Born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City,
Luther Vandross grew up in a musical family that moved to the Bronx when he was
13. His sister sang with vocal group The Crests who had a number one hit in the
early 1960's with "Sixteen Candles." Vandross' father died of diabetes when
Vandross was eight years old. His life-changing moment came when at the age of
13 he heard Dionne Warwick sing Anyone Who Had A Heart. He knew then that he
wanted to be a singer.
Luther Vandross formed a vocal group in high school which once played at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. His first recording credit was as producer of the album Soul Christmas in 1968 and appeared as a vocalist on a Quincy Jones album Best in 1969. He was also a member of a theater workshop at the time and appeared on the first episode of Sesame Street in October 1969.
His next recording credit was on an album by Roberta Flack in 1972. Vandross wrote "Everybody Rejoice," for the 1972 show The Wiz. However, Vandross had dropped out of the music scene when a friend from theater workshop invited him to sing in David Bowie's soul-influenced Diamond dogs tour and appear as the opening act with the Mike Garson Band in 1974. He ended up singing background vocals on Bowie's album Young Americans.
Luther Vandross also sang backing vocals for Roberta Flack, Carly Simon, Chaka Khan, Bette Midler, Chic, and Barbra Streisand. During the beginning of his career, Vandross was content to remain mostly in the background, as a producer and backup singer for other artists. Roberta Flack pushed Vandross into starting his own career. She believed he was an incredible talent who, in addition to his songwriting and production skills, deserved to be heard for his singing.
Before Luther Vandross's breakthrough, he released two albums on Cotillion Records, the self-titled "Luther" in 1976 and "This Close to You" in 1977. He also wrote and sang commercials jingles during the late 1970s & early '80s earning upwards of $600,000 per year around the New York area. He created and/or sang jingles for such well known advertising campaigns as Kentucky Fried Chicken's "We Do Chicken Right," NBC's "Proud As A Peacock" & The US Army's "Be All You Can Be." Vandross continued his successful career as a popular session singer during the late 70's. His lead vocals can be heard on the Gregg Diamond produced single "Hot Butterfly" from Bionic Boogie in 1978 which gained moderate nightclub success.
Luther Vandross eventually made his breakthrough as a guest singer with the group Change. Their 1980 hits, "The Glow of Love" and "Searching" led to a recording contract with Epic Records, and in 1981, he made his solo recording debut with the LP "Never Too Much." The album, which contained the track "A House is Not a Home" went double platinum, with the song "Never Too Much" reaching #1 on the R&B charts.
Luther Vandross released a series of million-selling albums during the 1980s and continued his session work with guest vocals on groups like Charme in 1982. Although the albums were very successful overall, many of his earlier albums made a much bigger impact on the R&B charts. Vandross had more modest success on the pop charts during this time. During the 1980s, Vandross had two other singles that reached #1 on the R&B charts: "Stop to Love" in 1986 and a duet with Gregory Hines "There's Nothing Better Than Love". He also sang duets with Dionne Warwick and Cheryl Lynn. He was also in demand as a producer; he was at the helm for Aretha Franklin's albums "Jump To It" and "Get It Right". (Franklin saw some moderate commercial success with those Vandross-produced tracks after a long chart absence.)
The 1989 compilation of greatest hits, The Best Of Luther Vandross...The Best Of Love, included the ballad "Here And Now", the first Vandross single to chart in the Billboard pop chart Top Ten. He also won his first award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance in the Grammy Awards of 1991.
More albums followed in the 1990s, beginning with 1991's Power Of Love which spawned two top ten pop hits. He won his second Best Male R&B Vocal in the Grammy Awards of 1992 with the track "Power of Love/Love Power" winning the Grammy Award for Best R&B Song in the same year. In 1992, "The Best Things in Life are Free", a duet with Janet Jackson from the movie Mo' Money became a hit.
