“Superstar” by The Carpenters is a very good song that doesn’t get the love it deserves. This is not at all the fault of The Carpenters. They need to blame Luther Vandross. As it turns out, while “Superstar” by The Carpenters is a very good song, “Superstar” by Luther Vandross is a great song. Luther is one of the greatest vocalists in the history of popular music; of this fact there can be no debate. There are things on which you and I can have differences of opinion, but on this there can be no doubt for it is a simple statement of fact. Below is Luther at his best: when he was Big Luther, sweating and sparkling. (Little Luther was still great but…I’ll have to explain the difference for the uninitiated another day. But by being Big Luther, the man who is the namesake and possible inventor of the Luther Burger, he gave of himself, paying the ultimate sacrifice for his art. R.I.P., Luther.)
Occasionally, you’ll see two divas on stage and they start trying to out-diva each other–like Mariah and Aretha that one time singing “Chain of Fools” on VH1 Divas or Whitney vs. Mariah on Oprah that time. There was Aretha versus the world, in which she engages in a show of power against the incomparable Carole King, the mighty Céline Dion; the incredible Gloria Estefan; the still-underrated Shania Twain; and one of the few people who could ever really challenge her face to face in Mariah Carey (the other is Whitney). In these diva battles there’s finger pointing and handwaving and vocal runs, and the divas start looking at each other instead of the crowd. When it gets really serious there’s a faceoff and they forget that the rest of us are even in the room. It’s really the feminine counterpart to rap battles. But when it comes to singing, men don’t really have these showdowns. So I wonder: is there any man who really could have given Luther any trouble whatsoever in a divo showdown? Who can you see on stage really going toe-to-toe with Luther? Some people have the voice, but not the soul. The presence, but not the power. The power, but not the control. Luther’s voice was cognac-infused butter, sprinkled with sugar and carmelized slowly over a flame. As a rule, if you want to keep your song yours, you better not leave it alone with Luther. He will make your song fall in love and run off with him, and everybody will forget that it was even yours to begin with. He is the Angelina Jolie of R&B. I say this because “Superstar” is not the only song he’s stolen this way.
He also stole “A House Is Not A Home,” a great song written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for Dionne Warwick. Everybody recognized it was a great song, and almost immediately people began to try to cover it, including Barbara Streisand, Stevie Wonder, Perry Como, Shirley Bassey, and Ella Fitzgerald. But if we’re being honest, there’s a reason you don’t hear those versions–or even Dionne’s on the radio. Luther took it. Luther took it from them all. The version below is from the NAACP Awards, so he made it a little, you know, extra. I assume most people have heard the studio version. If you haven’t, rectify that situation, tout de suite.
A House Is Not A Home
Luther was a brilliant song thief, but one song he covered and failed to steal was Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” Stevie Wonder’s original remains the definitive version. (Donnell Jones, however, has an excellent cover). It is ironic, then, that while Luther couldn’t steal from Stevie Wonder, JoDeCi could. It’s sacrilege to say this, but JoDeCi’s version of “Lately” is far superior to Stevie’s original. I’ll write about exactly why this in the future, but for now let’s just focus on the fact that JoDeCi, despite no one member of the band being as talented or as great as Stevland Hardaway Judkins Morris, absolutely killed “Lately.” Live, at that: we were introduced to this performance on an episode of MTV Unplugged. You know, back when the “M” in MTV stood for, you know, “music” and they played, you know, actual music. Anyway, JoDeCi, kind of as an outtake, I think, did this:
As YouTube commenter majestic1070 put it, “For the ones who don’t know what ‘Oooooooh eeeeya yeaaaaah’ means, It means he’s about to sing the hell out of this song.” Even though JoJo invited people who knew the words to sing along, I almost want to stop him. No, people, don’t sing along, not unless you can “Oooooooh eeeeya yeaaaaah.” Fall back and let these guys work. They ended up going in the studio later and recording the song, and yes, it’s still incredible.
Little did we know that this was just the beginning of a crime spree, because K-Ci went on to cover Bobby Womack’s “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.” It’s arguable, and after listening to this again, it’s a lot closer call than I originally thought. My homeboy Clea and I had this discussion–he never liked JoDeCi, but he agreed that K-Ci’s version of this song is the definitive one. This is the type of song that has you making up stories in your head so you can sing this song with righteous indignation and mean every single word. When K-Ci sings this, I can see the skeletons tumbling out of the walk-in and chasing you alllllllll around the room. If there was a church exclusively for pimps and their employees, this is the song they would play for altar call. I have to also mention: this song was on the Jason’s Lyric soundtrack.
Soundtracks today ain’t s***, by the way.
And this leads us to one of the biggest song thieves ever: Whitney Houston. Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” is a terrific song. I’m a Dolly fan, actually: “Jolene” is my joint: it’s sad, vulnerable, and honest in a way that so few songs are. And maybe I’d remember her version of “I Will Always Love You” the same way, except for one thing: Whitney came in there and took all her cookies, and then licked all the rest of the food so that nobody else could eat it.
Now, I know Dolly’s not too upset: she still has a signature song, and she’s still spending royalty checks from Whitney’s cover. Whitney was a Jersey girl, and in retrospect after seeing her on Being Bobby Brown and the Oprah interview, we really shouldn’t be surprised that she’d straight gank somebody for their song like this. But what you really should be surprised about is that “I Will Always Love You” wasn’t the biggest theft of her career. Nope, Whitney Elizabeth Houston did something even bigger: she stole the national anthem.
Think about it: how many people before and after Whitney sang “The Star Spangled Banner?” And how many of those times did you say, “oh, I need to go buy that?” I don’t know you but I can tell you that the answer is exactly zero. Whitney turned the national anthem into a pop hit. After she sang it at the Super Bowl in Tampa in 1991, millions of people rushed out to buy the single and the video. Whitney donated all the proceeds to the Red Cross. Ten years later, after 9/11, the song was released again, this time with the proceeds supporting firefighters and victims. Now, when anybody sings the anthem, we’re comparing it in our head to Whitney. Marvin Gaye’s performance at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game was memorable (for many reasons, including the fact that it was likely the first time an audience spontaneously began clapping along to “The Star Spangled Banner”), though flawed, and Jimi Hendrix’s performance of the song at Woodstock is among my favorites of all time. But Whitney’s is the best. It’s the standard. It makes you proud and patriotic and imbues you with a sense of awe, all the things that a national anthem should do. It does all that, and it still perfect for playing on Saturdays while I’m dusting the dining room table with some Lemon Pledge.