He was one of the most amazing voices of our generation, the one and only Luther Vandrous. When he was alive he and his singers were the envy of the industry because of their hard work and attention to detail. Well, thanks for a former background and musical composer for Luther, we all get to step behind the curtain and find out just how much work goes into becoming Luther Vandrous and a look at how the singer dealt with all kinds of situations from practicing dangerous dance moves to dealing with demanding diva opening acts (EnVouge).
Compelling Memoir SO AMAZING Takes a Look at Life in the Music Industry through the Eyes of Long Time Background Singer
KEVIN OWENS Who Toured With the Iconic LUTHER VANDROSS
And International Vocal Trio – RAY, GOODMAN & BROWN
The New Book Scheduled for Release Monday, December 23rd
Here is the excerpt about EnVogue
CHAPTER 7 : 1993 – NEVER LET ME GO TOUR (EUROPE) / EN VOGUE
It was about this time that I began to appreciate Luther not only as a great singer, but also as a great director. His skills in creating, organizing and presenting a show were nothing short of incredible. It reflected well on the rest of us, gaining us recognition that we might not have gotten elsewhere. We, his backup singers, were beginning to receive accolades from fans, media, and those in the business. The buzz went on about our poise, our beautiful outfits, and our skill at playing our parts, individually, and together, in support of Luther’s vision. Audiences and professionals alike commented on our ability to handle challenging singing tasks and all that complicated choreography. We never missed a note or a step, and others couldn’t help but notice.
The fans who witnessed those concerts still rave about how we moved up and down those steep staircases, singing, dancing, weaving, and pivoting, without ever taking a spill. The ladies were especially good at this. They had to do all those complex moves, around a set where every step was risky. With the great skills of those ladies, we somehow managed to make it look easy. It wasn’t. There was many a night when a lady’s shoe would come off, or a toe would catch, and she would nearly fall. That was where I could help. Those ladies could be confident that, as the male, I had their back.
Most of the praise involving the staircase moves came after fans would see us do “Creepin’.” This was one of the show’s most daring pieces of choreography. Luther knew what he wanted here: dancers going up and down the staircases in time with the music. This would give the audience the visual sense of the “creeping” lyrics.
One day during the early rehearsals we were practicing our staircase moves on “Creepin’” while wearing new shoes. Luther was watching us closely. He wanted to see how our moves looked with the lighting he’d planned for the song. We’d gone up and down a few times, and we were just getting acclimated to it, when choreographer, Lester Wilson, directed us to take it up a notch. “I want you to look straight out at the audience,” he said, “and not at your feet. Keep singing, keep smiling, and do exactly what you’ve been doing—but keep your eyes straight ahead.” We’d known this was coming, and we were about as ready as we could be. But when you get that kind of instruction, it’s a little like when you’re a kid learning to ride a bike, and someone takes the training wheels off. You’ve been doing everything correctly every time, so it should be easy, right? It was until Lisa missed a step. I was three steps down and ahead of her, so when I heard her scream and Ava yelled: “Lisa!” I turned to find Lisa pitching down headfirst. I dove, and caught her just before her head would’ve hit. We both crashed down. I took the brunt of it on my elbows. Luckily neither of us got hurt—just a bruise or two.
Everybody ran over to help Lisa up. I certainly was in no position to do that. I lay there stunned for a moment. Luther ran onto the stage, checked to see if we were okay, and once he knew we weren’t injured he let himself get silly, making a joke out of it. He reenacted the scene, exaggerating everything, while imitating me trying to be Superman to her Lois Lane. Within moments the greatest threat to our health was the fact that we couldn’t stop laughing. Once that subsided, he said: “You’re all working really hard, and we’ve just about got this down. Great job, but we better take a break for awhile, just to level out.”
We all went into wardrobe, kicked back for a minute or two, and then we were suddenly buzzing about how we might solve this problem. The idea emerged of attaching rubber grips to the bottoms of our shoes to minimize slipping. It sounded like it would work, so that’s what we did. “Creepin’” wound up being a showstopper. This is one of the things I loved about working with Luther. He knew that, if we were familiar with the details, and if he gave us a chance to participate, we would put our heads together to solve problems like these. That’s the way a great director does it: he finds ways to help his people do their best, while guiding their efforts toward the ultimate goal of a successful performance. Luther knew that.
* * *
All this attention and notice began to pay off in various ways. Of course, there was the financial success, which led to the raise in pay. We didn’t mind that. But just as important was the increase in our level of confidence. This came from somewhere inside of us. As the shows went by, and the applause sounded in our ears night after night, we began to understand that we were making show business history. We were participating in one of the greatest acts of our time, and we could show it to the world. And with Luther leading us, we just knew there was much more to come.
