Early in his concert at Jefferson Center on Tuesday, singer Ruben Studdard made it clear who was the biggest driver behind his tribute to the late Luther Vandross — Studdard's mother.
She is Vandross' biggest fan, and after Studdard told her he was going to do a concert tour of Vandross songs from the album "Ruben Sings Luther: A Tribute," she had one piece of advice: "If you're gonna do it, you better do it right," he said, as laughter in the crowd of 616 began to roll. She came to every rehearsal. She critiqued the show. She told her son what to wear and which songs to play.
"She curated this show," he said. "So if you have an opinion about it, don't go on my Facebook. Go look up Emily Studdard, and tell her."
The crowd might have looked up his mom afterward, but only to thank her for sparking a good night, judging from its response to the 90-minute set. With a locked-tight, funky, dynamically sensitive seven-member band that included harmony crushers Karmessa Padgett and Kwamika Fletcher, season two "American Idol" winner Studdard sang some of Vandross' most popular numbers in a set paced for both romance and energy. He even pulled off a rare feat for Jefferson Center shows, inspiring the majority of his audience to rise and dance during several numbers.
Vandross, whose work in the 1980s and 1990s established him as one of the greatest song interpreters in pop music history, had the slightest tear in his voice, and an intangible way with phrasing that set him apart. The 41-year-old Studdard's smooth instrument, near-perfectly clear and mistake-free throughout, didn't quite have that. But he possessed the vocal range — particularly the seamless slide in and out of falsetto — chops, power and restraint to make it work.
Studdard took it yet another step from mimic-y tribute show, with stories of how Vandross' music fit into his own life. His tales were relatable and funny, providing cool transitions into the tunes themselves.
Introducing "If Only For One Night," the Birmingham, Alabama native remembered his days as a student disc jockey at Alabama A&M's radio station. So many post-midnight requests came for that song, Studdard said he just added it to his playlists, to avoid guys calling him to ask for it. His vocal conveyed the longing and willingness to ultimately lose that his listeners must have felt when they called in.
He told the crowd that his home in Birmingham was the place for family parties. At a certain point, the cousins, including Studdard, would be herded to rooms where they couldn't hear the adult talk. The kids would put their ears to the air conditioning vents to try to pick up on the gossip or trash talk. During Vandross' "Bad Boy/Having A Party," the kids could get away with hanging out at the bottom of the stairs and listening while the party went "bananas." Studdard's band replicated the thumping shuffle, and his voice carried that sense of fun from way back.
Almost every one in the room stood and danced to "Bad Boy," "Til My Baby Comes Home," and "Power Of Love," proving the staying power of a pumping shuffle beat.
Studdard's mom came up again in his introduction to "Here and Now," which he said he sang at many a wedding during childhood. "She was my manager," he said. "She wasn't very good, but she tried her best." Studdard said his way of raising his wedding singer fee from the $10 of his early youth to about $125 was to tell the father of the bride that if he didn't get his price, he would happily walk, instead of singing the one song guaranteed to wring the most pure emotion from his daughter. He got his money.
"Here and Now," was one of many in the set that were at the right tempo and mood for slow dancing, though that never materialized in the crowd. Studdard and the band brought touch and style to other slow jams including "Creepin'" (a Stevie Wonder classic) and "Superstar" (Studdard's own cover of that one earned him a Grammy Award nomination, but the 2004 award went to Vandross, for "Dance With My Father").
His mom would have been proud of the show she curated.