Luther Vandross’ Swan Song
Luther Vandross wasn’t just a singer. He was a wedding day. A radio-show song dedication. A seduction.
The supremely smooth Grammy winner died Friday at a hospital in New Jersey, his record label confirmed. He was 54.
Vandross, whose hits included the romantic renderings “Power of Love/Love Power,” “Here and Now” and “Always and Forever” was felled by a stroke on April 16, 2003, at his Manhattan apartment.
His label said, “Luther Vandross had a peaceful passing under the watchful eye of friends, family and the medical support team. As you know, Luther Vandross suffered a stroke two years ago, which he never fully recovered from.
“Throughout his illness, Luther received excellent medical care and attention from his medical team. Luther was deeply touched by all the thoughts and wishes from his fans.”
Less than two months after his stroke, what would be his final studio album, the reflective Dance with My Father, was released.
The album proved to be Vandross’ most successful, immediately topping the charts and winning four Grammy Awards in 2004, including Song of the Year for the title cut.
While Vandross regained consciousness, and sufficiently recovered to appear in a taped message at the 2004 Grammys and on The Oprah Winfrey Show later that same year, he never resumed his recording or performing career.
In a heartbreaking statement to the Associated Press in May 2003, the entertainer’s mother, Mary Vandross, said she was banking on her son to rebound. “He has to recover, he’s all I have left,” Mary Vandross said. “He’s my last surviving child.”
In a 2001 interview, Luther Vandross, who’d long battled obesity, diabetes and hypertension, said his father, brother, nephew, maternal grandfather and paternal grandfather had all succumbed to diabetes.
Luther Ronzoni Vandross, his middle name cribbed from a pasta label, was born April 20, 1951, in New York City.
The future R&B crooner got his start in gospel. As a teenager, he played Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre with the gospel-soul group Listen My Brother.
At the age of 20, his career moved downtown to Broadway, where his composition “Everybody Rejoice (A Brand New Day)” was featured in the hit musical The Wiz.
The young Vandross went on to pay the bills as a commercial jingle writer and backup vocalist for the likes of Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand and David Bowie.
Vandross scored the Bowie gig through an old school friend. At the time, the English rocker was working on his landmark 1975 album, Young Americans. Hired as a singer, Vandross ended up arranging the vocal parts and cowriting the song “Fascination.”
The following year, Vandross moved from the background to the foreground with the disco group Luther. To the relief of wedding deejays, Vandross’ bout with Saturday Night Fever was brief. Luther, the group, was a bust. Vandross, the sultry R&B star, was about to be born.
His breakthrough–more than 10 years in the making–came with his 1981 solo debut, Never Too Much. The seven-track collection included the hit title track and a cover of a Burt Bacharach standard he made his own, “A House Is Not a Home.”
The platinum-selling album was a career definer. No more would Vandross ping-pong from Broadway to Bowie. He was, always and forever, the standard-bearer of the smooth love song.
“[My style is] not ‘Meet me in the shower’ and ‘Let’s rub oil on each other,’ ” he once said in an interview. “You’ll never hear me sing about those things.”
Vandross’ more understated style brought him the 1990 Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for “Here and Now.” He repeated in that category in 1991 for “Power of Love” and in 1996 for “Your Secret Love.” In all, Vandross won eight Grammys and sold more than 25 million albums.
If his career held steady, Vandross’ health did not. By his own admission, he was a carb addict who lost, and gained, more than 100 pounds 14 times–often in the very public eye. As recently as 1998, the six-foot-three singer weighed in at 340 pounds.
“[When you’re that heavy it] feels like you’re wearing an 80-pound hat and a coat that weighs 300 pounds,” Vandross told ABC News in 2001, during one of his slender, 220-pound periods. “You wear it externally, so the minute you walk through the door, everybody knows, Luther’s not winning his battle with his demon.”
“An alcoholic can’t have half a martini,” he said, “and you know, I can’t have bread.”
Fortunately, Vandross always had song–and admirers. Mariah Carey dueted with him on “Endless Love,” off his 1994 cover-tune collection Songs. Whitney Houston recorded his “Who Do You Love,” for her 1990 album I’m Your Baby Tonight. Foxy Brown, Busta Rhymes and Queen Latifah contributed to Dance with my Father. His duet with Beyonc√à from that collection, “The Closer I Get to You,” earned the Grammy for Best R&B Performance By a Duo Or Group with Vocals.
Vandross called Dance with my Father a personal album; the title track “the best song he ever wrote,” according to his mother.
“When I heard it, I felt like I was going to, well, scream,” Mary Vandross said in a statement around the time of the album’s release. “I played it over and over, and I cried and cried. I was amazed how well Luther remembered his father, how we used to dance and sing in the house. I was so surprised that at seven and a half years of age, he could remember what a happy household we had. It was always filled with a lot of music.”
The song debuted during an April 2003 episode of Fox’s Boston Public. American Idol alum Tamyra Gray handled the singing honors. Vandross himself was to have graced the Idol stage in 2003 as a guest judge, but then the stroke struck.
To the end, his mother held out hope for his full recovery.
“Knowing how he loves this new album, I believe Luther would want it to come out now, and I’m so grateful that he can get this chance,” she said in 2003. “He is going to recover, and when he does, I want him to be greeted with a big success story. ”
Vandross was remembered in the 2004 tribute album Forever, for Always, for Luther, featuring the work of jazz artists such as George Benson. A new R&B-style tribute album was announced just last month. Carey, Celine Dion and former Idol champs Fantasia and Ruben Studdard were among those scheduled to contribute tracks.
“Remember, when I say goodbye it’s never for long,” Vandross said during his videotaped appearance at the 2004 Grammys. “Because,” he continued, slipping into one of his trademark tunes, “I believe in the power of love.”
Luther Vandross’ Swan Song