Like any other professionals, entertainers have cliques. Among background singers there are New York cliques, L.A. cliques, cliques that form around commercial work, and ones that evolve out of sessions or studios. When you’re touring a lot you run into colleagues from all of these informal groups. During our travels, whenever we’d get together with our fellow singers we’d hear the same things: “Wow! You’re working with Luther. What a show! And you’ve been there with him all these years. That’s obvious from the look and the sound. You hit the notes, you hit the marks… It must be so amazing to work with that dude.” Yeah, we would say… So amazing!
The people making these comments were professionals like us, the best in the business. Yet they knew Luther Vandross was the best of the best, and demanded the same of us. He was an untouchable in the finest sense. What our friends in the business recognized was that each of us had the backup vocalist’s dream. They knew how hard it was to reach that level, and they appreciated what went into it. Theirs was praise worth having.
I thank the Good Lord for that recognition, and for the opportunities I had to make it happen. I learned a lot with the groups I’d started with in New York, more with Ray, Goodman & Brown, and working with Luther taught me how to put it all together into a complete package. To this day I know how to touch an audience. It’s not something that can be described. It’s a combination of talent and skill that can only reach its peak with experience. Luther gave me that experience in a positive atmosphere of love, professionalism, and good humor. No one could ever ask for more.
In every year that I worked with Luther I experienced the growth most singers and dancers only dream about. Performers and fans often express appreciation for the fact that my voice has held up, and I can still do many of the dance moves. “Keep it up,” they say. Often they add something about how much they miss Luther. Those that knew him still ask about his family, and his huge assembly of friends from all over the world. They know what his memory means. I always remind them that Luther loved them too. “He just wanted to give you the best he could,” I tell them. “He sang from his soul, and he touched yours!” They know what I’m saying, and you probably do too. For many of us losing Luther was like losing family.
* * *
Around the time when we were rehearsing all those moves for “Creepin’” Luther was meeting with people about prospective opening acts. We’d done pretty well on those on recent tours, and for this one Luther wanted the best. Soon he and the promoters settled on En Vogue. At the time En Vogue had just recently broken into big time concert venues. These four talented ladies already had several hits to their credit, and, as they started on tour with us, it seemed like their breakout moment. Their piping hot “Hold On” video was showing on MTV day and night. They were young, talented and fashionable, and music was their statement. With MTV behind them it seemed as if the sky was the limit.
Despite their success, there were signs that there might be problems. One day, during a break at rehearsal, Luther told us about his initial meeting with En Vogue and their management. Luther was using this meeting to get to know them a little better, and see if he liked the vibe. He said that he liked all the ladies. They were polite, pretty and cute. He said he got the feeling they would fit well with the tour, and he looked forward to working with them.
This impression had strengthened throughout the meeting, but then something happened that surprised him. En Vogue asked Luther to come on stage with them near the end of their act. They wanted him to sing a song with them, then exit the stage until their act was over. It seemed like a move reminiscent of the difficulties we’d had with an earlier opening artist. These young women didn’t seem to understand the basic show business protocol of holding back the star until the proper moment—the beginning of his act.
Luther shrugged it off as a sign of immaturity. When he told us about it, we laughed. “No, really,” he said. “That’s what they asked for. No big thing, but I guess it was their time to learn how it works.”
We all nodded in agreement. “Yeah, that must be it,” I said.
“But they seemed good with the other details,” said Luther. “I told them about the ball gowns we’re using, and those pants suits with the gun metal and cut glass designs. I wanted them to know so that they don’t do something similar. They said they had other ideas, so that’s cool.”
“How about the dates,” someone asked.
“They seem good on that too,” he replied. It’ll go August to December, with a few breaks in there. They seemed to like that, so I think we’re all set.”
“As long as they don’t try to drag you out onstage with them.”
Luther laughed, and nodded. “Yeah, well, they’re just learning.”
Luther assumed that all was cool, but just before the tour started he learned otherwise. En Vogue’s outfits were going to be pretty much the same as the ones Luther had for us. Refusing to get upset, he went through normal channels to resolve the matter. He simply needed them to understand how this stuff works. As he put it, “If Frank Sinatra were the star, and I were the opener, and I saw a tuxedo and sweater hanging on the rack in wardrobe, if Frank wanted the tuxedo, I’d be in the sweater. That’s how it always works. First choice comes with status, and in this show I’m the star.”
There were more discussions, which ended with En Vogue changing their concept enough to keep from interfering with our plans.
The tour began in late summer. This show had a lot of technical frills, so it wasn’t surprising that we were still figuring out last-minute issues on the day of the first show. Touring has a hectic quality, and later, in the memory, many things get blurred. I don’t even recall what city we started in, but I can remember the general feeling: In those first shows everything jelled, confidence was high, and our first experiences with En Vogue indicated that everything was cool.
