Luther Vandross broke through to the mainstream with 1986’s Give Me the Reason
Nat Adderley Jr. and Marcus Miller talk about the album on its thirtieth anniversary
By the mid-’80s, Luther Vandross had become a model of consistency by producing high quality, timeless quiet storm recordings. By 1986’s Give Me the Reason, he was on the verge of breaking new ground by expanding his listening audience and establishing himself as the premiere male voice in R&B music. After spending years perfecting his vocal craft as an in-demand background vocalist for Chic, David Bowie, Roberta Flack, Chaka Khan, Barbra Streisand, among many others, as well as singing commercial jingles and experiencing moderate success as lead vocalist for his group Luther and then popular recording act Change, he made the decision to spread his wings as a solo artist. While performing with the aforementioned artists, Vandross spent his own monies to fund his original demo tape that he shopped around to various labels in New York City. A year later in 1981, he finally secured a record deal with Epic Records. Shortly thereafter, he released his debut album, Never Too Much, and it became an immediate success on the Billboard music charts. During this juncture, he fortified a lasting musical kinship with legendary musicians Nat Adderley Jr. and Marcus Miller. This union proved to be a winning formula. As a result, their hot streak continued to permeate throughout Vandross’s next three albums: Forever, for Always, for Love (1982), Busy Body (1983), and The Night I Fell in Love (1985). On September 19, 1986, Give Me the Reason was released by Epic Records, and it became an instant smash. The album spawned four singles, including his second number one hit: “Stop to Love,” “Give Me the Reason,” “There’s Nothing Better Than Love,” and “I Really Didn’t Mean It.” For the album’s thirtieth anniversary, we spoke with the men behind the magic, Nat Adderley Jr. and Marcus Miller, about constructing this masterpiece.
When and where did you first meet Luther Vandross?
Nat Adderley Jr.: I’m glad you’re asking me this because everyone says we went to high school together. That’s because it says it on Wikipedia, but it’s not true. When I was in high school, I joined a group. I went to high school in Harlem, New York, at the High School of Music & Art. I joined the group that was based out of the Apollo Theater. They were called Listen My Brother. It was a group that consisted of ten to twelve singers and a four piece band. We wrote and performed music that Black political and socially conscious folk were writing back then. They were protest songs and love songs. If you’ve heard of the group, the Voices of East Harlem, we were out at the same time they were. We were basically the same kind of group. They were a little more well-known than we were, though. So Luther was in that group, and that’s how I met him by joining the group Listen My Brother. We were the first group on the first episode of Sesame Street. You can go back in the files to find the group on there. You can see me on the keyboards and a young, teenaged Luther Vandross was one of the lead singers. He was singing “Count to 20” and the “ABC” song. That’s how we met. After that, he called me to do a record and then another record. We ended up doing a few things before I even started working with him on his album, Never Too Much. No one knew that Never Too Much was going to hit the way it did, but the rest is history. I graduated from high school in 1973, and I met him in 1971.
Marcus Miller: Luther and I met years before making Give Me the Reason. We were both studio musicians in New York City. He was one of the top studio background singers in New York, so that meant whoever needed background vocals for their recordings, they would call him and he would put together a group of background singers, and they would come to the studio to listen to an artist’s song and work out cool background vocals. It put the final touches on someone’s record. He did this for so many people such as: Chic, David Bowie, Bette Midler, and all sorts of people. I was a studio bass player, so that meant I went from studio to studio playing on sessions for records and commercials. We would see each other and pass by each other in various studios. Usually, the rhythm section would record first for about two to three hours. As we were leaving, we’d see the background singers coming in to get ready to add their vocals to whatever we recorded. Roberta Flack was doing gigs on the weekends, and during the week, she would rehearse. Her bass player couldn’t make one of the rehearsals, and Luther suggested to Roberta that they should call me. So I came to the rehearsal, and Roberta ended up offering me the gig. Luther and I ended up on Roberta Flack’s gig together, which meant that, while we were doing all those sessions during the week, on the weekends we would fly out to wherever Roberta had gigs and we’d perform with her. This is when we really got tight. This was around 1979 and 1980.
