Singer Luther Vandross Dies at 54
R& B Star With Romantic Style Topped Charts for More Than 20 Years

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 2, 2005

Luther Vandross, 54, whose honey-toned vocal stylings made him one of the most popular and influential R&B singers of the past quarter-century, died July 1 at a hospital in Edison, N.J. The cause of death was not immediately known, but a hospital spokesman said Mr. Vandross "never really recovered" from a stroke in April 2003. He also had diabetes and had fought weight problems for years.

Known to millions of fans simply as Luther, Mr. Vandross leapt to fame in the early 1980s with his first album and remained one of R&B's leading stars -- and, by general acclaim, its finest pure vocalist -- for more than 20 years. He won eight Grammy Awards, had 14 platinum albums and sold more than 25 million records.

His smooth, romantic vocal style, which rose from an earthy baritone to a breathy tenor, influenced a generation of singers. No less an authority than Clive Davis, the record company impresario who headed Columbia Records and later recorded Mr. Vandross for J Records, called him "the best male R&B singer in the world."

For more than a decade, Mr. Vandross was the nation's top R&B artist -- his first 12 albums each sold more than 1 million copies -- but he was mystified by his lack of wider pop success compared with such performers as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Prince.

He did not find a broad crossover audience until his 1989 album, "The Best of Luther Vandross . . . the Best of Love," which contained the hit song "Here and Now."

A one-man music machine, Mr. Vandross received rare contractual freedom to write and produce his albums. He also composed songs and produced albums for such stars as Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Teddy Pendergrass. Other performers were eager to perform with him in duets, including Mariah Carey, Dionne Warwick -- one of his childhood idols -- and jazz singer Cassandra Wilson.

Unlike many performers who have a brief season of popularity, Mr. Vandross remained at the top of his musical form and at the top of the charts. His first million-selling album, "Never Too Much," came out in 1981. His album "Dance With My Father" reached No. 1 on the pop charts in 2003, becoming one of his biggest hits. Featuring duets with Beyonce Knowles, Queen Latifah, Wonder and others, the album won Mr. Vandross four Grammys last year.

By then, he was a sentimental choice for the prestigious music industry honors. In April 2003, he had suffered a near-fatal stroke that left him in a coma for two months. The next year, he taped a message from his wheelchair that was broadcast during the Grammy ceremony in which he said: "Remember, when I say goodbye, it's never for long because" -- and he began to sing one of his hits -- "I believe in the power of love."

Luther Ronzoni Vandross was born on New York City's Lower East Side on April 20, 1951. His father, an upholsterer, died of diabetes when Luther was 8. His mother, a licensed practical nurse, raised him, two sisters and one brother, all of whom were older.

One of his sisters sang with the group the Crests as a teenager, and when he was growing up in the Bronx, Mr. Vandross was exposed to a variety of black pop music, from doo-wop to Motown. He was strongly influenced by female singers, including Warwick, Franklin and Diana Ross, who left an indelible mark on his singing.

At first, though, he showed little interest in music.

"I was always embarrassed about singing around the family," he told The Washington Post's Richard Harrington in 1986. "I never, ever sang at home. . . . I never sang in church, never sang in school."

Nonetheless, after two semesters at Western Michigan University, he dropped out of college, determined to pursue a career in music. One of his early songs, "Everybody Rejoice," was used in the Broadway musical "The Wiz" in 1972.

He found a job as a warm-up act for David Bowie, then worked steadily as a backup singer for, among others, Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, Chaka Khan, Bette Midler and Average White Band. He sang commercial jingles and, in 1975, formed an R&B group, Luther. He was the lead vocalist on the 1979 disco hit by Chic called "Dance, Dance, Dance."

In 1980, he was signed by Epic Records, which allowed him near total artistic control. Besides "Never Too Much" (1981), his hit albums included "Forever, For Always, For Love" (1982), "The Night I Fell in Love" (1985), "Power of Love" (1991) and "Never Let Me Go" (1993).

Describing his sensuous, insinuating way with a song, he said: "I'm more into poetry and metaphor. I would much rather imply something rather than to blatantly state it."

In 1986, while driving in California, Mr. Vandross was involved in a traffic accident in which a passenger was killed. He was placed on probation for reckless driving.

In his teenage years, he developed a weight problem that plagued him all his life. Several times, he grew to more than 300 pounds, then dieted furiously. Sometimes, he would become so slim that his weight loss prompted some to wonder whether he had AIDS or another disease.

"I used to go on stage at 9:30 having just eaten three hamburgers and French fries at 9:14," he told The Post in 1986. "Now I don't eat after 4 o'clock because I hate the feeling of being full."

Speculation that he was gay followed him for years, as well.

"These are crazy rumors," he told the Chicago Tribune in 2001, addressing questions about his weight, illnesses and sexuality. "And you know what, 20 years later when all those people who started the rumors are sick and in wheelchairs and I'm hopping on to the stage with full energy, that will tell the story. I'm in better health and shape now than I've ever been."

At the time of his stroke, Mr. Vandross had already recorded "Dance With My Father." A final album, recorded live at Radio City Music Hall in 2003, was later released. But he never performed on stage again.

Mr. Vandross never married and had no children.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company