En Vogue’s stage manager was a gentleman we knew well: Dwight Miller. Everyone called him “Popcorn.” I’ve mentioned him before, and on this tour he would play an important role. Luther loved this guy. Popcorn had been Luther’s stage manager for years, and the two had deep respect for one another. Eventually Popcorn would become production manager for Earth Wind and Fire, which is what he does today. We were all happy to see Popcorn again. I had great memories of hanging out with him in his L.A. apartment where we would chill and listen to jazz. He was a musician himself, with a solo jazz CD of his own, so he understood what performers needed. With Popcorn there, I felt as if all would be fine.
The next snag came when En Vogue informed us they didn’t like the way they were being presented on stage. They said their view of the audience was obstructed by the placement of their band. This show was in the round, and we played on a revolving stage. We did that so everyone in the arena could see the whole act, but obviously some things would be blocked now and then, as the stage went through its rotations. The band was in a corner. They didn’t take up much room, but the members of En Vogue seemed to think they obstructed the audience’s view, hindering the ladies’ presentation.
This news of En Vogue’s complaint came from Popcorn, so we had to take it seriously. Luther considered it, but didn’t feel the problem was serious enough to require immediate changes. Instead he monitored the situation. One night as Luther peered thru the curtains checking out En Vogue from backstage, one of the ladies started apologizing to the audience for this “situation.” She cited “circumstances beyond our control.” It was an obvious jab at Luther.
Luther was taken aback. When he’d met with the group before the tour began, they’d gone over all these details. The ladies in En Vogue had agreed to all of it. Now they were blaming Luther for a circumstance that they had accepted earlier. It was another example of Luther’s Sinatra analogy: The star gets the stage he needs, and the opening act has to work with that. Luther didn’t say anything to them right away, but we knew that it bothered him.
Luther was a patient man. Hoping this was a one-time occurrence, he let the whole thing die, but he also kept an eye on what followed. The next few nights he came to the curtain, and listened to En Vogue’s comments. The negativity continued. They were leaving Luther no choice but to address their behavior.
Luther talked to our production manager, then met with all the top backstage people, ours and theirs. He was firm, but tactful. Luther knew the politics of performing better than anyone. He didn’t play any games; he just tried to find a solution. He made his case to the people who mattered, but it didn’t work. The onstage comments continued. It was becoming a clear-cut case of En Vogue disrespecting Luther publicly. These young ladies were violating agreements, and threatening to poison the whole atmosphere of the tour. It seemed that, no matter what Luther did, En Vogue was going to try to embarrass him until they got what they wanted.
Despite all these onstage troubles, we were getting along fine with En Vogue’s entourage. Their people would often have dinner with us, and we’d hang out with them between shows. We all talked, joked and laughed the way team members should. Nobody was stuck up about anything, and there were no major conflicts. Luther was in on this too. He got along fine with their entourage. It was the leading ladies who seemed discontented.
They were staying away. They didn’t hang out with us, or even visit much. If Luther was near we barely saw them. At mealtimes the En Vogue ladies would suddenly appear, get their food, then slip back to their dressing room to eat in private. We all figured these women were young, inexperienced, and possibly a little confused by their first shot of fame. We hoped they would wake up to reality, and work things out.
One day Luther and I were sitting in our dressing room when a knock sounded at the door. It was one of En Vogue’s musicians. Luther invited him to sit down, and the guy started telling us that En Vogue had just fired him.
“They say there’s no room for me,” the musician said. “They tell me they need more stage space for their performance, so I’ve got to go.”
Luther’s jaw dropped. “Whaaat?”
“That’s unbelievable,” I said.
Luther looked at the guy. “I don’t mean to doubt you, but is there any chance you got this wrong? This just doesn’t make sense.”
The musician shrugged. “I asked, and that’s what they told me. They said they weren’t knocking my work, but no one was helping them get the stage the way they want it, so they have to make space this way… by firing me.”
After he left Luther and I stared at each other. “This is getting bad,” he said.
“What are you going to do?”
“We’re in the middle of a tour, KO. They’re making trouble right at the time when we really need things to run nice and smooth. They can fire their own people, but our contract with them requires that they have a full band of real musicians… no DAT players.* You know how we do things… we want the real thing on our stage.”
“That’s true,” I agreed, “but like you said, we’re out here in the middle of a tour.”
“That’s why I’ve got to keep cool about this… talk to the managers some more.”