Soon after that, Luther decided that he wasn’t satisfied with being a top background singer. He decided he wanted to try to become an artist. He asked me and a couple of other musicians in Roberta’s band if we would play on his demo. So we did and that demo ended up being the first four tracks for Never Too Much. Eventually, Luther got a record deal and we completed his record Never Too Much. It became an instant success. It catapulted him into stardom. One day after that album came out, Clive Davis called Luther and said, “I read that you’re a really big fan of Aretha Franklin. Would you be interested in producing her? She hasn’t had a big hit in a few years. We think it would be a good match.” Luther jumped at the chance. He called me and said, “Hey. I have the opportunity to produce Aretha Franklin. Let’s write a song together.” So I put a little track together for him and he wrote the lyrics to it. The song was called “Jump to It.” It became a hit for Aretha. It was the first hit she had in years. This began me and Luther’s songwriting relationship. We ended up writing songs for Luther’s next album, Forever, for Always, for Love. We wrote “Bad Boy,” “You’re the Sweetest One,” and a few more songs. On the next album, Busy Body, we wrote “For the Sweetness of Your Love” and a couple more songs. On the next album, The Night I Fell in Love, we wrote “It’s Over Now,” “’Til My Baby Comes Home,” and couple of others. All of that brought us to Give Me the Reason.
You made reference to some of the material you worked on with Luther Vandross prior to Never Too Much. Can you describe what those years were like for you guys when you were coming up in the music industry?
Nat Adderley Jr.: Before he became a solo artist, he was working with his group called Luther. It was a group of five singers, but he was doing the writing and he was the lead singer. He did two records with that group. One of those songs was a moderate hit in Atlanta and other places. It was called “The Second Time Around.” He called me when I was in New Haven, Connecticut in college as a freshman to come down to Philly to record his song, so I got on a plane and we did that record, but nothing happened with it. About three years later, he called me again and asked me come back to Philly to record with him again to work on his second album. Of course, I did that one. After that, he really got into doing jingles, and he started to do well in New York. Then, he wrote the song that ended up in The Wiz. It was called “Everybody Rejoice.” To be as young as he was back then, that was quite an achievement. He had a song on Broadway for however long that show ran, but that was pretty good for someone in their early twenties. So he was able to collect the money, and he was doing session work as a singer. Pretty soon, he had enough money to do what he wanted to do. By this time, I was living in Houston, Texas and he called me again. He said, “I’m ready to go back in the studio to do another record.” And this time he had really good money to do what he wanted to do and to make the music just right. This record became Never Too Much. A little before the Never Too Much album, Luther was also recording with a group called Change. He was their lead singer. I think this helped him too because people didn’t really know his name, but they knew his voice.
Being that this is also the thirty-fifth anniversary of his Never Too Much album, what was it like knowing him for ten years and working on that particular album?
Nat Adderley Jr.: It seemed like he was willing to do whatever he needed to do to make this album successful. He called in Paul Riser to do the arrangements. He flew me in from Texas three times to work with him on the record. The first time he flew me in was to work on four records. About three months later, he called me up to do two more records. I was certainly willing to do it, and I don’t remember arguing with him about anything. I remember that second time is when we recorded “Never Too Much” and “Sugar and Spice (I Found Me a Girl).” The last time he flew me up to New York was to do one last song. I said to him, “Luther, you’ve really lost your mind now. You don’t need to fly me up from Texas to come and play.” [laughs] I wasn’t even doing the arrangement on that song. On the other songs, I was doing the rhythm arrangements on those records. On that last song, Luther said, “I have the charts already. I just need for you to come and play this song for me.” I thought he was crazy, but he insisted. [laughs] He said, “I’ve already bought your plane ticket. You’re coming up here and doing this.” I said, “Okay.” And sure enough that one song I came up just to play piano on for him was “A House Is Not a Home.” So I guess it was important enough. [laughs] This was a seminal record. When we were working on this album, he didn’t have his record deal with Epic Records yet. He was paying to record this album out of his own pocket. He finished this record, and he was turned down by several record companies. I know they’re kicking themselves now whoever they were, but he didn’t get his record deal until the summer of 1981 after he recorded the songs for the album. He went and shopped it around and was able to get his record deal. Our first recording session happened in February. The next one happened in April, and our last session was in May when we recorded “A House Is Not a Home.” He didn’t get his record deal until July of 1981.
Can you talk about how difficult it was for him to secure a record deal? He was funding the cost for his demos on his own because he couldn’t get a record deal from any label. Most people think that once he opened his mouth and started singing, record labels were running to sign him but it wasn’t like that at all.
