Urban Contemporary Radio – Luther Vandross and Anita Baker, The King & Queen of Urban Soul

In the mid 70’s WBLS (NYC) Disc Jockey and Program Director Frankie Crocker established a name to encompass the broad mix of decidedly Black music that he was playing. He referred to the collection of the various genres including R&B, Hip Hop, Disco, and Rap as Urban Contemporary. And he did so with the objective of not only branding the wide pallet of styles, but also to help in providing a sense of empowerment for both the artists and the station’s predominantly Black, and to a lesser extent Hispanic, listeners.

Urban Contemporary – aided with Disco in its heyday – helped Black music cross over into the mainstream. It served its purpose as the recording stars of the day, not to mention fashion trends, were indeed heavily weighted towards or were Black oriented. Artists such as Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, Boney M., Chic, Thelma Houston, and Sister Sledge thrived. And TV shows like Soul Train and films like Saturday Night Fever contributed to Disco’s mainstream popularity.

With Disco waning in the late 70’s, (and meeting the end of its popularity at the close of the decade), like other Black radio stations across the country, WBLS faced the uncertainty of continued mainstream acceptance as advertising dollars took a downturn. Without the hook of Disco, advertisers felt that “Black Radio” would not reach a wide enough audience and tended to pull back. A reset was warranted; the result of which would eclipse the success of Disco and prove to be significantly more sustainable.

Urban Contemporary evolved to one of a rediscovery of the richness of Soul vocal styling that predominantly revisited the R&B ballad tradition. Although still providing room for up tempo funky dance tracks, the recast Urban Contemporary – alternately called Quiet Storm – was characterized by radio friendly production and a controlled soulfulness in well crafted vocals displaying an upmarket, highly emotional mood in mainly romantic ballads (slow jams). Further, as a means of sharpening a radio format judged to attract a wider audience, and in turn, make white advertisers more comfortable in parting with their advertising dollars, a balance was struck. That is, Program Directors sought selections that weren’t as light as Motown or Pop, (thus adding more emotional weight for its listeners), but without the grit that Southern Soul offered, (because it might be deemed “too Black” for the mass consumption). Providing and defining this relaxed romantic form of R&B were Black artists with crossover appeal.

Prominent in this set of artists, among others, were Chaka Khan, Lionel Ritchie / The Commodores, Earth Wind & Fire, Freddie Jackson, and Jeffrey Osborne – but no one more so than Luther Vandross and Anita Baker. Based on their respective resumes and their highly emotive, romantic brand of R&B, they stand as the undisputed King and Queen of 80’s and 90’s Urban Soul.

In addition to their obvious commercial success, Vandross and Baker – whose paths intersected and who shared a commonality in their determination to manage not only their recordings but also their respective careers on their own terms – are known for their ability to convey the message with a true sense of commitment and emotion. With an unmannered approach, free of histrionics, in short, they made you believe. Not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination.

Anita Denise Baker, born in Toledo Ohio on January 26, 1958, has proven to be one of the definitive Quiet Storm singers. Influenced by R&B, Jazz, Gospel, and Pop, Baker has earned her place in the upper echelon of romantic singers of her time.

In a 30 year solo recording career, (from 1983 through 2013), Baker has released 9 albums, (not including the best selling 2002 Rhino release Sweet Love The Very Best Of Anita Baker). Of those 9 albums, 5 went Platinum (a million units sold), and 2 went Gold (500,000 units sold). Add to that 8 Grammy Awards, 2 American Music Awards, 7 Soul Train Awards, a BET Lifetime Achievement Award, and a Star on Hollywood Walk of Fame; and it makes for quite a bio.

At this point it’s important to note Anita’s formative years because they played a significant role in her outlook on life while instilling a marked independence and work ethic. Her upbringing is somewhat murky, the details of which continued to haunt Anita through adulthood. Anita’s mother gave birth at 16, and sensing that she wasn’t equipped financially and psychologically to raise a child, left her in the care of a woman in Detroit, Mary Lewis. Lewis, variously described as a friend or relative became her foster mother and Anita, along with other foster siblings, remained in her care until she passed when Anita was 13. At this point Anita’s care was provided by her aunt, Lois Landry, (who Anita initially thought was her older adopted sister). Lois and her husband Walter would provide a stable environment while emphasizing hard work and religion. All set the stage for Anita to embark on a challenging but rewarding life in the music business.

