Flashback Friday – Luther Vandross
For those who grew up listing to music in the 80’s – 90’s, you could not have been out on a date, slow dance to love song or have a late night evening dinner that lead to a early sunrise breakfast without playing the unmistakeable voice and songs of Luther “LUTHA” Vandross. There wasn’t a woman on the planet that would turn you down if you had one of his songs playing on your eight-track or cassette tape made up of nothing but Slow Jams. Known as the premiere balladeer of his time, Luther Vandross made lovers out most hardcore, gansta type thugs, they just won’t admit it to the “homies”. Wall Street brokers secretly cued up a luther melody when at home making mergers & acquisitions, then playing the status quo Michael Bolten in their plush Jag or Bentley. His smooth voice and melodic sound made lovers out of anyone who wanted to be with a certain someone…and made the mission of the night much easier. We give you…
Luther Ronzoni Vandross (April 20, 1951 – July 1, 2005) was a prolific singer-songwriter and record producer. Throughout his career, Vandross was an in demand background vocalist for several different artists including Chaka Khan, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, and Donna Summer. He later became the lead singer of the group Change which released its certified gold debut album, The Glow of Love, in 1980 on Warner Bros. Records. After Vandross left the group, he was signed to Epic Records as a solo artist and released his debut solo album, Never Too Much in 1981.
His hit songs include, “Never Too Much”, “Here and Now”, “Any Love”, “Power of Love/Love Power”, “I Can Make It Better” and “For You to Love”. Many of his songs were covers of original music by other artists such as “If This World Were Mine” (duet with Cheryl Lynn), “Since I Lost My Baby”, “Superstar” and “Always and Forever”. Duets such as “The Closer I Get to You” with Beyoncé, “Endless Love” with Mariah Carey and “The Best Things in Life Are Free” with Janet Jackson were all hits in his career.
During his career, Vandross sold over 25 million records worldwide and received eight Grammy Awards including Best Male R&B Vocal Performance four different times. He won four Grammy Awards in 2004 including the Grammy Award for Song of the Year for a song recorded not long before his death, “Dance with My Father”. The song was co-written with Vandross’ friend and protégé, Richard Marx.
Luther Ronzoni Vandross was born on April 20, 1951 at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, New York City, United States. He was the fourth child and second son of Mary Ida Vandross and Luther Vandross, Sr.
Vandross was raised on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the NYCHA Alfred E. Smith Houses public housing development. His father was a crooner and his mother, a nurse, was singing gospel. At the age of three, having his own phonograph, he taught himself to play the piano by ear. His family moved to the Bronx when he was thirteen. His sisters, Patricia “Pat” and Ann began taking Vandross to the Apollo Theaterand to a theater in Brooklyn to see Dionne Warwick or Aretha Franklin. Pat Vandross sang with the vocal group The Crests, which had a number two hit in 1958/59 with “16 Candles”, although she left the group before the song was recorded.
Vandross’ father died of diabetes when Vandross was eight years old. In high school, Vandross performed in a group, Shades of Jade, that once played at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He was also a member of a theater workshop, “Listen My Brother”, which released the singles “Only Love Can Make a Better World” and “Listen My Brother”. He also appeared in the second and fifth episodes of Sesame Street in November 1969. Vandross attended Western Michigan University for a year before dropping out to continue pursuing a career in music.
Vandross sang on Delores Hall’s Hall-Mark album (1973). He sang with her on the song “Who’s Gonna Make It Easier for Me”, which he wrote, and he contributed another song, “In This Lonely Hour”. Having co-written “Fascination” (1974) forDavid Bowie’s Young Americans (1975), he went on to tour with him as a back-up vocalist in September 1974. Vandross wrote “Everybody Rejoice” for the 1975 Broadway musical The Wiz and appeared as a choir member in the movie.
Vandross also sang backing vocals for artists including Roberta Flack, Chaka Khan, Ben E. King, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, and Donna Summer, and for the bands Chic and Todd Rundgren’s Utopia.Before his solo breakthrough, Vandross was part of a singing quintet in the late ’70s named Luther, consisting of former Shades of Jade members Anthony Hinton and Diane Sumler, as well as Theresa V. Reed, and Christine Wiltshire, signed to Cotillion Records. Although the singles “It’s Good for the Soul”, “Funky Music (Is a Part of Me)”, and “The Second Time Around” were relatively successful, their two albums, the self-titled Luther (1976) and This Close to You (1977), didn’t sell enough to make the charts. Vandross bought back the rights to those albums after Cotillion dropped the group, preventing their later re-release. Vandross also wrote and sang commercial jingles during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and continued his successful career as a popular session singer during the late 1970s.
