Luther Vandross was taken from us at the all too young an age of 54. He did, however, leave a huge musical legacy that is revered by soul fans worldwide. Always there helping him to craft his special brand of sweet soul was his life-long friend, super session singer – FONZI THORNTON.
Fonzi, of course, didn’t just work with Luther. He also worked with people like Diana Ross, Chic, Ray Charles, Mary J Blige, Michael Jackson, Will Downing, R Kelly, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, Aretha and many more. It is, however, his work with Vandross that is most fondly remembered and his contribution to the great man’s work has been brought into sharp focus with the release of a new Luther ‘Greatest Hits’ album…. and to make the release that more meaningful, Mr Thornton has been speaking to the media about the music on the memory-jerking 17 tracker. First, however, he told us about his relationship with Luther…
Luther and I grew up as best friends; I met him when I was 13 years old, he was 14. I was in his first vocal group called The Shades of Jade. His sister Anne lived across the street from me in the NYC Projects. A girl I went to church with introduced me to him; I went over to sing with him and got in his group. We did talent shows; we came in second at the Apollo Theatre amateur night and so I knew him from us being teenagers. I sang on all of his albums, we wrote songs together, yeah I knew him his entire life.
And did you work with him on ALL his songs?
Yes absolutely, yes all of his songs. I was involved on some level at least with the singing of all the songs and in the latter years, the last four albums I was involved with writing, co-writing some of the songs on the albums. We knew each very well for a long time.
So what about this recently discovered song on the new album. ‘Love It Love It’ is previously unreleased.. what can you tell us about it?
I have some of Luther’s musical and video archives and I was going through the archives just listening to tapes and cassettes and stuff and I came across ‘Love It Love It’ and it is something that had previously been unreleased… at least by Luther. It was actually written for Phil Perry. Luther and Hubert Eaves had demoed it for Phil and that performance had never been heard. I told our manager about it and we told the record company about it and when they heard it, they said, “boy this would be so great to go on the compilation that we are going to do for England”. It is a totally unheard Luther!
How would you describe the track?
I think that you hear Luther doing his unique phrasing and that unique tonality of sound. It is sort of a mid tempo/up-tempo type of thing with a little bit of the old new jack swing sound because that was the time it was recorded … around 1993/94, but I think that for anyone who likes Luther up-tempo this really fills that bill. You get that interpretive thing that he does; you still get that gorgeous sound. I think people are really going to be pleased with it.
That song closes the album. It opens with ‘Never Too Much’ – Luther’s signature song… what can you tell us about it?
‘Never Too Much’ is amazing. One of my favourite stories about ‘Never Too Much’ and that first ‘proper’ album is that it propelled Luther from being a very prominent, commercial and back-up singer to being a star . He’d been shopping for a record deal for a while and the thing is people were loving the music but he couldn’t get signed. I think, maybe, it was because he wanted to have artistic control; he wanted to write and produce, and finally he was signed to Epic Records by Larkin Arnold and I remember the first time I heard ‘Never Too Much’ on the radio .. it was like, “boy my friend has made it …. he’s stepped up into his own”. It’s one of his strongest songs. People love ‘Never Too Much’.
Why do you think that is?
First of all it is so romantic AND it is very commercial. It sticks like any of the old great Motown songs stuck ….. that great lyric, that great melody and then his delivery of it. It’s such a gorgeous sound but it still makes you want to move. You know Marcus Miller thumping that bass and you know Doc Powell playing the guitar, Yogi Horton on the drums … it just really made a premier pop record.
Moving on… Luther liked to cover others’ song. On this new package, for instance, there’s his version of ‘Always And Forever’… what made him want to do this one?
If I remember correctly ‘Always And Forever’ was on the ‘Songs’ album … the album of classic covers. The tune was originally done by Heatwave and was always one of their most beautiful songs and so when Luther did it he saw it as a something that could show off his unique way with a song. He was not just a soul shouter; he was so influenced by the female voice… he loved Aretha, he loved Dionne Warwick. He always knew how to sing with that sensitivity that drew people close to him and ‘Always And Forever’ is one of those vehicles. A great song…. that he nailed.
