Hailed as the best voice of a generation, Luther Vandross sang from the heart with a fragility and silky texture that made him unique in the world of popular music. He was a native New Yorker who was born, educated and grew up in the Bronx. From an early age music was his passion, he loved to listen and sing along with the divas of femme soul like Patti Labelle, Aretha, Dionne (who was a major inspiration) Shirley & the Shirelles and many others. Luther also studied the harmony voices of the vocal group. His sister Patricia sang with the Crests (on Joyce and Coed) in the late 50s. Luther formed his first group the Shades of Jade aged 13 that included classmate and lifetime friend Fonzie Thornton. At high school he also met Nile Rogers, who he was later to work with. Even in the early days, people used to say that he had a real talent for presentation. Not only in the way that he sang but his influence on the visual style of the group. His family had a history of diabetes, which aggravated a fluctuating weight problem and brought on further complications of high blood pressure that must have undermined his confidence periodically. Nevertheless he persevered with talent shows and auditions trying to establish a toehold in the competitive New York music scene of the late 60s and early 70s.
One night, listening backstage at Harlem’s Apollo, Luther was intrigued by the Temptations reworking of the old ‘Show Boat’ song ‘Old Man River’. It set him thinking about the concept of not only re-arranging songs but also completely restructuring them. ‘Old Man River’ had traditionally been tinkered with by many vocal groups down the years, like the Ravens and the Original Drifters amongst others and had come a long way from it’s early interpretation by Paul Robeson in 1936. In New York Luther ran into his friend Carlos Alomar, who was guitarist with David Bowie, when they were recording the Young Americans album in 1974. After Bowie heard Luther singing in the studio, he hired him to do all the background vocals and arrangements for the album. This led him to work with ex school chum Nile Rogers and Chic on ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’ where he sang lead and according to Rogers, invented Chic’s vocal sound. He did further background work with Bette Midler, Carly Simon, Chaka Khan, Martha Reeves, the Brecker Brothers, Judy Collins, Linda Lewis, Maggie Bell and Todd Rundgren amongst others and during this period he developed and honed his very own unique way to be soulful, creating what he called the ‘crying sound’.
As time marched into a new decade he became the lead vocalist for Change, a ten-piece Euro/American group featuring Paolo Granolio (gtr) and David Romani (bs). Vandross sang on the first two albums. Change was conceived as a rolling session band, with members handpicked for projects by producer Jacques Fred Petrus. They had a string of hit singles that started on RFC with ‘Lovers Holiday’, ‘Searching’ and ‘The Glow Of Love’ in 1980 then they were signed to Atlantic in ’81 and James Robinson replaced Luther when the band moved from studio to performance. Luther went back into the studio and continued background and advertising work. But by now he had soaked up much valuable experience working with a wide variety of artists and at 30 he was fully prepared for a solo career. So he started looking for a recording deal and was swiftly snapped up by Epic.
‘Never Too Much’ became Luther Vandross’ first solo hit and took him to #1 on the US R&B charts (#33 Pop) in August ’81. The album topped R&B and went Top 20 pop selling 2M and this was no flash in the pan. Over the following seven years Luther scored 5 more #1 albums with Forever, For Always, For Love, Busy Body, The Night I Fell In Love (his highest charting album), Give Me The Reason and Any Love. His consistent success elevated him to superstardom and all that good preparation gave him the experience and freedom the write /produce /arrange and control his solo career right from the word go. This formula proved positive and during his near 20-year association with Epic he scored close to 30 hit singles and had 15 top 20 albums. Vandross’ Epic recordings were hailed by many as a new chapter in Soul music. From his first album came ‘A House Is Not A Home’ the Dionne Warwick classic that was the start of the recreation technique that he became famous for. Luther’s vocal floats free like a jazz tinged alto – consistently arriving right on time as originally prescribed by Bacharach & David. He later developed his own detailed spin on others songs, reconstructing and revealing new and unexpected perspectives, giving even well known classics new life. Vandross was not satisfied merely to find the picture a new frame but he made sensitive very personal reconstructions. He was a craftsman, an artisan. This developing process of his production skills was a natural progression with the superb attention to detail that earned him the reputation of a perfectionist. He gave many great songs including Brenda Russell’s ‘If Only For One Night’ and Dionne’s ‘So Amazing’, Roberta and Donny’s ‘The Closer I Get To You’, Diana’s and Lionel’s ‘Endless Love’ a complete make over. Luther had always been inspired by the female voice and he decided that he wanted to write and produce for Aretha Franklin, so he cut 3 songs including ‘Jump To It’ and sent them to producer Clive Davis at Arista. Davis was impressed and Luther not only got the gig but also formed a career connection that was to develop later down the line. Known as a singer’s singer, he became very popular with many other artists who soon wanted to put his talents to work for them. He went onto produce for Diana Ross, Teddy Pendergrass, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston among many others. His own solo success in America earned him 10 consecutive platinum album awards and in the UK his combined singles and album sales scored 45 pop chart entries (including re-issues and remixes) for Epic between February ’83 and October ’97.
Luther was intensely private about his personal life although the intrusive media were constantly inquisitive about his sexuality and weight issues; he used his humour to deflect these searching questions. However he did discuss his weight fluctuation with fellow sufferer Oprah Winfrey on her TV show confessing that it cramped his stylish inclinations. For his visually spectacular stage shows he was as meticulous in presentation as he was in the studio. In addition to being a great performer he always showed a flair for fashion. His passion for his art effortlessly transferred to a growing audience in performance and his choice of material wasn’t limited to any genre when he sang ‘Always & Forever’ (a Heatwave original), ‘Love The One You’re With’ (Buffalo Springfield) or ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ (Bee Gees) he made them his own but it often brought him criticism from narrow minded Soul fraternity. Luther liked nothing better than working as part of a creative team and he had the perfect style for duets of which he recorded many, such as ‘How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye’ with Dionne, ‘If This World Were Mine’ - Cheryl Lynn
Davis, who had been forced into ‘early’ retirement by Arista was not ready to quit yet and formed his new label j Records. Clive, who still had an unwavering passion for the business and a real ability to spot, develop and reinvent music talent, gathered a unique blend of artists around him to launch his new enterprise that included Alicia Keys, Angie Stone, Santana, Fantasia and Luther Vandross. In 2001 J relaunched Luther, looking to regain a bigger crossover success and his first album sold over 1.5 M and he was back. In early 2003 he wrote and recorded the beautiful ‘Dance With My Father’ a touching tribute to dad that was seen by many as his career song. But tragedy struck on 16 April when Luther suffered a serious stroke that left him in a coma for two months.
Luther Vandross: Born 20 April 1951, New York City, New York
Died July 2005, JFK Medical Centre, New Jersey. Aged 54
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Luther Vandross- J Records /01
The Ultimate Luther Vandross- (18) J Records /06