In late April, I traveled to Jamaica to interview R&B giant Luther Vandross about his then-forthcoming self-titled album. The influential crooner was a little anxious about the project, both because it marked his first release in three years and followed the disappointing commercial performance of 1998’s “I Know.” The songs also marked a stylistic departure for the industry veteran, teaming him with such young gun producers as Jon B, Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence (who worked with Mary J. Blige) and Kaygee (Naughty By Nature).
Cut to six months later, and the album is an undeniable success. He scored the best first-week-sales of his career, moving 135,000 copies out of the gate. And the record has yielded two hits so far: the breezy “Take You Out” and the new teary-eyed ballad “Can Heaven Wait” on which he movingly begs God to save his lover’s life.
In support of the album, Vandross comes to Kleinhans Music Hall on Monday with his notoriously lavish live show. I caught up with the vocalist by phone to find out what Buffalo fans can expect from the show and how the New York City native has been coping in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 tragedy.
What kind of show are you bringing to Buffalo?
This is the full production. We have new wardrobes, which is great. And we’re singing at least five songs from the new album, along with the other catalog stuff. But there will be no pyrotechnics and half-naked girls dancing around. The theme is escape and elegance.
Do you think people need escape in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedy?
I think it’s what we can use as part of the healing process. I’ve always escaped and shrouded myself in music when other things in life weren’t to my liking. But each person needs his or her own formula for healing. My function as an entertainer is to provide escape if they need it.
New York City is your hometown and you still live there. Where were you on the morning of the attacks?
I was asleep and a friend called me and told me to turn on CNN. My mother lives near the twin towers, so I had to go down there. But they weren’t letting you drive past 14th Street, so I had to walk. And there was so much dust and so many particles in the air. It was intense.
In the past you’ve talked about your fear of flying. Have recent events, and even the death of Aaliyah in a plane crash, intensified that fear?
Well, my fear of flying was never that rational. It was a downright phobia. And I heed the whole suggestion that we’ve got to get back to business as usual. We have to get back to going out and going to restaurants and going to the movies and flying and taking trips and doing what it is that we do to keep the economy functioning.
A lot of people say that you sing “baby-making tunes,” but I know you hate that label. Why?
I think it trivializes the musical contribution that I’m trying to make and the musical career that I’m trying to have and how I’m trying to be remembered. I don’t want to be remembered in the context of the bedroom. I don’t want to be in that bag. I want to be in the bag that includes the best singers of our time, not in the bag with those who are bumping and grinding and talking people’s thighs and booties and stuff. That’s unfair to what I’ve tried so hard to work for. The music is about romance, yes. But it’s not about booties.