When I was in sixth grade, I had this bus driver, Val. She was awesome. She was cool, down to earth and kind of sassy in that way only a way-cool, in-charge, self-respecting black woman is. Everyday, she would take me and a couple other kids to and from the inner city of Pittsburgh to the plastic suburbs of Fox Chapel. And she always had the radio going. Usually in the morning I would be too tired to notice what she was listening to, but on the way back I would hear Barry White, Al Green, Babyface and songs like "Me and Mrs. Jones." And, of course, Luther.
R&B -- classic, old-school R&B -- had always been integral to what I listened to growing up. But it wasn't until this point that I realized other people, not just me, my mom and brother, had an affinity for soul. It was a revelation. It gave me solace in those dark days of middle school, and made me not want that bus ride home to end because I knew, when I reached my destination, the radio would go off and I'd have to concentrate on school work.
Flashforward now to the end of my high school career. I had drifted away from those R&B stylings, gravitating instead towards classic rock and, I guess, grunge. But then I stumbled upon Brother Matt's Slow Jams on 104.7 FM, The Beat.
If those bus rides in sixth grade were revelatory, this was like achieving the closest thing to nirvana. I heard things I had never heard before, was privy to a world of lustful, sorrowful, lovelorn and romance-addled people I never new existed. And Luther's music was central to their lives and, thus, the playlist at The Beat. I loved it.
Listening to Luther -- rediscovering his work and class -- I became majorly interested in other, similar artists: Barry White, Al Green, the Isley Brothers, Bill Withers, Teddy Pendergrass. I became drawn to the equally sultry jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. And, most important of all, Luther showed me it was OK to be young and listening to what some might consider "hokey" or "dated".
For that, Luther Vandross' music will forever hold an important place in my life.
There are few musicians who have had the type of impact on the development of my musical palate as Luther Vandross -- or just Luther, as my mom so affectionately refer to him as when he would come on the radio -- has had. Prince has been a major influence, as has Van Halen/David Lee Roth. Stone Temple Pilots have been big, but they don't have the memory attached to them that Luther does. And it wasn't through STP that I began my love affair with R&B, soul and jazz.
I was sad, although not totally shocked, to hear Luther died today. After all, his stroke two years ago left him living on borrowed time, even if people said he was getting better. But like all great artists, his body of work left in his passing assures his place in the pantheon of great musical talents of the 20th century.
I remember the day Johnny Cash died last year. I was at Pitt, and all those hepcats living in the dorms that frame the quad by the Union had their windows open and were blaring out hit after hit by the Man in Black. Later that night, you could stumble into any bar in Oakland -- or anywhere in town, for that matter -- and you wouldn't have to wait long for someone to pump some quarters into the jukebox and pick one of the many great Cash tunes. Although, it seemed as though "Ring of Fire" was the hands-down choice.
True fans of Cash, no doubt.
Today, with the passing of another music great, I wonder if there's a similar thing happening in the corners of Pittsburgh where Luther Vandross was the voice of choice. Are people blasting his hits from their apartments, cars or Walkmen? Will people file into bars and play the songs they know and adore?
I'd like to think so. I know I would.