R&B Legend Luther Vandross Dead

The voice that set the tone for so many romantic evenings has been silenced. Soul singer Luther Vandross has died at the age of 54. With eight Grammy awards, nearly a dozen platinum albums and a voice brimming with yearning, Vandross was one of R&B's leading love singers for more than 20 years.

Vandross' relatively chaste songs climbed the R&B charts for years before he got a crossover hit onto the pop charts. By the end of his career, he had sold more than 20 million records.

The singer's 2003 album, "Dance With My Father," proved to be the cap on a grand career. It debuted in June at No. 1, just two months after the singer suffered a stroke, fell into a coma and developed pneumonia. At one point he had to undergo a tracheotomy to help him breathe.

As his condition worsened, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson led a day of prayer for an understated man who sang of love so sweetly.

Although his condition was grave, family members released the album as scheduled. His mother, Mary Vandross, insisted her son would want his music to be heard and expressed confidence it would be a success. The album won four Grammies in February 2004, including the coveted Song of the Year honor.

Though Vandross was too ill to attend the Grammy ceremony, his family was happy to report that he was home and that his condition had improved. He was honored that night with a glowing musical tribute presented by Patti LaBelle, Alicia Keyes and Celine Dion.

From Backup to Spotlight

Born in New York City, Vandross began his career as a jingle singer, and in the early 1970s he began singing backup vocals for Bette Midler, Roberta Flack, David Bowie and others. His solo career didn't flourish until the late 1980s. But when it did, his velvety voice brought him acclaim and muliplatinum success.

His breakthrough crossover hit was 1989's "Here and Now," his first song to break into the Top 10 on the pop charts. But he never earned the recognition he coveted, a No. 1 spot on the pop charts. "I'm ravenous for one," he told The New York Times in 1990. The highest he ever reached was No. 4, with 1990's "Power of Love."

Vandross grew up in a musical home in the projects of lower Manhattan, the youngest of four children. His mother, Mary Ida Vandross, a nurse, started giving him piano lessons when he was 3. His father, an upholstery salesman, died when Vandross was 8.

Vandross' sister Pat was a member of a doo-wop band called the Crests, best known for "Sixteen Candles." Vandross said he was most influenced by her, girl bands like the Shirelles and soul-based gospel vocalists like Aretha Franklin.

At age 12, he went to see Dionne Warwick in concert and later said, "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."

In high school, he and his friends hung out in the hallways and sang doo-wop. Never a great student, Vandross dropped out of Western Michigan University at Kalamazoo after a year.

In the beginning it was hard work -- he was a four-time loser at the famed Apollo nightclub's amateur night. But in 1972, his song "Everybody Rejoice" was used in the Broadway play "The Wiz." Though the royalties were sweet, he stayed at a variety of day jobs to support his music.

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