Luther Vandross - Biography
By Lee Hildebrand
Luther Vandross was the most widely admired soul singer of the post-disco era, famous for his syllable-splitting curlicues, ascending and descending vocal slides, deep moans, and breathy shivers. The vocal virtuoso, dubbed “the Pavarotti of pop” by People magazine, grew up idolizing female singers. He felt the “peaks and valleys” of their voices were wider than those explored by most male vocalists and he set out to match the interpretive powers he associated with women. His favorite singers were The Shirelles until, at the age of 14, he heard Dionne Warwick for the first time at a Shirelles’ show at the Brooklyn Fox. Warwick, her aunt Cissy Houston, Aretha Franklin, and Diana Ross became his main divas. Years later, he would compose and produce records for Warwick, Franklin, and Ross, and he also used Houston as a background vocalist on some of his own chart-topping R&B hits.
Born in New York City on April 20, 1951, Vandross was raised in a musical family. He was largely self-taught as a singer, arranger, and pianist. His father, who died when Luther was eight, was a big-band and gospel vocalist. When Luther was four, his older sister Patricia joined The Crests, a doo-wop group that rehearsed in the Vandross family’s apartment in the Smith Housing Project on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Luther stated singing with neighborhood friends in apartment building stairwells and in the hallways of Taft High School. He was later a member of a group called Shades of Jade and of the 16-member musical theater ensemble Listen My Brother, with which he sang the alphabet on “Sesame Street” in 1969. Following high school, he studied electrical engineering and music for two semesters at Western Michigan University before returning to New York to live with his mother and work a variety of humdrum jobs, including filing defective merchandise forms for the S&H Green Stamp company.
The vocalist’s first big break came in 1974 when former Shade of Jade guitarist Carlos Alomar invited him to hang out at a David Bowie session in Philadelphia. While recording his Young Americans (1975 RCA) album, the British rock star overheard Vandross singing and hired him on the spot to sing and arrange background vocals for the record. Vandross then organized a vocal group and spent a year touring with Bowie. Also in 1974, the Vandross composition “Everybody Rejoice (A Brand New Day)” became part of the hit Broadway musical The Wiz.
Through Bowie, Vandross met Bette Midler and, through Midler, producer Arif Mardin. Vandross was rapidly becoming one of the country’s most in-demand background vocalists, contributing to countless sessions by the likes of Midler, Average White Band, Bionic Boogie, Chic, Judy Collins, Roberta Flack, Z.Z. Hill, Quincy Jones, Chaka Khan, Lou Rawls, Todd Rundgren, Sister Sledge, Ringo Starr, and Cat Stevens. He also did the vocal arrangement for Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer’s number one pop hit “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” in 1979. Vandross broke into the even more lucrative commercial jingle business, lending his ringing tenor tones to spots for Kentucky Fried Chicken, General Electric, AT&T, Juicy Fruit, Pepsi Cola, Miller Beer, Burger King, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and many more.
With G. Diane Sumler, Anthony Hinton, Theresa V. Reed, and Christine Wiltshire, Vandross formed a vocal group called Luther and cut two albums for Atlantic Records’ Cotillion label: Luther (1976 Cotillion) in 1976 and This Close to You (1977 Cotillion) in 1977. Their first single, “It’s Good for Your Soul,” placed at number 28 on Billboard’s R&B chart, but neither album was commercially successful and the group disbanded. After Atlantic dropped the group, Vandross purchased the rights to both albums in order to prevent them from being reissued. Following his death, one track by the group, “Funky Music [Is Part of Me],” turned up in 2007 in the four-CD box set Love, Luther (2007 Epic), courtesy of the singer’s estate.
