Vandross, Luther (Contemporary Musicians)
Rhythm and blues singer Luther Vandross is best known for his soulful renditions of emotionally charged love ballads. Vandross' wide singing range runs from lush tenor to robust baritone and represents only one of his various talents. He has won numerous Grammy awards, while maintaining complete artistic control of his work. His musical compositions and arrangements have been recorded by many of the greatest American pop singers. Vandross, in addition to his fame as a solo artist, gained notoriety as one of the most talented backup singers in modern music. He released an astonishing 13 platinum albums in succession, beginning with his first major release.
Vandross was born in New York on Manhattan's Lower East Side on April 20, 1951. The youngest of four siblings, he was the son of an upholsterer who died from diabetes when Vandross was just eight. As a result, Vandross developed a close relationship with his mother, Mary Ida Vandross. The Vandross children were musically inclined, a trait that was encouraged by their parents. His mother recognized Vandross' particular musical bent and saw to his musical education when he was still very young, beginning his piano lessons at age three.
One of Vandross' older sisters sang with the Crests as a teenager, and although she left home while Vandross was still a child, he cultivated a particular love and respect for the female singing styles. He was drawn in particular to the late 1960s moods of Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, and Aretha Franklin. Vandross saw that the unrestrained emotion of female singers was a magnificent faculty rarely found in the work of male pop vocalists. When Vandross was 13 he moved with his mother to the South Bronx in New York where he attended Taft High School. His interest in music became overpowering by his senior year, and although he enrolled at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, he abandoned his formal education after by the end of his second semester, opting instead to embark on a musical career.
Luck and Talent
From that point Vandross achieved prominence through a delicate combination of talent and luck. One of his compositions, "Everybody Rejoice," was incorporated into the score of the Broadway musical The Wiz in 1972. Two years later he attended some taping sessions for rock star David Bowie in the company of a friend who worked as part of the Bowie entourage. As Vandross observed the taping sessions he expressed personal observations about Bowie's musical arrangements. Vandross used his own voice to illustrate his ideas, and his comments were taken seriously by Bowie, who encouraged Vandross to join the company as a backup artist on Bowie's album Young Americans.
Eventually Vandross was invited to tour with Bowie, as a warm up for Bowie's act. Vandross accepted the offer, but soon complained that the experience was exhausting, and expressed apprehension. The stress of performance caused him to be nervous and overwrought. He felt anxious at the thought of facing an audience of strangers. Bowie, convinced of Vandross' potential, influenced Vandross to persevere, emphasizing to Vandross that the experiences of live performance would be critical to his future success as an entertainer.
In time Bowie referred Vandross to Bette Midler who arranged to hire Vandross as a backup singer. Vandross embarked on a career as a backup singer for many popular artists including Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, and the Average White Band. He also made a lucrative living singing jingles for television commercials. During this time Vandross sang with the disco band Change and created a group called Bionic Boogie, a studio production of sound mixes, all performed by Vandross virtual one-man band.
Began Solo Career
Vandross formed his own R&B group, Luther, in 1975. With the influence of Arif Mardin the group Luther signed to record with Cotillion Records. Luther was a short-lived enterprise, their records falling well short of expectations. Vandross, meanwhile, aspired to a recording contract that would allow him complete creative control over his recordings. Vandross signed with Epic Records in 1981 and his popularity, both as a singer and a songwriter, flourished steadily from that point forward.
Over the years Vandross wrote songs for other artists such as Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick, while his own singing career blossomed steadily. By 1991 his double album, The Best of Luther Vandross, The Best of Love, became a double platinum seller, and Vandross' success was assured. In 1991-92 Vandross embarked on a tour of the United States that culled a total attendance of 650,000 spectators nationwide and earned $15 million in box office receipts. In 1994 he performed a television special for the Public Broadcasting System called In the Spotlight, at Royal Albert Hall in London. He released a Christmas album in 1995, featuring seven new co-written songs, along with a variety of classic carols. In 1996 Vandross performed at the Essence Music Festival. He received the honor of singing the national anthem at the 1997 NFL Super Bowl, and that same year went on a five-city tour beginning in Las Vegas and culminating in Washington D.C.
Ended Epic Partnership
Vandross parted ways with Epic in 1998, after a 16-year partnership during which Vandross released 12 hit albums and sent 22 of singles into the top ten of the R&B charts. The separation from Epic's parent company, Sony, attributed to a dispute over artistic freedom, led to a new contract for Vandross with Virgin Records. His debut with Virgin, 1998's I Know, featured a bevy of stars including Stevie Wonder, Cassandra Wilson, and Bob James. The album received generally excellent reviews. Despite achieving super-stardom as a solo artist, Vandross continued to sing as a back up from time to time for a number of notable singers.
Vandross received four Grammy awards from 1990-98, including two for "Power of Love." All together he received three Grammy nominations in 1994, four nominations in 1995; three nominations in 1996, and three in 1997. Vandross made an acting debut in 1993 in the Robert Townsend film The Meteor Man and co-hosted the Soul Train Music Awards.
