Happy 35th Anniversary to Luther Vandross’ Debut Album Never Too Much, originally released August 12, 1981.
“Oh my love…”
Things finally paid off for Luther Ronzoni Vandross Jr. when the Eighties arrived.
Having experienced his share of false starts, disappointments, and doubts, the Manhattan native never predicted that his aspirations of becoming the decade’s most influential and enduring male soul vocalist would be realized. If nothing else, he gained prominence as a background session singer, gracing many of pop music’s greatest singles, while touring with some of pop music’s greatest figures.
He also worked as a jingle writer and singer, lending his voice to a plethora of TV commercials for major companies like Burger King, Juicy Fruit, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Even before recording what would become his solo breakthrough, he had gained moderate success as 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 himself, as he was the central figure of the group, but they weren’t major sellers and Cotillion dropped the group shortly thereafter.
The lack of support from record labels, which refused to sign him or recognize that he was a promising entity in his own right, was deeply troubling for Vandross, as he strived to be a solo artist who had complete freedom of his artistry. Lending his vocals on songs for other artists and not receiving proper merit for his contributions began weighing heavily on him as well. He never had a problem with what he was paid. However, the anonymity he was receiving was a blow to him.
By the late-1970s, the disco industry became a well-oiled machine, with labels and artists alike often scrambling to find ways to capitalize on the craze. Mainstream America finally got a hold of something that wasn’t hugely embraced by those who were outside of the culture’s margins. Disco had been plastered across everything from clothes and television, to music and films. Notably enough, ensemble bands, like Bionic Boogie, Charmé, and CHIC, all of which Vandross sang background vocals for, became major elements of the disco crossover explosion. They largely operated as musician-producer mediums, complete with established background vocalists of the day and session musicians assisting the core musicians of the bands.
In the summer of 1979, Vandross almost turned down the opportunity to be a featured singer for the Italian-US disco-soul ensemble Change, which was formed by businessman and executive producer Jacques Ford Petrus and producer-songwriter Mauro Malauasi. Petrus and Malauasi recorded much of the instrumental tracks in Milan where they were based, for what would be the ensemble’s debut release, 1980’s The Glow of Love.
They came to a standstill, though. They needed the project to cross over to America, and in making their vision come to total fruition, they headed to New York City. Petrus met up with Wayne Garfield, a New York based singer-songwriter to write the lyrics for two songs—“The Glow of Love” and “Searching.” Petrus also needed a lead singer, and Garfield advised that he use his good friend, Vandross, who was awaiting his big breakthrough.
At first, problems occurred when he requested a huge sum of money for singing on the collective’s newest project, and Petrus declined to make a reasonable deal with him. Then, after weeks of Petrus attempting to recruit vocalists and negotiate deals for the project, Vandross eventually agreed to be the featured singer for the two compositions, which would go on to be seminal dance and R&B staples of the post-disco era. The uber-romantic “The Glow of Love” and mysterious “Searching” became the two essential launching pads for Vandross’ seemingly predestined solo career. If the public and critics hadn’t paid attention to his rich and velvety voice before, they certainly got the confirmation. It wasn’t long before disc jockeys across America started introducing the singles as “Change featuring Luther Vandross.”
Still, after the critical and commercial success of “The Glow of Love” and “Searching,” Vandross waited in the wings for a stab at a solo career to flourish, continuing as a session vocalist for the likes of Chaka Khan, Peabo Bryson, and Roberta Flack. The latter was rumored to have “politely fired” Vandross during a sound check rehearsal, as a way to encourage him to secure a record deal as a solo artist.
It was in late 1980 that Vandross began shopping his songs around several record companies for the umpteenth time. But something finally clicked at the divine place and time. Flack must have rightfully augured something that Vandross hadn’t. In 1981, then-senior vice president of CBS Records Larkin Arnold and record executive Jerome Gasper jumped at the opportunity to sign him to the subsidiary label, Epic Records, after hearing one song from a two-song demo tape Vandross saved his money to record. That song was “Never Too Much.” The gamble was over and all bets were off—a legend was on the cusp of being born. Luther Vandross, the solo extraordinaire, had finally arrived. He was thirty years old.