Luther’s songs were also often very personal…. and nothing more personal on this album than ‘Dance With My Father’…..
Yes….where I lived in NYC, on 54th Street, was the Hit Factory where Luther was, at that time, doing most of his recording. We spoke every day… we spoke every morning. So this particular day he called me in the middle of the night, like maybe 3 o’clock in the morning, he was just getting out of the studio, he said “wake up”, I said, “what’s going on?” He said “I want you to come downstairs and get in the car with me because I want to play something for you”. So I went and got in the car and it was the demo recording of ‘Dance With My Father’ playing and I just remember at the end of it I was so overwhelmed because it just pinpointed the way that somebody feels about that relationship between themselves and their parents, especially a missing parent or a missing loved one and he had so nailed it. It was one of the most poignant things that he had done and I had told him, I said, “you know you’re going to kill everyone with this”. You know Luther lost his Dad when he was very young and on some level it is a true story because his father used to scoop him up in his arms and he and his mother and father used to dance around ….. it is just a wonderful story that a lot of people can relate to.
What about ‘So Amazing’…. that was a song Luther “gave away” to Dionne Warwick didn’t he?
Yes, that was originally performed by Dionne Warwick for her ‘How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye’ album, which Luther wrote and produced. I remember the first time I heard ‘So Amazing’ , I said, “gosh this is a really, really gorgeous song and she sang it really gorgeously” but when Luther finally recorded it, it was just as definitive; it’s of my favourite songs that he did.
Did Luther find it hard to let his songs go to others?
Luther was such an admirer of talent. For instance, he loved Dionne Warwick. When he was young he used to go to the Brooklyn Fox Theatre to see her. He always tells the story that the first time he heard her he felt like one of those old movies where the spotlight was on him and the spotlight was on her and there were two people across the room from each other and he said the way she affected him that day is the way he wanted to affect his audience. When he became friends with her and he got a chance to do her albums and wrote this song, he really was so thrilled. So no, no problem letting his song go to Dionne. Luther remember, also, was such a supporter of other peoples’ talent. In his own show he used to feature his background singers, Lisa Fischer and Kevin Owens and Ava Cherry, so he was somebody who knew how to share a stage and to share his music. If someone did an interpretation of his song that he loved, he saw it like sharing one of your children with somebody but you are still looking after them.
Do you think that came from him having been a backing singer himself?
Absolutely. Luther was so sensitive because since he came out of the background he knew what it was like to be a supporting player and so he was someone who knew how to share his stage with people and how to support other people. Those who travelled on the road with him will tell you just what a great boss he was because he understood what it was like being that support person. That was one of the magical things about his relationship with his people and with all artists, I guess.
One of Luther’s gigs as backing singer was with Chic, of course… and there’s a Chic connection on this new album since ‘Shine’ samples their ‘My Forbidden Lover’….
I sang on ‘My Forbidden Lover’. I was the male singer with Chic. Luther was the original male singer with them. Chic was first a studio concept ….. Luther, Diva Gray, Alpha Anderson, Robin Clark, they were the singers . Then much later, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis came to Luther with a track that they had sampled from ‘My Forbidden Lover’ and they had written this song ‘Shine’ on top of it! Here’s a song that I recorded with Chic and here’s Luther doing a sort of a mash off of that. Luther and Nile and Bernard and Alfa and all of us, we had so much intertwined history! ‘Shine’ is just such a ticklish thing for all of us!
‘Here And Now’ is another album highlight….. Luther’s first Grammy, I think….
