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Vandross was born in New York City on April 20, 1951, and grew up in the Alfred E. Smith housing projects in lower Manhattan. Both of his parents, Luther Vandross, Sr., an upholsterer, and Mary Ida Vandross, a nurse, sang, and they encouraged their children to pursue music as a career. Vandross Sr.'s older sister Patricia Van Dross was an early member of the Crests in the mid-'50s (appearing on their early singles, but leaving before they achieved success with "Sixteen Candles"), and Vandross himself began playing the piano at the age of three and took lessons at five, although he remained a largely self-taught musician. After the death of his father in 1959 when he was eight years old, he was raised by his mother, who moved the family to the Bronx. While attending William Howard Taft High School, he formed a vocal group, Shades of Jade, with friends Carlos Alomar, Robin Clark, Anthony Hinton, Diane Sumler, and Fonzi Thornton. All five, along with 11 other teenage performers, were also part of a musical theater workshop, Listen, My Brother, organized by the Apollo Theater in Harlem that recorded a single, "Listen, My Brother"/"Only Love Can Make a Better World," and appeared on the initial episodes of the children's television series Sesame Street in 1969. After graduating from high school that year, Vandross attended Western Michigan University, but dropped out after a year and returned home. He spent the next few years working at odd jobs while trying to break into the music business.
In 1973, Vandross got two of his compositions, "In This Lovely Hour" and "Who's Gonna Make It Easier for Me," recorded by Delores Hall on her album Hall-Mark, singing the latter song with her as a duet. In 1974, though uncredited, he sang background vocals on Maggie Bell's Queen of the Night, and in August of the same year Carlos Alomar, who had become David Bowie's guitarist, invited him to attend a Bowie recording session at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. He quickly became more than an observer, singing background vocals, serving as a vocal arranger, and co-writing the song "Fascination" with Bowie. The session resulted in the album Young Americans, released in March 1975, and Vandross also went on tour with Bowie in September 1974 as both backup singer and opening act. Meanwhile, Vandross' 1972 composition "Everybody Rejoice (A Brand New Day)" was featured in the Broadway musical The Wiz, which opened a run of 1,672 performances on January 5, 1975. (It was later made into a 1978 film.) The show starred Stephanie Mills, who used Vandross as a background singer on her 1975 album Movin' in the Right Direction. (He also sang, uncredited, on Gary Glitter's self-titled 1975 album.)
Through Bowie, Vandross met Bette Midler, who hired him to arrange vocals for her Broadway revue Bette Midler's Clams on the Half Shell, which played ten weeks at the Minskoff Theater starting on April 14, 1975. Midler also introduced him to her record producer, Arif Mardin, at Atlantic Records, and Vandross began to get steady work as a background singer and vocal arranger. In 1976, he appeared on albums by Midler (Songs for the New Depression), the Brecker Brothers Band (Back to Back), Roy Buchanan (A Street Called Straight), Andy Pratt (Resolution), and Judy Collins (Bread and Roses). He also put together a vocal quintet called Luther, consisting of himself, former Shades of Jade members Anthony Hinton and Diane Sumler, Theresa V. Reed, and Christine Wiltshire, which signed to Atlantic's Cotillion Records subsidiary. Their self-titled debut album was released in June 1976. It did not sell well enough to reach the charts, but the tracks "It's Good for the Soul," "Funky Music (Is a Part of Me)," and "The Second Time Around" reached the R&B Top 40. Reed and Wiltshire dropped out, and the remaining trio made a second Luther album, This Close to You (April 1977), with Vandross given top billing, while Hinton and Sumler were credited as featured soloists. The title song reached the R&B charts, but that wasn't enough to keep Cotillion from dropping the group, which then broke up. (Vandross acquired the rights to the Luther recordings and saw to it that they remained out of print.)
