So here we are, at a critical moment. If you have been following our story on where our musical appetite came from and our retrospective walk down memory lane (“The Last Day Of School” & “Thank You, Mr. Vandross..”), you know that we are now entering the all-important stage of vocal development.
Musical aptitude was honed around 7 years of age. Songwriting was inspired at 9 years old. Now there was the little matter of my singing. Where did that come from?
Always exposed to singing as my father was a Jazz and Blues singer/musician who would frequently appear at the “Blues Alley” (43rd Street in Chicago) and played with Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Little Walter and dozens others I can’t name here. He was always singing in the house – never the runs we do today – whole notes and drops. He would do a riff while cooking, hold a minor like nobody’s business and could bellow out a line so clear that you swore it was the radio. With his broad shoulders and slick hair, it’s no wonder my mother fell for him. I sort of remember a song he would hum around the house:“there’s danger in her eyes, sherry, sherry…. there’s danger in her eyes…. she likes to dance, she loves to sing…. she’s gotta get high before she can swing…. there’s danger in her eyes….”
I’ve tried to find the song and can’t. Is it Fats Domino? Louie Armstrong? The Platters? A original he’d written himself? I don’t know. If anyone knows the melody or the words…help!!
I knew I had the gift at the age of five but it would be five years more before I uttered a note out loud. I spent those years gleaning from Aretha, Donny, Sam, Brooke, Barbara, Al and my Dad. My Father had to make an unusually early run one Saturday I was charged to watch the Cubs game and keep track of the score for him when he called home later. I watched attentively as they began the broadcast. I heard a young lady sing “The National Anthem” and I thought to myself: “I could sing that…” and so I did. For the next hour, I mimicked what I heard and added to it. So loudly that the police showed up and said the neighbors called in to complain that the radio was too loud. When they found out it was me, I was proud (that I could sound like the radio) and they were amazed (that I could sound like the radio). Needless to say, I had to make up some reason why I didn’t know the score and why the police were at my house when Daddy called.
One unforgettable day at the breakfast table, my father and I sat down and he turned on the radio as normal but my brother had struck again. He’d turned my Dad’s radio to WJPC (another station that old fogies like me remember) and forgot to change it back. During his vulgar and explicit rant, I heard a fresh and wonderful sound – a voice like no other I’d ever heard before. The song was “Never Too Much” The guitar line arrested me. When Daddy reached to turn the station, I unconsciously grabbed his wrist and said “Daddy please don’t turn…”. Immediately, my brother’s mouth dropped. I had done the unthinkable. Not only had I rebelled against the radio rules of the house, I’d also grabbed Daddy and resisted him. The fact that I am alive today proves that there is a God and that he touched my father to recognize my sincerity and musical gift.
For the next few hours, I searched and searched or that song. WJPC played it every hour and I made sure I was near a radio when they did. Within two hours, I learned every word and by the end of the day, I knew every riff and nuance that silky voice made. This voice was different from any I had ever heard. Was this the voice of an angel? No. It was Luther Ronzonni Vandross, a man whose career I followed from beginning to tragic end. I heard “Glow of Love” countless times as my brother played it on his boom box and loved Roberta Flack – never knowing that he was in the background. “Never Too Much” was a turning point for me. I realized that I didn’t have to do all that hard singing and hollering that they did in church. Smooth was the ticket for me and Luther became my Jedi Master.
The first record I ever purchased on my own was Luther’s “The Night I Fell In Love” I listened to it until the words wore off the cassette. To this day, I remember every line of every song on that album. (Okay, I’m not all heathen. My first gospel purchase was Vicki Winans’ debut record “You Turn Me”)
When I fully committed my life to Christ, they told me I had to give up the worldly things – that included Luther. I struggled with this, but finally gave in, giving my Luther Vandross collection to a girl from our sister church (we called her “Na-Na”). She loved Luther as much as I did, but we kept it under wraps because of our strict Pentecostal upbringing. When her mother found out I gave her more of Luther’s music than she already had, she was furious! We also kept it to ourselves because it wasn’t considered masculine to like Luther’s music. Any singer that the girls swooned over, the guys were supposed to hate. Sounds stupid now, but back then, NBA stars weren’t wearing women’s clothing and male entertainers weren’t wearing animal print.
Now that I am a follower of Christ, what am I to do? All the music of the day had people giving their all – and it was good. The Love Alive series, Mass choirs from every state in the Union, Rev. Timothy Wright and others. Everybody was belting out notes with power and force. It was good, but not good for me. One Saturday afternoon on WWCA (Does anyone from Chicago remember Taft Harris’ radio station?) I heard a voice so smooth I couldn’t believe it. I had found my Gospel equivalent to Luther – Daryl Coley. Rich, smooth, jazz fused together to make his voice a symphony of sound. It still sends chills.
Before I close, there is one more person I must mention. I joined Faith Temple C.O.G.I.C. (CHICAGO, not Evanston) and heard a man sing Thomas Whitfield’s “With My Whole Heart” and was floored. He never screamed or growled, he never lost his composure, but he stood and seemingly crafted every note in his head before he uttered it. Joseph Terry took me under his wing and showed me by example that you didn’t have to yell to be heard.
I so admired and appreciated Mr. Terry that years later, when I was recording my own project, I featured him on a song called “God Loves You”. “J.T.” as we call him has still got it and is as silky-smooth as ever.
I am so grateful to God for taking me down this circuitous musical path to form me. I may not fit in with everyone, but I am a “CLASSIC ORIGINAL”