Walls of Sound by Danyel Smith

Walls of Sound by Danyel Smith

Originally published in Apartamento magazine issue #32

Luther Vandross’ 1985 The Night I Fell in Love (Epic) rises up tall in an arty Black neighbourhood lush with evergreens like New Edition’s eponymous second album, Sade’s Diamond Life, and Prince’s Purple Rain. The mood of Vandross’ eight-song Night glides from relatable charade to trembling intimacy to the resignation that love and loneliness are but sides of a coin. Night is flawed only in ways that further its point: The world makes it hard to tell your truths.

The first song, for example, is a shaky foundation at best. ‘‘Til My Baby Comes Home’ tells a story of the singer’s intense love for a girlfriend—Every night when I sleep / I dream of my baby / She’s such a lady / Then I wake up and see / That she’s laying by me / Right there beside me. It feels… off. I want Vandross to write and sing about who he more likely truly dreams of. But that’s none of my business. Patti LaBelle problematically outed her friend in 2017, but Vandross died in 2005 at 54, having never confirmed or denied rumours that he was gay.

The eight-time Grammy winner had many reasons to create from behind a wafting curtain of hetero romance. In the mid-‘80s, queer Black men were carving out vibrant spaces in which to love and thrive, but America was enthralled by a homophobic ‘moral majority’ who considered HIV/AIDS a wrath of God. It was hateful in the music world as well. In 1998, the year Vandross released I Know (Virgin), George Michael was arrested and globally dragged for ‘soliciting sex’. In 1999, Tevin Campbell was arrested on charges of ‘lewd behavior’, and his career was shattered. (Campbell came out in 2022.) The great Johnny Mathis, icon of ‘50s and ‘60s balladeering, didn’t come out to a huge audience until 2017, when he was 82. Mathis isn’t known for his songwriting, but it’s his mellifluous middle-tenor that most informs the leaning tower that is Vandross’ The Night I Fell in Love.

The title song, placed second, is the album’s good bones. It sets the tone: a mostly disciplined, drawn-out mid-tempo. There’s the invitation in Vandross’ voice when he says, It actually happened. It’s the dynamic contraltos of his background singers. Vandross, who is not spoken about enough as an elite songwriter, often writes and sings about the stars above, and this time, as he croons about them shining brighter than most of the time, there’s the lilt in his manner of everything going one’s way. Luther wrote the ecstatic ‘A Brand New Day (Everybody Rejoice)’ for the original Broadway production of The Wiz, and theatrical word-painting is in his DNA. When he sings, I thought I would be happy / Without any love in my world / But now I know that / That is so untrue, the song, which never mentions a ‘she’ or a ‘her’, feels crafted by the owner of a lonely heart. 

We then tiptoe the grand sonic staircase that is ‘If Only For One Night’, a cover of singer/songwriter Brenda Russell’s 1979 album cut. That song includes no ‘she’ or ‘her’ either, and I won’t tell a soul / no one has to know / if you want to be / totally discreet functions on multiple levels. One of which is Vandross’ comforting of many ladies of the ‘80s who worried—so as not to be labeled a ‘tramp’—about keeping a low ‘body count’. How Russell’s lyrics must have appealed to Vandross: Standing in this place / But I’m feelin’ no disgrace / For askin’ / Let me hold you tight. And then for him to ease so confidently and sexily, minus crackling dead space, into his And it’s gon’ be tonight, the forever-famous line of ‘Creepin’’, a song written by Stevie Wonder for his 1974 Album of the Year, Fulfillingness’ First Finale. 

‘It’s Over Now’ is that creaky staircase you dash up, hoping not to fall through—because the lofty and freeing suite of the album’s last three songs beckons. There’s ‘Wait For Love’ with its elegantly precise choir, the strengthening (sadly necessary) ambiguity about the lover’s identity, and the vividness not just of Vandross’ lyrics, but in the earnestness of his delivery. He really wanted us to believe that if we had patience, good true love would make itself known. And we did believe—just as we did when he sings in ‘My Sensitivity (Gets In the Way)’, At times I don’t believe that I can’t control my heart / It skips a beat even before the lovin’ starts. Of all the songs on the album, ‘Sensitivity’ feels the most coded. It’s a sliding bookcase revealing a secret escalier to an ornate rooftop beneath a shimmering starscape.

It’s like when you go to another hemisphere—or even just a whole new part of yourself—and the constellations are different. You no longer feel… off. You are lost but you are found. And even though the construction of this classic album is imperfect, it is strong. And so is Luther, the designer who built it. Authenticity is a privilege Vandross didn’t have. And today, almost 40 years later, even as people and institutions and systems try to snatch ourselves from ourselves, even as we are told we are ugly and unworthy—we, heartbreakingly, have more than he did. So, we must continue to be disorderly, to act up. To, in the face of tyranny, build things. Or else, why did Luther Vandross even tell us, with half of himself, about the nights he fell in love? If we weren’t going to blast loudly his genius work, be whole, and thrive?

Apartamento Magazine - Walls of Sound by Danyel Smith

Danyel Smith is an award-winning journalist and author of the acclaimed Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop. She brings cultural stories to life through her podcast, Black Girl Songbook, and HBO’s Music Box documentaries. Danyel was editor of Billboard and editor-in-chief of VIBE and is currently a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine. She is a new member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Nominating Committee.

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