It didn’t all come easy – it tested Anita’s resolve – in that there were some stutter steps before Anita’s career took flight. All started out promising enough with Baker, the product of Detroit’s inner city, inspired by her first influence Mahalia Jackson, singing (Gospel) in various churches at the age of 12. In an interview with the New York Times Baker was clear in the distinction that she sang in “little storefront churches, not big city churches”. She pointed out that it was important to note that storefront places of worship drew an older congregation of mostly Southern folk that were more likely to get involved vocally and fervently in the course of the service. In doing so, there was a certain spontaneity that Baker fed off of, (and not readily present in large established churches). Accordingly, the experience provided a bridge to R&B that led to her testing her chops in Detroit clubs at 16.

While continuing to make live statements singing Gospel and R&B, Anita started paying closer attention to music that was being played around the house – namely, her mother, (aunt), played artists like Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, and Ella Fitzgerald. Anita recalls: “I grew up singing along with that music without really knowing what it was”. It was Jazz, and Baker had discovered her idol, Sarah Vaughan, that she reveres to present day. A contralto like Vaughan, Anita told a Rolling Stone interviewer that her dream was to perform songs associated with Vaughan in a simple setting – sitting on a stool accompanied only by a piano. It was that intimacy that Baker successfully injected into her songs throughout her career.

Baker’s career started when she was 17. It was at this time that she was approached by band leader David Washington to audition for his Funk band Chapter 8. The band recorded one, (self titled), album on the independent Ariola label with Anita as the lead voice. Before things could really get started for Baker, Arista bought Ariola and dropped the band because they didn’t think that Baker possessed “star power”.

Baker’s response to this first bump in the road was to step away while she planned her next move. Anita – only 21 at this time – returned to Detroit working at various jobs, (including waiting tables and receptionist), while working local clubs for the next 3 years. It wasn’t long before another opportunity presented itself. A former Ariola associate convinced Baker to start a solo career on his Beverley Glen label that led to her first solo release, The Songstress, that sold a more than respectable 300,000 copies and yielded 4 singles including Anita’s first Top Ten single, “Angel”, that placed # 5 on the R&B chart.

But all was not roses as Anita had some differences with the Beverley Glen label. Namely, she felt that she should have more of a voice in the creative process, questioned the royalty payments that she had received for The Songstress, and was of the opinion that she was being punished for her push back when the label dragged their feet on the follow-up to The Songstress. Subsequently, Baker won a breach of contract settlement that made her a free agent. (It wouldn’t be the first time that she turned to the courts to arbitrate matters).

Emboldened by the success of The Songstress, and her new found freedom, Baker agreed to a contract with Elektra with the stipulation that she be given complete control of the entire recording process. It should be rightfully added that, in an act of self reliance, Baker agreed to foot the bill for any expenses that exceeded the agreed upon budget. It may have been viewed as a gamble by a relatively obscure artist but it paid off as Baker’s breakthrough album Rapture was released in 1986, selling 8 million copies. The album also yielded her first Pop hit (# 8 “Sweet Love”) among 5 top selling singles, and earned Baker 2 Grammy Awards. Working with Chapter 8 associate Michael J. Powell, who played guitar on the session, Baker contributed 3 songs including a co-write on “Sweet Love”. Powell and Baker meticulously picked songs that complemented Baker’s smooth romantic Jazz flavoured stylings and added to the overall smoldering mood of the album.

From there Anita could do wrong as she went on to release a string of million selling albums. Of special mention is the Rapture follow-up Giving You the Best I Got (1988) that topped the Billboard charts, sold 5 million copies, garnered 3 Grammys, and included the title track that topped both the R&B and Contemporary charts on route to being Anita’s most successful single (# 3 on the Billboard charts).

