Vandross, Luther Ronzoni

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Vandross, Luther Ronzoni

(b. 20 April 1951 in New York City; d. 1 July 2005 in Edison, New Jersey), rhythm-and-blues singer, songwriter, arranger, and producer who released a succession of hit songs and million-selling albums in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s and also revitalized the careers of several veteran performers.

Vandross was born the fourth and final child to the gospel-singing parents Luther Vandross, an upholsterer, and Mary Ida Vandross, a nurse, who encouraged his musical interests as he grew up in an apartment in the Alfred E. Smith housing projects on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Although he began taking piano lessons at the age of three, he would be largely self-taught as a professional musician. His sister Patricia was an early member of a vocal group called the Crests. In 1959, when Vandross was eight years old, his father died of diabetes.

In his youth Vandross became enamored of the rhythm-and-blues and pop music of the 1960s, particularly the work of Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin. While attending William Howard Taft High School, he was part of the musical-theater ensemble Listen My Brother, which performed at the Apollo Theater and sang on the first episode of Sesame Street. Upon his graduation from high school in 1969, Vandross entered Western Michigan College, where he began studying electrical engineering and music, but he dropped out after two semesters and returned to New York, determined to forge a career in music.

Vandross struggled in the early 1970s but began to make headway toward the middle of the decade. In the summer of 1974, his friend Carlos Alomar, the guitarist for the British rock star David Bowie, invited him to observe the recording sessions for Bowie’s upcoming album. Bowie had determined to take his sound in a rhythm-and-blues direction, and Vandross was pressed into service as a background singer and vocal arranger. He also cowrote the song “Fascination” with Bowie. By the time Bowie’s album Young Americans was released in March 1975, Vandross had another significant credit: his composition “Everybody Rejoice (A Brand New Day)” was part of the score of the musical The Wiz, which opened on Broadway on 5 January 1975 for a run of 1,672 performances.

Bowie introduced Vandross to other people in the music business, notably Bette Midler and her producer, Arif Mardin. Soon, Vandross began getting work on recording sessions for major artists. He also assembled a vocal quintet called Luther that signed a contract with Cotillion Records, but after releasing two unsuccessful albums, the group disbanded.

Vandross then returned to the recording studios, where in the late 1970s he appeared on dozens of records. He also entered the lucrative world of commercial jingles. Toward the end of the decade, he was becoming somewhat better known, assuming a more prominent role on records and receiving more credit. The turning point in his emergence came when he agreed to sing the lead vocals on recordings by the Italian studio group Change in 1980. Two rhythm-and-blues hits resulted, “Searching” and “The Glow of Love,” and Vandross began shopping a demo tape to record labels, seeking a contract. His search was complicated by the demand that he be allowed to write and produce his records as well as sing, but in December 1980, Epic Records, a subsidiary of CBS Records (owned by the Columbia Broadcasting System), agreed to his demands and signed him to a long-term deal.

That deal began to pay off for all involved upon the release of Vandross’s debut solo album, Never Too Much, in August 1981. The album set a precedent for the singer’s recording career. Assembling a team of associates that prominently included the bassist Marcus Miller and the keyboard player Nat Adderley, Jr., Vandross wrote all the songs, with the exception of a cover of the Dionne Warwick hit “A House Is Not a Home,” written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Singing in his smooth, elastic tenor over propulsive rhythm tracks, Vandross created a style of rhythm and blues that bridged the sounds of his youth with the post-disco era of the early 1980s. Genre fans responded warmly, with the album and its title song reaching the top of the rhythm-and-blues charts; to Vandross’s chagrin, however, it was less successful among mainstream pop listeners.

In his follow-up albums of the 1980s and early 1990s, Vandross took a similar approach and enjoyed similar success; eventually, his total album sales exceeded 20 million copies. Concurrently, he served as writer and producer for some of his musical idols of the 1960s, including Warwick and Franklin, helping them to modernize their music and reach new audiences. He remained frustrated, however, by his limited success at crossing over to the pop charts, not achieving his first pop Top Ten hit until 1990, with the Grammy Award–winning “Here and Now.” In 1992 he sued Sony Music Entertainment, which had purchased CBS Records, to void his contract. The suit was settled, and he switched first to Virgin Records in 1998 and then to J Records in 2001. By making slight adjustments to his sound (such as with the limited inclusion of rappers), he remained contemporary, and his albums continued to sell in the millions into the early 2000s.

Vandross, who never married, was reticent with regard to his personal life, but he did acknowledge a weight problem, once noting that he had gained and lost as much as 120 pounds as many as nine times. However his weight issues may have affected his health, he continued to perform through the winter of 2003. But on 16 April 2003 he suffered a serious stroke at his New York apartment. While he remained hospitalized, his latest album, Dance with My Father, was released in June, becoming his first album to enter the pop charts at number one. Its title song, a heartfelt reminiscence about his father cowritten with Richard Marx, became a Top Forty hit on both the pop and rhythm-and-blues charts, and it won the 2003 Grammy Award for Best Song, one of four Grammys for the album. Vandross was said to be recovering from his stroke, but he died on 1 July 2005. He is buried at George Washington Memorial Park, in Paramus, New Jersey.

In a style of popular music known for its continual changes and lack of regard for the past, Vandross championed what came to be called “old school,” traditional rhythm and blues, which he managed to merge with contemporary styles such as disco and hip-hop to maintain a consistent level of popularity. While his music was best heard in his own sensuous voice, his touch extended to the production of successful records for his friends and mentors.

The one book-length account of Vandross’s life is Craig Seymour, Luther: The Life and Longing of Luther Vandross (2004), published after Vandross’s stroke but before his death. Jet magazine published an interview with Vandross, “Luther Vandross—Singer on His New Record and Weight Loss” (16 July 2001). He also gave an extensive interview to Ebony magazine for the cover article in its December 1991 issue, “Love Power!” Obituaries are in the New York Times (2 July 2005) and Billboard magazine (16 July 2005).

William Ruhlmann