LUTHER VANDROSS is singin' on top of the world nowadays, master of a strin

As a chubby teen-ager growing up in the Alfred E. Smith housing project on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge, he listened carefully, intensely to an older sister who sang backup for the Crests ("16 Candles"), to such black divas as Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. Vandross didn't care much for sports or street activities, outside of corner harmonies; a year in college was spent spinning Franklin albums in the student lounge -- not a higher learning, perhaps, but a deeper one.

Now 31, he's spent 20 years listening, and the last eight moving out of the shadows. He has little difficulty pinpointing "who lit my musical fire, who aroused my musical libido. The person single-handedly responsible for me making a decision to pursue artistic things was Dionne Warwick. It was at the Brooklyn Fox Theatre in 1963 he'd actually gone to see the Shirelles . She came on stage and just killed me; the music was more serious, the song value was more serious. 'Anyone Who Has a Heart' was a masterpiece. I decided at that point that I wanted to do something in music."

Here's what Luther Vandross has done in music, so far: His self-produced 1981 debut, "Never Too Much," oozed with an invigorating update of the classic emotional singing of '60s soul; it went platinum and established Vandross as the most distinctive new singer in a decade.

His first outside album production was Cheryl Lynn's "Instant Love," which yielded a No. 1 single. His second effort was Aretha Franklin's "Jump to It"; it returned a fired-up Queen of Soul to No. 1 on the black charts, a position she had not held for many years.

His own already-gold follow-up, "Forever, For Always, For Love," chock-full of exuberant and sensual declamations of love and desire, has just raced into the chart position recently vacated by Franklin.

He's won the first three National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences awards for male backup vocalist; his jingle singing is ubiquitous and instantly recognizable.

Vandross has taken his fandom and turned it around; in the process he's reinvented, recreated, redefined the classic soul sound of the '60s, dressing it up in '80s technology, but insisting on the return of romance, emotion and joy that marked that almost innocent era. It's paid off.

At one time he described himself as an "Arethacologist," and it was Franklin he produced first. "Aretha's among the most brilliant singers the planet has to offer," Vandross, a big bear of a man, gushes. But she's been unchallenged for years, "which was usually the fault of the material or the approach. All I wanted to do was make everyone understand that in addition to hitting high Cs, Aretha has tremendous value when she's singing in neutral, so to speak. That's all we did, picked keys that were conducive for a mid-rangey type approach." He also wrote four new songs, arranged all the others, and wrapped Aretha in a warm production that revived her confidence and skills. "Jump to It" was gold from the moment they stepped into the recording studio.

Chapter Two: Dionne Warwick. "She and Aretha are both on Arista, so I kept dropping not-so-subtle hints to label president Clive Davis . . . about 50 times," Vandross laughs. "Finally, he said okay, we'll talk to Dionne and see what she thinks. One day she paid a surprise visit in the studio while I was making my new album and . . . we got along g-r-e-a-t, we talked about everything. And I know her voice soooo well." Vandross will produce the next Warwick record, as well as the Franklin follow-up.

Chapter Three: Diana Ross. She's affected Vandross in tangible ways that go way back: when she left the Supremes in 1969, his high school grades dropped. Thirteen years later, Vandross arranged three vocal tracks for Ross' new album, though only one made it onto vinyl. "My first meeting with her, I wasn't about to hit her with a bunch of ambitious stuff," he says humbly. "She'll come to her own decision on that; she's aware of me, she knows how to contact me." He pauses, reconsiders. "I'd like to call her and ask her . . . and I just might."

If there's a new confidence starting to shine through on the production end, it's been there for a long time for Vandross the singer. His entry into the business is out of a fairy tale: visiting an old neighborhood friend, guitarist Carlos Alamar, during a David Bowie recording session in 1974, Vandross commented that a background vocal line could sound better if . . . He demonstrated for Bowie, who promptly hired him to flesh out "Young Americans." Vandross ended up arranging the entire album, even wrote a tune for it ("Fascination") and then toured as Bowie's backup singer. It was the first time he had been behind a microphone professionally.

The next few years were his training ground, with the studio and stage the refinery. Vandross sang on albums for J. Geils, Ringo Starr, Chaka Khan, Carly Simon, Roberta Flack, Cat Stevens; he toured as a backup singer with Flack, Todd Rundgren, Bette Midler, Chic. In the studio, he began to make a voice for himself, but the times dictated that he remain faceless.

"We just came to a period where singers were a vehicle for the production, instead of vice versa," Vandross says firmly. " With funk it became a producers' medium, the singer was almost incidental. I know that firsthand as a session singer and as someone who sang lead on several different projects. It hurt the industry for quite a while."

