For many, Luther Vandross is synonymous with love. In fact, saying his last name is hardly ever necessary at all. Sure, many artists have achieved one-name status: Michael, Madonna, Prince, Patti, Aretha, Anita, and the list goes on and on. Far fewer, however, have achieved what I call substance status. Substance status is when an artist’s music transcends mere songs and becomes an intangible substance that is dispensed in the form of a magical, live giving formula, as in “some Luther.” Everyone who has ever been in love – or in lust - knows exactly what it means when it’s time to put on some Luther. That’s right, somebody’s getting some loving, and getting it good. As Luther himself said, “whatever you’re going through, I can make it better.”
While Luther has provided many with the solution to whatever they were going through, few knew what Luther was going through himself. His death shocked the world, but in his lifetime, he was no stranger to tragedy.
Luther Ronzoni Vandross was born April 20, 1951 in Manhattan, New York City, to Mary Ida Vandross and Luther Vandross, Sr. He was the couple’s fourth child. The elder Luther Vandross was also a singer. Luther’s mother, a nurse, also sang gospel. His older sister, Pat Vandross, was a member of the singing group The Crests, which had a number two hit in 1958 and ’59 with “16 Candles” although Pat had already left the group at the time. Given Luther’s musical roots, it was no surprise that he showed great promise early on. At the age of three, Luther taught himself to play the piano by ear.
Tragedy, however, struck the Vandross family hard. When Luther was just eight years old, he lost his father to diabetes. One only has to listen to Luther’s 2003 song, Dance With My Father, to get a glimpse of how the loss haunted Luther throughout life and left him with a void that nothing on earth – not even music - could manage to fill.
Despite the absence of his father whom he idolized, Luther soldiered on, continuing to hone his craft as a musician and performer. His family moved to the Bronx when Luther was thirteen. In high school, Luther was a member of the group Shades of Jade, that once performed at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Luther also appeared in early episodes of Sesame Street in 1969, its first season on the air.
Luther attended Western Michigan University for one year before dropping out to pursue a career in music. One would have a difficult time arguing that the singer made the wrong move. In 1972, he had a hit on an album with Roberta Flack. He co-wrote Fascination (1974) for David Bowie’s “Young Americans” (1975) and went on tour with Bowie as a back-up vocalist in 1974. Luther wrote “Everybody Rejoice (Can You Feel a Brand New Day?)” for the Broadway musical The Wiz in 1975. Luther also appeared in the movie as a choir member.
Luther went on to sing background for Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer, Carly Simon, Roberta Flack, Chaka Khan, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, Ben E King and the band Chic. His vocals were in popular demand industry wide, with no boundaries in regards to musical genre.
After successfully making the transition from background to lead vocalist, Luther finally experienced his career breakthrough. As a featured singer with the group Change, Luther had back-to-back 1980 hits with “The Glow of Love” and “Searching.” More than two decades later in a 2001 interview, Luther would call The Glow of Love “the most beautiful song I’ve ever sung in my life.” In 1981, Luther released his debut solo album “Never Too Much”, which included the hit title track as well as Luther’s version of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song “A House Is Not a Home.” The song “Never Too Much” reached number one on the R&B charts.
Success followed Luther in the 1980s. During the decade he had number one hits with “Stop to Love” and “There’s Nothing Better Than Love”, a duet with Gregory Hines. Luther remained an unstoppable force throughout the 80s and 90s.
With success, however, comes controversy. Luther’s sexuality was constantly debated in the media. Taking the high road, the crooner never confirmed or denied widespread rumors that he was gay. He did his best to keep his private life private and keep the focus on his music. In 1985, however, Luther fought back against the media when the singer sued a British magazine for libel after it stated that his dramatic 85 pound weight loss was a result of AIDS. Luther said he weighed 325 pounds when he embarked on a diet in May of that year. Luther’s weight fluctuated throughout his career, prompting the Big Luther/Skinny Luther debate as to which of the two Luthers residing in one ever-changing body was the best recording artist. It wasn’t much of a debate, as Big Luther won handily by most accounts, including mine.
Controversy was followed by more tragedy. His career was almost derailed after a fatal 1986 accident in which a friend, Larry Salvemini, older brother of teenage Star Search contestant Jimmy Salvemini, was killed while a passenger in a vehicle driven by Luther. Jimmy was also in the vehicle. Luther had just wrapped production on Jimmy’s album, for which Luther had helped him secure a $250,000 deal (in 1986 dollars). Luther escaped with severe injuries, and Jimmy, who was in the back seat, faced less serious injuries. The singer was charged with vehicular manslaughter. He later pled guilty to reckless driving and had his driving privilege suspended for one year. He settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the Salvemini family for $700,000. It was determined that Luther was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the fatal accident.
Luther bounced back again. He released the compilation “The Best of Luther Vandross… The Best of Love” in 1989. The single “Here and Now” earned Luther his first Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal in 1991. Also in 1991, he released the “Power of Love” album, which yielded two top ten hits, including “Power of Love/Love Power”, which garnered his second Best Male R&B Vocal Grammy in 1992. In all, Luther would win eight Grammys over the course of his illustrious career.
His final Grammy winning year was 2004, in which he took home four Grammys. He would then go home himself the following year, after succumbing to complications from hypertension and diabetes, the same villain that claimed his father during Luther’s childhood. Luther earlier suffered from a stroke but was believed to be on the road to recovery at the time of his July 1, 2005 death. In 2004, Dance With My Father won Song of the Year and Best R&B Vocal Performance – Male. The Album, also titled Dance With My Father, won Best R&B Album.
Luther, the youngest of four siblings, also followed them in death, all of them already having succumbed to natural causes by the time of Luther’s demise at the young age of 54. Luther’s mother, Mary Ida Vandross, an evangelist, lived longer than all four of her children.
Despite the fact he is gone too soon, his music and his legacy still lives on. Many a baby is conceived to “some Luther” to this very day. The incomparable crooner, meanwhile, dances with his Father again.