So Amazing: An All Star Tribute to Luther Vandross
uther Vandross kept it all in, except when he was singing. His personal life was intensely private, to the point that no one’s ever come forward and said, “I dated him,” etc., male or female. Singing, however, was his release valve, and his (likely) personal loss was our gain as listeners and fans; Luther’s was one of the best and most definitive singers of his generation, and of the past quarter-century (his debut, Never Too Much, was released in 1981). With his passing earlier this year comes the inevitable tribute album, this one perhaps a bit more star-packed than most of its ilk—that’s a tribute to Vandross’ status in the industry. He was greatly loved, but as this album shows, perhaps a bit too loved—many of the contributors here handle their songs with kid gloves, seemingly afraid to make their own claims on these songs made famous by the incomparable Mr. Vandross.
Only one artist here chose to take his cover in a direction completely different from the way Vandross did it, and it’s rather shocking all around: Wyclef Jean, of all people, takes on “Always & Forever,” of all songs (first made a hit by Heatwave, then covered by Luther, as was the case with many of his biggest hits—a secondhand song became his and his alone). But that’s not the biggest surprise, as Wyclef recasts the songs as—wait for it—soca. Actually, that might not even be the biggest surprise; that might be that this radical reworking works brilliantly. ‘Clef opens the song with a rap before singing (yes, singing) “Always & Forever” in a deep, surprisingly rich tenor. He adds his own touch by singing a sort of harmony line with himself, crazily yelping his way through the lyrics and giving them a totally unique flavor, and a very tasty one at that. Wyclef understands that if you’re going to take on such a chestnut as “Always & Forever,” you should do something different with it; wedding combos the world over can rank out straightforward readings of it. Why not make it your own and in the process own it? Not only is this the best thing ‘Clef’s done in years, it’s the standout track on So Amazing.
Unfortunately, nothing else reaches such lofty heights, and few even shoot for them. It’s left to a pair of new kids to provide two of the more refreshing versions of Vandross classics, as John Legend turns in a smoky jazz-club “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” and Fantasia (as we’ve done with first-season winner Kelly Clarkson, can we stop mentioning American Idol before her name, please?) infuses “’Til My Baby Comes Home” with a joie de vivre missing from most of this album. Legend pulls off both after-hours and Philly-soul vibes convincingly, while Fantasia manages to be respectful of Luther’s original while still making it her party, letting loose across the song. She’s helped by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis’ fine, jazzy production on the track; they produced about half of the album but aren’t nearly as successful on most of their other contributions. Both Legend and Fantasia, who’ll get many votes as the musical rookies of 2005 (including, likely, mine), are for real, y’all.
“Real” is something never questioned with most of the artists here: Mary J. Blige? Aretha? Elton? Patti? But that doesn’t always serve them well. Blige, for instance, does a fine job singing “Never Too Much,” but is done no favors by the sloppy production of Jam & Lewis, marred most notably by a very cheap-sounding snare with dominates much of the track. Patti LaBelle does her thing on “Here & Now,” but does it too note-perfect; it sounds as if she’s singing Luther’s exact vocal charts, which leaves us with a boring take on what, frankly, was a boring song to begin with (Luther’s penchant for schmaltz is in high relief here). After hearing Aretha Franklin’s take on “A House Is Not A Home,” a friend remarked to me, “That song shouldn’t have been done. There are already two definitive versions” (meaning Luther’s and Dionne Warwick’s). That’s certainly true—unfortunately, Franklin insists on trying to out-scat and out-vocalize Vandross, and that’s just a losing battle from the get-go (and let’s be honest: her voice is slipping, as much as it pains me to say it).
Usher produced his cover of “Superstar,” and damn if it ain’t tasteful. It’s nothing but (plus he slowed the tempo even more than Vandross already had), which effectively kills it: not bad, just dull. “Power of Love” gets a Hani-helmed dance version courtesy of Donna Summer, which on the other hand works very nicely. Summer’s vocal is sadly lazy, but the track gets over despite it. Elton John gives a great vocal, meanwhile, on “Anyone Who Had A Heart,” one which is totally unexpected in the context of the song, but unfortunately felt the need to do a back-from-the-dead duet with Vandross, which doesn’t work in the least and is pointless in the most. An Elton-only take would be pretty solid, but this isn’t (and Jam & Lewis’ production is appallingly limp to boot). The album’s other white person can’t get any whiter, but Celine Dion actually acquits herself quite well. The Grammy-winning “Dance With My Father” is schmaltz of the highest order, and frankly always needed a Caucasian version to fully blossom; Dion seems to understand that, and shockingly undersings it even as the arrangement explodes into widescreen around her. Her “Dance” is honestly very good, for what it is.
Memo to Alicia Keys: Stop making us listen to Jermaine Paul’s whiny ass, especially if you’re gonna give him the bulk of “If This World Were Mine” to bland out. Memo to Babyface: What’s with the drums on your cover of “If Only For One Night”? Memo to Stevie Wonder: Your voice and Beyoncé’s do not work together. Memo to Angie Stone: Why are you holding back, hon? “Since I Lost My Baby” could stand to have you going nuts, but you let me down. And finally, Jamie Foxx? “Creepin” is not supposed to be creepy. Yes, your falsetto is quite nice, but all those “come on”s and “let’s go”s buried in the mix sound more icky-R. Kelly than transcendent-D’Angelo (clearly what you were going for, and not hitting). Memo to Clive Davis: this was not the track with which to end So Amazing, which ends up being something less than that. The good’s really good, but the rest is more mediocre than bad, which is ultimately worse.