Luther Vandross: How the legend helped shape one of David Bowie's most iconic albums

21 April 2021, 12:44 | Updated: 21 April 2021, 12:49

David Bowie and Luther Vandross in 1985
David Bowie and Luther Vandross in 1985. Picture: Sipa/Shutterstock

By Jenny Mensah

The late Luther Vandross would have turned 70 this week, but did you know the R&B legend got one of his first big breaks in music with David Bowie's Young Americans album?

This week saw Google celebrate what would have been Luther Vandross' 70th birthday on 20 April 2021.

The soul and R&B legend - who died of a heart attack on 1 July 2005, aged just 54 years old - is known for his enduring hits Endless Love, Never Too Much, Always And Forever, Power of Love and Dance With My Father.

The multi-GRAMMY award winner is also known for working with icons such as Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.

His velvety vocals gave him great acclaim, eventually making him a huge star by the 1980s, but not everyone knows that Luther Vandross got his first big break through David Bowie.

Find out how the two legends came to meet and the part Luther Vandross played in Bowie's blue-eyed soul era and his Young Americans album.

READ MORE: What did David Bowie play at his last gig?

Luther Vandross in 1980
Luther Vandross in 1980. Picture: David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

How did David Bowie help Luther Vandross get one of his first breaks?

In the 70s, Luther Vandross added backing vocals to the likes of Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway in 1972 and also worked on Delores Hall's Hall-Mark album in 1973, but most notably he worked on David Bowie's Young Americans album.

Bowie, who had previously released Diamond Dogs in 1974, was the master of changing his iconic style and sound, but it was important for the Thin White Duke to surround himself with genuine R&B and soul musicians, who he got so much inspiration from.

As detailed on davidbowie.com, Vandross was invited by an old school friend and workshop colleague, Carlos Alomar, to join him in the studio for the recording of Young Americans. While recording the album at Sigma Studios in Philadelphia, Bowie overheard Vandross singing and invited him to join the backing vocalists on the album.

It wasn't just his voice that's on the record, however, as Vandross shares a songwriting credit on the album after Bowie partly re-wrote Vandross' track Funky Music (Is A Part Of Me) as Fascination.

That wasn't where the story ended, though. Vandross also toured with Bowie on the latter part of his The Year Of The Diamond Dogs Tour, which became known as the Philly Dogs/Soul Tour, staying until the end on 1 December 1974.

Vandross also joined the icon in promoting and performing the Young Americans album and it's title track on stage as well as television.

In fact, you can see Vandross performing below with Bowie and his band on The Dick Cavett Show.

Despite releasing his debut album, Luther, in 1976 - where you can hear his Funky Music (Is A Part Of Me) track - the icon came back to sing backing vocals one more time with Bowie on the Labyrinth soundtrack for the song Underground. Amazingly, Chaka Khan was also on the record.

READ MORE: Why Bowie's Let's Dance album almost cost him his friendship with Tony Visconti

Though it was clear Vandross had a huge talent, he never forgot how Bowie helped him give his career the kick start it needed.

Speaking in an interview Vandross was asked if Bowie helped him in the beginning. He replied: "No, David Bowie started [my career]. Flat out. Absolutely.

"I had never been out of New York city before Bowie took me on the road with him. I was still living with my mother before Bowie took me out on the road with him."

But Bowie can't get all the credit. The Endless Love singer also credited Roberta Flack for enabling him to think he could even have a solo career in the first place after, she overhead him singing solo rather than backing her up.

He recalled: "She said, 'you're getting too comfortable singing ooh and aah on a stage. I want you to get your own career'. and she introduced me to people".

Watch the throwback clip here.

There's no doubt that working with Vandross and other R&B artists continued to influence not only Bowie's music, but his values.

The now iconic clip of Bowie being interviewed by MTV in 1983 sees him advocate for black artists and grill the interviewer on why black musicians' videos weren't getting shown on the new music channel.

Remind yourself of the clip below:

Luther Vandross and both David Bowie may have left us too soon, passing away in 2005 and 2016 respectively.

However, their indelible impact on music can never be understated, which makes their connection all the more pleasing.

READ MORE: Which David Bowie album are you?

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