In 1978, Vandross sang lead vocals for a disco band called Greg Diamond’s Bionic Boogie on the song titled “Hot Butterfly”. Also in 1978, he appeared on Quincy Jones’s Sounds…and Stuff Like That!!, most notably on the song “I’m Gonna Miss You In The Morning” along with Patti Austin. Luther also sang with the band Soirée and was the lead vocalist on the track “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”; he also contributed background vocals to the album along with Jocelyn Brown and Sharon Redd, each of whom also saw solo success. Additionally, he sang the lead vocals on the group Mascara’s LP title song “See You in L.A.” released in 1979. Vandross also appeared on the group Charme’s 1979 album Let It In, most notably on a remake ofToto’s hit single “Georgy Porgy”.
Vandross finally made his long desired career breakthrough as a featured singer with the vaunted pop-dance act Change, a studio concept created by French-Italian businessman Jacques Fred Petrus. Their 1980 hits, “The Glow of Love” (by Romani, Malavasi and Garfield) and “Searching” (by Malavasi), both featuring Vandross as lead singer, opened up the world for Vandross. And there was no doubt about whether Vandross liked the song “The Glow of Love”. In an interview that Vibe Magazine did with him in 2001 Vandross said, “This is the most beautiful song I’ve ever sung in my life.” Both songs were from Change’s debut album The Glow of Love. Vandross was originally intended to perform on their second and highly successful album Miracles in 1981, but declined the offer as Petrus didn’t pay enough money. Vandross’ decision led to a recording contract with Epic Records that same year, but he also provided background vocals on “Miracles” and on the new Petrus-created act, the B. B. & Q. Band in 1981. During that hectic year Vandross jump-started his second attempt at a solo career with his debut album, Never Too Much. In addition to the hit title track it contained a version of the Burt Bacharach / Hal David song “A House Is Not a Home”.
The song “Never Too Much”, written by himself, reached number-one on the R&B charts. This period also marked the beginning of songwriting collaboration with bassist Marcus Miller, who played on many of the tracks and would also produce or co-produce a number of tracks for Vandross. The Never Too Much album was arranged by Vandross’high school classmate Nat Adderley, Jr., a collaboration that would last through Vandross’s career.
Vandross released a series of successful R&B albums during the 1980s and continued his session work with guest vocals on groups like Charme in 1982. Many of his earlier albums made a bigger impact on the R&B charts than on the pop charts. During the 1980s, two of Vandross’ singles reached #1 on the Billboard R&B charts: “Stop to Love”, in 1986, and a duet with Gregory Hines—”There’s Nothing Better Than Love.” Vandross was at the helm as producer for Aretha Franklin’s Gold-certified, award-winning comeback album Jump to It. He also produced the disappointing follow-up album, 1983’s Get It Right.
In 1983, the opportunity to work with his main music influence, Dionne Warwick, came about with Vandross producing, writing songs, and singing on How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye, her fourth album for Arista Records. The title track duet reached #27 on the Hot 100 chart (#7 R&B/#4 Adult Contemporary), while the second single, “Got a Date” was only a moderate hit (#45 R&B/#15 Club Play).
Vandross wrote “It’s Hard for Me to Say” for Diana Ross from her Red Hot Rhythm & Blues album. Ross performed the song as an a cappella tribute to Oprah Winfrey on her final season of The Oprah Winfrey Show. She then proceeded to add it to her successful 2010-12 “More Today Than Yesterday: The Greatest Hits Tour. Vandross also recorded a version of this song on his Your Secret Love album in 1996. He made two public appearances at Diana Ross’s Return to Love Tour at its opening in Philadelphia at First Union Spectrum and its final stop at Madison Square Garden in 2000.
In December 1985, the singer filed a libel suit against a British magazine after it attributed his 85-pound weight loss to AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Vandross said he weighed 325 pounds when he started a diet in May that year.