Meanwhile, Vandross continued doing sessions. In 1977, he appeared on albums by Nils Lofgren (I Came to Dance), Geils (aka the J. Geils Band; Monkey Island), the Average White Band and Ben E. King (Benny and Us), Andy Pratt (Shiver in the Night), Ringo Starr (Ringo the 4th), and Chic (Chic). He also entered the lucrative world of writing and singing commercial jingles, and before long was the musical voice of everything from telephones, fast food, and beverages to various branches of the U.S. military on radio and television. And the recording sessions continued. In 1978, he appeared on albums by Garland Jeffreys (One Eyed Jack), Carly Simon (Boys in the Trees), Roy Buchanan (You're Not Alone), Quincy Jones (Sounds...and Stuff Like That!!), Norma Jean (Norma Jean), T. Life (That's Life), Roberta Flack (Roberta Flack), Odyssey (Hollywood Party Tonight), the soundtrack to the movie version of The Wiz, Chic (C'est Chic), Cat Stevens (Back to Earth), David Spinozza (Spinozza), Carole Bayer Sager (Too), Sean Delaney (Highway), the Good Vibrations (I Get Around), and Lemon (Lemon). And he was the uncredited lead singer on the song "Get on Up (Get on Down)," by Roundtree, an R&B chart entry that fall.
Vandross began to gain greater attention in 1979. During the year, he appeared on albums by Sister Sledge (We Are Family), the Average White Band (Feel No Fret), Chic (Risqué), Bette Midler (Thighs and Whispers), Jay Hoggard (Days Like These), Revelation (Get in Touch), John Tropea (To Touch You Again), the Charlie Calello Orchestra (Calello Serenade), Charme (Let It In), Cher (Prisoner), Roberta Flack (Featuring Donny Hathaway), Delores Hall (Delores Hall, Evelyn "Champagne" King (Music Box), Ben Sidran (The Cat and the Hat), and Soirée (Soirée), and on the soundtracks to the films Sunnyside and The Warriors. Especially on the jazz and disco recordings, he was just as likely to be a featured vocalist as a background singer. And he got a prominent credit when he arranged the background vocals for Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer's duet "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)," which became a number one pop hit in November 1979. He gained even more recognition in 1980, a year in which he appeared on studio albums by Chaka Khan (Naughty), Melba Moore (Closer), Mtume (In Search of the Rainbow Seekers), Dave Valentin (Land of the Third Eye), the Brecker Brothers (Detente), Terumasa Hino (Daydream), Cissy Houston (Step Aside for a Lady), Jimmy Maelen (Beats Workin'), the Jess Roden Band (Stonechaser), and the Michael Zager Band (Zager), as well as live albums by Bette Midler (Divine Madness) and the duo of Roberta Flack and Peabo Bryson (Live & More), and on the soundtrack to the film Fame. But the most important credit for him that year was his work as lead vocalist of the studio group Change. He sang on the band's tracks "Searching," a Top 40 R&B hit, and "The Glow of Love," which also reached the R&B charts, and his name was listed prominently on the discs. This increased his profile even more, and he began circulating a demo tape to recording companies, seeking a solo deal that would allow him to write and produce his own records. On April 21, 1981, he signed with the Epic Records subsidiary of the major label CBS Records.
Vandross immediately began work on his debut album, cutting down on sideman sessions, although during 1981 he appeared on albums by Bob James (All Around the Town), Bernard Wright ('Nard), Change (Miracles), the J. Geils Band (Freeze Frame), Hi Gloss (You'll Never Know), the Brooklyn, Bronx & Queens Band (The Brooklyn, Bronx & Queens Band), Stephanie Mills (Stephanie), and the Spinners (Can't Shake This Feelin'), and in June 1981 his composition "You Stopped Loving Me" was sung by Roberta Flack, with him arranging and singing background vocals, on the soundtrack to the film Bustin' Loose and became a Top 40 R&B hit for her. (Damaris revived the song for an R&B chart entry in 1984.) Vandross' own version was included on his debut solo album, Never Too Much, released in August. The LP was a tour de force for him; he produced it and wrote six of its seven songs, the exception being a cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's Dionne Warwick hit "A House Is Not a Home." Vandross expressed his musical vision on Never Too Much, and that vision was of a smooth neo-soul style that recalled the pop/R&B of his youth, particularly the music of such predecessors as Warwick, Aretha Franklin, the softer Motown artists, like Smokey Robinson, and some of the girl groups of the early '60s, such as the Shirelles.
