Monday, February 14, 2011

Classic Material: Luther Vandross - Promise Me

Luther Vandross - Promise Me

Album: Forever, For Always, For Love (Epic, 1982)

As always with Classic Material, if you have to choose between listening and reading... listen!

Let me start by saying that I'm not one of those Luther fans who thinks he could do no wrong... the Dance with My Father single, for example.

But Luther Vandross made precious few missteps as an artist. He never had the Pop success of some of his contemporaries, but for fans of Soul and R&B, Luther is in a league with other "first name's" such as Stevie and Marvin.

While he was not too shabby with a mid or up-tempo jam, Luther was most beloved for his ballads. In fact he wrote or sang enough slow jams to populate at least two "Top 5" lists on that topic. On this Valentine's Day, I'd like to share one of these classics: Promise Me

An album cut from Vandross' 1982 LP Forever, For Always, for Love, Promise Me opens with an almost gospel styled intro of Luther's vocal and Piano. It's a tension building intro that resolves into a simple melody as the first verse begins. The entire arrangement is this awesome combination of sparseness and lushness. Simple melody, exquisitely spare backing work from the rhythm guitar & percussion... strings that Burt Bachrach would have to give props to... and great use of the bass, having it start the tune playing the lead melody and then shift into a rhythm role as the tune closes out. I get goosebumps everytime I listen.

I was super tempted to get into analyzing the "text" that is the song, parsing lyrics and all that, someone smack me if I ever do more than the bare minimum of that crap. Suffice it to say that within the space of 4:45, Luther's lyrics convey first unhappiness and uncertainty about the future, then hark back to the optimism of better days, and the song closes with the chorus "promise me..." repeated like a mantra. It is as classic of a "baby baby please" moment as ever I've heard in R&B. And the truth is, we don't know how the story ends, at least as far as the lyrics are concerned.

The masterful arrangement works to heighten this suspense... ascending minor key melodies are an important part of the tune, but in the verses, first chorus, and bridge, they resolve. Not so with the final chorus... along with the lyrical mantra, the ascending melodies are repeated, never resolving... heightening the tension, but in my opinion communicating an optimism that I like to think hints at happy ending after the fade out.

In my patented, Billy-Dee-Williams-works-everytime slow-jam playlist system, this is "prelude" song... building anticipation for the main event.

Let's be clear though, Luther has plenty of main event songs to choose from... but those, my friends, will be topics for another Valentine's day.

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