When Luther Vandross succumbed several months ago to the effects of a stroke that he suffered in 2003, the world lost a great singer and a top-tier tunesmith. Those who worked with Vandross remember a perfectionist who would coax, cajole and demand the best out of others — and himself.
Born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Vandross met Nat Adderley Jr. — who would co-write and produce a number of Vandross’ classic hits, including “Stop to Love” and “Give Me the Reason” — while both were attending the prestigious High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan. “We were in a group called Listen My Brother, which was like the Voices of East Harlem,” says Adderley, who seemed a bit stunned to be speaking of his friend entirely in the past tense. “There were 10 or 12 great singers in the group — Luther certainly wasn’t the top singer — and we did political skits and songs about peace and love. We all became friends.”
While attending Yale, Adderley received a call from Vandross asking him to play keyboards on one of his friend’s early records. This effort led to a career-long collaboration that included work on Vandross’ first Grammy-winning smash, “Here and Now,” in 1989. The song came to Vandross through Dionne Warwick, one of his earliest idols. “She played him a tape of a song that her son, David Elliott, had written with his partner Terry Steele,” Adderley says. “None of us could believe how good it sounded! And I’m not just talking about the song itself; the arrangement was nearly all there. Luther and I added the bridge to give the tune a lift, and I wrote the string arrangement the night before we recorded it at Westlake Studios in L.A., but there was really very little that needed to be done to help the song.”
Marcus Miller, another longtime collaborator, has similar recollections. “When Luther played me the demo, it was obvious that it was already a hit,” says Miller from the south of France. “You could tell that it was a sentimental, beautiful and honest song, and that it was perfect for Luther.
“I’d been working with Luther since 1983, so we had our work process down by this time,” Miller continues. “I played synth bass on ‘Here and Now,’ but I hung around the studio all the time. If they needed me to play a sound or help get a sound with Jason Miles, I was there. I always wanted to make sure that I lent my full abilities to any track I was a part of with Luther.
“I laid the synth bass against the main Rhodes piano that Nat had laid down and a drum track. There might also have been a scratch vocal in place. I knew the song well enough to put my fills in the right places. I do remember that I laid down the bass part in one track with a few overdubs.
“Luther was the funniest guy you’d ever meet,” Miller continues. “As long as everyone was doing their job, we’d be laughing all day long! That’s what I’ll remember most about him — how much fun we had making those records. He was also the first guy I met who had a vision about who he was and who made that vision a reality. He’d invest his own money when it was necessary, and that was inspiring to me. Once, he went on tour and he told me that he was going to pump his own money into it to make it an extravagant experience for his fans. He believed that would keep them coming to his shows, and he was right!”
“Like Marcus said, we knew the song would be a smash the first time Luther played it for us,” says keyboardist Miles. “Back then, it took some effort to overcome the problems with MIDI timing and make things groove. I used a Roland SBX-80 to move notes around and offset timings in the sequencer. There was some real science going on!
“Luther was funny. He’d hear Marcus and me discussing all of this technical stuff — which he didn’t understand or care about in the least — and shake his head. One day, he comes up to me, and says, ‘Jason, write down five technical things, so that when Marcus walks in, I sound like I know what I’m talking about.’ I think I wrote that we need to offset the vocal by four bits and quantize this or that part. So Marcus walks in and Luther pulls him aside, looks at the paper and says, ‘Marcus, let me ask you a question. Can we offset the vocal by four bits?’ and starts cracking up. But he really embraced technology; he wanted the coolest synths on his records. R&B was Luther’s love, but he wanted to be on the cutting edge of pop.
“As far as the programming on ‘Here and Now’ went down,” Miles continues, “it was obvious that the Rhodes sound was going to be prominent on the record. I’d walk Nat through the MPC 60 sequencer I had. Nat has a way of working chords from the inside on an R&B ballad that’s quite good, and he understood Luther’s attitude toward ballads.
“Nat played the basic keyboard part into the sequencer using a standard DX7 Rhodes sound, and I layered different sounds to create the texture that was used on the record.”
Ray Bardini, Vandross’ longtime engineer, took a break from mixing Dr. John’s new record at Sound on Sound to share his memories of the “Here and Now” sessions. “The basic tracks were recorded at The Hit Factory in Studio A2, I believe. We recorded onto an analog 2-inch 24-track machine at +6 and eventually transferred it to 48 tracks.
“In those days, most people worked the same way we did: We printed all of the drum machine parts and then Nat played the main keyboard part. This Rhodes-style sound was a combination of synths that Nat and Jason Miles MIDI’d together. Next came Marcus’ synth bass part, and then the drummer, Ivan Hampton, was brought in to add live cymbal overdubs. All of this work was tracked on the Hit Factory’s SSL 4000 G+. Everything went through some outboard processors; we took in the drum machine kick and snare through some Neve mic pre’s, and some API and Massenburg EQs were also used. The keyboards and cymbals came through the console only, but we did record Marcus’ synth bass through a dbx 160 and a Massenburg EQ.
“From there, we headed out to L.A. because we’d already recorded two multi-Platinum albums there and we liked [Westlake Studios]. I made a slave tape to record the string section, which was split out to four tracks: first violins, second violins, violas and cellos. Luther liked to use the traditional string panning and no room mics; he liked the closer, fuller sound. We also recorded Paul Jackson Jr.’s guitar track at Westlake.
“Next, we added additional synth overdubs using Jason Miles’ synth rack. Nat and Marcus would program a part, and Jason was responsible for making it sound unique. Luther knew what he wanted, but he gave us all the time and creative freedom to try things.
“After this work was completed, everyone cleared out except for Luther and me and we got down to work on his main vocal. I remember that this was on July 3, 1989. That session, he told me that he wanted to start tracking the bridge first so that he’d know what he’d be working toward dramatically. We worked for a number of hours and he told me that there was not going to be a day off for the Fourth of July; we came in and Luther began singing.
“He worked for a little while and then said, ‘Ray, do I sound as bad as I think I do today?’ I told him yes! He laughed and said, ‘Let’s just call everyone up and have a barbecue at my house’; he was living in Beverly Hills at the time. We had a great time, and the next day he came back to the studio and sang the song as you hear it on the record. We used an AKG 414 on his voice with a Neve 1074 mic pre, a dbx compressor and a Massenburg EQ. We’d have the same chain wherever we recorded Luther’s vocals. The mix was done at A&M on an SSL console.
“Luther was one of the most generous guys you’d ever want to meet,” Bardini concludes. “I recall that several days after we finished this record, a tuxedo arrived at my door, along with a note from Luther thanking me and telling me that the tux was for me to wear to the Grammys. We worked together for 22 years, and he was one of the most amazingly talented artists you’ll ever meet.”
At 54, Vandross was too young to pass away, but his enormous talent and fierce dedication led him to create a body of work — including “Here and Now,” for which he won the Best Male R&B Vocal Performance Grammy Award in ’91 — that will endure.
Click here to read an interview with Vandross’ longtime engineer, Ray Bardini.