Remembering the ‘Velvet Voice’: Visiting Luther Vandross’s 2003 Live Album

Music came alive during that night in New York.

Photo by Scott Harrison

I grew up listening to Luther Vandross and understood that his vocal abilities were otherworldly. I can’t identify an emotion that Luther can’t elucidate with his chest-voice. This past week, however, I’ve been attached to his 2003 performance at Radio City Music Hall. Prior to listening to the concert album, I would have told you that “A House Is Not a Home” from his 1981 debut Never Too Much is the perfect display of vocal emotion from Luther. But each song performed during that night is filled with potentially more soul than each respective studio version. Each track is performed perfectly. Live Radio City Music Hall 2003 displays an artist-to-crowd synergy that’s felt 18 years later in any speaker. Given his untimely passing, the album carries enough life to stand the test of time. The listener may be late to the show at Radio City but the live set gracefully transports you directly into the front row.

“We gon’ sing em’ all for you tonight, every last one of them,” Luther says before starting.

The album kicks off with the certified double-platinum single “Never Too Much” and wanders into his later work, including “Take You Out” and “If Only For One Night”. The track list features a familiar song for anyone to sing and/or groove to. As an R&B heavy-hitter, Luther’s notes are electrifying and instantly bring life into the room. You can’t go 5 seconds without hearing a screaming fan celebrating the passing note or simply confessing their love for the man. As each track begins, you can also hear the crowd release their excitement; reminding listeners today of the joy that comes with hearing your favorite song live. I hadn’t considered “Here and Now” to be a contender for my favorite song from Luther, but after hearing it’s contrast with “Never Too Much” I experienced a wave of emotions I hadn’t felt in a while. “We gon’ sing em’ all for you tonight, every last one of them” Luther says before starting the set. By selecting a list of hits and intimate favorites, the Radio City Music Hall set remains approachable for listeners looking to dance, reminisce, and truly connect with the work of the late great.

As the band starts “If Only For One Night”, Luther asks a fan, “Is this your song?” before smiling and plucking the first note out of thin air. Live Radio City also contains some of the most wholesome ad-libs and crowd engagement I’ve ever heard. Hearing Luther’s joy for the crowd in the present doesn’t bring me sorrow but extreme appreciation for an artist showing up to a venue to sing their heart out. He enjoys himself just as much as the crowd does, if not more. The life captured in the set reminds of Teddy Pendergrass’s Live! Coast to Coast (1979) , without the undressing and Maze’s New Orleans set with Frankie Beverly in 1981. Cracking jokes about his lung capacity and his “cheekbone” days brought Luther to a good-humored quality confirming his status as just an artist that sang songs. The live set reminds the listener that music may contain a range of movement on the studio recording but a concert album has the potential to elevate the experience tenfold — the man simply embodied the music while on the stage.

Luther also sang alongside an immaculate band. Nat Adderly Jr.’s piano solo on “Superstar” and expressions on “I’d Rather” could not have been more fitting for Luther’s tone, supporting the fact that Grammy-winning Adderly Jr. was Luther’s musical director from 1981 to his death. Arturo Tappin’s buttery saxophone accompaniment on “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” reminds the listener that sensual improvisation can’t be replicated, especially with soul music. For Luther to mention both of these musicians to the audience yields the greatness of the album solely from himself. To admire Live Radio City, you have to admire each moving part that adds to Luther’s showmanship. “I’m telling you… nobody does it better” Luther confirms in “Medley”.

Everybody knew what they wanted to hear that night; Luther had no issue giving that and more.

When I first heard the album, I was already amazed before reaching “A House Is Not Home”, the second-to-last track. Well-known as the main sample for Kanye West’s “Slow Jamz”, the vocalist loosens up to take his time and “Sing this thing”, he prefaces. Not only does Luther perfectly capture the fan’s favorite runs (including the famous run at the track’s 8-minute mark), but provides plenty more. The band continues to elevate the performance considering the crowd’s familiarity; they don’t add a new spin to the track but choose to deliver an excellent version of a beloved song. To that end, the bass guitar nods to Luther’s every vocal move and the entire band completely relaxes at times while he does his thing. Across each of the songs, there’s no rush to stray from sonic moments that fans — and Luther, himself — love. Everybody knew what they wanted to hear that night; Luther had no issue giving that and more.

I’m not afraid to list Luther Vandross’s Live Radio City Music Hall 2003 as my favorite live album. It’s a series of highs and reaches even higher in the possibilities of live music. By delivering in every way, the live album successfully provides a snapshot of the vocalist’s capabilities before his passing, just two years later. I truly felt his earnest salutation at the end of the concert. As a part of the first generation without Luther Vandross, the tracks on the concert album define what it means to ‘sang’ along the voices of Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, and many others. Unlike the rest, however, Luther’s voice demonstrated a soul that rang consistently strong and graceful. Hearing this voice, via concert album or studio, is an outright privilege.

Listen to the album here

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