Anita followed up the release with a much anticipated 3 month tour with Luther Vandross that played to packed houses. Unfortunately the two mega stars could not co-exist without friction. The story goes that what started as a disagreement over Anita performing a Luther song in her show resulted in the two not speaking by the tour’s end. Apparently, Anita had planned to perform Luther’s biggest selling hit to date “Stop To Love” in her portion of the show reasoning that it had become a staple of her live shows for the past couple of years, and that she would do it in tribute to Luther. Luther countered that the only way that he would allow her to sing the song would be as a duet with him, which Anita refused to do.

The two made amends years later and it was also years later that Anita revealed in an interview that she wasn’t happy that she and Luther weren’t able to work through their differences saying “I just wish that Luther and I had talked face to face, just once; we didn’t. We should have talked instead of our managers and promoters talking…”

At the end of 1991 Anita took a break from the business to start a family. Without missing a beat, in 1994, Anita returned to the charts with her fifth album Rhythm Of Love featuring the Top 40 hit “Body And Soul”. Anita continued to be prolific with top selling albums including her last three on Blue Note – 2013’s Only Forever was the last album she recorded although she continued with live performances.

In January 2017 Anita Baker surprisingly announced her retirement on social media, opting to turn her attention to her family and raising her two boys. In another surprise, Baker, again on social media, announced plans for a farewell tour that, outside of playing a number of 2019 Las Vegas dates, apparently failed to materialize.

Anita Baker made news once again this past year urging fans to not stream her 5 Elektra albums because she wasn’t earning anything from them. The reason being that Elektra refused to release the rights to the masters that were rightfully hers. (After 30 years, ownership of masters should legally revert to the artist but Elektra was dragging their feet in honouring the commitment). Baker subsequently won a court battle over ownership of her master recordings of: The Songstress (that Elektra bought from Beverley Glen), Rapture, Giving You The Best I Got, Compositions, and Rhythm Of Love.

At this writing Anita Baker is 63 years old and, most probably, is still in command of her powerful emotional delivery. We can only hope that she returns with her sophisticated brand of smooth and romantic Soul and reaffirms her appropriate place among the stars.

Luther Vandross hit the charts as a solo artist in 1981 but was hardly a newcomer per se. That is, before making his solo debut Luther formed or joined a number of groups, wrote songs for other artists, provided vocal arrangements and background vocals for various artists, and wrote and performed a number of commercial jingles among other endeavours. Also, of note, in 1972 – at 21 years of age – Luther wrote “Everybody Rejoice” for the Broadway musical The Whiz.

Once established, Luther’s career was an unchained locomotive gaining momentum year by year, album by album, live performance by live performance with no foreseen end in sight. His accomplishments over the course of that career were many:

  • record sales of over 35 million
  • 14 studio albums that went either platinum or double platinum
  • 8 of his albums hit # 1 R&B (including a string of 7 consecutive albums)
  • 8 Grammy Awards (among 33 nominations)
  • 5 American Music Awards
  • 5 Soul Train Awards
  • a Star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame
  • placed 10th in the Rolling Stone’s R&B / Soul Singers Of All-Time

Woah! Through it all he became known for a collection of timeless songs that made Luther a household name.

It started early for Luther Ronzoni Vandross (April 20, 1951 – July 1, 2005) who was born in the Kips Bay area of Manhattan NYC into a musical family. (His father was a singer and upholsterer and his older sister Patricia was a member of the Doo-Wop group, The Crests, who had the 1958 hit “16 Candles”). Luther, the youngest of 4 children, started to play the piano at 3 years of age and at 13 decided to become a singer after seeing Dionne Warwick sing the Bacharach / David songbook at The Fox Theatre.

