It is now over a decade since we lost one of the greatest voices of soul music. But Luther Vandross’ music lives on, and we’ve chosen our favourites to share with you.
On July 1st 2005 at the age of just 54, the great Luther Vandross sadly passed away after suffering serious health complications. In his relatively short life, Vandross became one of the most renowned and respected singers in popular music, with his brand of smooth soul and R&B dominating soul music throughout the eighties and beyond. He became a sought after songwriter and producer, creating hits for artists like Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin whilst maintaining his solo career. His death, shortly after the release of his final album Dance With My Father, rocked the soul world, and a decade later his talent and his voice is missed more than ever.
Luther Vandross was born on April 20th in 1951 in New York City; his mother, a nurse, and his father, and upholsterer raised him on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Tragedy struck the young Vandross when his father died from complications of diabetes when he was just eight years old. His sisters stirred young Luther’s interest in music, with the teenage Luther becoming enamoured with the great female vocalists, such as Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, and Roberta Flack. He would travel to the Apollo in Harlem to see his idols perform, and go home and study their records for hours on end. Legend has it that upon hearing the news that Diana Ross was leaving The Supremes, Vandross’ grades in high school slipped; his grades slipping might also have been the result of his work founding the first Patti LaBelle fan club – a fact LaBelle has confirmed.
Vandross began his singing career in the studio and on tour for many of the top artists of the day: he went on tour with Bette Midler, he sang with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards’ CHIC outfit; and he recorded with David Bowie on the Young Americans album. In the late seventies Vandross attempted to launch a group entitled ‘Luther’; two albums were recorded but they failed to sell. Disappointed by this failure, Vandross bought back the masters of these albums and to date these have never been re-issued. While not a household name, Vandross not only appeared on many hit singles and albums as a backing singer, but he also leant his voice to many radio adverts – singing jingles to advertise 7UP to package holiday deals, to KFC and Burger King.
In 1978 Vandross began lending his vocals to disco producers: he sang for Greg Diamond’s Bionic Boogie on ‘Hot Butterfly’, on Mascara’s self-titled album, and for the group Change. It was his performance with Change that launched Vandross as a solo star: his incredible lead on the thumping ‘Searching’ and the mid-tempo, bouncy groove of ‘The Glow of Love’ propelled Vandross to stardom, providing him with an opportunity to launch a successful solo career.
In 1981 it finally happened: Luther Vandross released his debut solo album, Never Too Much. The album title track was the lead single, and what a single it was. In fact, it remains in our opinion his finest piece of work; it’s simply stunning. If that wasn’t enough, the rest of the album was equally stunning: take the thumping bass of Marcus Miller on ‘She’s A Super Lady’, or the haunting ‘You Stopped Loving Me’. Perhaps the finest moment, other than ‘Never Too Much’, is Vandross’ cover of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David standard ‘A House is Not a Home’. His performance is sublime, really extending the song from earlier versions from Dionne Warwick and Brook Benton. In fact, in his recent autobiography Burt Bacharach claimed Vandross’ version was the best.
From there on Vandross released superb album of superb album: Forever, For Always, For Love, Busy Body, The Night I Fell In Love and Give Me The Reason. Luther was master of both the ballad and dance number, but his talent was most impressive in his ability to re-interpret other artists’ song: A House Is Not A Home, Are You There (With Another Guy), If Only For One Night, Creepin’, and Anyone Who Had a Heart alone.
In the nineties Vandross went for a bit more of a pop sound with hits such as ‘Power of Love (Love Power)’ and ‘Here and Now’. He recorded an enjoyable album of covers entitled Songs, and a singular R&B album on Virgin Records in 1997. In 2001 he released a fabulous self-titled album on Clive Davis’ J-Records, which featured the adult contemporary delight ‘Take You Out’. The runaway success of the album led to the recording the Dance With My Father album. But before the album could be completed, Vandross suffered a stroke in April 2003 at his flat in New York; he was in a coma for two months. He lost his ability to speak and walk, but he agreed to an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2004 showing the progress he had made. In the meantime, his collaborator Richard Marx had finished the album and put out the haunting title track, in which Vandross sung about his father, one of the most heart-breaking songs ever to be released. The song won the Grammy for ‘Song of the Year’ in 2004, and Vandross taped a brief thank you to attendees.
Sadly, Vandross never recovered. His mother and his long-time friends and backing singers, including Fonzi Thornton and Patti LaBelle, kept Vandross company in his final months and weeks. He died on July 1st 2005. His funeral in New York drew large crowds; Dionne Warwick, Cissy Houston, Fonzi Thornton, Patti LaBelle, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin all appeared at the service. His older siblings had all died previously, leaving Vandross’ poor Mother the last Vandross.
His voice, his talent and his charm are still missed ten years after his death. Luther Vandross was truly one of the great soul singers; indeed, one of the great singers period. His influence on R&B is incredible, and yet he remains the best who ever did it. Thankfully, his incredible catalogue of music lives on and remains enjoyable as ever. This playlist seeks to highlight Luther’s talent and genius, from the beginning of his career to his final recordings.
We miss you, Luther.
You can read more about Luther Vandross in our special Soul Revisited.