Cleo Manago (cleomanagosblog) wrote,
Cleo Manago

My time with Luther Vandross. ‘Waiting For [Self] Love’

I first met Luther Vandross when he lived in Los Angeles. At the time I had an apartment near the Santa Monica Pier. Around the corner was a live music spot called ‘At My Place.’ One evening friends and I went there to see David Lasley perform. (David Lasley is a very gifted singer/songwriter. Anita Baker’s ‘You Bring Me Joy’ and Chaka Khan’s ‘Roll Me Through The Rushes,’ among many beautiful songs, were written by Lasley.) That night, as usual ‘At My Place’ was packed. When locating our seats, I noticed Luther sitting at a table next to ours. He was glowing a little, still in his prime and just beginning to thin down in size. With Luther was Kevin Owens (one of his background singers) and Sam Harris (a white, multiple winner on ‘Star Search,’ known for his dramatic, throaty renditions of Black music classics.)

I was a professional musician at the time. A few of my peers were also hanging out that night. Some of L.A.’s best showed up for David. Soon, it got around the place that “Luffah” was in the house. Like me, most of my peers were extremely impressed with Luther as a creative musical force. Not only was Luther a ‘sangin’ fool’ (the very best male of his era), but, from album one his brilliance was accompanied by some of the baddest musicians on the New York scene, e.g. Marcus Miller, and Yogi Horton. Being in close proximity to Luther and his friends I could hear their conversation. They were talking about how “fabulous” David’s show was going to be. All three men “carried on” with a very familiar sense of wit, using colloquialisms known mostly in Black homosexual circles. At the table, on the other side, were some fellow musicians from the L.A. scene. Impressed that it was Luther Vandross, at every possible moment, discretely they would sneak a glance at the musical marvel.

Watching Luther casually interact with his friends, one of the L.A. musicians said, “Hey man, I think that Brother is gay!” “Naw, man. Not singing like that,” another said. “I’m serious man. Just look at him, and how he’s acting. I think he is." said the initiator of the topic. Irritated, I turned around and asked, “What if he is?” Stunned, the one who started the conversation said. ”It ain’t no thang to me. I’m a man. It’s just that….” Interrupting, I look him right in his eyes, and ask, “It’s just that what?” While he searched for words, I asked, "Are you an admirer of his music, his singing?” "Hell yeah, the boy is baad!" he said. “Then that’s all that matters. Unless you trying to get with him,” I remarked. His friends look at him and laugh. Uncomfortably he giggled saying, "Naw man, it ain’t like that. You see [pausing for drama, pointing at his chest] I’m a man.” I responded, “So is Luther, a man you greatly admirer. A dynamic man. Get over yourself, bruh.” I turned back around to my seat. They kept talking. But while that guy did lay off Luther, I noticed that he continued to stare. Many people did. After all, it was Luther Vandross!

Later, after catching Luther’s attention, I leaned in close to shake his hand and said, “Hi. I’m Cleo Manago, I play bass. I’m looking forward to David’s show. Are you enjoying life on the west coast?” “Nice to meet you Cleo. It’s fabulous here. I love the weather. Meet my friends.” He introduced me to Kevin Owens and Sam Harris. Soon after that, the show began, and we enjoyed it.

I would run into Luther on a few occasions. Once backstage at the “Patti Labelle Show” (In the 1980’s for a very short time Labelle had a television show.) I also had the pleasure of attending a dinner party at Luther’s amazing home in Beverly Hills. It was during that experience when I had opportunity to really observe and engage Vandross. He was a mixture of things. He was gracious, kind and always making funny remarks. For example, the meal Vandross provided was a sumptuous assortment of delectable African American cuisine (AKA "soul food" dishes) . After they prayed, the guests (a predominately Black mixture of famous singers and actors, musicians and Vandross’ mother and family) thanked Vandross for the meal. Following a bashful smile, Vandross exclaimed, “Dig in yawl. Just don’t waste no juice from the greens or no mac and cheese on my fabulous carpet. It takes time to clean those girls.” After some belly laughing we commenced to eating.

When Luther and I talked, just he and I in his music room, I began to notice more closely very familiar traits so many ordinary and extraordinary Black people have. Here was a wealthy, celebrated and highly respected [Black, male] performer, who was very conscientious about his looks, his weight, his hair and his [beautiful] dark complexion. Badly, he wanted cross-over pop success ("pop" is a code word for "white"). He was obsessed with how people looked, and deeply envious of and physically attracted to the opposite of what he was, the opposite of dark, and of wooly, African hair. He was also very lonely and isolated (as a result, soon after, he would sell his 5 million dollar mansion and move back east). Even with all his fame and fortune he was pained by what he didn’t have; the acceptance of a pop audience, a personal love to call his own, a smaller waist line, and a different physical presentation.

I was amazed (but not shocked) to observe Luther’s anguish. I enjoyed being in the presence of this legendary Brother. Along with the joy of that experience was the affirmation of something painful, that Black low self concept has to be eradicated. We have to co-create a community where Black people rarely succumb to the myth of their lack of beauty. We have to co-create sacred, self love and restoration spaces to help Sisters and Brothers to love them selves in their own image. So that the next Luther Vandross is allowed simply to relish in their genius and face the world with clarity and in celebration of whom they really are.

In honor of Luther David Lasley has placed a song on his website written and performed by he and Luther called "Too Much Commotion Not Enough Emotion." On this demo recording, along with David, you also get a rare glimpse into hearing just how brilliant Luther was. Even in performance on a demo recording.

Luther Ronzoni Vandross: 1951 - 2005

Be well,

Cleo Manago
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