Early life and career 1951-1980
Born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City, Vandross grew
up in a musical family that moved to the Bronx when he was 13. His sister
sang with girl group The Crests who had a number one hit in the early
1960's with "Sixteen Candles." Vandross' father died of diabetes
when Vandross was eight years old. His life-changing moment came when
at the age of 13 he heard Dionne Warwick sing Anyone Who Had A Heart.
It was then and there he knew he wanted to be a singer.
Vandross formed a vocal group in high school which once played at
the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. His first recording credit was as producer
of the album Soul Christmas in 1968 and appeared as a vocalist on a
Quincy Jones album Best in 1969. He was also a member of a theater
workshop at the time and appeared on the first episode of Sesame Street
in October 1969.
His next recording credit was on an album by Roberta Flack in 1972.
Vandross wrote "Everybody Rejoice," for the 1972 show The
Wiz. However, Vandross had dropped out of the music scene when a friend
from theater workshop invited him to sing in David Bowie's soul-influenced
Diamond Dogs tour and appear as the opening act with the Mike Garson
Band in 1974. He ended up singing background vocals on Bowie's album
Vandross also sang backing vocals for Roberta Flack, Carly Simon,
Chaka Khan, Bette Midler, Chic, and Barbra Streisand. During the beginning
of his career, Vandross was content to remain mostly in the background,
as a producer and backup singer for other artists. Roberta Flack decided
to push Vandross into starting his own career because she believed
that he was an incredible talent who deserved to be heard for his singing
in addition to his songwriting and production.
Before his breakthrough, he released two albums on Cotillion Records,
the self-titled "Luther" in 1976 and "This Close to
You" in 1977. He also wrote and sang commercials jingles during
the late 1970s & early '80s earning upwards of $600,000 per year
around the New York area. Well known advertising campaigns he wrote
and/or sang jingles for include Kentucky Fried Chicken's "We Do
Chicken Right," NBC's "Proud As A Peacock" & The
US Army's "Be All You Can Be." Vandross continued his successful
career as a popular session singer during the late 70's. His lead vocals
can be heard on the Gregg Diamond produced single "Hot Butterfly" from
Bionic Boogie in 1978 which gained moderate nightclub success.
Career success 1980-2003
He eventually made his breakthrough as a guest singer with the group
Change. Their 1980 hits, "The Glow of Love" and "Searching" led
to a recording contract with Epic Records, and in 1981, he made his
solo recording debut with the LP "Never Too Much." The album,
which contained the track "A House is Not a Home" went double
platinum, with the song "Never Too Much" reaching #1 on the
Vandross released a series of million-selling albums during the 1980s
and continued his session work with guest vocals on groups like Charme
in 1982. Although the albums were very successful overall, many of
his earlier albums made a much bigger impact on the R&B charts.
Vandross had more modest success on the pop charts during this time.
During the 1980s, Vandross had two other singles that reached #1 on
the R&B charts: "Stop to Love" in 1986 and a duet with
Gregory Hines "There's Nothing Better Than Love". He also
sang duets with Dionne Warwick and Cheryl Lynn. He was also in demand
as a producer; he was at the helm for Aretha Franklin's albums "Jump
To It" and "Get It Right". (Franklin saw some moderate
commercial success with those Vandross-produced tracks after a long
The 1989 compilation of greatest hits, The Best Of Luther Vandross...The
Best Of Love, included the ballad "Here And Now", the first
Vandross single to chart in the Billboard pop chart Top Ten. He also
won his first award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance in the
Grammy Awards of 1991.
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 with the track "Power
of Love/Love Power" winning 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.
Vandross hit the top ten again in 1994 with "Endless Love",
a duet with Mariah Carey and a cover of Lionel Richie and Diana Ross's
hit song from the film Endless Love. He also sang a duet with Frank
Sinatra on Sinatra's Duets album. In 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 record released through Epic
Records. After recording "I Know" on Virgin Records, he signed
with J Records.
In 2003, Vandross released the album Dance With My Father in memory
of his father. The title track, which was dedicated to the memory of
the younger Vandross' childhood dances with his father, won Luther
and his co-writer, singer 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
also the first album by Vandross to reach #1 on the Billboard album
Vandross had diabetes, a disease that ran in his family, as well as hypertension.
His weight fluctuated several times over the years, and Vandross had
weighed over 300 pounds (136 kg) at his heaviest. His father, Luther
Sr., died of complications from diabetes when Luther Jr. was eight years
old. Luther Jr.'s two sisters and a brother also predeceased him. On
April 16, 2003, Vandross suffered a stroke in his home in Manhattan.
(Although the cause of Vandross' stroke was not specifically attributed
to diabetes, diabetics have been identified as being much more susceptible
to strokes.) Although he appeared briefly on videotape at the 2004 Grammys
to accept his Song of the Year award, he was never seen in public again.
Vandross died on July 1, 2005 at John F. Kennedy Medical Center in
Edison, New Jersey. He was 54. At this time, the cause of death is
not known, although hospital spokesperson Rob Cavanaugh has said that
Vandross never recovered from the 2003 stroke. It was reported that
he died peacefully, surrounded by his family and friends.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a friend of Vandross, described him as "a
boy so mellow, so powerful; a boy of rare, rare vintage. We lost Luther
very early because of his medical condition, but his legacy will be
a powerful legacy."
His funeral was in New York on July 8, 2005. After two days of viewing,
Vandross was buried in George Washington Memorial Park in Paramus,
Influences and followers
Vandross was inspired by the soul divas of the 1960s: Dionne Warwick,
Patti Labelle & the Bluebells, Diana Ross & the Supremes and
Aretha Franklin, for whom he eventually produced a few albums.
Vandross did many covers of older songs, such as "Since I Lost
My Baby" (originally recorded by The Temptations), "Superstar
(Until You Come Back To Me)" (originally recorded by The Carpenters
and most recently covered by Ruben Studdard), "Love Won't Let
Me Wait" (originally recorded by Major Harris), "Always and
Forever" (originally recorded by Heatwave), "Knocks Me Off
My Feet" (originally recorded by Stevie Wonder), and "Lovely
Day" (originally recorded by Bill Withers), and "A House
is Not A Home", a Burt Bacharach standard. His hit "Love
Power" included snippets of the soul classic "The Power of
Vandross inspired his J Records labelmate, Ruben Studdard, the American
Idol of 2003. Besides Studdard, Vandross also inspired countless other
artists, both male and female, such as Boyz II Men, Usher, Beyoncé,
Alicia Keys and Brandy. It was with Beyoncé that he recorded
yet another cover of a well-known song, "The Closer I Get To You",
originally recorded by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. Another American
Idol contestant, Scott Savol of the 2005 season, had an affinity for
Vandross' music, and he sang three of Vandross' famous songs during
that season of the show (including "Superstar" in the show's