Over the past year, Luther Vandross has been playing larger and larger halls, but his fans have been seeing less and less of him.
"It's the toughest journey a person can make," says the increasingly svelte soul singer, who has lost almost 100 pounds since May of last year.
Since his platinum debut album in 1981, Vandross has been huge in the marketplace. But the man with the stunning second tenor and superb style, which place him in the pantheon of classic soul singers that stretches from Ray Charles and Sam Cooke to Al Green, was never very happy about that being literally, as well as figuratively, true.
"I want to stay out of the big and tall men's shops," he laughed backstage at Capital Centre earlier in the week. "I hate them."
Vandross' "The Night I Fell in Love Tour" (named after his current album) has been on the road for eight months, including three stops in Washington, and Vandross is enjoying being lighter on his feet.
"I guess I can move a little more sprightly now than I chose to before," he admits. "Listen, I don't have a 24-inch waist and I'm not jumping all over the place. I wouldn't do that if I weighed 110 pounds; that wouldn't be my style.
"But it does help with the endurance because some habits have changed. I used to go on stage at 9:30 having just eaten three hamburgers and french fries at 9:14; when I was 320, I would do that in a second. Now I don't eat after 4 o'clock because I hate the feeling of being full. It's harder to breathe, and you sweat more quickly when you're full. The minute the light hits you, you're dripping and you haven't sung a note yet. Now all of those things have changed."
He's not a sudden sex symbol, he insists -- transformed, after all those years, from a pudgy duckling to Prince. Still, "it's not as if audiences don't notice." He laughs lightly. "It hasn't hurt anything."
There have been other changes. Vandross' show was once a frenetic spectacle, the stage so cluttered with equipment, effects, musicians and backup vocalists that you hardly noticed the friendly bear of a singer at the center. These days, he performs in the round, with the band in the pit offstage, all eyes joining all ears on the star.
Vandross is something of an anomaly in today's black pop. In the age of sexual innuendo, he is very much the romantic, influenced by groups like the Shirelles and such big-hearted, big-voiced soul divas as Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. His best-known songs are less about sex than love -- the finding and losing of it, and all the attendant joy and pain.
"The purpose of the songs is to express some of what civilians -- non-musical, non-artistic people -- can't do on their own behalf," he explains. "We sing for them. Maybe my life is boring, but that doesn't make me sing any less effectively. What you want to do is touch somebody who's going through something in their own life. That's what they really want to hear."
His music, he adds, "is not all from life experience. I'd be a solitary confined mental patient if I lived through everything that I sang about."
If Luther Vandross is one of the great voices in pop music today and is rapidly emerging as one of its biggest stars, there was a time when millions of people were hearing him without having any idea who he was. He was earning a fortune as the voice of countless jingles -- from Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pepsi, Juicy Fruit and 7-Up to the U.S. Army -- as well as being one of the most in-demand session singers in the business.
But Vandross was not being all he could be, and if it hadn't been for a few right-place-at-the-right-time situations, his voice might never have been heard at all.
He grew up in an East Side project in New York, a fat kid in a tough neighborhood. He was, he admits, "an emotional eater. The first thing I would do if I was depressed or dejected, whatever, is eat . . . . Now I've learned to cope differently, though the same things that bothered me when I was 21 bother me now -- two years later." Vandross laughs. He is, in fact, 34.
Unlike most singers, his road to stardom was entirely private and unmarked.
"I was always embarrassed about singing around the family," he says. "I never, ever sang at home. As a matter of fact, when his debut album 'Never Too Much' was out and my family used to come see the show, I' d always make sure that I couldn't see them from the stage because I just couldn't sing in front of my sister or my mother.
"Now I can."
Vandross' sister had sung in a doo-wop group, the Crests ("16 Candles") and his mother had always encouraged his interest in music. As a result, he grew up consumed and consoled by music, particularly the soul divas (he once described himself as an Arethacologist). But even though he sensed the voice within, Vandross could not expose it.
"I never sang in church, never sang in school," he says. He had a sense of his gift, but "it was a private sense. It took singing background for a long time and seeing how uninhibited the rest of those people were about their talent. That made it rub off on me, the idea that it's okay to experiment, it's okay to make a mistake, it's okay to sound bad as long as you get a chance to sound good right afterwards.
