Fonzi Thornton pays tribute to his late friend and collaborator, Luther Vandross, by helping choose some special tracks for the Hidden Gems album.
The name Fonzi Thornton may not immediately ring a bell, but if you’ve listened to popular music over the past thirty years, you’ve heard him. Think of some big name recording stars and chances are good Thornton’s worked with them. Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Patti Labelle, Roxy Music, Jewel, and Bette Midler and many others have hired Thornton to work his considerable magic as a vocal contractor and background singer on their records and concert tours.
Out of all the artists he’s worked with, it’s Luther Vandross who holds a special place in Thornton’s heart. Friends and collaborators since their teenage years, Thornton and Vandross remained close and worked together until Vandross’s untimely death from heart failure in 2005 at age 54.
Recently, Thornton helped produce the forthcoming Vandross release entitled Hidden Gems, which contains a treasure trove of cuts the casual Vandross listener may never have heard. I spoke recently with Thornton about HiddenGems, the ways his career path paralleled Vandross’s, and how the talented singer’s legacy lives on.
When you were both teenagers, you and Luther Vandross became friends. Can you talk a bit about those days and how you and he honed your talents over time?
I lived in the Johnson projects in East Harlem, New York and his sister Ann lived across the street from me. [Luther and I] were actually introduced by a girl in church who went to school with him. I knew him from the time we were both 14 years old.
Luther was a visionary, even when we were young. When I first met him, he had a vocal group called The Shades of Jade, a very funny name. It was a group he was developing. They would sing at amateur night at The Apollo just trying to get discovered. Luther was very advanced. He was always that same singer, that same interpreter. We [eventually] sang [together] in Shades of Jade, myself and two other singers.
There was a revue at the Apollo Theater called Listen My Brother, which was a revue that Peter Long, the manager of the Apollo, was running. We both wanted to get into that revue. It had five teenage male singers and five teenage female singers and a five piece band. The music was topical, all about being young and black, being positive and strong. We joined Listen My Brother [and] got a chance to sing at shows like we always wanted to. We’d come after school at watch the show all day long and see The Temptations, Patti Labelle and the Bluebells and all these great artists on stage. That’s really how we started to get our training.
You and Luther went in separate directions career-wise in the 70’s.
We went in separate directions only because he was doing his thing, I was doing mine. In the ‘70s, after becoming involved with David Bowie, our guitarist, Carlos Alomar became a part of David Bowie’s band, recording the Young Americans album. Luther and [Simple Minds vocalist] Robin Clark went down to the studio in Philadelphia where David was doing the album. Luther came up with the hook (sings) “Young American, Young American, we want the Young American”, while David was playing the song. It was his entry into session work. So we went in separate directions because while he was doing session work I was singing live. I had a vocal group of my own. That was how we sort of separated but we were always best friends.
What prompted you to work with him again?
While Luther was working on his session career, I had a vocal group of my own. At one point we did a TV commercial with Joe Frazier, the boxer, for Miller Lite beer. Simultaneously, Luther had been doing lots of sessions. He was getting into jingles and things and was also involved with Nile (Rodgers) and Bernard (Edwards) and Chic. Those first couple of Chic songs like “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “Le Freak”, Luther sang on those songs. When Luther was doing sessions with lots of different artists he’d call me to come in and sing with him. We were always singing together on the sessions. That’s how when he started to do the demos for his first album, I went into sing on those demos. We never really stopped singing together. It was more we went in different directions to try to get employed.
You worked with Luther on all of his albums. How did your deep friendship enhance the creative process?
I think because we started out together we both were big fans of a lot of the same types of [music]. We were both into female singers. Luther was a huge Aretha Franklin/Dionne Warwick/Supremes fan. Both of us loved the female voice and we had that in common. I say in the liner notes I wrote for the Hidden Gems album that we would both check out The Supremes on TV and then talk on the phone that night about what they were wearing, what they were doing. I think that’s how, as Luther came further into how he would present his stage shows, he always had beautiful women in beautiful outfits on stage to sing with him. I would say that the thing about us singing together and about me working on his records for all those years is that I knew what he was doing from the beginning because we started out singing together.
One thing he learned from watching Aretha Franklin was the concept of having his own set of singers and musicians that would be the [artists] who would work with him all the time. So I was one of those core people from the very beginning.
Did you help choose the songs on the Hidden Gems release and why did you pick the ones you did?
Yes, I did help choose the songs. What happened was we wanted to try to put together an album of Luther’s music and I [suggested] Hidden Gems. The thing about Luther is that none of his songs were “album cuts”. He never put together an album with songs he didn’t care about. Every single thing he sang was something he believed in and put his heart and soul into the writing and the singing. So a lot of gems in these albums could stand on their own. The Hidden Gems album is just that. It’s like searching through musical treasure trove, digging out some of those songs that were buried underneath. It’s really a cool album.
Are there many more ‘gems’ in the archives?
I think we have another album of gems because when we first sat down to talk about [the album], the record company asked me to come up with a list of songs that I would like to see on an album like this. One thing was to feature Luther’s songwriting and his interpretive skills because he was amazing at taking a song done by someone else and making it his own. So there are a few more things that could definitely come out and go on another Hidden Gems album.
What do you hope Luther’s fans take away from hearing these tracks?
There was a song Luther wrote called “My Sensitivity” and one thing about Luther is that his sensitivity as a songwriter and as a vocal arranger is what showcased his singing ability. He always had the ability to sing but he had his very own vision about how he wanted to present himself. When he first went around to try to get a contract it took awhile because the record executives were loving his voice but they were not as keen about letting him write and produce and arrange his own music. The thing about the Hidden Gems album, as with all the albums, is that Luther’s signature is on all these songs. If you turned his voice down and listened to all the songs you’d hear his artistic essence in [them]. It’s sort of like a new Luther album because it’s made up of songs that were there but put together in a way that they haven’t been before.
You’ve worked with so many artists, not only in R & B but in so many other styles of music. How challenging has this been?
I would never say challenging. The one thing about being a singer and the one thing about how we grew up together is that we listened to so many different types of music. I'm listening to The Temptations and The Supremes but I’m also listening to Joni Mitchell and The Beatles, and to The Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin. I got an opportunity to work with Roxy Music, I did their Avalon tour and a number of Bryan Ferry’s solo albums. Just last year I was on tour with Bryan Ferry on his first United States tour in eight years. I just got back from Las Vegas. They opened a new music center out there called The Smith Center. I sang with Willie Nelson, Martina McBride and a bunch of country artists. The point is in the end it’s all music. It’s all melody. All soul. If you’re a person who studied your craft and loved and wanted to [play] music, you could do any type of thing. I think me and Luther had that in common. So I wouldn’t say it was challenging. Just interesting and fun to sing music that you grew up with.