by Steven M. Housman
I was shocked and saddened when I heard the news of Luther Vandross' death at age 54. I was driving and the announcement came over the radio. I got chills all over my body. I have chills as I'm writing this now. He was such a gifted singer.
I'll never forget the first time I really became aware of how great he was. I was driving home on the Sunset Strip on a Saturday night in 1984 and I had KJLH ( Stevie Wonder's radio station ) tuned in, when I heard this rendition of 'Superstar' that floored me. It then melded into 'Until You Come Back To Me' and the medley reminded me of Barbra Streisand's stunning rendition of 'One Less Bell To Answer/A House Is Not A Home' ( the latter was also recorded by Vandross ) . I bought his album and have been buying them ever since. His last album, 2003's Dance With My Father, was so incredibly touching that it earned him four Grammy Awards. Vandross had won eight Grammy Awards and sold more than 25 million records.
I just finished reading his obituary, and a portion of it read—Vandross' sound was so unusual few tried to copy it; even fewer could. 'I'm proud of that—it's one of the things that I'm most proud of,' he told the Associated Press in a 2001 interview. 'I was never compared to anyone in terms of sound.' He was a true original.
Another portion read Jeff O'Conner ( his publicist ) said he received condolence calls from music luminaries such as Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones.
Singer Roberta Flack, on tour in Japan, said she was mourning the loss of her friend of more than 20 years.
'He was a musician who couldn't help but give you all he had,' she said by telephone. 'He was the kind of guy who was born to do what he did musically and let the world know about it. He was not born to keep it smothered in the chest.'
Vandross also did backup vocals for many acts, including Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand, before breaking out on his own. His first solo album, Never Too Much, was released on Sept. 1, 1981, reached the Top 20 and was quickly certified double-platinum. After that, every one of his albums ( 15 in all ) reached platinum and double platinum status. The man was also one of the most dynamic live performers. His voice was as smooth as silk and his stage presence was pure magic. His top hit singles included collaborations with the cream of the crop, including hit duets with Janet Jackson, Dionne Warwick and Mariah Carey.
Following his death, I received some very disturbing emails regarding Luther Vandross and his sexuality. I had been aware of Luther's homosexuality almost as long as I was aware of his extraordinary talent back in the early '80s. I remember the fatal car accident on Laurel Canyon back in the mid-'80s that involved Vandross and his 'friend' that had perished. I had heard that his 'friend' also happened to be his companion. As far as the closeness of the two, I never knew. Most people that weren't in Vandross' circle didn't know too much about the very private crooner. The music industry and his close friends are the only people who were privy to his personal life.
The e-mails I received from gay men were filled with anger and a feeling of deceit. They felt as a gay man, Vandross could have helped the gay movement and society by 'coming out of the closet.' Maybe that's true. Maybe it's not. Maybe it's just me, but I always found a person's personal life to be whatever he or she wanted it to be. If they wanted their life to be an open book, that was completely up to them. If they wanted the world to know of their lives and loves, then so be it. Personally, I always admired celebrities who kept their personal lives to themselves. The only time it has bothered me is when a celebrity goes out of their way to make it appear that they are straight, when in fact, they are not. I won't mention any names, but they know who they are. When the celebrity has ground rules and decides not to discuss his or her personal life, I feel it should be respected.
The following are a few of the e-mails I received. My responses follow:
E-mail No. 1: Every time you hear or read a Luther Vandross obit, the word 'sadly closeted' is added to the end of each sentence.
My response: He was 54 and he was open about his lifestyle in LA, NY and wherever he resided. He didn't reveal his private life to the press. I admire him for choosing to live his life exactly the way he wanted to live it. May he rest in peace.
E-mail No. 2: Honey, if you think that people choose to be closeted, then you're living a fantasy. The man gained and lost weight like mad because he was agonized over being closeted. It was very obvious. Where was he open? He did NOT live life as he wanted to.
My Response: I feel lesbians are far more accepted than gay men. Are you a celebrity? Being out as a gay man can be career suicide. I applaud celebrities such as Vandross, Manilow and Mathis for living their lives exactly the way they want and out of the press. I'll take them over the TomKats ( Tom Cruise & Katie Holmes ) and Bennifers ( Ben Affleck & Jennifer Lopez ) any day. Can you imagine what kind of career Elton would have had if he came out earlier? He even married a woman in 1984. When he was sufficiently established 21 years into his career, he came out. I suppose you think he was brave? At that point, he had nothing to lose. Elton John has said he respects the privacy of celebrities. He knows all too well what can happen if they're not careful. It's unfortunate, but it's also true.
E-mail No. 3: Being in the closet is not the natural way of things ... and when you are a star with money and power, it is even more pathetic! He died unhappy, so look at what being closeted does!
My Response: Did he call you and tell you how unhappy he was? I wonder if Karen Carpenter was a lesbian. What about Kurt Cobain? Was he gay? Everything does NOT come down to sexuality. There are other issues.
And finally, I received an e-mail from a man who knew him, and this is what he said:
E-mail No. 4: I knew Luther for about 20 years. He was very troubled about being in the closet and chose not to come out professionally for a number of reasons. 1: His principle audience was Black R&B fans, mostly young Black women. In the Black music industry, there are no publicly out artists.
There are many who, like Luther, live their private lives quite openly, ( names deleted ) , but the Black gay male artist risks the loss of his audience if he publicly declares he is a homosexual ... and the support of his record company, and unfortunately becomes niched as a gay artist. If what happened to the Indigo Girls is a hint of the homophobia that exists in the music industry, then just imagine what the pressure is on a Black gay artist who sings love songs.
2: His mother was quite religious. Most Black churches condemn homosexuality even as they accept the closeted preachers and choir directors and choir members ... and people like his mother just ignored it as long as she could pretend he was straight.
Having worked in the music industry, I must admit Luther's fears were well-based. He also was 54 and grew up in a world of homophobia both in the Black community and in the professional world around him. I hope more younger artists, like Rufus Wainwright, will find the courage to come out ... but I will not be a part of any campaign to criticize Luther for not coming out ... . Just look at what happened to Sylvester.
Luther's up and down struggle with weight problems were well known and publicly documented, and because he had not hid his sexual orientation from people in the music world, whenever he became thin he was haunted by rumors he had AIDS ( he did not ) .
Coming out is a chosen act ... not in response to others' demands, but from the inner need to feel whole. Luther suffered from being in the closet, but he never pretended to be straight and did not distance himself from lesbians and gays in his personal life. Like Dusty, he struggled with the issue.
So please do not stain the loss of the big black sissy with a velvet voice lubricated with sticky desire.
Finally, what I had suspected all along was realized when I received this e-mail.
I would like to hear from my readers and hear your opinions on this very important matter. Please e-mail the editor or my personal e-mail, SMHousman@aol.com . We are all in this together. Let's work together to make our world a safer place.
Just like Rock Hudson 20 years ago, who put a 'famous' face on the tragedy of AIDS, maybe we can learn something important from this recent tragedy. This is a sad time for me and everybody else who loved Vandross' musical genius. He was a man who sang with such warmth and emotion. He will be sorely missed.
May he rest in peace.
Steven Housman is a contributing editor for Genre Magazine. Housman has also contributed to The Advocate as well as Billboard. See www.StevenHousman.com .