To those influences, Vandross added some contemporary elements of jazz and disco. But his approach was steeped in tradition; he was a stylist, harking back to the past, yet pointing to a possible post-disco future for R&B music. And R&B fans responded warmly. The title song, "Never Too Much," topped the R&B charts; second single "Don't You Know That?" reached the R&B Top Ten; and third single "Sugar and Spice (I Found Me a Girl)" also charted R&B. The album hit number one R&B in November and was certified gold in December. (It went platinum five years later and double platinum in 1997.) But Vandross encountered more resistance in the pop realm, where the album reached only the Top 20 and the single "Never Too Much" only made the Top 40. Artistically and commercially, these results set a pattern for Vandross' career. Appearing regularly, his albums showed great consistency in style and content, even to the point of featuring a cover of a classic pop/R&B song on each disc. And while they also sold consistently to the R&B audience, they rarely received equal support from pop fans.
Having successfully launched his solo career, Vandross might have been expected to abandon session work; certainly, he had less time for it. But he still enjoyed working as a background singer, so he still did it selectively. In 1982, for example, he appeared on albums by Irene Cara (Anyone Can See), Michael Franks (Objects of Desire), Kleeer (Taste the Music), Bob James (Hands Down), Linda Clifford (I'll Keep on Loving You, and Ullanda McCullough (Watching Me, Watching You). At the same time, Vandross' demonstrated abilities as songwriter, producer, and vocal arranger opened up to him the opportunity to work in these capacities with some of the artists he had grown up idolizing, as well as his contemporaries. He first turned his attention to Cheryl Lynn, producing her R&B Top Ten album Instant Love (June 1982); writing the title song, which became a Top 20 R&B hit; and singing a duet with her on a revival of the 1968 Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell hit "If This World Were Mine," which reached the R&B Top Five. ("Look Before You Leap," from the album, also made the R&B charts.)
Next, he turned to Aretha Franklin, producing her July 1982 LP Jump to It, and writing or co-writing four of its eight songs, including the title track, an R&B number one; "Love Me Right," which went Top 40 R&B; and "This Is for Real," an R&B chart entry. Topping the R&B chart, it was her first gold album in six years. He also sang on Diana Ross' October 1982 LP Silk Electric. Somehow, he found time to make his second solo album, Forever, for Always, for Love, released in September, again serving as his own producer and writing or co-writing all the tracks except for covers of Smokey Robinson's 1965 hit for the Temptations "Since I Lost My Baby" and, in a medley with his own "Bad Boy," Sam Cooke's "Having a Party." Vandross' co-writers on some of the songs were bassist Marcus Miller and keyboard player Nat Adderley, Jr. (a former member of Listen, My Brother), musical associates who would work with him throughout his career. A musical complement to Never Too Much, Forever, for Always, for Love was another R&B chart-topper for Vandross, throwing off three singles, the Top Five "Bad Boy/Having a Party," the Top 20 "Since I Lost My Baby," and the chart entry "Promise Me." That, of course, was as far as the R&B charts were concerned. On the pop side, the album went Top 20 and only "Bad Boy/Having a Party" charted. Nevertheless, the LP was certified gold in two months and platinum in six.
Vandross' multiple career tracks continued apace in 1983. He sang on albums by David Sanborn (Backstreet), James Ingram (It's Your Night), former Shades of Jade member Fonzi Thornton (The Leader), Linda Lewis (A Tear and a Smile), Stephanie Mills (Merciless), and Betty Wright (Back at You). He produced Aretha Franklin's next album, Get It Right, composing the title song, which hit number one R&B, with Marcus Miller, and its follow-up, "Every Girl (Wants My Guy)," a Top Ten R&B hit. Then, he turned to another idol of his youth, Dionne Warwick, producing her album How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye. He and Warwick sang the title song as a duet that became her first R&B Top Ten hit in eight years; it also made the pop Top 40. "Got a Date," the Vandross/Miller composition released as a second single from the album, also made the R&B charts. And, although it took until December, Vandross managed to come up with his third solo album, the aptly titled Busy Body. On this album, he co-produced several of the tracks with Miller, also writing most of the material with Miller and Nat Adderley, Jr., the exceptions being "How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye" and a medley of the Leon Russell/Bonnie Bramlett standard "Superstar" with Stevie Wonder's "Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)." As usual, there were three singles: "I'll Let You Slide" and "Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)" made the R&B Top Ten, and "Make Me a Believer" was a chart entry (of the three, only the medley scraped into the pop chart); as usual, the album hit number one R&B, but only the Top 40 of the pop chart; and as usual, sales certifications poured in, the album going gold in two months and platinum in January 1985.
