July 1, 2005 -- 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.
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.
A Solo Hit
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."