Four versions of “A House Is Not A Home”
The first, of course, is by Dionne Warwick. It’s a 1964 live version of the Bacharach and David arrangement she’d already made a hit. It’s the first track from her third album: she’d made all three in a year and a half.
Dionne’s performance is all about funneling emotion through control. It’s like shooting an explosive bullet through a rifled barrel, for maximum velocity, accuracy, and impact.
Almost all of Hal David’s lyrics are all about loss and unfulfilled dreams, but he/they always find an objective correlative that roots those feelings in specific places, scenes, and experiences. It’s a phenomenology of loss — and “A House Is Not A Home” is maybe the purest example of this.
Burt Bacharach is Burt Bacharach, a composer with a perfect combination of brains and swag. Everyone sounds like him, and nobody sounds close. (Also, Paul Griffin is maybe the best session piano player in the history of pop music. Someday, he deserves his own post.)
This BBC documentary gives some of the history between Warwick, Bacharach, and David (check around 10:45):
And this terrific clip shows Warwick and Bacharach at work on “Loneliness Remembers What Happiness Forgets”:
The second version of “A House Without A Home” is by Luther Vandross, from his first proper album, Never Too Much. It’s more than twice as long as Dionne’s version. (From here on out, I’m going to call Dionne and Luther by their first names, because they are my best friends.)
Instead of opening with “House,” Luther closes with it, and by god, does he close. He closes it, sets it on fire, collects the insurance money, and spends it all on you.
My friend Zach Curd is a musician, singer, and composer (with a brand new album out!), and most importantly, a fellow Luther fan. He recently put Luther’s cover of “House” on a playlist of “perfect songs,” and agreed to share some thoughts about what makes this version so good.
The things I love about “A House Is Not a Home”:
- How *slow* it is.
- Marcus Miller does basically nothing notes-wise on the bass and Marcus Miller is a damn jazz bassist. The whole song is an exercise in restraint and if you’re looking for an example, listen to the bass.
- The little dollop of strings that come in on the last “…still in love” before the coda (4:57).
- Ok the coda. The song *should* end at 5:12, but Luther pulls out the greatest deceptive cadence of all time. It leads to the funkiest shit ever for the last two minutes. He does this throughout his discography (“Superstar”, “If This World Were Mine”). It’s totally a unique Luther move and it is the best move.
This is the thing about Luther: casual fans remember the slowed-down crooning, but forget that he sets up that framework just to play against it. This leads to otherwise intelligent people saying crazy things in public like “Luther doesn’t slap.” It’s okay. Everyone gets a chance to be completely wrong.
The third version of “A House Is Not A Home” is my very favorite. It is Luther singing Dionne’s song to Dionne at the 1986 NAACP Image Awards. The orchestration’s a little fuller, splitting the difference between Dionne’s original and Luther’s studio version. And it is just a goddamn showcase for what one man can do with his voice. Just watch:
At this point, if you’re still with me, set aside an hour and watch this terrific documentary about Luther. It’s about his childhood, his early career, his first encounter with Dionne Warwick’s music [he patterned his entire style on hers], his appearances on Sesame Street, his struggles with weight, and what to me is frankly an admirable “I will never confirm, I will never deny, because I don’t owe you assholes EVERYTHING” attitude about publicly discussing his homosexuality.
I hate the closet and wish Luther could have been free to be who he was with all of us, but my god, did anyone make more out of his life in the closet than Luther Vandross?
The fourth version of “A House Is Not A Home” is from Luther’s 2003 concert at Radio City Music Hall. As Zach points out, it is somehow even slower than his studio version, a full ten minutes long. I don’t even know how you make a drummer play that slow without medication. When Luther says “I’m gonna take my time and sing this thing — can I do that?” he means it.
This song is outer space, and Luther’s voice is a gravitational wave. It’s radiating from colliding stars millions of miles away. It bends spacetime. We might be farther away from Dionne’s tightly channeled emotion and David’s carefully charted physical details. But nowhere else are we closer to the godhead.