Vandross finally eased off on his recording schedule during 1984, if only because he was now a major concert attraction and toured in both North America and Europe. His only credit for the year was his composing (with Marcus Miller), arranging, producing, and singing background vocals on the song "You're My Choice Tonight (Choose Me)" for Teddy Pendergrass, a Top 20 R&B hit. Vandross thus was able to lavish more time on his fourth album, The Night I Fell in Love, released in March 1985. Overall producer credit again went to him, with three of the eight tracks co-produced by Miller. Six of the songs were written by Vandross alone or co-written with Miller or Nat Adderley, Jr., the exceptions being covers of Brenda Russell's "If Only for One Night" and Stevie Wonder's "Creepin'." The album spawned four R&B single hits: "'Til My Baby Comes Home" (Top Ten and a Top 40 pop hit); "It's Over Now" (Top Five); "Wait for Love" (Top 20); and "If Only for One Night." The album spent seven weeks atop Billboard's R&B LP list, going gold and platinum simultaneously as soon as it was eligible for certification in May and double platinum in 1990. It also reached number 14 in the pop charts, Vandross' best showing yet. With his own album out of the way, he made some selected appearances on other albums during 1985, contributing a song, "She's So Good to Me," to the soundtrack of the film The Goonies and singing on albums by Carly Simon (Spoiled Girl), Patti Austin (Gettin' Away with Murder), and Wonder (In Square Circle). He also sang background vocals on the Temptations' "Do You Really Love Your Baby," a song he co-wrote with Miller that peaked in the R&B Top 20 in early 1986.
Vandross spent much of 1986 working on his own material, only pausing to contribute background vocals on David Bowie's soundtrack to the film Labyrinth. The results of his efforts were first heard in June when "Give Me the Reason" was included on the soundtrack to the film Ruthless People and released as a single that went Top Five R&B and reached the pop chart. Vandross' fifth album, also titled Give Me the Reason, followed in September. His fifth consecutive R&B chart-topper, it included additional singles "Stop to Love" (number one R&B and his first Top 20 pop hit); the duet with Gregory Hines "There's Nothing Better Than Love," co-written with John "Skip" Anderson, a synthesizer player in Vandross' band (also number one R&B and a pop chart entry); "I Really Didn't Mean It" (Top Ten R&B); and "So Amazing" (an R&B chart entry of a Vandross song previously recorded by Dionne Warwick, whose Burt Bacharach/Hal David hit "Anyone Who Had a Heart" was revived on the LP). Simultaneous gold and platinum certifications in December were followed by a double-platinum award in 1990.
In 1987, Vandross contributed a song, "It's Hard for Me to Say," which he co-wrote with John "Skip" Anderson and co-produced, to Diana Ross' album Red Hot Rhythm & Blues, and worked as a background singer and arranger on Ava Cherry's Picture Me and Cheryl Lynn's Start Over. He also appeared on Irene Cara's Carasmatic, Nick Kamen's self-titled album, and Doc Powell's Love Is Where It's At. Meanwhile, Gerald Albright covered "So Amazing" and took it into the R&B Top 20. In 1988, Vandross sang background vocals on Patti Austin's The Real Me and Barbra Streisand's Till I Loved You, and he wrote "The Girl Wants to Dance with You," which became a Top Ten R&B hit for Gregory Hines. The song appeared on Hines' self-titled album, which Vandross produced. Otherwise, he spent the two-year interval between his fifth and sixth albums doing shows and working on that sixth album, Any Love, which appeared in October 1988 and was supported by a three-month U.S. tour. By now, Marcus Miller had been promoted to full co-producer, and other co-writers had joined the team, but the approach was still the same. And so was the success. Any Love topped the R&B charts and gave Vandross his first Top Ten pop album, with the usual simultaneous gold and platinum certifications two months after release. The title song topped the R&B list and penetrated the pop chart; second single "She Won't Talk to Me" went Top Five R&B and made the pop Top 40; and "For You to Love" was another Top Five R&B hit.