After the breakup of Luther, he began shopping for a contract as a solo artist in 1979 with the stipulation that he be allowed to produce himself. No label seemed willing to take such a risk. Then his lead vocals on the studio group Change’s 1980 dance hits “Searching” and “The Glow of Love” attracted attention. With a two-song demo financed by $25,000 in earnings from his jingle work, he finally landed a contract with Epic Records. One of the tunes on the demo, “Never Too Much,” became the debut single of Never Too Much (1981 Epic). Sung, composed, and produced by Vandross, the single rose to number one on the R&B chart in 1981, becoming the first of his seven R&B chart-toppers. The other singles to hit number one were “Stop to Love” (1986), a duet with Gregory Hines titled “There’s Nothing Better Than Love” (1987),“Any Love” (1988), “Here and Now” (1989), “Power of Love/Love Power” (1991), and “The Best Things in Life Are Free” with Janet Jackson, Bell Biv DeVoe, and Ralph Tresvant (1992). The latter song, from the 1992 motion picture Mo’ Money, was produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The aforementioned five were produced by Vandross and bassist Marcus Miller, with whom he had spent a year and a half in Roberta Flack’s band during the ‘70s.
Aretha Franklin called in 1982, and Vandross produced and wrote (in collaboration with Miller) “Jump to It,” her first number one R&B hit in five years, as well as the next year’s number one R&B hit “Get It Right.” Also in 1983, he produced How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye (1983 Arista) for Dionne Warwick from which the Warwick-Vandross duet title track went to number 7 on the R&B chart. “It’s Hard for Me to Say Goodbye,” his 1987 production for Diana Ross, failed entirely to make the charts.
Vandross’s records have exceeded 30 million in worldwide sales. All 14 of his solo albums, beginning with Never Too Much (1981 Epic), sold more than a million copies, and his final album, Dance with My Father (2003 J Records), sold three million and was the only one to top Billboard’s pop album chart. The singer won a total of eight Grammy Awards, four of them in 2003 – three for Dance with My Father and one for his and Beyonce’s remake of the 1978 Roberta Flack-Donny Hathaway hit duet “The Closer I Get to You.” He also won many Soul Train, BET, NAACP Image, and American Music awards.
The singer struggled with obesity throughout his life and claimed to have lost 100 pounds 13 different times, only to regain the weight. He also suffered from hypertension and diabetes, which had killed his father and two siblings. On April 16, 2003, two months before the release of his autobiographical song “Dance with My Father,” he suffered a debilitating stroke at his Manhattan home. He died on July 1, 2005, at John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Edison, New Jersey, surrounded by family, friends, and medical personnel. Vandross was 54 years old.
Two multi-artist albums saluting the singer were recorded following his stroke. Issued a year prior to his death, Forever, For Always, For Luther (2004 GRP) was produced by former Vandross keyboardist/arranger Rex Rideout and featured tunes associated with Vandrosss performed by smooth jazz instrumentalists Mindi Abair, Boney James, Dave Koz, and Kirk Whalum, plus vocalists Lalah Hathaway and Ledisi. So Amazing: An All-Star Tribute to Luther Vandross (2006 J Records) appeared two months after his death and garnered two Grammys – one for Aretha Franklin’s treatment of “A House Is Not a Home” and one for Stevie Wonder and Beyonce’s duet on “So Amazing.” Others represented on the CD included Babyface, Mary J. Blige, Celine Dion, Fantasia, Jamie Foxx, Wyclef Jean, Elton John, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Patti LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass, Angie Stone, Donna Summer, and Usher.
Two notable career-spanning collections of the singer’s recordings also appeared, both on the Epic/J Records/Legacy label. The Ultimate Luther Vandross (2006 Epic) features several of his R&B chart-topping hits among its 18 selections, plus various other singles, album tracks, and two previously unreleased numbers. One of the previously unreleased songs, “Shine” (produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis), reached number 31 on the R&B chart following its belated release. The four-disc set Love, Luther also includes numerous hits, along with five previously unreleased performances; duets with Delores Hall, Cheryl Lynn, Dionne Warwick, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, and Frank Sinatra; and a few of his early sides with the groups Change, Charme, Bionic Boogie, and Luther.