Marcus Miller: Well, we’re talking about 1979 and 1980. In the R&B world at that time, the groups were really big like Earth, Wind & Fire, Lakeside, and groups like that. As you said, Luther was taking the four songs that we recorded as demos to different record companies and they were asking him, “Okay. What is your hook? Do you have a group? What is your gimmick?” He replied, “My gimmick is that I can sing.” For some reason during that era, it wasn’t enough for a lot of these record execs. So it took him at least a year of banging around and going to these different places trying to get a deal. He finally got a deal from a gentleman named Larkin Arnold. Larkin was an executive at Epic Records; he was a great music executive. He told Luther, “Look. I’m going to let you do this. I’m going to take a chance on you.” Many of the A&R guys that Luther visited with earlier suggested that he team up with a producer. Somebody who could shape his music to make it more appealing to the audience of that day. But Luther was very steadfast and adamant that he wanted to do his music his way.
So he turned down all those suggestions, rather than get a record deal and have to change the music he heard in his head, he chose to go to another record company and bang around New York City to see who would give him a shot. Larkin Arnold gave him the shot and that’s when we finished his debut record. Larkin and Luther had a great relationship. Larkin was very honest, so he would tell him what he thought about his songs. I remember Luther called me back in to play the bass on one of the songs we recorded. It needed more energy. Larkin really believed in Luther. This was the beginning of Luther’s career. Although the record execs didn’t quite know whether Luther would have the appeal or not, when “Never Too Much” hit the airwaves, the public loved it. We heard it all day, every day on the radio. When the public heard “A House is Not a Home,” that was it. He was cemented as one of the premiere R&B singers of his day.
Going into the making of Give Me the Reason, he was coming off a highly successful album, The Night I Fell in Love, which was released the year before. What was the overall approach in coming up with song ideas for this album?
Nat Adderley Jr.: Give Me the Reason was the first record that Luther had where he experienced crossover success. We went in the studio each time to create good music. When you have the record company behind you and the budget, there’s no reason to give every record your all. Luther wanted everything top-notch. We weren’t accepting anything less, so I don’t think we did anything different for Give Me the Reason than we did with the other records before it. I think the time was right. I think folks were at their creative peak and that’s why the record came together the way it did. “So Amazing” was on this album because he already recorded it with Dionne Warwick. The record came out and it wasn’t a big hit, so he wanted to get more mileage from his song. This is why it is on the album. “Anyone Who Had a Heart” was on there; it’s one of my favorite tracks that we ever did. We didn’t go into the studio saying we were going to make a classic album. We simply tried our best. Everything seemed to click with us on this record. We chose the best songs out of the ones we had written together, and we wanted to choose the best album cover for him.
Marcus Miller: Between Never Too Much and Give Me the Reason, Luther did a song for a movie called Ruthless People. They asked Luther to write a song for this movie. He got together with his accompanist and arranger, Nat Adderley Jr. They had been playing together since they were teenagers. They wrote “Give Me the Reason” for the movie. If I’m correct, I believe “Give Me the Reason” came out before the album and it was a hit already. “Give Me the Reason” had a little bit of an up-tempo pop, rock feel to it. Luther and Nat believed this was an area that they could exploit because not many R&B singers were exploring it, so they came up with “Stop to Love.” It was up-tempo and faster than much of the R&B music of that day. It had a rock guitar sound on it. It really set that album up for success. It gave it a unique sound. In terms of the sound and direction for the album, we were just continuing from The Night I Fell in Love. The Night I Fell in Love was an album where Luther decided he wanted to take the band out of New York City to record the album.
Luther was using musicians from our community. Musicians in our community in New York were all studio musicians. Many of us would be coming in from doing music for commercials, and we’d be rushing in to be on time for Luther’s session. At the end of his session, we’d have to get out of there to make our next session because we were doing sessions all day long. Luther wanted more focus from the musicians than he was getting. Not that we were doing bad, but he thought it would be cool to get the musicians to concentrate on the music he was doing. So he flew everyone down to an island in the Caribbean called Montserrat. Montserrat had a studio there. It was called AIR Studios. It was built by George Martin, who had been the producer for The Beatles. It was a beautiful Caribbean island where we would stay at a pool bungalow, and then we would go to the studio and hang out there all day just working on music. The Night I Fell in Love was the first time Luther did that. In his opinion, it worked so well that we did it again to cut the tracks for Give Me the Reason. Everybody was relaxed, focused, and in a good mood when we were recording this album.
What was the methodology for constructing songs before entering the studio?