Vandross had by now become an international success, and a record-breaking ten-night stand at London's Wembley Arena in March 1989 was commemorated with a home video, Live at Wembley. At the close of an enormously successful decade, Vandross and Epic determined to sum things up, and in October 1989 issued the two-LP greatest-hits compilation The Best of Luther Vandross: The Best of Love, which included two new tracks, "Here and Now" and "Treat You Right." With those additions, the collection didn't just summarize Vandross' career, it finally gave him his long-sought major crossover hit, as "Here and Now," a song co-written by Dionne Warwick's son David L. Elliott with Terry Steele, not only topped the R&B chart but also hit the pop Top Ten, going gold in the process. It also won Vandross his first Grammy Award, for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male. "Treat You Right" went Top Five R&B, and the set was a million seller by March 1990. (By 1997, it was triple platinum.) Between the release of the hits album and his next regular studio album, Power of Love, which appeared in April 1991, Vandross as usual lent his talents to other artists' recordings. He sang background vocals for Quincy Jones (Back on the Block), Paul Jackson, Jr. (Out of the Shadows), and David Lasley (Soldiers on the Moon). He contributed a song, "There's Only You," to the soundtrack of the 1990 film Made in Heaven. He wrote and produced the song "Who Do You Love" for Whitney Houston's album I'm Your Baby Tonight. And he served as an arranger, producer, and background vocalist on Lisa Fischer's So Intense, released the same day as Power of Love.
Vandross' seventh album, Power of Love suggested that the pop breakthrough he had achieved with "Here and Now" would be sustained. The advance single, a medley of Vandross and Marcus Miller's song "Power of Love" with the Sandpebbles' 1967 hit "Love Power," not only topped the R&B charts, but also went Top Five pop, and the LP, Vandross' seventh R&B number one, was his second to penetrate the pop Top Ten. A million seller by June 1991, it went double platinum two years later in the wake of the further singles "Don't Want to Be a Fool" (Top Five R&B, Top Ten pop), "The Rush" (Top Ten R&B and a pop chart entry), and "Sometimes It's Only Love" (Top Ten R&B). Vandross' national tour to support the album began in September 1991 and included four sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden in October as it ran through January 1992. "Power of Love/Love Power" was named Best R&B Song at the 1991 Grammys, and the Power of Love album won Vandross another trophy for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male.
One might have supposed that all was well in the world of Luther Vandross, but on January 2, 1992, he filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court against Sony Music Entertainment (which had acquired CBS Records), citing California Labor Code Section 2855, which limits personal service contracts to seven years. By then, he had been with CBS/Sony for nearly 11 years, fulfilling a ten-album contract that still had three albums to go. Vandross was not the first or the last recording artist to file such a suit, and whether he really wanted to void his contract, believing that Epic still hadn't done enough to sell his records to the pop audience, or simply intended to use the suit to induce the record company to renegotiate his deal on more favorable terms, is unclear. Not for the first or last time, the record company in question settled quietly, not wishing to test the law. The terms of the settlement were not reported, but thereafter, Vandross had his own vanity label, his records going out under the Epic/LV imprint.
As usual, following the release of Power of Love, Vandross found the time to work with other artists. He appeared on 1991 albums by BeBe & CeCe Winans (Different Lifestyles), Patti LaBelle (Burnin'), Richard Marx (Rush Street), and Kevin Owens (That Time Again), and he co-wrote and produced the song "Doctor's Orders" on Aretha Franklin's What You See Is What You Sweat. In 1992, without a new album out, he kept his name before the public with special appearances, starting with the soundtrack to the film Mo' Money, released in June, which featured a song called "The Best Things in Life Are Free" (not the 1927 standard by Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson, but a newly written composition) that he performed with Janet Jackson, Bell Biv DeVoe, and Ralph Tresvant (which is to say, four of the five members of New Edition). It hit number one on the R&B chart and went Top Ten pop. Next, Vandross wrote and performed the theme song "Heart of a Hero" for the soundtrack of the movie Hero, released in October 1992, and the same month he contributed a performance of "The Christmas Song" to the seasonal charity album A Very Special Christmas, Vol. 2. He made more modest contributions to two albums released in the first quarter of 1993, Dionne Warwick's Friends Can Be Lovers and Eddie Murphy's Love's Alright.
