First of two parts
Music has always been a part of her life, but meeting a soon-to-become-a-legend forever changed Alfa Anderson.
Anderson, then a reputable studio musician, was rehearsing for a Lou Courtney gig with friend Ednah Holt, who suggested the two go over to the next studio and meet Luther Vandross.
Vandross, she recalls was “sitting on the side…this big guy in overalls with his head down. He slowly raised his head and said, ‘Hello’ and put his head back down.” Not a great first impression.
“A few days later, I got a phone call, saying that he wanted to talk to me, and wanted to meet me, have further conversation,” says Anderson in a recent MSR phone interview. She points out, “We just started talking — I would call him, go up to his house. We would cook and eat. He would sit at the keyboard and would write songs. We never wrote together, but we would sing together all the time.
“That was the beginning of my being involved in the ‘Luther Vandross University of vocalizing,’” notes Anderson. “He was so meticulous about vocals. We would listen to background vocals. We would talk about how wonderful they were and he would break everything down.
“That was the beginning of a friendship that would last actually until he died. I owe a debt of gratitude,” says Anderson on “When Luther Sings,” the first single from her debut solo album, From My Heart that will be released this summer. It pays homage to her good friend and musical mentor.
“When I heard him sing, he opened his mouth and I was smitten,” remembers Anderson fondly. “I haven’t heard anybody sing like that in my entire life. I haven’t heard anybody sing who has a gift that he had…warm and inviting — I still haven’t found it.”
It was also Vandross, according to Anderson, who deserved the lion’s share of credit for her becoming a part of music history when he brought her to Chic, the iconic group co-founded by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards in the late 1970s. Vandross was among the background singers.
“It’s disco,” he told her. She replied, “Luther, disco? Are you serious? We’re not disco singers. We actually are R&B singers,” recalls Anderson. He insisted, ‘C’mon, it’s going to be a lot of fun.’”
Anderson sang lead vocals on four tunes on C’est Chic, their second album, including two monster hits “Le Freak” and “I Want Your Love.” She says “At Last I’m Free” displays her best chops. “That was the first album I actually sang lead on.”
She also notes that Chic was misclassified as a disco group. “We were so much more than that,” explains the singer. “If you really listen to the music, you’ll hear some jazz, some funk, essence of R&B and classical music with the string arrangements. We all came to the group from different paths. I was a rocker.
Bernard was definitely an R&B, funk, soul person…it was the genius of Nile and Bernard to bring this together. They had vision and created something I think was quite different from disco.”
Thinking back to Vandross’ invitation she says, “Boy, I’m ever glad I didn’t turn that one down. I would have gone anywhere to sing with Luther Vandross. We walked into the studio and I heard ‘Dance, Dance, Dance.’ It was one of those moments when I fell in love with the music. I wanted to be a part of it. It was not what I was expecting. It wasn’t as phony…it was happy music. I loved it, absolutely loved it.”
After Chic disbanded, Anderson toured with Vandross around the world, and sang backup on his albums, including Give Me the Reason and The Night I Fell in Love. She also worked on albums for other notables throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, including Bryan Adams, Jennifer Holliday, Sheena Easton and Jody Watley, among others.
Then she walked away: “I felt like I didn’t need to do it anymore,” says Anderson.
Next: Anderson talks about her education career, and her eventual return to music in the conclusion to this story in next week’s entertainment.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.