Born Luther Ronzoni Vandross, April 20, 1951, in New York, NY; died July 1, 2005, in Edison, NJ. Singer and songwriter. In the 1980s as R&B music turned from vocals to the slick styling of studio production that was rampant in the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century, Luther Vandross used his natural talent to stand above the pack. He sold more than 25 million records, and many will remember the crooner for his vocals and lyrics. Music producer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds told Entertainment Weekly 's Tom Sinclair that Vandross "had one of the most unique, most magical voices of all time. That was Luther's gift: He made you fall in love with his voice."
Vandross was born in New York City on April 20, 1951. His father, Luther, and his mother, Mary Ida, raised him and his older siblings in a house filled with love and music. When Vandross was eight years old, his father died from diabetes. When Vandross was older, one of his sisters was a part of the group the Crests, who released the popular song "16 Candles."
In high school, Vandross' grades suffered as he pursued his love of music. His favorite singers were all women: Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, and Cissy Houston, mother of pop superstar Whitney Houston. Vandross formed his own music group Listen My Brother, with several friends, including Carlos Alomar. Vandross sold one of his compositions, "Everybody Rejoice (A Brand New Day)." It was used in the Broadway production of The Wiz, and for the movie version of the musical. His friend, Alomar, had become a guitarist for rocker David Bowie, and introduced the two. Bowie was impressed with Vandross' voice and compositions. He asked the singer to help arrange his album, Young Americans. Vandross also went on tour with Bowie, who also requested that he open for him. Though it was daunting for Vandross, it gave him the exposure that would help him throughout his career.
Working with Bowie brought Vandross to the attention of other singers and songwriters. He was soon singing backup and penning songs for the likes of Bette Midler, Carly Simon, Donna Summer, and Barbra Streisand. But Vandross longed for his own solo career. He formed a disco group named Luther, and released two albums for Cotillion Records. Neither record did well, and Vandross was soon singing backup again. He also wrote and sang jingles for Kentucky Fried Chicken, 7Up, and the U.S. Army.
What made the search for a record deal difficult was Vandross' insistence on having total creative control, something unheard of in the 1970s and the 1980s. He sunk his money into a home studio and put together his first album, Never Too Much. He was able to sign a deal with Epic Records and released his album in 1981. The album was a success and the title track soared to the top of the R&B charts.
With each new release, Vandross's popularity grew. His songs of romance and his vocal arrangements captivated audiences from around the world. His albums successfully climbed the R&B charts, each going platinum by selling a million plus records, but mainstream success was very elusive. Vandross was reluctant to identify himself as an R&B singer because he felt his music transcended genres. According to the Los Angeles Times he said in an interview, "I consider my music to be universal. My music is based solely on feelings, not analysis." When he released his first compilation album, The Best of Love, he was finally able to do well on the pop charts. The song, "Here and Now," received a Grammy Award, and became a wedding anthem.
Vandross collaborated with many singers, including Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, and his all-time favorite, Dionne Warwick. He continued writing for other people. In the 1990s he began a battle with Sony, the parent company of Epic Records, to be released from his contract. Toward the end of the decade he got his wish, and later signed with legendary music executive Clive Davis, who had just started a new label, J Records.
While Vandross had much success, his battle with his weight played out in the spotlight. As with his father, grandfathers, and his three siblings, Vandross had diabetes as well as hypertension. Throughout his career, his weight constantly fluctuated between 190 to 340 pounds. As Vandross was preparing to release an album that many deemed his most personal, Dancing With My Father, he suffered a stroke on April 16, 2003, which many thought was brought on by his diabetes. As his family and friends rallied around him, Vandross began the daily struggle to recover, all but disappearing from the public eye. His album was released and debuted at number one. The title track would also reach the top of the charts. Another single, "The Closer I get to You," a duet with Beyoncé Knowles, was number one on the charts, and helped Vandross win four Grammys. (Over the span of his career, he won a total of eight Grammy Awards.) A tribute to him was performed by several in the industry, and he accepted his award via a taped message, thanking his fans and all those who had supported him over the years.
One year after his stroke, Vandross appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, to give an update on his progress. Throughout his recovery, many of his friends and colleagues would stop by, some to reminisce, and others brought the gift of singing, including Patti Labelle, who sang his hit single, "If Only For One Night," for him. While family and close friends knew Vandross' ordeal was slow going, they all thought he would make a full recovery. Many in the music world were shocked to learn that he passed away on July 1, 2005. He was 54. Fans and friends came together for many tributes to the man some called "The Pavarotti of Pop." Vandross is survived by his mother. Sources: Chicago Tribune, July 2, 2005, sec. 1, pp. 1-2; CNN.com, http://www. cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Music/07/01/vandross. obit/index.html (July 5, 2005); Entertainment Weekly, July 15, 2005, p. 20; E! Online, http://www.eonline. com/News/Items/0,1,16867,00.html (July 5, 2005); Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2005, p. B18; New York Times, July 2, 2005, p. B14; People, July 18, 2005, pp. 80-84; August 29, 2005, pp. 115-16; Times (London), July 4, 2005, p. 50.
— Ashyia N. Henderson