Never Let Me Go, Vandross' eighth album, was released on June 1, 1993, prefaced by the single "Little Miracles (Happen Every Day)." Maybe the promotional staff at Epic Records was demoralized by the recent lawsuit, or perhaps changing musical styles, notably the rise of hip-hop, were affecting matters, but the commercial response to Vandross' new music was slightly disappointing. The single reached the R&B Top Ten but was only a minor pop chart entry, and Never Let Me Go, despite marking a new pop chart peak for Vandross at number six, stayed in that chart less than half the tenure enjoyed by Power of Love; on the R&B chart, it crested at number three, Vandross' first new album not to reach number one. Three further singles charted -- "Heaven Knows," a cover of the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love," and "Never Let Me Go" -- but none was a substantial hit. The falloff in sales was actually minor; the album took one month longer to go platinum than Vandross albums usually did. But for the first time, the singer's momentum was slowing. Despite this, he continued his usual round of activities, initially touring Europe to promote the album; appearing in the small part of a hitman in the film The Meteor Man in August; launching a U.S. arena tour that began in September and ran through November; and, in November, singing a duet with Frank Sinatra of Rodgers & Hart's "The Lady Is a Tramp" as the leadoff track on Sinatra's celebrated Duets album. Then it was back to Europe for another round of dates.
Vandross also paid visits to his friends in recording studios, resulting in appearances on the 1994 albums Paid Vacation by Richard Marx, Restless by Bob James, and World Tour by Jason Miles. But he clearly knew something had to be done to revitalize his own recording career. An idea came from Sony president Tommy Mottola and his then-wife, superstar Mariah Carey. Vandross had put at least one oldie on every one of his albums: why not do an all-covers album? For most other artists, this would have seemed like a typically clichéd record company concept, commercial but artistically stifling. For Vandross, who was steeped in pop music history and who had done some of his best work reimagining the music of others, it was a natural. He even agreed to give up the production reins to a Sony stalwart, the commercially savvy Walter Afanasieff, whose recent clients included Carey, Michael Bolton, and Celine Dion. The result was the modestly titled Songs, released September 27, 1994. The album was prefaced by a cover of the 1981 Lionel Richie/Diana Ross hit "Endless Love," on which Vandross sang a duet with Carey. The single peaked at number two on the pop charts, a new high for Vandross, even outpacing its number seven showing on the R&B charts. The album went to number two R&B and number five pop, another crossover high for the singer. With follow-up singles in revivals of Heatwave's 1978 hit "Always and Forever" (Top 20 R&B and a pop chart entry) and the double-sided "Going in Circles"/"Love the One You're With" (the former previously a hit for both the Friends of Distinction and the Gap Band; the latter the Stephen Stills hit), which went Top 40 R&B and was another pop chart entry, the album was an immediate million-seller and went double platinum within 18 months.
His commercial status restored, Vandross undertook his usual pursuits, singing background vocals on the occasional album (Cindy Mizelle's Cindy Mizelle , Naomi Campbell's Babywoman, Yvonne Lewis' No Strangers in Paradise [both 1995]) and undertaking a tour that began on May 31, 1995, in San Diego, CA. For his next album, he tried another favorite record company concept, the holiday collection. This Is Christmas, which contained seven originals along with only three traditional Christmas songs and restored the production team of Vandross, Nat Adderley, Jr., and Marcus Miller, was released October 24, 1995. It went Top Five R&B (with the track "Every Year, Every Christmas" making the R&B Top 40) and peaked at number 28 in the pop charts. An immediately certified gold album, it became a perennial seller and went platinum in 2002. Also in the 1995 holiday season, Vandross contributed a track, "The Thrill I'm In," to the soundtrack of the film Money Train.
Vandross did some touring during the summer of 1996, and he contributed a cover of the Peter, Paul & Mary hit "If I Had a Hammer" to the benefit album For Our Children Too, released in September, but he spent most of the year working on Your Secret Love, the album that would complete his Epic Records contract. It was released on October 1, following the title song, which came out as an advance single that made the R&B Top Five and was a pop chart entry. (The track went on to win Vandross another Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male.) The album itself spent a week at number two in the R&B charts and made the pop Top Ten, as second single "I Can Make It Better" hit the R&B Top 20, also making the pop chart, and third single "Love Don't Love You Anymore" became a minor R&B hit. Simultaneous gold and platinum certifications arrived in December.
