Legendary R&B balladeer Luther Vandross passed away at the age of 54.
He was considered one of the four frontline contemporary R&B balladeers of the powerful
voice (The others: James Ingram, Peabo Bryson and Jeffrey Osborne) At a time when
R&B is replaced by hip hop as the preference of today’s black youth Vandross
continued to thrive, earning eight Grammy awards and numerous platinum CDs.
You cannot sell records at this rate without appealing to all people. The Luther
Vandross story starts in the Alfred E. Smith projects of lower Manhattan where
Vandross was an avid enthusiast of popular music. He was particularly enamored
with the female voice. The Shirelles and Patti Labelle were among his early
favorites. When Vandross found out that his late father, Luther Sr., had a wonderful
singing voice he became even more inspired to be the consummate entertainer.
Luther Vandross had three siblings; two sisters and a brother. He was the youngest child Of Luther Sr. and Mary Vandross, the others preceded him in death. His siblings had offspring and Luther helped raise them. Luther Vandross never married or had children of his own but since he was so much a part of the lives of his nieces and nephews he felt like a parent. These children knew him as Uncle Ronny or Ronzoni because Luther got his name from his mother who saw that name on a box of spaghetti. The meteoric rise to world wide stardom began at the Apollo theatre where Vandross was involved in a program for young entertainers. He performed in the famous talent competition four times but never won. He did however manage to get a role in the popular long running PBS children’s program “Sesame Street”; in fact Vandross was in the very first show in 1969. Later Vandross wrote and sang the song “Everybody Rejoice” for the Broadway musical, “The Wiz”. Later Vandross became involved with two very influential bands of the disco era, Chic and Change. Luther sang background vocals on “Everybody Dance” and was the lead vocalist on Change’s “Glow of Love” and “Searching”.
Three divas played a role in the success of Luther Vandross (Dionne Warwick,
Roberta Flack, Patti Labelle) but Roberta Flack’s was really a pivotal one. She fired him
when he was her background singer. The reason that she fired him was because she
recognized his immense talent and felt that it was time that he build a career of his own.
Vandross saved his money and later released his first of many best selling albums; “Never Too Late” Every release on Epic Records was a success, in fact during those early
years the only Epic artist whose sales surpassed Luther’s was Michael Jackson. Luther Vandross was not only a great singer, but he was also a great composer. His albums contain his own compositions, usually paired with Nat Adderley Jr. or Marcus Miller.
But another feature of the typical Vandross album or CD was his uncanny ability to take
a classic song made popular by another artist and redo it with his own arrangement. Songs like “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” , “Always & Forever” and “Anyone Who Had
A Heart” but the song that received the most acclaim was the Leon Russell composition
“Superstar” which was popularized by the Carpenters in the seventies.
I thought that Brian McKnight’s “Back To One” would be the last classic soul song to top the popular music chart, but Luther Vandross proved me and others wrong when his “Dance With My Father” had a lengthy stay at the top of the charts.
Luther Vandross was a man of great social consciousness. He cancelled all his dates in Arizona when he found out that that state would not honor the national holiday, Martin Luther King Day. This “gutsy” move was made with great financial sacrifice.
Like Godfrey Cambridge and Karen Carpenter before him Luther Vandross had
numerous weight fluctuations, whether this was a factor in his demise is still unknown. Although I never knew him, we both grew up in the Alfred E. Smith projects and he was
only a few months younger than I. His death just reminds me of my own mortality. We are all here on earth for a short time. Luther Vandross did so much with the time he had
on Earth that his life will serve as an inspiration to others to follow their dreams just like he followed his.