Nat Adderley Jr.: Well, we would’ve written the song and worked out the song arrangement before going in the studio. I would do the arrangement, and we would get together and go through it from top to bottom and sing it and make sure everything was in the right key and change whatever details we’d figured out. The normal thing would be that most of the time we were never together in the studio, only sometimes. It depended on the song because some songs were different than others. Some songs we did live in the studio where we had live musicians playing. We’d turn the tape on and we’d play, then there were some songs done with a machine. I did way more live stuff than anybody, but some things were supposed to be done by machine. “Stop to Love” was a drum program, but with “So Amazing,” we went into the studio and played that live. It depended on the song whether it was going to be done live or by machine. If it was done live, he would be in the studio singing it live, and we were ready to keep whatever came out great. When he was singing along, we could hear his vocals in our ears and it helped us to play the right things. The stuff that was on the drum machine, we would prepare it before he arrived at the studio. As I said before, we would be together beforehand to make sure we were all on the same page. Those were the two different approaches we would take depending on what type of song it was.
Could you elaborate more on your preproduction techniques and collaboration process?
Nat Adderley Jr.: With pop and R&B, the music always comes first. It’s about having that catchy groove and melody. Ninety-five times out of one hundred it’s about getting the right music and melody first, then you figure out what lyrics go with that and you see where it takes you and you write the song on top of it. That wasn’t just with us, but that’s with any pop act. I think anyone else would tell you the same thing. So our process was I would do most of the music first and give it to him, then he would write the lyrics. After that, we’d get together and together we would finish both the music and lyrics. If it was something that I was arranging, he’d send me the song or tell me what the song was and we’d figure out the key, then I would sit down and figure out the arrangement. All I can say is I was willing to change it from the original more than anybody else, and that would be for a cover tune. Also, I arranged his songs for him. An example would be “So Amazing.” I would do the arrangement, then we would meet in the studio and lay it down. I’d have the guitar part and drum part written down or whatever the arrangement required, and I’d bring it in that day and that would be the first time he’d hear it. It was always cool. He would sing along, and we’d start recording the song. Anything else is getting into the details of how to do an arrangement. It would be too long for this interview. [laughs]
What was your typical studio routine while you were recording this album?
Nat Adderley Jr.: Oftentimes, we would be separated. He would be at Minot Sound downstairs, and he would be setting up things or preparing with Marcus [Miller]. I would be upstairs recording and preparing my tracks to finish to get them ready so he could sing on them. And then I would take them to him. He would book the studio for five days each week for six weeks, and he would do a lock out, meaning that he had the studio for twenty-four hours. Sometimes, he wouldn’t have anything to do, so I would use the time if I needed it to work on a track for him. Most of the work I did without him. When it was time for him to sing on the track for real, other than singing along with us while recording it, I wasn’t there. For the tracks, he wasn’t there, and for his vocals, he didn’t need me. Sometimes, he’d call me on the phone to ask me a question and I could always answer it. He’d hang up and go on to finish the track and put down all his background vocals. His background vocals are still something you don’t hear to this day. You don’t hear background vocal arranging like Luther Vandross’s to this day. There was nothing like it then, and surely not now. He had not only the best singers, but the best singers who had the quality he wanted. That’s why he was so good at it. He knew how to assign parts for certain singers.
Cissy Houston sang the top on quite a few of the records. He used her voice exactly like he heard it. He had Paulette McWilliams who had a wide range of vocal ability, but he used her on the bottom. She had such a strong and consistent bottom. She was always right in the center of the pitch. She was the perfect background singer. He would have the guys singing above her. That was his sound. He paid close attention to phrasing and pitch. He would do a take that sounded great to you and me, then he’d say, “We need another one. Cindy, just make your note a little sharper. Not that it was out of tune, but bring your pitch up a little bit. It will sound better.” And she was the type of singer to be able do it. Most singers aren’t able to do that, but she was able to do it. He’d say, “That’s perfect!” He had the musical understanding, attention to detail, and the willingness to use hip chords to give the singers great notes to sing that were just above the understanding of most background arrangers. He had the best background vocals and that is why. One of his best gifts was the ability to write a great hook. I’m saying that because many times the hook was in the backgrounds. The background singers were singing the melody and he would be riffing around it. He was always willing to go wherever he had to go. It wasn’t about the money. He went wherever he had to go to get the best soloists. We used to fly Kirk Whalum in. Actually, I introduced him to Kirk Whalum. He fell in love with Kirk. He used to say, “Kirk plays the horns like I sing.” From that point on, Kirk did all the saxophone solos on Luther’s records. Luther had no problems in getting the best. He was willing to spend whatever he had to in order to be a successful artist. He strived for perfection.
