It’s no secret that a lot of Luther Vandross’ songs are cover tunes. I (Who Have Nothing) has an interesting past and has been remade far more time then I had ever imagined. I started researching this song after putting together a playlist of duets. I knew it was a remake, but I always assumed Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway did it first. I would soon learn that they were not at all the first to cover the ballad, and certainly not the last.
It is a song about unrequited love. It’s the tale of a hopeless pauper that painfully watches the one he adores be lavished by someone that can’t possibly love his beau as much as him. That’s the version we’ve all come to know, but this song is based on an Italian tune written by Giulio Rapetti and performed by Joe Sentieri called “Uno Dei Tanti” (I Among Many). Sentieri’s 1961 lyrics seem more like a humble man bearing his soul to the love of his life and asking for her hand in marriage. He professes his love and promises a lifetime of joy. Apparently Ben E. King’s manager heard the song and asked writers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to create an English version. In fact Ben E. King used Joe Sentieri’s backing track for his recording.
Ben E. King
What I find so interesting about this piece is the different transformations it has undergone throughout its 30 plus covers. The first song is classic Italian 12/8 ballad with haunting castanets and strings that swell and build intensity. Ben E. King’s version reflects this same dramatic mood in the English take. Then in 1964 Dee Dee Warwick’s version plays with rhythm throughout the song and gives it a more funky groove. She even changes a few lyrics giving it more of a “you’ll see I’m the one” then a “Why am I not the one” vibe. Later The Spectres (Status Quo) add layers to the song with several tempo changes and a psychedelic spin on their arrangement. A few years after that Tom Jones had the highest U.S. charting rendition of the song, mirroring the original style. Then in 1972 Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway released their adaptation which, with the help of an ill bass guitar, was slow and drawn out giving it a bluesy nature. Sylvester’s disco cover came in 1979 and was a big hit. My favorite delivery of the song came 12 years later with Luther Vandross and Martha Wash.
Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway
Luther Vandross and Martha Wash
Perhaps I love it because it’s the first interpretation I came to know, or maybe because their vocals are SO crisp and the singing appears to happen so effortlessly. They manage to make the song a timeless classic in their own right. Despite the 90’s saxophone intro and solo, the song just works in any era. I know I’m bias, but you really can’t say Luther doesn’t OWN every remake he decides to rework. He and Martha are gentle on the song. It’s not as sorrowful as Roberta and Donny, determined as Tom Jones, or brash as Dee Dee Warwick’s but their take is meek and melancholy. I just love it. What about you, do you have a favorite version of I (Who Have Nothing)?