More talks didn’t work. In the next couple of weeks there were other firings. Soon En Vogue’s band was down to three live members. They let the prohibited DAT player do the rest. So there we were again, with far more drama than we needed. Luther was meeting with everyone he could—promoters, managers, producers—but no one seemed to have any control over these young women. Luther was at the end of his patience. “Kevin, its times like these I feel like walking away… not even show up… but I can’t. It’s just not me to do that. We both know plenty of stars who would just tell these ladies to kiss their butts. I refuse to be like that. I just want them to understand what’s wrong, and fix it.”
Coming on top of these day-to-day dramas were En Vogue members’ comments in the media. On a tour there are always interviews and public appearances at just about every stop. These are all a part of promotion. But the ladies were using these opportunities to go public. They were smart about it. They didn’t open right up and complain. Instead they implied and inferred things, leaving the definite impression that they were being wronged. They didn’t leave much doubt about the identity of their tormenter. In their version of things Luther was the bully. At a time when these ladies should’ve been doing positive things to expand their fan base, they were spreading negativity, and making excuses for themselves. They were acting as if they were inexperienced, and uninformed of basic protocols.
It finally came to a head when we played Miami. A couple of us were riding with Luther from our hotel to the Miami Arena for the sound check. As we approached the parking area we saw Popcorn walking just ahead.
Luther leaned forward to talk to David Alter, his long-time driver. “Pull over there, David,” he said with a grin. “Take it slow until we’re right behind him, then stop right by him. I need to kidnap Popcorn.”
Suddenly we all saw: This was the way to do it. If En Vogue ever suspected that Popcorn had voluntarily talked to us without their approval, he probably would’ve been fired. But there didn’t seem to be any En Vogue people nearby, and if anyone saw, this move would look like a situation Popcorn couldn’t control. He would have an excuse. He could say we abducted him.
Popcorn was just ahead on my side. As we caught up with him, Luther nudged me. “Kevin; open the door, grab him by the jacket, and pull him in here.”
I flung the door open, grabbed Popcorn, and growled like a movie gangster. “The boss wants to see you,” I said, gently pushing him into the car.
Popcorn’s astonishment turned into a laugh as soon as he saw who’d nabbed him. “What’s up?” he asked.
“Popcorn, I need to know what’s going on,” said Luther.
Popcorn told us what the ladies were thinking. It wasn’t much different than what we already knew, but he helped us put it all together. It still didn’t make much sense. They wanted more attention, more action, and complete cooperation from Luther. They’d agreed to a set of conditions, and now they wanted to back out. If there was going to be a dispute about anything, they were determined to blame it on Luther. They saw him as the one who was keeping them down.
We thanked Popcorn for talking to us, and let him out. We never let on that he’d said anything to us
Once we were out of the car, we went into the Arena. Waiting there was a letter addressed to Luther. It was from En Vogue’s managers, but it was the ladies who had dictated the meat of this message. It was nasty, insulting, and unprofessional. The gist of it was that they were suffering unjustly, and Luther was the blame. We’d already heard that plenty of times, but now Luther was angry.
The content and tone of the letter forced Luther’s hand. He ordered the Arena personnel to bar En Vogue for the concert, also revoking their production office and catering privileges. He cited the fact that he’d contracted to pay $50,000 per show for a full production, including a full band. Substituting a DAT machine for band members violated the agreement. He also felt En Vogue’s actions violated the whole spirit of what we were doing. Luther brought 100% to his work, and demanded the same of all of us. Anyone in his act who didn’t measure up had to shape up or ship out. He wanted the same from his opening act, which is why he’d put the full-band-no-DAT section into the agreement. It was all a part of his standards. It’s what made his shows so great.
Luther instructed the security people not to let anyone in who didn’t have a little orange dot on their pass. In doing this Luther effectively barred En Vogue and their people from the arena. The only exception he made was for Popcorn.
That was early in the day. I’ve never known the details of the negotiations that followed, but some kind of tense truce was reached. By early evening En Vogue were allowed in, but their entourage seemed to be under orders to stay close to the ladies. They remained on their side, and we gave them that space. No one wanted to upset things any further.
As I watched all this unfold, my main feeling was sadness. When I see things like this develop, I always wonder why. Why do egos have to be so big? Why do people have to feel so insecure? Why can’t they just talk to Luther, and figure out a way to solve the problem while living up to their agreements? This kind of stuff has always mystified me.
By the end of that day Luther looked as tired as I’d ever seen him. In addition to the normal exhaustion of a long tour, he had to deal with an act that just didn’t get it. This was when some of us began to notice effects from another source. We’d known for a long time that Luther was a diabetic. The disease was something he dealt with day-to-day. He never complained about it, but it was always there. Whenever he took the stage it didn’t seem to exist, but there were nights after the show when he was totally drained. That came from the diabetes. Luther was over 40 now, and not getting any younger. A man with those kinds of issues didn’t need this extra tension. But he stood up to it, and soldiered on.