard and developed an undeniable chemistry with Vandross that would last for decades. Additionally, he brought in Tawatha Agee, Cissy Houston, Fonzi Thorton, and Norma Jean Wright — some of the most renowned session singers of the era — to create the dynamic background vocals heard across these recordings.
As the album’s producer and writer of six of the LP’s seven compositions, Vandross used his experience and polish to create pure magic in the studio. Never Too Much is immaculately sequenced — an artform in itself — a scarlet thread of jam after jam that speaks of someone who was not interested in making the latest trendy album but a definitive artistic statement. Vandross’ years as a studio apprentice paid off handsomely as he curated a textured backdrop that was the perfect complement to his rich tenor. The sleek, up-tempo sound of Never Too Much made it an essential for Black cookouts everywhere from the first day it hit stores. To borrow today’s nomenclature: “It’s a vibe.”
From the outset, the title cut soars through the speakers. Full of New York City swag, slick rhythm guitar riffs, and a buttery bassline, “Never Too Much” is the crème de la crème of R&B music. It set a standard that other vocalists continue to aspire to, a fact foreshadowed by the song peaking at No. 33 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Vandross receiving a Grammy nomination in 1982 for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. “Don’t You Know That?” is another brilliant composition that almost acts as an unofficial sequel to “Never Too Much”. Using a similar format, the smooth quality of the vocals and production puts the talent of Vandross on full display. While the song didn’t make an impact on the charts, “Don’t You Know That?” become a quiet-storm favorite and go-to for die-hard Luther Vandross fans.
One of the distinguishing attributes that separated Vandross from most of his peers was his gift for interpreting and reimagining songs. When it came to doing covers, Vandross was an alchemist of the highest order. He possessed the unique ability to take a song and completely transform it into something else. The greatest example of this talent remains his legendary cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “A House Is Not a Home”. Originally sung by Dionne Warwick, Vandross’ version is a tour de force. It would have already been a great rendition if he would have ended it at around the five-minute mark, but it becomes a masterpiece because of Vandross’ ad-libbing on the vamp and the seamless transition of the arrangement. It’s seven minutes of pure ecstasy.
A runaway success, Never Too Much reached the Billboard Pop Albums chart at No. 19 and took the No. 1 spot on the Black Albums chart (known today as the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums), eventually selling over two million records. Not only did Vandross receive a Grammy nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for “Never Too Much”, but his vocal stylings garnered him one of the most prized Grammy nominations, Best New Artist. He would eventually take home a Grammy for his 1989 classic “Here and Now”, but it was his performance across Never Too Much that set the stage for Vandross to churn out the decade of soulful, seductive ballads and scorching-hot dance tracks that we all love.
It’s rare for a debut album to get much notice, let alone redefine an entire genre, but that’s exactly what Never Too Much accomplished. After honing his craft as a session singer and songwriter and dropping two albums as the leader of a group that didn’t make much noise, Never Too Much was the coronation of Luther Vandross as one of R&B’s most remarkable voices and a genius arranger. With magnificent vocal arrangements, world-class musicianship, and impeccable songwriting, Never Too Much charted a new trajectory for ’80s R&B. Sonically and vocally, it was a masterful synchronicity of Black dance music and sophisticated soulfulness, a definitive sound that we still can’t get enough of 40 years later.
Essential Tracks: “Never Too Much”, “Don’t You Know That?”, and “A House Is Not a Home”