Singer, songwriter, producer, and arranger
Luthur Vandross was well-known and respected among professional musicians long before he debuted as a solo star in 1981 with the hit album Never 7oo Much. For several years, he had been contributing his talents as a backup singer, songwriter, and arranger to albums by the likes of Chaka Khan, Carly Simon, Quincy Jones, and Roberta Flack. His solo appeal is due in part to his rich tenor and superb stylings, which, Richard Harrington declared in the Washington Post, put Vandross “in the pantheon of classic soul singers that stretches from Ray Charles and Sam Cooke to Al Green.” It is also attributable to his preference for unabashedly romantic love songs in an era of sexually explicit lyrics. “Some people are tired of letting it all hang out, and Vandross’s lyrics speak to a special romantic need,” wrote Orde Coombs in New York.
Vandross grew up in the Alfred E. Smith public housing project on New York City’s lower East Side. He was surrounded by music from birth; his mother, a widow, sent her son to piano lessons when he was only three years old, and his eldest sister was a member of The Crests, a doo-wop group best remembered for the song “Sixteen Candles.” “My sister was too young to go out to rehearsals, so the group would work out in our living room,” Vandross recalled in Ebony. He immersed himself in the music of Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, the Suprêmes and other black groups of the time, becoming so wrapped up in their world that when Ross left the Suprêmes his grade average dropped from a B+ to a C-.
The great black women singers, not the men, inspired him to sing, Vandross insists. “I acknowledge what Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Tony Bennett and all the fabulous male singers did, but that’s not what aroused my artistic libido,” he stated in Jet. A pivotal event in his young life was his 1963 attendance of a Dionne Warwick concert at the Brooklyn Fox Theatre.” She wiped me out…. She knocked me down with that tone quality. That’s when I made the decision to sing. I wanted to do to somebody what she did to me.” Yet Vandross, whose natural shyness was compounded by a serious weight problem, was so self-conscious that he could not bring himself to sing aloud around his family. By the age of sixteen, however, he had become confident enough to audition for and win a place in a sixteen-member vocal group, Listen My Brother, managed by the owners of the famous Apollo Theater. After graduating from Taft High School, Vandross enrolled at Western Michigan University, but after an unsuccessful year there he returned to New York to concentrate on a musical career. In 1972 a song he wrote, “Everybody Rejoice (Brand New Day)” was selected for use in the Broadway musical The Wiz. The royalties helped him
Born April 20, 1951, in New York, N.Y.; son of Mary Ida Vandross. Education: Attended Western Michigan University, c. 1970.
Worked as backup singer, songwriter, and arranger on recordings by numerous artists, including Chaka Khan, Carly Simon, Quincy Jones, and Roberta Flack, 1974—; member of group Luther, 1976; singer of commercial jingles, beginning in mid-1970s; solo performer, 1981—; record producer, 1981—.
Awards: Received Grammy Award nominations for best new artist and best male rhythm and blues vocalist, 1981.
Addresses: Office— c/o Epic Records, CBS, Inc., 51 West 52nd St., New York, NY 10019. Other— Luther Vandross Fan Club, P.O. Box 1570, Ansonia Station, 1990 Broadway, New York, NY 10023.
pay the rent on his first apartment, but he continued to work a variety of non-musical jobs as well.
Nineteen seventy-four was the year Vandross really made his break into professional music. A childhood friend, Carlos Alomar, had become the guitarist for David Bowie. He took Vandross to the recording studio where Bowie’s Young Americans was being made. While listening to the studio tape, Vandross began singing his ideas for the chorus to Alomar. Bowie, standing unnoticed nearby, was impressed with what he heard. He hired Vandross to sing and arrange backup vocals on Young Americans. He also used a Vandross composition, “Fascination,” on the album, and took the singer along as part of his backup chorus when he went on tour. Through Bowie, Vandross met many influential figures in the music industry and was soon doing session work with top performers.
Encouraged by his success, Vandross and some other singers formed their own group, Luther. They made two albums for Atlantic in 1976, but neither was successful, and Luther soon disbanded. Its former members went on to become parts of the groups Kleer and Chic. Vandross sang lead vocals on several hit songs during the mid-1970s, including Bionic Boogies’s “Hot Butterfly,” Change’s “Glow of Love” and “Searchin’,” and Chic’s “Dance Dance Dance” and “Everybody Dance,” but his contributions were uncredited. His voice was heard by even more people after he met a producer of commençai jingles while working on Quincy Jones’s Sounds … And Stuff Like That. Soon Vandross was a member of what he called in the Washington Post “a very small clique of people who do all the jingle work,” singing the praises of everything from beer and soda to AT&T and the U.S. Army. He remarked that the difference between session work and jingle work was “amazing…. [In session work] you go in at 12 and come out at a quarter to midnight and you make $600. A jingle will book you from noon to 1 o’clock and you make $35, 000.”
Jingle work was lucrative, but Vandross was ready for the challenge of a solo career. In 1981 he put together a demo tape and made the rounds of the major record companies, but was repeatedly rejected because he insisted on producing himself. Epic finally gambled on his ability, and the company’s risk paid off handsomely. His debut album, Never Too Much, sold over a million copies, and Vandross won Grammy Award nominations for best new artist and best male rhythm and blues singer. Never Too Much’s popularity was matched by 1982’s followup release, For Ever, For Always, For Love, and by the 1983 album Busy Body. Vandross also found time to produce the album How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye? for Dionne Warwick and to revitalize Aretha Franklin’s career by producing two of her best albums in years, Jump to It! and Gei It Right. Vandross commented in the Washington Post that becoming a star was somewhat frightening: “After being a session singer—you come in 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.” His apprehensions about appearing in public were reflected in his early stage shows. Like his albums, they were lavishly produced. Elaborate sets, special effects, actors, and dancers all served to distract audiences from the star.
Vandross seemed to reach a personal turning point in 1985. The album he released that year, The Night I Fell in Love, was full of his trademark love songs, but featured a tough, spare sound. The accompanying tour was also stripped down to the bare essentials. With his band hidden offstage, Vandross, who had lost about 100 pounds, stood alone. A Variety reviewer was enthusiastic about the changes, writing of a concert in New York City, “With absolutely no props, gimmicks or vaudeville skits, a very streamlined Vandross enthralled 20,000 attendees with his fantastic voice and sense of humor.” His popularity grew even greater with the albums Give Me the Reason and Any Love, which increased his appeal to white listeners. Summing up Vandross’s appeal, Richard Harrington stated: “Few people have devoted themselves to love songs so completely and successfully…. He has dedicated himself to combining [a] big-hearted, big-voiced approach to the love song with the sharp, powerful rhythm tracks of the ’80s…. When this approach clicks … it produces some of the most exhilarating love songs this side of Smokey Robinson.”
LPs; all for Epic
Never Too Much, 1981.
Forever, For Always, For Love, 1982.
Busy Body, 1984.
The Night I Fell in Love, 1985.
Give Me the Reason, 1987.
Any Love, 1989.
Ebony, December 1985.
Jet, June 17, 1985.
New York, February 15, 1982.
New York Times, October 3, 1982; January 7, 1987.
People, November 10, 1983.
Variety, January 22, 1986; May 28, 1986; April 22, 1987.
Washington Post, January 29, 1984; April 6, 1986.
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