"There are some Bermuda Triangle years in there where I knew I could sing and I sang for myself -- in the bathroom."
The first tentative uncovering of the Vandross voice, at age 16, was accidental -- but it established friendships and professional relationships that continue to this day.
"Robin Clark and I both worked in the stockroom at Alexander's department store after school," Vandross recalls. Clark (now a session singer herself) "had overheard me humming. She said, 'Do you sing? You always seem to be singing to yourself.' I said 'yeah' and she said she did too. We hit a good artistic pulse there and I started singing with her."
They both auditioned for and got into a 16-member group called Listen My Brother, which was managed by the owners of the Apollo Theatre. Their tutor was a man named Peter Long.
"He was big on definition," Vandross recalls. "He used to sit us down and make us stand up one at at time and talk:
'Why are you down here?'
'Because I want to be in show business.'
'Why do you want to be in show business?'
'Because it looks good.'
'When you see Nancy Wilson up there on the stage looking fabulous, do you think it's easy?'
"He really was teaching us about certain values, and my shyness about things wore off. We used to have this thing called the 'I'm-Gonna-Make-It Drama' . . . and mind, we were all 16, 17." Vandross describes a theater of confrontations where dreams and realities met head-on. "Out of that came a lot of dead insecurities. You learned how to defend yourself artistically."
And apparently, emotionally, as well.
"What's done to you as a child can play a large part in your perception and perspective on things when, and if, you grow up," Vandross points out.
"Remember, I was a 16-year-old, 300-pound kid, so when it came time for the lead vocals to be handed out, they didn't want me up there. I was the one, mind you, who always put all the harmony together; I had the administrative role, I was real good at it. I used to listen to the Shirelles and the Sweet Inspirations and I always had a good sense of who could do what, who sang top, who sang bottom . . .
"But they didn't want me to front the group. I carried that with me for a long time."
In fact, it's only recently that Peter Long gave Vandross the seal of approval. "I sold out five nights at Los Angeles' Universal Amphitheatre and he finally comes," Vandross says. It took four albums to get him to come. And he calls up and says, 'You know, maybe you can sing after all.'"
After graduating from high school, Vandross went off to college in Michigan, but he soon dropped out and took various nonmusical jobs, the worst of which was filing defective-merchandise forms for S&H Green Stamps. The only people hearing the voice were friends like Clark, her boyfriend and eventual husband Carlos Alomar and other neighborhood pals.
Vandross was already writing and in 1972, contributed a song, "Everybody Rejoice (A Brand New Day)," to "The Wiz," which earned him some much needed royalties but did little to expose his real talent. Then, two years later, came another accident of overhearing.
He and Clark went to Philadelphia to visit Alomar, who had landed the job of David Bowie's guitarist. Listening to the studio recording of "Young Americans," Vandross heard a new possibility in the chorus. During a break, he was singing it to Clark, unaware that Bowie was standing right behind him.
"He had heard the whole thing. And he said it was great, put it down. That's how the whole thing got started." Bowie not only hired Vandross to do all the vocal arrangements and sing on the album, but took him on the road as a backup singer. Vandross' first live performances came in huge sports arenas.
"I was real nervous and said I'm not going on the road unless you take my other two friends from the Bronx with me -- Diane and Anthony." Which Bowie did.
"I could have been teaching school now if I'd made the wrong choice," Vandross admits. Soon, he was one of the most in-demand session vocalists and vocal arrangers in New York, working with, among others, Bette Midler, Carly Simon and Chaka Khan.
By now, Vandross was building a career on being overheard. That's how he got into jingles, as well.
While working on Quincy Jones' "Sounds . . . and Stuff Like That" with Patti Austin, some jingle arrangers came by to visit Austin, already an established jingle star, and heard Vandross. A few weeks later, he had done his first jingle, for Welch's Grape Soda. Over the next five years, there would be many, many more, and Vandross still does the occasional jingle (the most recent for Miller Beer).
"It's a very small clique of people who do all the jingle work," he explains. "There's a few people who make half a million dollars or $800,000 a year, as opposed to lots of people making $60,000 a year."