It wouldn’t be his last encounter with Warwick, who Luther cited as an inspiration alongside Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, and Aretha Franklin. They would become close friends and record together (the 1983 duet “How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye”). And, although a variety of male voices provided motivation as pure singers, it was the female singers that resonated with Luther. In an answer to an interview question as to his partiality to the ladies, Luther responded “The female voice to me is just special, and women’s interpretive values seam wider, less restricted”. Admittedly a preconceived notion, but it could very well be that the viewpoint as stated ignited Luther’s trademark of stretching a line or fragment of a verse, and turning it inside out while coaxing all of the passion possible out of a lyric. (And it can definitely be said that Luther took his onstage diva persona, including the seemingly countless costume changes between songs, from the women).

Luther was part of a high school crowd that was more interested in hanging out in hallways singing Doo-Wop than their studies. As a teen he performed at various amateur nights and appeared in several episodes of the first season of Sesame Street at 18. But school held no interest although Luther did attend the University Of Western Michigan for one year before turning his attention totally to music. He found it tough sledding and worked a variety of day jobs in the quest of realizing his dreams.

Doors started to open for Luther when an old friend, Carlos Alomar, who happened to be playing guitar for David Bowie, invited him to the Fame sessions. Introduced to Bowie as a singer, Luther was given an impromptu audition that subsequently not only led to Luther singing on the album but doing the vocal arrangements as well. In addition Luther was also part of Bowie’s band on the Fame promotional tour. And, it didn’t stop there. After the tour, Bowie introduced Luther to Bette Midler; a move that opened the floodgates to Luther providing background vocals for a slew of high profile artists.

The impact of working with Bowie wasn’t lost on Luther who, when asked in an interview if Bowie had helped him in the beginning, replied: “No; David Bowie started my career. Flat out. Absolutely. I had never been out of New York City before Bowie took me out on the road with him. I was still living with my mother before Bowie took me out on the road with him”.

Of the many artists for whom Luther provided backing vocal, key to Luther’s fledgling career was Roberta Flack. It was Flack who, while he was in her touring band, urged him to launch a solo career. Luther certainly aspired to do just that but saw a couple of barriers preventing him from following through. Part of the problem, as Luther saw it was that Disco was permeating the airwaves and he didn’t think his poetic, more lyrical approach would find acceptance with either record companies or the record buying public. The other problem that prevented Luther from getting a solo contract was his insistence of having complete control of the recording process.

Luther’s solution was to use the money from his songwriting efforts to buy studio time, hire musicians to his liking (including Marcus Miller on bass and Nat Adderley Jr, on keys and musical arrangements), and add his own compositions and multi-faceted vocals to the mix. He presented the collection of songs to Epic who gave him a contract. The assortment of songs was later released as Luther’s debut album, 1981’s Never Too Much that sold over a million copies and earned Luther a Grammy nomination.

Never Too Much is a “perfect” album. Not only does it contain some of Luther’s very best songs, those songs are presented in impeccable sequencing. Bracketed by the popping title cut and Bacharach – David / Warwick’s “A House Is Not A Home” that Luther stretches to more than 7 minutes in an emotional tour de force; there isn’t weak cut on the release. (And the album is a bass player’s dream because Marcus Miller’s instrument is prevalent throughout).

Not to downplay the rest of Luther’s increasingly stylized, (not to be confused with formulaic), outstanding catalogue in that they all have merit. But while they all have high points, with the possible exception of the Never Too Much follow-up, Forever, For Always, For Love, none are as cohesive and seamless as his debut.

All of Luther’s albums display a certain elegance in everything that Luther Vandross touches. It’s a product of precise orchestrated musicianship combined with Luther’s inventive vocal arrangements and topped with Luther’s silken lead voice. That voice normally a tenor, can drop to baritone, and slide up effortlessly to falsetto, (sometime all in the same song), making for as lasting dramatic result.

He can be as carnal as Marvin Gaye; but rather than replicate Gaye’s overt sexuality Luther tends to substitute a lyrical romantic sensuousness that achieves the same objective. In Luther’s words: “I’m more into poetry and metaphor, and I would much rather imply something than blatantly state it”.