In completing his 1981 debut album Never Too Much, Vandross enlisted a handful of trusted comrades with whom he’d previously collaborated. Pop and soul pianist Nat Adderley Jr. served as the album’s keyboardist and music arranger. He would become Vandross’ primary musical consultant for the remainder of his career. Marcus Miller already cut his teeth playing bass for notable brass in jazz, soul, and dance spheres. Here, he shared just as much of the star power with Vandross, serving as the bassist for all but one of the album’s compositions. Famed Motown orchestral arranger Paul Riser handled all of the orchestrations. Together, they carried out the full potency of Vandross’ musical vision, weaving lush tapestries of soul, funk, post-disco, and jazz influences to create a subtle modern soul edge that would go on to become not only Vandross’ signature sound, but the defining sound of adult contemporary soul.
Vandross penned six of the album’s seven compositions, serving as the album’s producer. Everything about the production was clean and organic, eliciting the right amount of raw hunger and sparkling ambience from its musical aesthetic. The sequencing and flow was meticulously coordinated, as if everyone recorded everything in one take. Nothing is out of place. Every note and line snaps, jumps, and pops out at you. Then, there’s Vandross’ voice—a colorful palette of passionate and dynamic tones and deliveries from his nuanced tenor that touched on a range of emotions.
With one thorough listen to Never Too Much, you are immediately transported to the exuberance and desperation of Black romanticism in the early Eighties. It’s at once young and playful, then ambitious and worldly, and downright emotional and hopeful. The pure innocence that is dramatically embedded in the album’s seven compositions captures all of the serenity, exaltation, and drama of a love affair. It’s not necessarily a love affair that is rooted with wild erotic pretensions or flowery puppy love sentimentality of yesteryear. This is one that was firmly mature and vividly luxurious, grounded in the sprawl of post-1970s New York realism, where gray bleakness and melancholia roamed across the atmosphere of the city’s stunning skyline. But, with the deep compassion both parties shared, the love grew stronger and nothing could tear it apart.
You hear it in the pulsating resonance of Marcus Miller’s bass work. You feel it in the swirling sheen of the orchestral arrangements. The music’s jazz-accorded, post-disco disposition tells the story loud and clear. Throughout the glorious seven-song cycle, Vandross warmly sings from the standpoint of a humble male with unbridled enthusiasm about being in love and he wants the entire world to know it.
The album opens with the classic title track, “Never Too Much,” Vandross’ first solo single. With its grandiose orchestral string arrangement gliding over the song’s fresh post-disco groove, “Never Too Much” captures the sound of freedom and carefree grace in all of its three-minute glory.
It was written in parts. First, with its opening instrumental, then, its killer chord progression, two-part harmony hook, chorus riff, and guitar parts. If you don’t take anything else away from the song, you should immediately be swept away by the conviction of Vandross’ voice throughout the song. His enunciation is breezy and coolly swayed. At the same time, his voice burns with the spirit and charm of an emcee, as he sings the rapid verses. The opening lyrics alone woo you into the song’s gripping beauty: “I can’t fool myself / I don’t want nobody else to ever love me / You are my shining star, my guiding light, my love fantasy.” It’s clear that Vandross is enamored by his lover’s charm and he’s singing her transformative praises loud and clear. The song was a surefire hit when it beamed on radio in the summer of 1981, exploding on the Billboard R&B charts at number one for two weeks.
The cheerful dance-funk of “Sugar and Spice (I Found a Girl)” expounds on the sentimentality and adoration of his lover, similarly explored in “Never Too Much.” It was the other song on the demo tape Vandross recorded and delivered to CBS Records, when he was desperate to secure a record deal and solo career. Vandross initially thought that “Sugar and Spice” would be the song that would win everyone over, but it wasn’t the case.
“Don’t You Know That?” strolls with a smooth-as-ice, mid-tempo jazz sensibility that finds Vandross assuring all of the love and passion he has for his lover, promising that he’ll never compromise it in any way. Throughout the song, he urges and pleads that his lover understands and never forgets his sentiments. A magnificent vocal showcase, Vandross and his cast of exquisite background vocalists flexed all of their vocal dexterity—scatting, crooning, and harmonizing with the song’s infectious groove, which is punctuated by Miller’s elastic bass work. It was the album’s second single, reaching number ten on the R&B charts.
“I’ve Been Working” is one of the most unusual compositions that Vandross ever wrote, as he meditates on the longing for a one night stand after a day-long period of work and night on the prowl. He tastefully sings in one of the verses, “So don’t give me a forever love affair, no don’t you dare / I like to freak / To the one night beat.” The song’s lively melody is a clear contrast from the seemingly promiscuous lyrics, but it’s never sexually provocative or edgy. It’s done in true Vandross fashion, complete with gospel-fueled vocal improvisation and understated jazz overtones.