In 1985, Vandross first spotted the talent of Jimmy Salvemini, who was fifteen at the time, on Star Search. Vandross thought Salvemini had the perfect voice for some of his songs, and contacted Salvemini, who was managed by his brother Larry. A contract was negotiated with Elektra records for $250,000 and Vandross agreed to produce the album. He even contacted old friends Cheryl Lynn, Alfa Anderson (Chic), Phoebe Snow and Irene Cara to appear on the album.After the album was completed, Luther, Jimmy, and Larry decided to celebrate. On January 12, 1986, they were riding in Vandross’ 1985 convertible Mercedes-Benz on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, in the north section of Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles. Luther was driving at 48 mph in a 35 mph zone when his Mercedes veered across the double yellow center line of the two lane street, turned sideways and collided with the front of a 1972 Mercury Marquis that was headed southbound, then swung around and hit a 1979 Cadillac Seville head on. Luther Vandross and Jimmy Salvemini were rushed to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Larry Salvemini, who was riding on the front passenger seat, was killed during the collision. Vandross suffered three broken ribs, broken hip, several bruises and facial cuts. Jimmy, who sat in the back of the car, had cuts, bruises and contusions. In the same year, Vandross faced vehicular manslaughter charges as a result of Larry’s death, and his driving license was suspended for a year. There was no evidence Vandross was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The singer pled no contest to reckless driving. At first, the Salvemini family was supportive of Vandross, but later filed a wrongful death suit against him. The case was quietly settled out of court with a payment to the Salvemini family for $700,000. The album called “Roll With It” was released later that year.
Vandross also sang background vocals in Stevie Wonder’s 1985 hit “Part Time Lovers”. In 1986, Vandross voiced a cartoon character named Zack for three Saturday morning animated PSA spots for ABC Television called ‘Zack of All Trades’. The 1989 compilation The Best of Luther Vandross… The Best of Love included the ballad “Here and Now”, his first single to chart in the Billboard pop chart top ten, peaking at number six. He won his first Grammy award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance in 1991. In 1990, Vandross wrote and sang background for Whitney Houston in a song entitled “Who Do You Love?” which appeared on her “I’m Your Baby Tonight” album.
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, and his track “Power of Love/Love Power” won 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. In 1993, Vandross had a brief non-speaking role in the Robert Townsend movie The Meteor Man. He played a hit man who plotted to stop Townsend’s title character.
Vandross hit the top ten again in 1994, teaming with Mariah Carey on a cover version of Lionel Richie and Diana Ross’s duet “Endless Love”. It was included on the album Songs (Luther Vandross album), a collection of songs which had inspired Vandross over the years. He also appears on Frank Sinatra’s posthumous Duets album. At 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 album released through Epic Records. After releasing I Know on Virgin Records, he signed with J Records. His first album on Clive Davis’s new label, entitledLuther Vandross, was released in 2001, and it produced the hits “Take You Out” (#7 R&B/#26 Pop), and “I’d Rather” (#17 Adult Contemporary/#40 R&B/#83 Pop). Vandross scored at least one top 10 R&B hit every year from 1981-1994.
In 1997, Vandross sang the American national anthem during Super Bowl XXXI at the Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana.
In September 2001, Vandross performed a rendition of Michael Jackson’s hit song “Man in the Mirror” at Jackson’s 30th Anniversary special, alongside Usher.
In 2002, he gave some of his final concerts during his last tour, The BK Got Soul Tour starring Vandross featuring Angie Stone and Gerald Levert.
In the spring of 2003, Vandross’ last collaboration was Doc Powell’s “What’s Going On”, a cover of Marvin Gaye from Powell’s 2003 album 97th and Columbus.
In 2003, Vandross released the album Dance with My Father. The title track, which was dedicated to Vandross’ memory childhood dances with his father, won Vandross and his co-writer, 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 his first to reach number one on the Billboard album chart. The video for the title track features various celebrities alongside their fathers and other family members. The 2nd single released from that album, “Think About You” was the Number One Urban Adult Contemporary Song of 2004 according to Radio & Records.
In 2003, after the televised NCAA Men’s Basketball championship, CBS Sports gave “One Shining Moment” a new look. Vandross, who had been to only one basketball game in his life, was the new singer, and the video had none of the special effects, like glowing basketballs and star trails, that videos from previous years had. This song version is in use today.
Vandross suffered from diabetes and hypertension, both of which may have been brought on by family genetics as well as lifestyle and nutrition. He had just finished the final vocals for the album Dance With My Father (2003), on which he collaborated with pop rock artist Richard Marx, when on April 16, 2003 he suffered a severe stroke at his home in New York City. The stroke left him in a coma for nearly two months, during which time he also had to fight both meningitis and pneumonia (which required atracheotomy). The stroke also left Vandross with noticeable difficulty speaking and singing, as well as confinement to a wheelchair. Vandross appeared briefly on videotape at the 2004 Grammy Awards to accept his Song of the Year Award for “Dance With My Father”. In addition to thanking his fans for their support throughout his ordeal and recovery, he said, “When I say goodbye it’s never for long, because I believe in the power of love” (he sang the last six words). Following an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, he was never seen in public again. Vandross died on July 1, 2005 at John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Edison, New Jersey at the age of 54. His apparent cause of death was a heart attack.