Marcus Miller: In Montserrat, there would be a start time in the morning. Luther didn’t have to worry about the musicians having other things to do in the morning there. In New York, the routine would be that we’d play on commercials for Burger King, Ford trucks, or whatever, and that was our bread and butter. We’d get residuals as long as the commercial ran on the air, so that was kind of our base for making the money we made. Then, later on in the day, Luther would start his sessions around noon. In Montserrat, we’d start at ten o’clock in the morning. We’d start with the rhythm section. These were the days where we’d cut the record with a band. We’d put up microphones and we’d cut the record. There were a lot of singers even then who would wait. They’d let the rhythm section record the music and then they’d go into the studio alone and overdub their vocals. At that time, Luther was old school. He would sing his vocals in the vocal booth as we were recording. It was just a testament to how good of a singer he was because he sang with such precision that he didn’t have to wait until the ballad was finished or focus on his vocals and say, “Hold on. Rewind the tape. Let me try that again.” He didn’t need to do that. He just sang the vocal straight down with us and it changed the music. For instance, if I was playing the bass and Luther put more accent on what he was singing, the music had a little bit more interaction and liveliness to it. You had a sense that the musicians were all playing together to support Luther’s vocals.
In the studio, we’d do one, two, or three takes maybe. Usually, that’s what it took. There were a couple songs where he’d say, “I’m really trying to get this sound. Let’s try it again.” So we’d take a lunch break and come back and record it again. We’d usually record until dinner time. We’d take a dinner break and we’d come back, and Luther would say, “Look. I want to add a secondary guitar line.” So we would put some overdubs or synthesizers on there to sweeten the track up a little bit. That is generally how our days would go when we were recording this album. After Montserrat, we flew back to New York and continued to finish the record. So that meant Luther would add background vocals. For the songs I was working on, I’d add synthesizers and stuff to make sure that the record was complete. We added a guy named Paulinho da Costa, who is a great percussionist. We asked him to add some flavor to some of the tracks. The first half of the process was recording with the band. It was a real social thing. Everyone was having a good time. The second half of the process was us going in there figuring out the final elements of what the record needed to make it complete. The final stage was to mix the record and make sure all the instruments were clear and we could hear it the right way. Luther was very serious about his background vocals. A lot of people would just call a background arranger and slap some vocals on a song. Because Luther was a background vocalist for so many years, he really took a lot of time on them. He called the exact singers that he thought had the tonal quality he needed for these particular songs. It was amazing to watch him work on the background vocals. Anybody who visited the studio was so surprised that he worked so diligently on the background vocals. When you’re listening to the songs, you can tell that the background vocals sound great. This was an interesting aspect of his recording process. Typically, at the beginning of the day, I’d play the demo as everyone walked in the door, so they could get the feeling of the track before we started working on it.
Did Luther come up with his own melodies and harmonies for the songs on this album or was it a collaborative effort?
Nat Adderley Jr.: I would say it was a combined effort, but Luther wrote some of his songs on his own early on in his career. After a while, he stopped writing by himself. He always co-wrote. He wrote “Never Too Much” and most of that album by himself. He wrote “So Amazing” by himself and some other songs. By his fourth solo record, he started co-writing everything. When he was co-writing, the music always came first. On some occasions, he already had part of the music, and he’d come to me and say, “Nat, I got this great idea. I think I like this. Can you keep on taking it further? I don’t have any words yet or anything, but check this out.” Still the music came first. I can only speak on the songs we wrote together. Marcus [Miller] would send him a bunch of tracks and Luther would choose his favorite ones and write the melodies on top. Did Marcus help with those melodies sometimes? I’m sure he did. Sometimes I would send him melodies and sometimes I would not. Sometimes I would send him half of the melody to get us going and other times not, or send him the whole thing. It varied. Whatever I sent to him, he would finish it. He would write all the lyrics, then he’d write all the melody or part of the melody, or he’d change the melody because he never stuck to what I sent him, but the idea was there. By the time he finished things, the melody may be altered, but it was some semblance of what I sent him, then that would be the song. The rest would be arrangements. This process took place way before the background vocals were conceived. Each song had its own life. All songs come together differently.
