July 3, 2005

Soul singer Luther Vandross dead at 54

By Dean Goodman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Grammy-winning soul singer andsongwriter Luther Vandross, who suffered a serious stroke twoyears ago as he was about to relaunch his career, died onFriday in a New Jersey hospital, officials said. He was 54.

"Luther Vandross had a peaceful passing under the watchfuleye of friends, family and the medical support team," said RobCavanaugh, a spokesman at JFK Medical Center in Edison, NewJersey.

Details on the exact cause of death were not immediatelyavailable, although Cavanaugh said the singer never fullyrecovered from his stroke. Vandross also had long battleddiabetes and fluctuations in his weight.

Vandross was considered the premier soul balladeer of hisgeneration, with a silky voice that seduced millions of fansand won over collaborators such as David Bowie and ArethaFranklin.

"There are vocalists, and then there's Luther," Motownsinger-songwriter Smokey Robinson told Rolling Stone magazinein 1990. "Luther's in a class by himself."

Vandross' final album, "Dance With My Father," releasedshortly after his April 2003 stroke, debuted at No. 1 on theU.S. pop album charts. It yielded four Grammys, including songof the year for the title track, which Vandross described as"my 'Piano Man,' my signature song." But Vandross' Grammysuccess was a bittersweet affair because of the stroke.

"It should've been the biggest party ever," "Dance with myFather" co-writer Richard Marx told Newsweek last year. "It wasnot cause to celebrate."

His larger-than-life persona translated into a hugelysuccessful, multifaceted career. He sold more than 20 millionalbums worldwide and influenced romantic crooners such asKenneth "Babyface" Edmonds.

Unlike other male singers, Vandross eschewed a machoposture, but did not come across as too wimpish, either. He wasunafraid to express his insecurities, and his legions of femalefans adored him for his honesty. But he also was sensitiveabout being perceived as someone who sang only about love.

"I don't want to be this great prophet of love," thelifelong bachelor told Britain's Q magazine in 1991.


Vandross, born in a housing project in New York City,started out singing jingles and working as a backup singer forBowie, Bette Midler and Carly Simon.

He was hanging out at the Philadelphia studio where Bowiewas recording tracks for what would become his 1975 "YoungAmericans" album. The British rocker overheard Vandrossimprovising the line, "I heard the news today, oh boy" in thechorus of the title track, and pulled him into the vocal boothto join the backup singers.

At the urging of Roberta Flack, he took his savings andrecorded the demos for what would be his first solo album,1981's "Never Too Much." He signed with Epic Records -- onlyafter insisting that he produce his material -- and the albumbecame the first of a chain of million-sellers.

With its blend of swing and soul, "Never Too Much" putVandross at the front of the "retronuevo" movement, deftlyweaving modern studio production with classic vocal intimacy.

He became a fixture on the urban music charts, and wrotefor artists like Franklin, Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick, butmainstream success eluded him until 1989, when he had his firstTop 10 pop hit with "Here and Now," a track tacked onto acompilation album. That song has since become something of aclassic wedding ballad.

His own life was less happy. He dealt with his lonelinessby eating, and his weight fluctuated between 340 pounds (154kg) and 190 pounds (86 kg) during his adult life.

"In other areas I'm strong," he told Rolling Stone. "I'venever been high in my life -- never tasted wine, never puffedpot. I'm unbrainwashable and don't give in to peer pressure,but food is different."

He went on numerous diets, and even went to a fat farmwhere he managed to sneak in a pizza. In 1990, he appeared on"The Oprah Winfrey Show" to celebrate the loss of 122 pounds ona liquid diet. But a year later, photographers were banned fromshooting him below the chest.

He is survived by his mother, Mary Ida, a licensed nurseand Baptist evangelist, and numerous nieces and nephews.