HUB EXCLUSIVE: Ruben Studdard Releases Exceptional Luther Vandross Tribute Album, Preps For Sac Show

HUB EXCLUSIVE:  Ruben Studdard Releases Exceptional Luther Vandross Tribute Album, Preps For Sac Show

by Michael P Coleman

A few years ago, American Idol alum Ruben Studdard teased his new Ruben Sings Luther album with a cover of Vandross’ “If This World Were Mine.”  At the time, he told me that he hadn’t always been ready for the comparison to Vandross.

albumcover studdardFour years later, as Studdard releases his incredible new tribute album, it’s clear that he’s waded fully into Luther’s water.  And blessedly, fans of Vandross will find that, for Studdard, the water is just fine. 

“I think the comparison to great song interpreters is a valid one,” Studdard, 39 EXCLUSIVELY tells THE HUB. “I understand where it comes from more than ever, and certainly more than I did when I was starting out at 23 years old.  Luther, Donny Hathaway, and Nat “King” Cole were all artists I aspire to be like, and they were the same way.  To be compared to them is nothing but a compliment. I try my best to give respect, clarity and integrity to the songs that I cover.”

With one listen to the new Ruben Sings Luther, you’ll understand — and feel — the respect for Vandross of which Studdard speaks.  The album’s ten songs are exceptional, from his covers of Vandross originals like “So Amazing,” “Never Too Much,” “’Til My Baby Comes Home,” and “Don’t You Know That,” to Ruben’s takes on songs that Luther reinvented, like “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” and, yes, “A House Is Not A Home.” 

While the casual listener might miss it, die hard Vandross fans will quickly realize that Studdard is doing more on this new album than just singing 10 of another artist’s songs:  he’s using them to create a stellar, sonic narrative. 

“We had a completely different sequence in mind until we listened to every song we’d recorded,” Studdard confirms.  “We kinda turned it around to basically tell a story.”

Of the selection of songs from Vandross’ large catalog, Studdard says it was relatively simple. 

“If it sounded like I could sing it really well, then that’s what I leaned toward,” Studdard explains.  “The most difficult song on this album, and the one that was almost left on the editing room floor, was ‘Here And Now.’  I didn’t want to do it if I couldn’t do it justice, and that one, along with a lot of Luther’s songs, is at the top of my vocal range.” 

After a few listens to Ruben Sings Luther, a constant becomes clear:  Studdard’s delivery is more optimistic, more joyful than Vandross’.  No matter what Luther was singing, his delivery always carried an air of melancholy, while Studdard’s is hopeful. 

At the risk of facing the threat of bodily harm from Vandross’ faithful fans — of which this writer is one — I may prefer Studdard’s version of “A House Is Not A Home” to Vandross’ career-defining masterpiece. 

I know, I know…I can hardly believe I wrote that!  But stay with me for a minute. 

Vandross’ version is almost impossibly plaintive — you KNOW that Luther’s love interest is absolutely NOT at the top of those stairs. In fact, Luther should have gone straight to his therapist after he finished singing, because the object of his affection is gone and is never. Coming.  Back. 

By contrast, Studdard’s version leaves you looking up, and morphs into an album-closing, gospel-tinged, ebullient version of “Power Of Love” that got me out of my seat.  As he opens with “When I say goodbye, it’s never for long / ‘Cause I know our love still on / It’ll be exactly like it was / ‘Cause I believe in the power of love,” you have hope that Studdard will move on.  And you want him to. 

In listening to Ruben Sings Luther, you’ll realize that Studdard has joined the ranks of Vandross, Hathaway, Cole and other masterful song interpreters.  The Velvet Teddy Bear has grown up. 

I asked Studdard for his take on the differences between his approach to the material, and Luther’s own. 

“With ‘A House Is Not A Home,’ you have to understand that Luther’s version was produced in the 80s.  So the sonics alone — the clarity of sound — are going to be different.” Studdard explains.  “Also, having learned a lot about Luther, his favorite singers were female.  He loved Diana Ross, and when you listen to Luther, a lot of times you can hear that breathiness, that airiness that Diana used on her vocals.” 

“It’s so sweet, and it’s hard to recreate because I haven’t been a student of Diana’s like Luther was,” Studdard continues.  “My favorite singer is Donny Hathaway, so a lot of times, you can hear that influence of Donny and other singers I listen to in the delivery of my vocals.”

“And then,” Studdard adds with a hearty laugh, “I’m just Ruben, so there’s that!” 

With Ruben Sings Luther, being “just Ruben” is more than enough! 

If you enjoy the new album, brace yourself for the chance to hear Studdard deliver many Vandross classics live as he embarks on a nationwide tour, Always & Forever, which kicks off April 8 in Sacramento.  Studdard promises an unforgettable night for Luther fans. 

“We are going to do our best to come as close as we possibly can to recreating the experience of going to a Luther Vandross concert,” Studdard says.  “It’s going to be a lot of work, since we only have about a month to get ready.  We’ll be putting in some long hours trying to make sure that we’re tight. But it’s definitely going to be worth it. One of Luther’s background singers, Kevin Owens, is going to show us some of the moves and all of the stuff they did on stage with Luther.  People are going to enjoy themselves.” 

In addition to Luther’s reputation for doing a killer cover, he was known for choosing the best in duet partners, having created magic in the studio with artists like Ross, Beyoncé, Cheryl Lynn, Mariah Carey, Martha Wash, Dionne Warwick, and Aretha Franklin.  As Studdard says he’s hell-bent on recreating a full-blown Luther experience, I asked whether a legendary diva or two would be joining him on tour. 

“We’re actually going to do a couple of duets,” Studdard teases.  “I can’t say who I’ll be singing them with…but it’s going to be good.” 

If the live show is half as good as the new Ruben Sings Luther, Studdard will deliver on that promise, and in doing so, he will have done Luther proud.

Information on the new Ruben Sings Luther album, and the Always & Forever tour, is available at rubensingsluther.com.

 Connect with Sacramento-based freelancer Michael P Coleman at michaelpcoleman.com or follow him on Twitter:  @ColemanMichaelP.