Marcus Miller: The way Luther and I did songs was I had a little studio in my apartment in New York. I would put together rhythm tracks. Imagine a record with no vocals. That’s what it sounded like. I’d put together a rhythm section track where I’d play the drums, guitar, bass, and keyboards, and I’d put it on a cassette tape. I’d send Luther a tape of seven things. He’d call me up and say, “Man, number two and number five, now that’s what I’m talking about.” [laughs] I’d laugh because I could never remember what order I put the songs in. So I’d have him play me the songs over the phone. When he’d play me the songs on the phone, usually he would be in his car driving around. He did a lot of his work in the car. He’d play me the track and then he would start singing the ideas that were coming to him as he was listening to the track. He’d say, “I’ll call you back.” Over the next week, he’d call me back and sing to me his ideas. It was incredible. If you could imagine just sitting there on the phone listening to Luther sing to this music that you sent to him. He asked me, “What do you think about it going this way or that way?” I’d reply, “Both versions sound good to me. I think we should go with the second one.” We’d have a good time. So by the time we arrived at the studio, we had a good sense of what the song was going to be. I’d write out the music for the musicians based on the demo track I made. And of course, Luther had his vocals ready to go and we’d cut the track. I think the process was similar for Luther and Nat, although Nat would send Luther tracks, but many times they would get together because Nat played the piano and he would sit there with Luther and play the track he came up with. Also, Luther would write songs on the piano, then he would ask Nat if he could arrange them for him to make it sound like a finished product. Nat would hook him up, so I know they did songs that way, too. For Luther and me, I would send him tracks. I lived two blocks away from Luther in Manhattan, so I would just run these tapes to him all the time. So it was pretty cool. Luther would make adjustments in the studio to the harmonies or how many times we went into a certain section.
When you were in the studio with Luther and the other musicians, where were you all positioned?
Marcus Miller: If you imagine that big studio room that everybody records in, imagine the musicians sitting in a semi-circle, so that we could all see each other. If you looked through the little door just off from the big room, there was a glass that you could see Luther. He stood separately so that he didn’t end up with a lot of drums bleeding through his microphone because that would’ve compromised the clarity of his voice. So he needed to be separate from everyone else, but there was a window where we could see him. Imagine us in a semi-circle playing with our headphones on so we could hear the music clearly. It was a very visual situation. I could see the drummer and many times it would be Yogi Horton. I could see his hands and his feet. Being the bass player, I always wanted to lock in with Yogi so that we were really tight. I wanted to use my ears and eyes to make sure I was right on point with him. Doc Powell would be playing guitar right across from me. Nat Adderley Jr. would be on acoustic piano. We didn’t have a lot of equipment that you could see because they would put the amps in separate rooms for the same reason they put Luther in a separate room, so that the guitar sound wasn’t bleeding into the bass sound. So when they mixed it, they would have clean instruments that they could mix together. It helped to make the record sound clearer. We would be sitting in chairs with music stands in front of us. We would be reading music when we were cutting the tracks. It was basically set up like that.
How important was the engineer, Ray Bardani, to capturing the music for this album?
Marcus Miller: He was part of our team. I’d been working with Ray on David Sanborn records that I’d been producing. When Luther told me he needed an engineer, I introduced him to Ray. Ray knew Luther’s sound and he knew what he was looking for. So when we started cutting the records, Ray would say, “Wait. Wait. Wait. I want to get the bass drum right.” So he would run out there and reposition the microphone. During the mixing stage, we wanted to make sure all the instruments were clear and doing what they were supposed to be doing in the music. Luther said to Ray, “Turn up the bass. I need more bass. I need it to be more chunky and soulful.” I remember Luther saying to him, “I need the bass drum to sound different.” Ray replied, “What do you mean? What kind of different?” Luther responded, “I want it to sound like my refrigerator door closing.” [laughs] Ray would twist knobs and EQ the bass drum so it would sound like a refrigerator door closing. Luther knew how to describe what he wanted. He was very good at that. It was one of his talents.
What was it like working with Nat Adderley Jr. on this album?
Marcus Miller: Nat Adderley Jr. was one of the most important elements of Luther’s sound. They’d been playing together since they were teenagers. They used to do the Apollo talent shows as teenagers. As a matter of fact, the Apollo, in addition to doing the talent shows, they had a youth musical development program there, where kids would go after school to work on their music. Nat, Luther, and Fonzi Thornton were all in that Apollo program. So Luther and Nat had known each other for a long time. Nat just knew the chords on the piano to play that set Luther up perfectly. He was a great arranger of orchestral instruments. He did some great things on Luther’s earlier records. He would use different string arrangements. He used to work with a guy named Paul Riser. He was a great Motown arranger. He used to use a guy named Leon Pendarvis as well. He was a great string and woodwind arranger. Luther was really loyal to his musical family. If he thought you had a talent, he wanted to use it. The first arrangement I noticed that Nat did was on “Superstar.” If you listen to the strings and woodwinds on “Superstar,” they’re just tremendous. This is when we realized that Nat could really do string arrangements. So he was just an integral part to Luther’s sound.
