I come here today to praise Luther Ronzoni Vandross, who, despite the somewhat incongruous middle name, was one of the greatest singers of any kind of music that this world has ever known. When he died nine years ago the world suddenly got a little less musical. His loss, and his influence, continue to be felt to this day.
Vandross was born in New York City in 1951 and raised on the Lower East Side. At three years old he had already taught himself to play the piano by ear. He was eight years-old when his father died of complications from diabetes, and 13 when his family moved to the Bronx. Vandross was fortunate to have two older sisters who started to take him to shows at the legendary Apollo Theater, where he saw artists like Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin. In fact Vandross himself sang at the Apollo when he was in high school, as a member of a group called Shades of Jade. He wasn’t the first singer of note in the family though. His sister Pat had been a member of the Crests, who had a huge hit with “16 Candles” in 1959. Unfortunately for her, Pat had left the group by the time the Crests recorded their hit.
Vandross dabbled in theater as well. He was part of a workshop group called Listen My Brother, which released two singles, and he appeared on two early episodes of Sesame Street in 1969. He tried college, attending Western Michigan University for a year, but music was meant to be his life, and he dropped out.
It wasn’t long before Vandross began to find work as a backing vocalist in New York City. He sang with an astonishing group of artists including Roberta Flack, Barbra Streisand, Chaka Khan, Ben E. King, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, Carly Simon, and Donna Summer, as well as for Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, and Chic. During this time he also co-wrote the song “Fascination” for David Bowie’s Young Americans album.
By the late ’70s Vandross was singing with a group that bore his name, Luther, and they signed a deal with Cotillion Records. The group had some success with the singles “It’s Good For the Soul,” “Funky Music (Is a Part of Me),” and “The Second Time Around,” but the two albums that the group released failed to chart, and Cotillion dropped them. Meanwhile, Vandross continued his career as an in-demand session vocalist, and he also found success writing and recording jingles. Although he sang on a number of hit records in the disco era, his breakthrough as a featured vocalist didn’t come until 1980 when a studio group called Change had hits with “The Glow of Love,” and “Searching.” Vandross sang lead on both.
Based on that success, Epic Records signed Vandross to a recording deal, and he finally released his first solo album, Never Too Much, in 1981. The title track, written by Vandross, went to #1 on the R&B chart. The album also featured an unforgettable extended version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s classic “A House is Not a Home.” It was the beginning of long collaborations with bassist Marcus Miller, who played on the album, and Nat Adderley, Jr., who arranged it.
The hits kept coming in the ’80s, but Vandross’ success was somewhat limited to the R&B charts. He kept doing session work, and produced two albums for Aretha Franklin, her big comeback Jump To It, and the less successful Get It Right. Dionne Warwick had been a major influence for Vandross since he saw her at the Apollo as a child. In 1983 he had the opportunity to work with her, producing, writing, and singing on her album How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye. Warwick scored a hit with the title track. He also found success working with Diana Ross during this time period.
Anyone who was around at the time will vividly remember not only Vandross’ great voice, but also his drastic weight fluctuations. Each time he would appear on television he seemed to have lost a lot of weight, or gained it back again. He even sued a British tabloid for libel in 1985 when the magazine claimed that his weight loss was the result of AIDS.
In early 1986 Vandross was driving his Mercedes Benz convertible in the Hollywood Hills. His protege Jimmy Salvemini was sitting in the backseat, and Salvemini’s father in the passenger seat. There was an accident in which Vandross and Jimmy Salvemini were badly injured, and Larry Salvemini was killed. Later that year Vandross was charged with vehicular manslaughter. Eventually he pled out to reckless driving, and settled a wrongful death suit brought by the Salvemini family out of court.
It was in 1989 that Vandross finally broke through on the Pop chart. A two-disc greatest hits album called The Best of Luther Vandross … The Best of Love introduced him to a whole new audience. The album also included a new song called “Here and Now” that became the first Top Ten pop hit for Vandross when it peaked at #6. In 1991 he won his first Grammy for Best Male Vocal R&B Performance. If you own no other Luther Vandross music, this is the album to have.
Going into the ’90s Vandross’ hot streak continued. His Power of Love album spawned two pop hits, and he won a second Best Male Vocal R&B Grammy as well as one for Best R&B Song for “Power of Love/Love Power.” A duet with Janet Jackson, “The Best Things In Life Are Free” was a hit, and so was one with Mariah Carey, a cover of “Endless Love” in 1994. In 1997 he won his third Best Male Vocal R&B Grammy.
There was a second greatest hits album in 1997. It was the last Vandross album for Epic Records. He recorded one album for Virgin Records before moving on to Clive Davis’ new J Records label. In 2001 he released a self-titled album for the label, and two album tracks, “Take You Out,” and “I’d Rather” became hits. In 2003 Vandross released the album Dance With My Father. The title track, which was dedicated to his memories of his father, was co-written by Richard Marx and won the Grammy for Song of the Year in 2004. The album went to #1 on the Billboard album chart, the only time Vandross hit the top of that chart.
College basketball fans will always remember Vandross for his 2003 recording of “One Shining Moment,” which is still played every year at the end of March Madness.
Vandross was on top of the world in the early part of the new century, but there were ominous things going on behind the scenes. He suffered from diabetes and hypertension. It’s possible that his lifestyle, including the major weight swings, exacerbated the problems. Just after finishing the final track for Dance With My Father, he had a massive stroke at his home in New York City. He was in a coma for two months, during which he had to battle meningitis and pneumonia. When he woke up, he could no longer speak or sing without difficulty, and he was confined to a wheelchair.
Vandross wasn’t able to attend the Grammy ceremonies to get his Song of the Year award in 2004, but he did appear on videotape. He said “When I say goodbye it’s never for long, because I believe in the power of love,” singing the last few words. He made one more appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show. It was his last public appearance.
On July 1, 2005, Luther Vandross died in a hospital in New Jersey. The cause of death was given as a heart attack. On that day, a voice that NPR called one of the 50 greatest in the history of recorded music, was permanently stilled, and the world of music became a poorer place.