Ever since I made the bold assertion a couple of weeks ago that Sheena Easton deserved the Best New Artist Grammy she won in 1982, I’ve been kind of agonizing over it. I mean, really? Over Luther Vandross?
My justification was that by 1981, Vandross already had been kicking around the industry for the better part of a decade, as an esteemed songwriter, a back-up singer (for David Bowie, among others), and vocalist for at least two groups (Luther and Change, on whose 1980 album he sang two tracks) before he got around to releasing his debut album, 1981’s Never Too Much. His winning the Best New Artist Grammy in 1982 would have been a little like Chrissie Hynde finally ditching the Pretenders moniker, releasing a solo album under her own name in 2013, and winning Best New Artist next year.
Okay, well maybe there’s no comparison between Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees the Pretenders and Change (of which Vandross was never an official permanent member), but the point is that, unlike Easton, Vandross was a seasoned artist, hardly “new,” in 1981. Regardless, few Best New Artist nominees have gone on to leave as large a musical footprint as Vandross, who died in 2005 at age 54. Although he’s best known today as arguably R&B’s greatest-ever interpreter of song, he had his biggest hits with singles he wrote and produced himself. Some of them even rank among his best work.
For Vandross fans who still have his elegant renditions of “Superstar,” “Creepin'” and “A House Is Not a Home” spinning in their heads decades later, I interrupt that program for these equally fierce originals.
1. “My Sensitivity (Gets in the Way)” (from The Night I Fell in Love, 1985) Luther, you wrote my romantic life!
2. “I’ll Let You Slide” (from Busy Body, 1983) If only the sins of all cheaters could be washed away with some good lovin’.
3. “Power of Love” (from Power of Love, 1991) I always resented the cover of “Love Power” for interrupting what would become Vandross’s second-biggest pop hit (No. 4), right after his remake of “Endless Love,” a No. 2 duet with Mariah Carey from Songs, his 1994 covers album.
4. “The Glow of Love” (from Change’s The Glow of Love, 1980) Featuring the musical motif that Janet Jackson (who sang with Vandross on “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” one of his handful of Top 10 pop singles) would sample on her 2001 No. 1 hit “All for You.”
5. “Never to Much” (from Never Too Much, 1980) The debut solo single that made him an R&B star.
6. “See Me” (from Give Me the Reason, 1986) Mid-tempo mid-’80s R&B at its finest, as only Vandross could pull it off (and which he did with near-equal aplomb on its parent album’s title cut).
7. “It’s Over Now (from Busy Body, 1983) Though his legend is based on his balladry, as this list shows, Vandross was also at his best when he was full of fire and full of attitude.
8. “The Other Side of the World” (from The Night I Fell in Love, 1985) I can still vividly remember listening to the fade out over and over again in the still of the night, night after night, alone in my darkened bedroom as a romantically challenged teen (some things never change). One of the reasons (along with “My Sensitivity,” the single “‘Til My Baby Comes Home,” the title track, and the cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin'”) why the double-platinum The Night I Fell in Love was Vandross’s best album.
9. “Searching” (from Change’s The Glow of Love, 1980) A killer bassline on the rampage!
10. “Jump to It” (from Jump to It, 1982) Not a Luther single but a comeback hit that he co-wrote and co-produced for Aretha Franklin (along with the rest of the album and the 1983 follow-up Get It Right). By far one of the best basslines of the ’80s, resurrected on the 2005 club smash and UK Top 10 hit “Your Body” by Tom Novy.