Let’s delve into the making of some of the songs on this album.
Nat Adderley Jr.: Well, “Give Me the Reason” was written for the previous album, but we didn’t like the way it came out, so it didn’t come out on The Night I Fell in Love album. I remember that I was still living in Houston at the time, and I sent him a three song demo. It contained “Wait for Love,” “Other Side of the World,” and “Give Me the Reason.” Luther said, “Oh, Nat. This is the best demo that you’ve ever sent to me.” I sent him these songs at the same time. The songs didn’t have titles yet. I just sent him the music for the songs. This was before they had melodies, too. The music for “Give Me the Reason” didn’t make that record, so it made the next one. We figured out what was wrong with how we were approaching it. I didn’t write a thousand things like Marcus [Miller] did. Marcus had more to send to him. Luther used to tell me he wanted more from me, but I don’t write like that. When it was time for Luther to do a record, Marcus would send him ten tracks, and I would send him three. [laughs] We didn’t do too many takes. We never did more than six to eight takes on a song when we were recording.
I heard a bass line on pop radio from a White act. All songs have something that may inspire you to create something of your own. I would say something on pop radio inspired me to create “Give Me the Reason.” We were trying to sell records. Luther wanted his music to be accessible, hip, and musical. At the time, I would be studious by listening to pop radio and other R&B acts. I was listening to the radio to try to stay current and know what direction the sound was going in. “Give Me the Reason” was a reflection of trying to stay with current trends back then. I remember recording the bass line for this song at Minot Sound Studios in New York.
“Stop to Love” was created due to the success of “Give Me the Reason.” “Stop the Love” is the same concept as “Give Me the Reason.” The bass line on “Stop to Love” is very similar to “Give Me the Reason.” Usually, when an artist gets a big hit, you want to try to follow it up with something that sounds like the hit. So that’s what “Stop to Love” was for Luther. We were trying to follow it up with something that would be a big hit also because it would somehow remind folks of “Give Me the Reason.” We did it one other time on Luther’s first album. After the success of “Never Too Much,” we recorded “Better Love.” “Better Love” was our attempt to sound like “Never Too Much.” I remember creating the drum program for this song at AIR studios in Montserrat.
Marcus Miller: “See Me” was a song that I put a little track together for at home. It didn’t have any vocals on it. It was just the track. I sent it to Luther with a few other songs. Luther said, “I like this one, man. It sounds like “The Night I Fell in Love” part two. He wrote the lyrics. We used a drum machine on that one which was new for us. On the Night I Fell in Love, was the first time we used electronic drums. It’s funny because we thought “See Me” was cool, but we didn’t think it was a smash. A year later, I remember Luther calling me from London, UK, and he said, “Man, I just played Wembley Arena. I’m going to play tomorrow night also. Marcus, you won’t believe what’s the number one smash here.” I replied, “What?” He responded, “See Me.” I said, “See Me is a hit over there.” He replied, “Man, it’s incredible. You wouldn’t believe it.” So it took us by surprise that the song was so big over there.
On “There’s Nothing Better Than Love,” Luther was watching Saturday Night Live. Gregory Hines was the special guest on Saturday Night Live and he was singing. Gregory was an old school performer. Everybody knew him as a great dancer. But back in the day, you had to be able to sing, dance, and act. You had to be a complete entertainer. So Gregory Hines was singing on the show, and Luther called me up and said, “Man, I just heard Gregory Hines. He sounds great. He has a beautiful vocal quality. I’d like to produce him.” I said, “Really?” He replied, “Yeah.” He recorded his Saturday Night Live performance. I heard it. His other keyboard player, Skip Anderson, sent him a track that sounded really cool. Luther said, “Skip sent me this track. I’m going to write something for me and Gregory to do as a duet.” This was the beginning of “There’s Nothing Better Than Love.” We cut the track, but I was still interested in hearing what Luther was going to be able to produce on Gregory. Luther hooked him up. Luther spent a lot of time with him saying, “I want you to sing this line exactly like this.” He was this way with many of his singers. [laughs]
“I Really Didn’t Mean It” was a funky track. I never had any official responsibilities with Luther because we used to just work. But I felt like one of my responsibilities was to make sure Luther had tracks on his album that could be played on the radio during the day time. His ballads were his forte, but they would come on in the evenings. I didn’t want him disappearing during the day. [laughs] So when you hear tracks like “It’s Over Now” and “’Til My Baby Comes Home,” those are my contributions of helping to keep Luther on the radio all day long. This track sounds like something you would hear on the radio in 1986. He could really sing up-tempo songs, too. He was really proud of it.