The difference between session work and jingle work, he says, is "amazing, an entire head trip. Chaka Khan calls you up and says 'Want to come sing backup vocals on my record on Tuesday?' You say yeah, and you go in at 12 and come out at quarter to midnight and you make $600. A jingle will book you from noon to 1 o'clock and you make $35,000."
Producers hired him, Vandross says, because "I had a certain artistic vibe that was new to them. Maybe it was because of all those record dates, I hadn't had a chance to get jaded. And once they hired me for my contributions, I started thinking about producing my own records. One thing has always fed the others."
Meanwhile, his voice was slowly coming to the fore.
He did the anonymous lead vocals on a pair of disco hits, Change's "The Glow of Love" and Bionic Boogie's "Hot Butterfly." For Vandross, the best thing about disco was its anonymity: No one expected a live performance, since it could never match the vinyl. But disco devalued the singer in favor of the studio. "There was a period when you were embarrassed to say you were a singer," he says. "If you weren't making plastic music, if you weren't Xeroxing what you heard on the radio, they had no use for you."
There was a short-lived group called Luther, which made two albums that had minimal impact. After it broke up, some of its members went on to form the groups Kleer and Chic. "I had questions about my value as a lead vocalist at that point."
So did record companies, apparently. When Vandross was trying to land a solo deal, including the right to produce himself, he was turned down by every major label.
"They all liked my voice, but across the board they didn't want me to produce myself. They're so used to pairing producers with black artists -- that was the success story. If you sign five artists who all want to produce themselves and they don't do a good job, the sixth person pays for the last five people who were in the room . . . I was making mountains of money from jingles, so I said who needs it?"
In 1981, he finally signed with Epic, and the wait proved worthwhile for both parties. Vandross' debut album, "Never Too Much," sold more than a million copies and earned two Grammy nominations. It also provoked severe anxieties when the singer realized he'd have to go on the road to support the album.
"It scares you to death," Vandross says. "Especially after being a session singer -- you come with your hair nappy, in sneakers, your shirt hanging out. It doesn't matter what you look like, you've just got to sound good.
"Now all of a sudden to have everybody looking at you is a deep transition."
Vandross also found himself much in demand as a producer, and in a dream come true, he got to produce his idols Ross, Warwick and Franklin (including two albums that put Aretha's career back on track after a decade of mediocrity).
He was, in a way, paying them back for his original inspiration. Vandross insists he was never attracted to or influenced by any of the great, gritty male soul singers. The women, he says, didn't get so locked into stereotyped roles.
"The female singer who wants to be gruff and convincing," he says, "she will tend to go ahead and do that quicker than a male singer will soften up and become sensitive. That's society, that's rearing, that's the package. I refuse to buy into that insecurity."
It's been a great year for Vandross, but there has also been tragedy. In January he was involved in an accident in which a passenger in the car he was driving was killed. The victim was Larry Salvemini, older brother of "Star Search" winner Jimmy Salvemini, whose debut album Vandross was producing and who was also injured in the accident.
Charges of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving resulting in injury have been filed against Vandross by the Van Nuys, Calif., district attorney's office. The trial date is set for July 15. The singer, who if convicted could be fined or jailed for up to a year, has not yet indicated how he will plead.
"It's a highly personal, painful thing," Vandross says quietly, "and I don't want to talk about it."
Meanwhile, there are projects: a song on the sound track of an upcoming Disney film ("Ruthless People") alongside Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Kool & the Gang; a new album; producing dancer Gregory Hines' debut album. "He's a second tenor, like me. When you jump into that falsetto above the A, you're a second tenor, don't jive yourself. Smokey Robinson, Eddie Kendricks, Steve Perry -- they're first tenor. You can't be ashamed of being a trombone -- a trombone is not a trumpet, it is a trombone."
There are still fights ahead, of course. Vandross is still perceived as a black act, and in an era when the airwaves are more segregated than they were in the '60s heyday of Motown, Atlantic and Stax, that means his exposure is not commensurate with his talent.
"Thissk,3 is the crossover year for LV," he promises. "But I don't want to cross over at the expense of anything that's happened thus far, at the expense of the 4 million black faces who bought the albums. I won't do that.