The summery funk of “She’s a Super Lady” possesses a certain elegance that is hard to resist, where Vandross affirms the admiration for his lover’s strength and willpower. The song’s tough-as-nails funk groove is once again based around Miller’s heavily plucked bass. This is one of those signature Vandross up-tempo grooves that became a staple at family cookouts in the summer and disco nightclubs alike. The deeply affectionate “You Stopped Loving Me” exudes the heartbreak and betrayal one has to endure when the strength of love withers away.
If there was one vital fact that remained true about Vandross’ lasting artistry was how much he was indebted to pop divas of the preceding generation. He was a student of the Sixties, soaking up all of the personalities and characteristics that would shape the sensitivity and sentimentality of his musical aspirations. As a result, he studied the finesse, glamour, and beauty of Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross, Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin, and Dionne Warwick and emulated everything they exuded in their stage presence and vocal approach.
Whenever you hear his cover of the 1964 Burt Bacharach and Hal David masterpiece, “A House Is Not a Home,” it’s always like hearing it for the first time. It serves not only as a tribute to his yesteryear infatuation with leading ladies of Sixties pop, but a stunning portrait of his remarkable mastery as a balladeer. The opening seconds of delicate piano twinkles juxtaposed under a muted cymbal give way to the dramatic wash of instrumentation, with Vandross caressing and nurturing every ounce of the song’s bittersweet value. The spacious and calm, quiet-storm atmosphere informs you that this was far removed from the sparkly peppiness found in Dionne Warwick’s original interpretation of the song. In fact, one can assert that Vandross’ version had more in common with Mavis Staples’ 1969 rendering, but there’s still something about his version that is deeply transcendent and life-affirming.
It’s all revealed in his intense resonance and heartbreaking delivery of the song’s lyrics, which tug at your heartstrings at each moment, leaving you breathless. The control and space utilized in his voice is beyond mesmerizing, as it blends with Anthony Jackson’s exceptional bass work. He transformed the ballad into an all-too real lovelorn epic, derived from a man’s need for his woman’s tender love and care. Everything in his life is broken. Not even a trace of his lover’s face in his mind can repair his loneliness. He realizes he can’t live alone without her embrace and he pleads relentlessly for her return. This is a song that is every bit about Black domesticity and unity than one would ever like to admit—extracted from the guise of Black male emotionality. No matter how many times it has been emulated by American Idol-groomed singers or parodied in pop culture, Vandross’ cover rightfully deserves to be recognized as a classic.
Vandross’ definitive reading of “Home” more than solidified his place as romantic R&B’s leading man. If you listen closely to his voice in the song, compared to the other songs on Never Too Much, the unwavering hunger and innocence that previously resided in his velvety tenor developed with a more confident and layered edge. He became an institution in the realms of the post-disco era and pastel-colored soul of the Eighties.
Upon its initial release in August 1981, Never Too Much was immediately lauded as an artistic triumph from critics and an adoring public alike. Everyone agreed that it was the breakthrough that Vandross yearned for, for over a decade. A rousing success, the album reached the Billboard Pop Albums chart at number nineteen and the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums (coined then as ‘Black’) chart at number one, eventually becoming a double-platinum smash. Vandross was nominated for two Grammy Awards in the highly coveted Best New Artist and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance categories in 1982, walking away with none. It would be another eight years before Vandross would become entirely embraced by the mainstream, hitting commercial gold with the hugely-successful 1989 wedding anthem, “Here & Now.” But before reaching those monumental milestones, he was just another guy who was trying to get by.
Never Too Much reminds us of a time when Black music was in awkward transition, with hip-hop beginning to take shape in the confinements of Black popular music and people frowning on anything that even had a tinge of disco. Huge funk bands were still going steady and largely chameleonic figures, exuding sexual flair and flamboyant charm, were on the rise. There was also Teddy Pendergrass, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye, of course.
What remains rather invigorating about Vandross’ solo debut was that he made his mark without having to compromise his fresh artistry. This was still the era of the masterful singer who didn’t have to rely on gimmicks or be filtered with label pretensions. This was all before MTV and BET won over the world. 35 years ago, Never Too Much set the standard for Vandross’ ubiquitous sweep during much of the 1980s, leading to a run of several masterpieces—1982’s Forever, For Always, For Love, 1983’s Busy Body, 1985’s The Night I Fell in Love, and 1986’s Give Me the Reason. Three decades later, its love and endearing warmth never stops. It still brings us all a little closer.