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Vandross Funeral Full of "Jet" Moments

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Thursday, July 7, 2005

Black Media, Small and Large, at "Homegoing"

The funeral for singer Luther Vandross in New York today was a cornucopia of Jet moments: those times when the photographers lunge to capture the moment for the black community's historical and cultural record.

Vandross died July 1 at age 54, never fully recovering from a stroke he suffered in 2003. He had sold more than 30 million records and won eight Grammy awards.

More than 2,000 people were at New York's Riverside Church -- which only in February hosted services for actor Ossie Davis -- and perhaps 95 percent were African American. In life, Vandross longed for that "crossover" audience who would appreciate his genius, but judging from services today, it was his base -- the black community -- that would love him most and embrace him in its cultural and religious traditions.

That could explain why, while some big-city media outlets were represented among the press corps, there were also Coreen Simpson of Inside New York, freelancer Jamie Walker, Shirley Scott of the New York Beacon, Herb Boyd of The Black World Today and the New York Amsterdam News, Michelle Miller of BET News and Clarence Waldron of, of course, Jet magazine, with photographer Tyrone Rasheed.

They were in the knot of reporters in the church's press section. On the other side, sitting among the Revs. Jesse Jackson, Michael Eric Dyson and Al Sharpton, near author Maya Angelou and songwriting singers and producers Ashford & Simpson, were Gayle King, Oprah Winfrey best friend, Jamie Foster of Sister 2 Sister magazine and Vy Higginson, a playwright, author and magazine editor in New York's black community. (Others spotted singers Usher and Alicia Keys).

The Jet moments came from Patti LaBelle, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Cissy Houston, Dionne Warwick and Vandross' "right hand man," Fonzi Thornton, who all spoke or performed during the more than two-hour service. The moments came earlier at the famed Apollo Theater, where the marquee read "Luther Vandross, 1951-2005; Believe in the Power of Love," a message also beamed today from the front of Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall.

At the Apollo, a truck from WBLS-FM was parked outside as a crowd waited in the rain for the funeral procession to arrive, many holding posters given out for the occasion reading, "Forever/ For Always/ For Love/ Luther." A bus driver would say later that he heard the service live on 98.7 KISS-FM, another "urban"-formatted station. Later, ABC-TV included a segment on the send-off on "Nightline," noting the good vibrations.

"This isn't just because Luther Vandross was talented and beloved, but it's also such a community event, and we cover the community," Kathleen Horan told Journal-isms, explaining why she was there for public station WNYC-FM. "It's just an amazing convergence of classes and colors and celebrities and regular people. It's sort of an historic event."

One can choose among the Jet moments:

  • The Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr., in his opening remarks, establishing quickly that he knew whose service it was: "We know that even a church home is not a home unless your love is in it," he said to applause. It was a reference to one of Vandross' most popular numbers, "A House Is Not a Home." He later described the service as a "homegoing," rather than a funeral.
  • Singer LaBelle, standing on the altar in a saffron yellow dress, announcing, "There are no sad faces here today. I'm celebrating because Luther would want us to. This is no pity party. I got this dress made for Luther. It's too long, but he wanted me to look like this all the time." She read a mother-to-son poem by Vandross' mother, Mary Ida Vandross, which LaBelle said Mrs. Vandross had her rehearse three or four times to be sure it was read with appropriate emotion.
  • Singer Houston, mother of Whitney, aunt of Warwick and legendary session singer, leading the choir in the spiritual "Deep River," about crossing the river to the Promised Land, and hugging Franklin as she finished.
  • Warwick, inserting into her reading of Vandross' biography a faxed message she had received from someone who recalled light moments with Vandross, who said she knew what it was like to lose close family members and who said "the Lord was just waiting for his baby to come home." At the end, she revealed the writer to be Gladys Knight. And more applause as she pronounced "millions of loyal and supportive fans" among Vandross' survivors. As if to underscore the family nature of the event, the honors she listed in addition to the Grammys -- Soul Train awards, the NAACP Image awards, the BET awards -- were mostly from the black community. Warwick also noted that her son, David Eliot, co-wrote Vandross' wedding classic, "Here Now."
  • Wonder, his braids down his back, interjecting the headlines, with a reference to Thursday's terrorist bombings in London. He asked God to let "the committed people of Allah and Islam . . . know that terrorism and war and killing of innocent people is not the way of the God that they serve. " An hour into the service, Wonder electrified it with a powerful rendition of the hymn "I Won't Complain," which won two rounds of applause as audience members stood, some waved hands and photographers zoomed in.
  • Thornton, recalling how he met Vandross while growing up in New York's Johnson housing projects, that they learned harmony listening to Cissy Houston's Sweet Inspirations and how they critiqued the Supremes' performances in the 1960s on the "Ed Sullivan Show." "We were two friends who walked out of the community together with big dreams," said Thornton, who described himself as vocal coordinator on all 16 of Vandross' albums. Remembering how Vandross was once told that he didn't meet the description of soul singer -- "where's the sweat?" -- Thornton said Vandross rejected the stereotyping. "He didn't have to sweat for his emotions -- they were catalogued in his soul."
  • Franklin, under a green hat that covered her eyes, singing "Amazing Grace" to an organist's accompaniment. "To the Vandross family/I want to leave it with you that there's healing in the power of Jesus," the preacher's daughter added as she began to ad lib. She led the congregation in a call-and-response of Jesus' name, and then the Rev. Ronnie Bantum, who was sitting on the dais, caught the spirit and danced in front of the altar, then around Vandross' casket. The crowd roared and clapped, some hugging one another, and the organist provided accompanying music. "It's not printed in the program; they call that the holy dance," the minister said.
  • After a fiery sermon by the Rev. Dr. Henrietta Carter, and keyboardist Nat Adderley Jr. playing "A House is Not a Home," the entire congregation singing Vandross' standard closing anthem, "The Power of Love/Love Power." The number was begun by Houston, joined in by LaBelle, and then by the others, eventually including the entire crowd.
  • The lifting of the casket during that finale and its move down the aisle toward the street, inspiring an unusual response: cheers, whoops and smiles, as if to celebrate the completion of a proper send-off.

"It was a first-rate revival meeting," pronounced David Hinckley of the New York Daily News.

Others saw it more broadly. "It was an outstanding funeral," said photographer J. Conrad Williams of Newsday. "It was really moving and pretty emotional. It was well done. I didn't think that it was out of control. We were handled professionally; it was very comfortable" to cover.

"It was phenomenal," said James Earl Hardy, a novelist who said he did not know for whom he'd write about the event. "Luther was truly loved because he gave so much love." Hardy noted that his own latest novel is titled "A House Is Not a Home."

"Amazing. When you think about where he came from," said the singer Nona Hendryx, LaBelle's partner in the '60s group Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles, "and you think about how he was capable of touching as many people as he has. I've known him since he was a teen-ager. He was president of our fan club."

[Added July 9:

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Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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