Luther Vandross Biography
Came from Musical Family, Entered the Music Industry through the Back Door, Hit the Big Time
Singer, songwriter, producer
For many years, Luther Vandross was the vintage Cadillac among the banged-up jalopies in the used car lot of male pop singers. With a sound that echoed the smooth soul stylings of the 1960s, Vandross was a fixture on the rhythm and blues charts from his solo recording debut in 1981 until his tragic stroke in 2003. Over the course of his career he has released a string of platinum albums and established himself as one of the leading romantic singers of his generation. Much of his appeal comes from his emotional approach to music, which is modeled after great female vocalists such as his friends Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick.
Came from Musical Family
Born in New York City in 1951, Vandross was the youngest of four children. His father, an upholsterer, died when Luther was only eight years old, leaving his mother, Mary Ida Vandross, to support the family through her job as a licensed practical nurse. They lived in the Alfred E. Smith housing project in lower Manhattan. The Vandross family was a musical one, and from an early age Luther was exposed to the black pop music of the day. His first piano lessons came at the age of three. His sister Pat was a member of a doo-wop group called the Crests, whose song "Sixteen Candles" was a fairly big hit when it came out.
By the time he was 13, Vandross was the only child still living at home. He and his mother moved to the Bronx. As a senior at William Howard Taft High School, Vandross became obsessed with the girl groups of the Motown label, as well as the gospel-based soul sounds being produced by the likes of Aretha Franklin and Cissy Houston. He was part of a crowd that liked to hang out in the school hallways and sing doo-wop. As he immersed himself more deeply in music, his interest in school waned. His grades plummeted, and he became increasingly certain that his future was in the music industry.
After high school, Vandross enrolled at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. He quit after two miserable semesters, more determined than ever to pursue his dream of becoming a professional singer. In 1972 a song written by Vandross, "Everybody Rejoice," was chosen for the Broadway musical The Wiz. Although he received substantial royalties for the composition, the money was not enough to support him completely, and Vandross continued to work at a variety of "day jobs" while he continued in his pursuit of fame.
Entered the Music Industry through the Back Door
In 1974, Vandross received his first real professional break. A childhood friend, guitarist Carlos Alomar, had landed a job backing British singer David Bowie, and he invited Vandross to accompany him to a recording session during the making of Bowie's album Young Americans. During the session, Bowie overheard Vandross mentioning some background vocal arrangement suggestions to Alomar. Bowie loved the ideas, and he immediately hired Vandross to sing and arrange backup vocals for the album. He also recorded a Vandross-penned song, "Fascination." When the album was finished, Vandross joined the Bowie tour as a backup singer. Through Bowie, Vandross made many important connections in the music industry, laying the groundwork for his own budding career.
One of the musicians to whom Bowie introduced Vandross was Bette Midler. Impressed with his voice and ideas, she hired Vandross to sing backup vocals on her next two albums. Vandross soon became much sought after for singing and arranging work, and was finally able to concentrate on music full-time. Among the artists whose recordings his voice appeared on during the next few years were Chaka Khan, Carly Simon, Ringo Starr, the Average White Band, Barbra Streisand, and Donna Summer. He also became one of Madison Avenue's favorite voices for commercial jingles. During the late 1970s, Vandross's anonymous voice was used to sell everything from fried chicken to long-distance telephone service, not to mention as a recruiting tool for the U.S. Army.
Through this combination of commercial and backup work, Vandross was earning a more-than-comfortable living from music by the end of the 1970s. Artistically, however, those jobs did not satisfy him, and he continued to try to break out as a solo act. He formed or joined several groups, with such names as Luther, Bionic Boogie, and Change, but none proved commercially viable. He also sang the lead vocal on Chic's song "Dance, Dance, Dance."
Hit the Big Time
Part of the problem in landing a solo recording contract was Vandross's insistence on total creative control of the recording process. Another problem was the prevalence of disco, a musical form antithetical to Vandross's lyrical approach. Finally, in 1980, Vandross used his own money to rent a studio and began recording. He took the resulting handful of songs to Epic Records, and he was immediately given a contract. Epic released Vandross's first solo album, Never Too Much, in 1981. The album sold more than one million copies, cracked the top ten on black pop charts, and effectively launched Vandross's career as a solo superstar.
Vandross released his follow-up album, For Ever, For Always, For Love, one year later. It, too, sold more than one million copies and cemented Vandross's growing reputation as a first class love balladeer. His third LP, Busy Body, likewise sold more a million copies. All three of those albums, and the next three as well, reached number one on the R&B charts. In fact, it was not until 1989, with The Best of Luther, The Best of Love, that a Vandross LP failed to make it to the top of the R&B charts. Each of those albums also included at least one single that made it into the R&B top ten. Meanwhile, his talent as a producer was also gaining recognition. In 1982, Vandross produced Cheryl Lynn's hit album Instant Love, and over the years, he has produced songs and/or albums for such stars as Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, and Whitney Houston.
