His big break came when a guitarist friend brought him to a recording session for Bowie's "Young Americans" album. After overhearing Vandross talk about vocal arrangements, Bowie hired him to sing backup and arrange on the album, and later asked him to tour with him.
This led to mega-music industry connections. Vandross' next project was for Midler. He arranged and sang on two of her albums.
By the end of the 1970s, he was one of the most sought-after backup singers and arrangers. He sang with many musicians, including Barbra Streisand, Chaka Khan, Ringo Starr, Carly Simon and Donna Summer.
He also did commercial jingles and voice-overs, using his deep, smooth voice to sell everything from the U.S. Army to fried chicken.
He was artistically unsatisfied, though. He wanted to go solo, but with complete creative control. Finally, in 1980, Vandross rented a studio with his own money and recorded a demo tape. Epic Records eventually gave him a contract after many other companies turned him down.
His first album, "Never Too Much," sold more than a million copies and sent his career soaring.
Vandross' next two albums, "For Ever, For Always, For Love" and "Busy Body" also sold more than a million copies each. He became known as the quintessential singer of romance.
All three of those albums and the next three hit No. 1 on the R&B charts. He also started producing, making albums for Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston.
Though Vandross' career was booming, so was he. Always a source of shame and despair, his weight fluctuated wildly, with a top weight of 330 pounds. When he was at his heaviest, he only allowed photos from his chest up.
The source of the problem, he said, was the same one that fueled his songs: Love. When his romantic life was good, he slimmed down; when troubled, he packed on pounds. Vandross never married and had no children.
In the mid-1980s, there were other problems. A 1986 car accident left a passenger dead and Vandross on probation for reckless driving. About a year and a half later, his longtime drummer, Yogi Horton, killed himself. At the same time, the shy Vandross grappled with the unexpected drawbacks of fame.
Vandross struggled to cope: "The valleys," Vandross told the Times, "are a mother."
Though he was nominated nine times, it wasn't until 1990 that Vandross won his first Grammy award for "Here and Now." In 1990, "Power of Love" was his first video to be played on MTV. Always striking the right romantic note with his tunes, the song was that year's most popular wedding song.
Vandross often bitterly rued his lack of placement on the charts. He blamed it on bad taste and lowered standards, telling the Times: "It's just a time when mediocrity is very popular, and those of us who aren't mediocre have to learn how to function until everything returns to where it should be."
In 1998, after 16 years, 12 hit albums and 22 singles on the R&B top 10, he broke from his record label after a dispute about artistic freedom. He moved on to Virgin Records and made "I Know," which featured vocals by Stevie Wonder, Cassandra Wilson and Bob James. It received critical acclaim but did not sell like his albums of the 1980s.
Even though he claimed to want popularity, something in him fought it all along. "I'd like to be remembered as a premier singer of songs," he once said. "Not just a popular act of a given period."
In 1994, Entertainment Weekly asked Vandross for five words that best described him. He said: "Trusting. Drug-free. Loyal. Strong. Tall."