Performances That Pop: Luther Vandross at the 1986 NAACP Image Awards

Spectacles are fun.

The choreography, the pyrotechnics, the backdrops, the giant video screens, the costumes. When done right, the pop spectacle creates an immersive experience that heightens one’s enjoyment of a song.

That’s one way to do it. We’re so used to high-octane productions that we can forget that spectacles can be simple. Sometimes, all you need is a microphone and an extraordinary voice to transport your imagination to another plane, to roil your body with overwhelming, ecstatic emotion. We don’t see it often, but it is possible.

Ironically, one of the best examples of this phenomenon comes from a tribute to Dionne Warwick. The legendary singer built her career with the enduring music of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, masters of adult contemporary. Her songbook consisted of easy listening standards like “Don’t Make Me Over,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” and “Alfie.” While a formidable vocalist, her gentle interpretations didn’t leave much room for soaring acrobatics that defined much of female pop and R&B music.

Warwick deserved a tribute by someone who would show up and show out on her behalf. At the 19th Annual NAACP Image Awards in 1986, that person was Luther Vandross, the beloved R&B producer, songwriter, and singer in his own right. The two had a history. Vandross counted Warwick as a key influence and recorded her signature song, “A House is Not a Home,” for his debut album Never Too Much. He would produce Warwick’s album How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye two years later, duetting with her on the title track. If anyone was worthy enough to pay tribute to Warwick, it was him.

It took two seconds of Vandross’ vocal runs for the crowd to erupt into cheers and applause. He stood at the front of the stage, the curtains drawn behind him and a solitary microphone before him. He dressed in a simple tuxedo. It was clear from the start, from the first few seconds of those runs, that Vandross would be flying solo. There would be no dancers or strobe lights. It would be just him and the audience, specifically Warwick, as he sang the song that catapulted them to stardom, “A House is Not a Home.”

Luther Vandross performing at the 19th Annual NAACP Image Awards (Courtesy: NAACP)

What follows are six minutes of the most glorious vocals ever delivered on any awards stage. Vandross was an extraordinary talent whose command of the music language helped him achieve what others couldn’t. In honor of his inspiration, colleague, and friend, Vandross plays every card in his masterful deck. His intricate and thoughtful phrasing is there. So are his sweeping, full-throated vocal runs that deliciously extend his notes. And, of course, he wouldn’t be Luther Vandross without delightful ad-libs, of which there are plenty.

With just a microphone and his voice as the main attractions, Vandross embraces his part as the master showman. Every choice and inflection carried a specific intent. His “good morning, good evening, good afternoon, hello, bye bye baby” addition to the first verse was a playful wink. The shifts in his expression, from joy to solemnity, signaled a re-connection with the song’s lonely message. His stuttering of “No” conveys a fervent hunger on top of the lyric’s desperate longing. Sometimes, Vandross just wanted to show off his excellent range, like when he scales from the bottom to the top of it, raising his arms to the sky in tandem, just for fun.

Janet Jackson at the 19th Annual NAACP Image Awards (Courtesy: NAACP)

“Fun” is the key word here. Even though “A House is Not a Home” is a break-up song, Vandross doesn’t let the melancholy keep him from enjoying himself. He passes that energy onto the audience, barely containing themselves as he sidles into his vocal groove. There are several ovations throughout his performance. A woman in a shimmering dress waves her arm in the air during one of his runs. A Control-era Janet Jackson watches in awe and admiration. They give it right back to him, forming a full-featured feedback loop.

And what about Dionne Warwick? She is as enraptured as anyone by Vandross’ tour-de-force performance. A perpetually bright smile adorns her face. She nods and shakes her head in wonder as he devours their song. She throws her hand up at him, cheering him on during a particularly spectacular run. (Consider it a timid version of the Black tradition of throwing a shoe at an exceptionally gifted singer.) The only time she isn’t smiling is when the emotional weight of his performance hits her, and she tears up at the end.

Dionne Warwick and Luther Vandross at the 19th Annual NAACP Image Awards (Courtesy: NAACP)

That’s what a tribute should do: tug at the heartstrings and make the honoree feel loved and valued. Emotion doesn’t have to be stately or serious, just as spectacles don’t have to be loud and busy. Luther Vandross’ performance at the NAACP Image Awards is a masterclass in spectacle. The sparks, the colors, and wizardry don’t come from a sky-high production budget, though. They come from Vandross’ voice, a world-class instrument that challenges choreography and costumes in excitement and enticement.

If you’re unconvinced, look at the audience reactions from Warwick, Jackson, and that woman in the shimmering dress. You can’t fake those reactions and definitely can’t fake a talent like Vandross.

You can view more articles in the Performances That Pop series here.

Leave a Reply