In addition to the Aretha Franklin project that Luther got to produce after the success of his Never Too Much album, they offered him to produce Dionne Warwick which he did a couple years before his Give Me the Reason album. The Dionne Warwick album, How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye, wasn’t as big of a smash as Luther thought it would be. In particular, there was this song called “So Amazing” that was just a beautiful song. Dionne sang it beautifully, but it didn’t catch on for whatever reason, so Luther wanted to record the song again for his album. We were already familiar with it because we recorded it a couple years earlier. Just to hear him sing it was a whole other thing because he wrote it. When you hear a song sung by the person who wrote it, especially when someone has a beautiful voice like Luther did, it’s something magical. This is one of my favorite all-time songs by Luther.
There was a sleeper on this album called “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” This was a song that was also done by Dionne Warwick. She recorded this song back in the 1960s. You could tell that Luther always loved Dionne Warwick. He loved the arrangements that Burt Bacharach and Hal David did for her. It was just cool that there were two songs on this album that were connected to Dionne Warwick. The way he sung the song was just beautiful. I still listen to it all the time. Nat Adderley Jr. did the arrangement on this song as well. They really slowed it down. Luther was not afraid of slow tempos. He was really into taking his time. By Give Me the Reason, he understood who he was as an artist. Some of the things I used to hear him say was, “I don’t need to compete with any other singers. Other singers sing hard, high, and with a lot of riffs. That’s not me. That’s not my thing. I’m just going to style these people to death.” I asked him, “What do you mean by styling them to death?” He replied, “I just know what I do. I have a certain way of approaching music, and I’m going to really immerse myself in my own style and give people one-hundred percent of me.” And you can hear it on “So Amazing” and the rest of these songs on this album.
As you look back thirty years later on the significance and impact the album has made on popular culture, what are your feelings about being involved in the making of it?
Nat Adderley Jr.: I’m just really proud and blessed to have been part of the whole thing. When we did Never Too Much, he asked me to be his musical director on the road. I said, “Yes.” We figured I’d do it for two or three years, but neither one of us knew that it was going to be a lifelong thing. I stayed with him until he died. As a matter of fact, I was never under contract. Every year he’d call me and there were no guarantees. I never promised him I’d be there, and he never promised me that he’d call. But every year when it was time for him to go on the road, he’d call me. This is how we did things. At that time, we were really jamming. There is a shelf life for most artists, but we by far surpassed the shelf life. Most artists are around for three to five years and you never hear from them again. And not mention all the one-hit wonders. We had a great twenty-three year run, and we’re talking about our seventh year when this album was released. We went in to do our best every single time and at some point it clicked. From Never Too Much on, I feel honored and blessed to have been a part of it all. Luther, Marcus Miller, and I had a real musical connection. We saw stuff the same way. We thought of things in the same way. When we came together, we really learned about each other and fed off each other. The three of us made the best team. I don’t know what I would’ve been doing in life if it wasn’t for this partnership. It was a moment in time full of many great memories. I still cherish them.
Marcus Miller: I’m very proud to have had a role in this album. I’m very proud of the musicians. We really came into our stride by then. We knew Luther’s sound and what we needed to do in order to get his sound. There is no greater feeling in the world than walking down the street in New York City and hearing a Luther song blasting in the street. Just to remember that it was only a few months ago that we were cutting that track. It was just an incredible feeling. Give Me the Reason is a great album. His whole body of work is just incredible. I think Give Me the Reason opened up Luther to a wider audience. He was selling two million records each time. He had two million R&B fans, but with “Stop to Love,” that put him on pop radio, and he was pleased with that. I was proud to hear him on the pop radio stations of that day. I can remember everything we’ve been talking about. I remember looking across at the musicians while we were cutting the tracks. I can remember that Luther was just funny as heck. He was always making jokes and how light the atmosphere was while we were making the records. It was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life working with him. We had the A team in there, and we were ready to go.
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