As Vandross's career expanded, so did his waistline. At times his weight soared to well over 300 pounds. Angered by the constant mention of his size in the press, where he was tagged with such nicknames as the "heavyweight of soul," Vandross shed 120 pounds, only to seesaw back and forth between weight extremes for the next several years. In a number of interviews, Vandross has attributed this yo-yoing to his love life. When things are going well, he loses weight; when he is heartsick, he overcompensates with food.
Achieved Crossover Stardom
In spite of the success of his first several albums, by the late 1980s Vandross was vexed by his failure to produce a major crossover hit—one that would be as popular among white audiences as it was with black buyers. He finally cracked the pop top ten in 1989, with the single "Here and Now." From that point on, Vandross became the kind of fixture on the pop charts that he had been on the R&B lists for nearly a decade. In 1991, his gospel medley "Power of Love/Love Power" reached number four on the pop charts. In addition to his own albums, Vandross continued to produce recordings for other artists on occasion, and, in 1993, he made his motion picture acting debut in Robert Townsend's Meteor Man.
In 1994 Vandross released the album Songs, which consisted of remakes of hits from the past. "Endless Love," a duet with pop star Mariah Carey from the album, soared to number two on the pop charts. That same year he was spotlighted in a PBS television special, In the Spotlight, recorded at the Royal Albert Hall in London. He released a Christmas album in 1995, featuring seven new co-written songs, along with a variety of classic carols. And in 1997 Vandross sang the national anthem at the 1997 NFL Super Bowl, a sure sign of his crossover success.
Vandross's string of successes and his high public profile allowed him to experiment musically, and to seek new freedom with a new label. In 1998 ended his 16-year partnership with the Epic label, a partnership that had produced 12 hit albums and sent 22 singles onto the R&B charts. Vandross soon signed with Virgin Records, and in 1998 he released I Know, featuring such stars as Stevie Wonder, Cassandra Wilson, and Bob James. The album received generally excellent reviews, but Vandross soon left Virgin. He released Smooth Love on the AMW label in 2000, then found a more stable home with J-Records, where released three albums between 2001 and 2003, including Luther Vandross, Dance with My Father, and Live 2003 at Radio City Music Hall. Each of the albums was well received by fans and critics alike, and Vandross continued to attract adoring fans at his concert. Explaining his success to Jet, Vandross said: "It's a really good feat at this point in my career. That's what makes it so special. I don't even try to figure it out or analyze it. I just go ahead and do what feels good and that seems to work."
By 2003 Vandross was at the peak of his career. Though considered one of the enduring artists of the late twentieth century, he continued to release vibrant, meaningful music. Sadly, in April of 2003 Vandross suffered a debilitating stroke that left him temporarily in a coma; the stroke was likely caused by a combination of his recent weight gain and his ongoing struggle with diabetes. Vandross's recovery has been slow and difficult. Six months after his stroke he was just regaining the ability to speak and sing, yet he was still confined to a wheelchair and remained weak. As a result of the stroke Vandross was unable to attend the 2003 Grammy Awards (held in early 2004), where Dance with My Father was honored with four Grammys, including the award for Song of the Year. The Grammy ceremony included a tribute to Vandross performed by Alicia Keys and Celine Dion. In a taped appearance, Vandross made his first public statement, telling fans: "I wish I could be with you there tonight. I want to thank everyone for your love and support. And remember, when I say goodbye it's never for long, because I believe in the power of love."
Never Too Much, Epic, 1981.
Forever, For Always, For Love, Epic, 1982.
Busy Body, Epic, 1983.
The Night I Fell in Love, Epic, 1985.
Give Me The Reason, Epic, 1986.
Any Love, Epic, 1988.
The Best of Luther Vandross, The Best of Love, Epic, 1989.
Power of Love (includes "Power of Love"/"Love Power"), Epic, 1991.
Never Let Me Go, Epic, 1993.
Songs (includes "Endless Love"), Epic, 1994.
This Is Christmas, Epic, 1995.
Your Secret Love, Sony, 1996.
I Know, Virgin, 1998.
Greatest Hits, Epic, 1999.
Smooth Love, AMW, 2000.
Luther Vandross, J-Records, 2001.
The Ultimate Luther Vandross, Epic, 2001.
The Very Best of Luther Vandross, Sony, 2002.
Dance with My Father, J-Records, 2003.
Live 2003 at Radio City Music Hall, J-Records, 2003.
The Essential Luther Vandross, Epic/Legacy, 2003.
Ebony, December 1985, pp. 83-87; December 1991, pp. 93-98; December 18, 1995, pp. 32-37.
Entertainment Weekly, October 17, 2003, p. 34.
Jet, June 28, 1993, pp. 34-36; October 24, 1994, pp. 36-39; July 16, 2001, p. 12; January 19, 2004, p. 58.
New York, February 15, 1982, pp. 45-49.
New York Times Magazine, September 22, 1991, pp. 53-63.
People, February 28, 1983, pp. 101-102; September 7, 1998, p. 121; June 16, 2003, p. 101; October 20, 2003, p. 95.
Rolling Stone, September 6, 1990, pp. 76-81.
"Luther Vandross," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (October 28, 2004).
Luther Vandross, www.luthervandross.com/ (January 24, 2004).
—Robert R. Jacobson and
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