And, although he comes from a different place than those that preceded him, Luther maintains the same old school Soul music values as an Otis Redding or a Jerry Butler when it comes to writing and performing songs that communicate deep feeling. Jerry Butler specifically bears mentioning because while Luther can handle any style of song with ease, it’s the slow jams in which Luther truly excels; thus bringing to mind Butler’s crooning balladry. (Think the pre Gamble / Huff Butler doing “Mr. Dream Merchant”). And, to his credit, Luther performs this magic on both his own compositions as well as selected covers to maximum effect. (For proof listen to Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello” from Luther’s album of covers Songs. Here he ups the emotive ante on Ritchie’s truly beautiful set of lyrics).

A number of Luther’s best songs, that speak for themselves, are included in the playlist following this article so I won’t dwell on them with the exception of commenting on Luther’s last album, the 2003 release Dance With My Father. The release reached # 1 on the Billboard charts and earned Luther 4 Grammys including best R&B album. The album is best remembered for the poignant title cut based on memories of Luther singing and dancing with the father that he lost to complications relating to diabetes when Luther was only 8 years old. Dance With My Father was also Luther’s last recording before suffering a debilitating stroke. Luther was in a coma for almost two months, was confined to a wheelchair, and for a time was unable to speak or sing. 

It must be said that amid all the attention and glamour, that Luther Vandross, in his private life, was a lonely man. Although the cognoscenti knew that Luther was gay; it was a well-guarded secret not only by Luther himself but also by his protective friends and admirers. Luther was fearful of coming out because he didn’t want to disappoint his fans, and he was afraid that doing so would cause his mother more pain and a continuing sense of loss. (Luther was her only surviving child). Accordingly, Luther had no lasting relationships, and, without a “significant other” to lean on, sought to fill the void and combat life’s deficiencies by going on eating binges. Notorious for his love of extremely unhealthy food, Luther saw his weight balloon at various times to up to 350 pounds, (on a 6’ 3” frame).  Luther, like his father and siblings, battled with diabetes and was hypertensive, both factors in the heart attack that took his life in 2005 at 54 years of age. (Luther never fully recovered from the effects of the stroke he suffered 2 years earlier).

Luther’s funeral was attended by Usher, Patti LaBelle, Ashford & Simpson, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, and Dionne Warwick among thousands in a capacity filled Riverside Church in Harlem. In addition to other performances Aretha sang “Amazing Grace” as if it was the last song that she would ever sing, and many of the singers in attendance joined together to sing a joyous version of one of Luther’s most beloved, (and appropriate), songs “Power Of Love / Love Power”.


An Anita Baker and Luther Vandross Selected Playlist

  1. Angel – Anita Baker
  2. No More Tears – Anita Baker
  3. Sweet Love – Anita Baker
  4. You Bring Me Joy – Anita Baker
  5. Caught Up In The Rapture – Anita Baker
  6. Same Ole Love – Anita Baker
  7. Giving You The Best I Got – Anita Baker
  8. Talk To Me – Anita Baker
  9. Soul Inspiration – Anita Baker
  10. Lonely – Anita Baker
  11. Never Too Much – Luther Vandross
  12. Don’t You Know That – Luther Vandross
  13. A House Is Not A Home – Luther Vandross
  14. Bad Boy / Having A Party – Luther Vandross
  15. She Loves Me Back – Luther Vandross
  16. Superstar / Until You Come Back To Me – Luther Vandross
  17. For The Sweetness Of Your Love – Luther Vandross
  18. Till My Baby Comes Home – Luther Vandross
  19. If Only For One Night – Luther Vandross
  20. Stop To Love – Luther Vandross
  21. She Won’t Talk To Me – Luther Vandross
  22. Hello – Luther Vandross
  23. Power Of Love / Love Power – Luther Vandross
  24. Dance With My Father – Luther Vandross
  • Rico Ferrara, November 2021

One thought on “Urban Contemporary Radio – Luther Vandross and Anita Baker, The King & Queen of Urban Soul

  1. Wow, you hot this one out of the park for me! Connecting Anita and Luther was so interesting and the history of Urban Contemporary was a great way to contextualize their careers. Really enjoyed this!

    Liked by 1 person

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