A Tribute to Luther Vandross: A Legend of Black Millennial Childhoods

A Tribute to Luther Vandross: A Legend of Black Millennial Childhoods

Luther Vandross, with his mesmerizing voice, was the epitome of Black millennial childhoods. The memories of waking up on Sunday mornings to the soulful church music followed by his timeless hit single “Never Too Much” still resonate with many of us today. In the captivating documentary, “Luther: Never Too Much,” director Dawn Porter takes us on a journey through Vandross’ path to stardom and unveils how he manifested the career he had always dreamt of.

Vandross’ musical odyssey takes us back to the culturally vibrant landscape of Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Influenced by renowned artists like Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin, Vandross’ passion for music was ignited at an early age. He embarked on his musical journey as part of “Listen My Brother,” a group formed by his childhood friends in Harlem, where they joined forces to harness their vocal talents. Not only did this group bring him his first taste of critical acclaim, but it also offered him an artistic environment filled with collective ambition, which pushed him to hone his abilities.

However, it was during a studio session with David Bowie that Vandross’ career took a pivotal turn. His rearrangement of the title track “Young Americans” not only redefined its groove but also introduced a gospel-inspired chorus. Through his artistic range and unwavering work ethic, Vandross earned Bowie’s trust as a creative force, going beyond being just a session player. This groundbreaking collaboration gave Vandross the confidence to step out of his comfort zone and explore new stylistic avenues.

As much as the documentary highlights Vandross’ triumphs, it also sheds light on the challenges he faced throughout his career. One significant hurdle was the racism he encountered within the industry, which manifested in the form of limited budgets for recording time, production, and promotional materials. Moreover, Vandross was often typecast as an “R&B” artist, with little crossover appeal. Despite incorporating pop, jazz, and theatrical influences into his songs, there was a biased assumption that global listeners lacked interest in his diverse musical palette.

Another obstacle Vandross had to overcome was finding ways to resonate with the younger millennial audience. Recognizing the need to evolve and adapt to changing trends, he took up the challenge while staying true to his signature style. Vandross managed to captivate the hearts of younger listeners by infusing his music with contemporary elements, keeping his sound fresh and relevant.

Beyond his mesmerizing voice, the documentary offers us a glimpse into Vandross’ humanity. The fluctuation in his weight subjected him to intense media scrutiny and cruel fat-shaming. Jokes about his weight became a routine, with comedians taking easy potshots for quick laughs. But what the public didn’t see was the impact of this ridicule on Vandross’ mental health and how it exacerbated his challenges with compulsive overeating. Behind closed doors, he engaged in cycles of extreme dieting and binging, which took a toll on him physically and emotionally.

In addition to his weight struggles, Vandross faced constant rumors and speculation about his sexual orientation and personal relationships. The documentary touches on the invasive media questions that alluded to his sexuality, questions that Vandross consistently deflected. He refused to feed into people’s assumptions, choosing to maintain the privacy he felt compelled to uphold. However, the secrecy surrounding his intimate life contrasted with his heartfelt lyrics, which expressed a longing for love. Vandross agonized over finding a companion who would truly share his life outside the confines of the recording studio.

Director Dawn Porter succeeds in crafting a delicate and graceful portrait of Luther Vandross. Through interviews and artist narration, she allows the Grammy winner to recollect his illustrious career, giving him autonomy in telling his story. Vandross’ lifelong friends and collaborators add depth to the vulnerable dimensions of a man who constantly strived to balance his public and private selves.

Porter goes beyond just celebrating Vandross’ artistry; she provides meaningful context about the music business and the institutions that shaped his career. Whether it’s introducing Vandross’ contributions to music and culture to unfamiliar audiences or reinforcing the nostalgia of longtime fans, the documentary challenges all assumptions and pays homage to a true legend.

“Luther: Never Too Much” is not just a tribute to a musical icon but also to the collective memories and experiences of Black millennial childhoods. Luther Vandross’ soulful voice was the backdrop to our upbringing, and this documentary serves as a reminder of his extraordinary talent, his resilience in the face of adversity, and his ability to touch our hearts with his timeless music.

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