Editor’s Note: The Albumism staff has selected what we believe to be the 100 Most Dynamic Debut Albums Ever Made, representing a varied cross-section of genres, styles and time periods. Click “Next Album” below to explore each album or view the full album index here.
For Manhattan native Luther Vandross, the journey toward becoming the Eighties’ most cherished soul crooner was an everyday hustle. Throughout the 1970s, he was one of pop music’s best kept secrets as a background singer, gracing some of the greatest pop and disco staples of the day. He even managed to write and sing jiggles for brands, ranging from Juicy Fruit to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Years before scoring a solo career, he was one-fifth of the self-titled R&B quintet Luther, releasing two solid projects on the Cotillion label—1976’s Luther and 1977’s Close to You. Both albums were produced and largely written by Vandross, but they weren’t major sellers and Cotillion eventually dropped the group. Amidst the animosity from record labels and receiving inadequate credit for his contributions on other artists’ work, Vandross stayed afloat as an in-demand session and touring vocalist.
Then in 1980, legendary songstress and friend Roberta Flack convinced him to leave the ‘background circuit’ and secure a record deal as a solo artist. He shopped his songs around several record companies for the umpteenth time, and things clicked when then-senior vice president of CBS Records, Larkin Arnold and record executive Jerome Gasper got ahold of his demo tape. He signed with Epic Records and recorded his solo debut, 1981’s Never Too Much.
With one thorough listen to Never Too Much, you are immediately cast in the exuberance and desperation of Black romanticism during the early Eighties. It’s at once young and playful, then ambitious and worldly, and becomes downright emotional and hopeful in the end. The pure innocence that is dramatically embedded in the album’s seven compositions captures all of the dimensions of a love affair. From the elegant post-disco sweep of “Never Too Much” to his wistful reworking of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David evergreen, “A House Is Not a Home,” Vandross’ lithe tenor wraps around lush tapestries of soul, funk, and jazz with total abandon and raw hunger.
What remains even more invigorating was that he made his mark without having to compromise his fresh artistry. Given that the album was released at an awkward phase in black pop, where hip-hop began taking shape and disco was frowned upon, the then thirty-year-old Vandross arrived in full command and set a standard for generations to come.