Yes, that’s right. I have so many great stories about this one. Luther had been nominated for Grammys a few times prior to this and he had not won. One year I think that Quincy Jones won with James Ingram for a song they had done. There was another year that James Brown had won. So Luther had been to the Grammys and had been nominated a couple of times and that year he calls me up, he says, “listen I’m nominated for a Grammy this year again. I’m not going to win any way, but why don’t you come and hang out with me?” So I went to the Grammys with him and we are sitting in the audience and when Regina Belle and Michael read the nominees for best male vocal…. Tevin Campbell, Baby Face and Luther Vandross and then they said, “and it’s Luther Vandross” and the camera pans to us and I’m like so excited…. the fact that I was there with him winning his first Grammy! The other thing about ‘Here And Now’ that a lot of people may not know is it is a song that was co-written by Dionne Warwick’s son, David. We were riding around in LA in the car and Luther played the demo of ‘Here And Now’ for me that they had sent him. He said that this is going to be one of my really big songs and he played it for me but I wasn’t really that impressed with the song. So Luther says, “what I’m going to do is I’m going to add a bridge. I’m going to add this musical bridge that is going to bring this whole song up”. And that is what he did. And the thing about Luther that is amazing is he never accepted any writer’s credit for this song even though what he did with this song was turn it into a completely different animal than what it was the first time I heard it.
Of course, he did that with the familiar songs he covered. That’s to say he re-created them…. and there’s no better example than ‘A House Is Not A Home’….
That is one of Luther’s great ones. ‘A House Is Not A Home’, of course, was recorded originally by Dionne Warwick and written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. So when Luther got his deal with Epic Records I remember him telling me one time : “I’ve got this great idea to do a really slow burn version of Dionne Warwick’s ‘A House Is Not A Home’ … but I’m not going to let you hear it right now”. OK, the first time I ever heard it Frankie Crocker, who was a big DJ on New York radio, played it on his show and it was just this slow sort of really, really cool thing happening and, of course, it became one of his signature songs. He just made it his own. In fact Dionne has once said that though she did the first version of ‘A House Is Not A Home’ Luther did the definitive version.
There are lots of other Luther classics on the album. Do you think the album compliers have really captured his essence with their selection?
What’s represented here is really Luth … You know…it is ‘Luther’s Vandross’s Greatest Hits’. The songs that people most associate with him; songs that have been very commercial but at the same time have all the passion of Luther. They all represent his intuitive, interpretive skills ‘cos that was really what he was so good at. He had a great voice, a great tonality but he also had a sensitivity. No wonder he was known as “the love man” and, yes, a lot of babies were made to his music. But first of all wanted to be known as a premier league vocalist and I think that these songs show that that’s exactly what he was.
How do you remember Luther? The album cover picture show a huge smiling face… was that what he was like?
Absolutely! Often a very smiley face and often we’d be doubled over with laughter over something we would be writing. Something funny would happen and we would just double over with laughter and he also was somebody that could always kept everybody in stitches. You can ask anyone in his band, anyone that was an engineer of his, you can ask Marcus Miller or Nat Adderley or any of the people that worked with him. But when it was time to work, and time to be serious, we were serious and we got it done but when it was time to laugh he would have everybody rolling on the floor. He was the funniest person that anybody could ever know. His wit was very quick but if somebody crossed him he could put them in his place just like that …. you know what I’m saying. In three words flat he would have somebody in their place!
And what about you, Fonzi? What are you working on right now?
I have been working for Aretha Franklin and for the last seven years, touring with her, putting her singers together, doing TV appearances. We just performed at the White House this year and I sang on her brand new album ‘Aretha Sings The Diva Classics’. I’ve also been working with Brian Ferry. I sang on his ‘Avalon’ album way back and since then I have been singing on all his solo albums. I just sang on his brand new album ‘Avonmore’ and I’m touring with him. I’m also about to go into the studio with Nile Rogers to start the brand new Chic album.
What can you tell us about this new Chic music?
Nile has told me that there are several tracks that he has found that were recorded with Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson, both who are deceased. There’s also lots of new music but I haven’t heard anything yet but I’m really excited because having sung on so many Chic records in the past.
READ A REVIEW OF LUTHER’S GREATEST HITS IN OUR “REVIEWS” SECTION