Somehow, Vandross' supple, breathy, intimate and downright sensual tenor began to cut through the anonymity. He first hit the charts as the uncredited voice of Change, with "The Glow of Love" and "Searching," and as the lead voice on Chic's "Dance, Dance, Dance." He turned the trick for Quincy Jones on "Sounds . . . and Stuff Like That," for Bionic Boogie on "Hot Butterfly." He formed a group called Luther that failed to make any impact on two albums, but included the future core of the groups Chic and Kleer.

And he started in on the jingles, mostly singing leads and often arranging the vocals. He "reached out and touched" for AT&T; he was convincing for Juicy Fruit; 7-Up; The U. S. Army ("Be All That You Can Be"); Miller and Schaefer beers, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Gino's and Burger King. (Vandross, an equal opportunity employe in a cutthroat business, soon became the most in-demand invisible singer in America.) "They're rewarding, a challenge," Vandross says of jingles, admitting that a successful jingle singer can earn as much as a gold-status recording artist.

"And I never got jaded. There is a 'jingle-singer syndrome' where all of a sudden that's all that you can do; you get into a certain voice, a certain innocent, noncommittal voice that these people like for the product. It's hard to get out of but I never lost my interpretive or R & B perspective." It wasn't that much different from album sessions, Vandross says, though "people in the jingle business are more indecisive about whether they like what they're hearing or not. Making a record is different in that your emotions, your instincts carry you. In the jingle business, you can hang around for hours while they argue whether the word 'which' or 'that' is best representing the product: 'the deodorant which dries you up' or 'the deodorant that dries you up.' "

In either context, Vandross was assimilating valuable information. "Being on both sides of the glass is an amazing education. But I didn't run into the control room to see which knobs they were pressing, how the echo got done. My perspective was that the music was most important. I'm a producer so I'm going to put a delayed echo on a snare drum every once in a while, but the essence of the performance is the reason that we're all there."

As his reputation snaked through industry hallways, Vandross decided it was time for a solo album, but everybody turned him down . . . because he insisted on producing himself. "I was just being unconditional," he laughs now. He also reminded them that he had a very lucrative jingle and session career to ease waiting for the right deal. Epic finally gave him the go-ahead. "I'd been waiting a long time, so when I got the chance, it was like letting the bull out of the pen." At the same time, jingles had taught him the value of restraint, understatement, just how to get his message across. The message, soon to be etched in platinum, was that Luther Vandross had arrived.

Now, Vandross finds himself in ridiculous demand. "I'm one person, is what it boils down to. I'm not just a producer, I'm also a songwriter, a singer who's on tour. So I think two albums a year plus my own will be enough, with an option for a third for somebody who kills me -- Diana or Bowie. And since I've been on the road, I haven't been able to do many jingles." He's been asked to do a medley of jingles (like Barry Manilow once did), but "in that same two-minute period I'd rather get something else going."

Starting a career on the edge of 30 might be frustrating to some, but Vandross insists the flow was correct, that none of his jingle or studio time has been wasted, that on-the-job training as valuable as the U. S. Army's has let him be all that he can be. "I have seen so many varieties of artists and musical situations; not everybody can claim that kind of amazing education. One of the unique things about my career is that I got to see firsthand what stardom was and what it wasn't. I've seen all of those people go through the paces of keeping their careers intact."

"As for moving from the background to the front, I've had a ball. I wasn't looking at it as any big transition . . . that's not to say I haven't been nervous with butterflies and jitters." Loathe to be called a budding genius or sudden star, Vandross steadfastly refuses to assess the acclaim that suddenly surrounds him, or to give in to easy comparisons. "I have my own voice and style and want to be able to claim that over a period of time," he says. As for the rewards, he just laughs. "I'm interested in riding on it, just grooving with it. But it's a career, not a job, and it requires work and input and good perspective and balance."

In the meantime, Vandross continues to reinvent classic soul music in a modern context. It's as simple a thing as the difference between hard and soft, heart and groin, between sensuality and sexuality, between passion and fashion. Luther Vandross has put the romance back into the dance. "It's just my style," he says lightly. "I'm more into the emotion of it. There are peaks and valleys in everybody's emotions, but people don't necessarily know how to express those things on their own behalf. We as artists and writers had to really make those things clear for the sake of the civilians, so to speak, and one of the things that's hardest to define are emotions. That's why I like to do it the way I do it. The songs point up situations which everybody can relate to. I like to be associated with that."