Luther Vandross hit the top ten again in 1994 with "Endless Love", a duet with Mariah Carey and a cover of Lionel Richie and Diana Ross's hit song from the film Endless Love. He also sang a duet with Frank Sinatra on Sinatra's Duets album. In the Grammy Awards of 1997, he won his third Best Male R&B Vocal for the track "Your Secret Love". A second greatest hits album, released in 1997, compiled most of his 1990s hits and was his final record released through Epic Records. After recording "I Know" on Virgin Records, he signed with J Records.
In 2003, Vandross released the album Dance With My Father in memory of his father. The title track, which was dedicated to the memory of the younger Vandross' childhood dances with his father, won Luther and his co-writer, singer Richard Marx, the 2004 Grammy Award for Song Of The Year. The song also won Vandross his fourth and final award in the Best Male R&B Vocal Performance category. The album was also the first album by Vandross to reach #1 on the Billboard album chart. The video for the title track features a various celebrities alongside their dads and family members. The stars include Beyonce, Ruben Studdard, Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones submitted home videos or pictures of their families for the music video.
Luther Vandross had diabetes, a disease that ran in his family, as well as hypertension. His weight fluctuated several times over the years, and Vandross had weighed over 300 pounds (136 kg) at his heaviest. His father, Luther Sr., died of complications from diabetes when Luther Jr. was eight years old. Luther Jr.'s two sisters and a brother also predeceased him. On April 16, 2003, Vandross suffered a stroke in his home in Manhattan. (Although the cause of Vandross' stroke was not specifically attributed to diabetes, diabetics have been identified as being much more susceptible to strokes.) Although he appeared briefly on videotape at the 2004 Grammys to accept his Song of the Year award, he was never seen in public again. On the videotape on which Vandross appeared he sent an emotional message that said: "Whenever I say goodbye it's never for long because I believe in the power of love." Vandross died on July 1, 2005 at John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Edison, New Jersey. He was 54. At this time, the cause of death is not known, although hospital spokesman Rob Cavanaugh has said that Vandross never recovered from the 2003 stroke. It was reported that he died peacefully, surrounded by his family and friends.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a friend of Vandross, described him as "a boy so mellow, so powerful; a boy of rare, rare vintage. We lost Luther very early because of his medical condition, but his legacy will be a powerful legacy."
His funeral was in New York on July 8, 2005. After two days of viewing, Vandross was buried in George Washington Memorial Park in Paramus, New Jersey.
Luther Vandross was inspired by the soul divas of the 1960s: Dionne Warwick, Patti Labelle & the Bluebells, Diana Ross & the Supremes and Aretha Franklin, for whom he eventually produced a few albums.
Luther Vandross did many covers of older songs, such as "Since I Lost My Baby" (originally recorded by The Temptations), "Superstar (Until You Come Back To Me)" (originally recorded by The Carpenters and most recently covered by Ruben Studdard), "Love Won't Let Me Wait" (originally recorded by Major Harris), "Always and Forever" (originally recorded by Heatwave), "Knocks Me Off My Feet" (originally recorded by Stevie Wonder), and "Lovely Day" (originally recorded by Bill Withers), and "A House is Not A Home", a Burt Bacharach standard. His hit "Love Power" included snippets of the soul classic "The Power of Love".
Vandross inspired his J Records labelmate, Ruben Studdard, the American Idol of 2003. Besides Studdard, Vandross also inspired countless other artists, both male and female, such as Boyz II Men, Usher, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and Brandy. It was with Beyoncé that he recorded yet another cover of a well-known song, "The Closer I Get To You", originally recorded by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. Another American Idol contestant, Scott Savol of the 2005 season, had an affinity for Vandross' music, and he sang three of Vandross' famous songs during that season of the show (including "Superstar" in the show's Cleveland auditions).
There have been many questions regarding Vandross' s--uality, mainly due to the fact that he remained a bachelor all of his life. The "lifelong bachelor" never had any children, but doted on his nieces and nephews. The entertainer said his "busy lifestyle" made marriage difficult; and indicated that "it was not what he wanted".
Vandross was as famous for keeping his personal life private as he was for his singing. In 2002, BET put the question to Vandross in an interview televised on its show Journeys in Black. Vandross refused to address questions of his s--uality, and instead told BET it was none of their business and rightly separated his personal life from his professional one.
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