Luther Vandross is arguably the greatest male vocalist of all time, and he credited the unique sound of his music to the genius of his songwriting partner, arranger, and pianist Nat Adderly Jr. In this interview he and Nat talk about their musical journey and offer some amazing insights into their success. Here are ten great things I learned from the interview with “The Voice” Luther Vandross and his co producer and arranger, Nat Adderly Jr:
1 Don’t try to do it all. Luther humbly explains that his gift is singing so therefore he must trust the many other tasks of music production and promotion to people who are trained and skilled in those areas.
2 Work with honest people. Luther says he was lucky to work with so many people who “never ripped him off,” but if you know anything about Luther Vandross, you know he was highly particular about who he allowed into his trusted circle. He understood the importance of staying on top of your game and how even one rogue person can shipwreck you. Guard your heart… and your finances.
3 Reimagine existing music. Making “new” music needn’t be limited to creating something completely new. Luther became famous by reimagining old songs and turning them into his own unique creations. For example, in the case of the song Superstar, it was a bubble gum song by the Carpenters, but Luther was deeply moved by the lyrics and reimagined it as a heart wrenching love song. The same can be said of Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwoʻole’s rendition of Over the Rainbow.
4 Stick with what works. If you find a songwriting formula, or instruments, or songwriting partner that helps define your song and makes it a good one, stick with it. Luther did a whole album of “Songs” without Nat Adderly Jr and said it didn’t take off because it didn’t have his signature sound that he had created with Nat.
5 Start with an idea that has emotional content. When asked how they started a song, Nat said it starts with a single idea, often a lyric with “emotional content.” In other words, something that is heartfelt, that comes from a place in your own heart that you feel strongly about. The key is to transfer that emotion from your heart onto the song canvas and develop it into a musical message that moves others.
6 Arrangement is important. This wasn’t expressly stated but it is implied multiple times. Nat Adderly Jr knew how to arrange instruments in such a way that they were harmonically rich, warm, and enthralling to the ears, while always leaving a perfect pocket for Luther’s voice. As a result, all of the songs he worked on with Luther filled the entire frequency spectrum and stereo image.
7 Set deadlines and stick to them. Both Nat and Luther said they were deadline driven, and Nat even said “there’s nothing like a deadline” to keep him moving and producing. Without deadlines it’s easy to get distracted, procrastinate, etc. Set a deadline to complete a song and push through it.
8 Music creation is not an exact science. This topic is only briefly touched on before the editor cut to another scene, but the point was made: music is not an exact science. Don’t be guided by rigid rules and conventions. Think outside the box, and don’t be afraid to try new approaches to things.
9 Stay organized and orderly. Luther was known for being a drill sergeant in the studio. Some might scoff at this idea, but his body of work speaks for itself. Notice how all of his songs are masterpieces in every sense of the word. This is because he was a perfectionist and made no apologies for it. When you have a vision, laser focus on it and don’t let chaos and dysfunction compromise it.
10 Embrace YOUR gift. My fav part of the interview. During Q&A, a guy in the audience said he wanted to sing like Luther and wasn’t sure about his own voice. Luther’s response was his most impassioned of the interview. He told the guy to stop his negative self talk, identify his talent, and then focus on developing it. He even said, “There’s nothing to say you couldn’t sell 10x more records than me.” It’s true. Do you. Be grateful for your gifts. Don’t try to be like other people. Just develop your own talent and keep developing it. And work hard.
Image courtesy of Nikki Woods video interview with Luther Vandross