I Know turned out to be Vandross's last, as well as first, album for Virgin. After cutting 2000's Smooth Love with the AMW label, he moved to J-Records, where he found a more permanent home. He debuted on that label with a self-titled album in 2001. The new label proved to be a good match for Vandross, and he hit the road for a highly successful concert tour following the release of Luther Vandross. The album went platinum, and Vandross sold out Radio City Music Hall for eight nights.
Taking advantage of his new-found artistic freedom at his new label, Vandross released the very personal Dance With My Father, in whose title cut he wishes for one last chance to spend time with his father. Said Vandross of this album on the J-Records website, "I wrote the songs as we went along so it's definitely fresh and reflects where I'm at musically, lyrically and creatively."
Vandross suffered a debilitating stroke in early 2003, and spent the next several months slowly recovering away from the public eye. Dance With My Father was nominated for five Grammy Awards in 2003, and though Vandross was still too ill to attend the ceremony in early 2004, he was there in spirit as he took home four Grammys, including the award for Song of the Year. The Grammy ceremony also included a tribute to Vandross perfomed by Alicia Keys and Celine Dion. In a taped appearance, Vandross made his first public statement since his stroke to the Grammy audience and home viewers. "I wish I could be with you there tonight. I want to thank everyone for your love and support. And remember, when I say goodbye it's never for long, because I believe in the power of love."
Never Too Much, Epic, 1981.
Forever, For Always, For Love, Epic, 1982.
Busy Body, Epic, 1983.
The Night I Fell in Love, Columbia, 1985.
Any Love, Epic, 1988.
Power of Love, Epic/Legacy, 1991.
Never Let Me Go, Epic, 1993.
Songs, Epic, 1994.
This is Christmas, Sony, 1995.
Your Secret Love, Sony, 1996.
I Know, Virgin, 1998.
Smooth Love, AMW, 2000.
Luther Vandross, J-Records, 2001.
Home for Christmas, Sony Special, 2002.
Stop to Love, Sony Special, 2002.
Dance With My Father, J-Records, 2003.
Live 2003 at Radio City Music Hall, J-Records, 2003.
EPs and Singles
Give Me the Reason, Epic/Legacy, 1986.
Power of Love, Sony, 1991.
Don't Want to Be a Fool, Sony, 1991.
Never Too Much, Sony, 1991.
The Rush, Sony, 1991.
May Christmas Bring You Happiness, Atlantic, 1991.
Best Things in Life Are Free, A&M, 1992.
Sometimes It's Only Love, Sony, 1992.
Heaven Knows, Sony, 1993.
Never Let Me Go, Sony, 1993.
Always & Forever/Power of Love, Sony, 1994.
Always & Forever/Here & Now, Sony, 1994.
Endless Love, Sony, 1994.
Love the One You're With, Sony, 1995.
Going in Circles, Sony, 1995.
Your Secret Love, Sony, 1996.
I Can Make It Better, Sony, 1996.
Are You Using Me, EMI, 1998.
Heart of a Hero, Sony, 1999.
Take You Out, J-Records, 2001.
Can Heaven Wait?, J-Records, 2001.
The Best of Luther Vandross, The Best of Love, Epic, 1989. Best Remixes, Alex, 1991.
To Love, AMW, 1995.
Never Too Much/Forever, For Always, For Love/Busy Body, Sony, 1995.
Luther Vandross 1981-1995 Greatest Hits, Epic, 1996.
One Night With You: The Best of Love II, Epic, 1997.
Love Is on the Way, One Way, 1998.
Night I Fell in Love/Give Me the Reason/Power of Love, Sony, 1998.
Always & Forever: The Classics, LV/Epic, 1998.
Greatest Hits, Epic, 1999.
Super Hits, Sony, 2000.
The Ultimate Luther Vandross, Epic, 2001.
The Very Best of Luther Vandross, Sony, 2002.
The Very Best of Love, Madacy, 2002.
The Essential Luther Vandross, Epic/Legacy, 2003.
Clarke, Donald, editor, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular
Music, Viking, 1989.
Stambler, Irwin, editor, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St. Martin's, 1989.
Arizona Republic, December 19, 1997.
Baltimore Afro-American, November 30, 1996.
Detroit News, September 1, 1998.
Gannett News Service, November 27, 1994.
Independent, March 7, 1997, p. 10(2).
Rocky Mountain News, September 5, 1997, p. 18D.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 4, 1997, p. 5.
Sacramento Observer, January 22, 1997.
Tulsa World, August 7, 1998.
"Luther Vandross," Virgin Records, (October 5, 1998).
"Luther Vandross Biography," Sony Music, http://www.sonymusic.com/artists/LutherVandross/biography.h... (September 23, 1998).
Luther Vandross Official Website, http://www.luthervandross.com/ (January 24, 2004).
"Luther Vandross: Still Hungry for Hits," dotmusic, http://www.dotmusic.co.uk/MWtalentluther.html (September 10, 1998).
Recording Academy Grammy Awards, http://www.grammy.com/ (January 24, 2004).
loria Cooksey and Michael Belfiore
Vandross, Luthur (Contemporary Musicians)
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 Too 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 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 Get It Right.
Vandross commented in the Washington Post that becoming a star was somewhat frightening: "After being a session singerou 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.