Vandross spent much of 1997 touring, beginning with an appearance at Superbowl XXXI on January 26 to sing the national anthem. He did take time out to sing background vocals on Richard Marx's April release, Flesh & Bone, however. On September 30, Epic/LV released his valedictory collection, One Night with You: The Best of Love, Vol. 2, which began with four new recordings, none of them written or produced by him, but instead contributed by such usually reliable hitmakers as Diane Warren, R. Kelly, and the team of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Understandably, Epic didn't do much of a promotional job on this contractual obligation release, which nevertheless reached the R&B Top 40 and the pop Top 50, spawning a Top 40 R&B hit in R. Kelly's "When You Call on Me/Baby That's When I Come Runnin'" and an R&B chart entry in Jam & Lewis' "I Won't Let You Do That to Me," with a gold-disc certification in December.
While weighing offers from different record companies, Vandross made some guest appearances, turning up on BeBe Winans' self-titled album in October 1997, on Jimmy Reid's Forever Loved in March 1998, and on his associate Marcus Miller's Suddenly in June. On April 8, he performed at a Burt Bacharach tribute concert at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York, singing "Windows of the World" and "What the World Needs Now." The show was filmed for television and taped, resulting in a soundtrack album, One Amazing Night, released in November. Vandross also paid tribute to Patti LaBelle at the same venue on June 2 for a PBS special. Deciding on Virgin Records, a subsidiary of the major label EMI, he presented a new album, I Know, on August 11. He had already begun to introduce contemporary elements of rap and hip-hop on Your Secret Love, and I Know continued this trend, but it was a commercial disappointment, only going gold and generating just one Top 40 R&B hit in "Nights in Harlem." As a result, he left Virgin after only this one release.
During 1999 and 2000, Vandross kept his hand in with soundtrack and session work. He co-wrote and co-produced "When You're a Woman" for Lisa Fischer and Masters at Work, featured on the soundtrack of the film 24 Hour Woman, released in March 1999; contributed background vocals to Natalie Cole's Snowfall on the Sahara in June 1999; sang and arranged for Dave Koz's The Dance in September 1999; and sang background vocals and did vocal arrangements on BeBe Winans' Love & Freedom in August 2000. That same month, he ended his search for a new record company affiliation, becoming the first act signed to veteran record executive Clive Davis' new startup label, J Records. He made his label debut with the track "If I Was the One," included on the soundtrack of Dr. Doolittle 2 on June 5, 2001. The song also appeared on Luther Vandross, which was released two weeks later. Vandross and Davis served as co-album producers, with individual tracks produced by others, and new songwriters were brought in to give Vandross a new, current sound. The makeover was largely successful. Leadoff single "Take You Out" became a Top Ten R&B and Top 40 pop hit, followed by the R&B chart entry "Can Heaven Wait" and the R&B Top 40 and pop chart entry "I'd Rather," as the album made the pop Top Ten and just missed topping the R&B chart, reaching platinum status by November.
His career revitalized once again, Vandross toured in early 2002, then began work on a second album for J, taking time out to sing Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" on Doc Powell's album 97th and Columbus and to contribute background vocals to "Load Is Lifted" on Suzanne Couch's In the Rhythm (not released until 2005). He co-wrote the title song for his new album, "Dance with My Father," with Richard Marx, and they combined for a heartfelt tribute to Vandross' father. The album was finished by the spring of 2003, and Vandross was preparing for a round of publicity work when he collapsed in his New York apartment on April 16, 2003, the victim of a serious stroke, apparently brought on by his diabetes and the physical strain of his lifelong struggles with his weight. Despite his illness, J released "Dance with My Father," which became an R&B and pop Top 40 hit and a gold record, introducing the album, which hit number one on both charts, a first for him. Over the next year, "Smooth Love," "Think About You," "Buy Me a Rose," and "The Closer I Get to You" (a duet with Beyoncé Knowles re-creating the original version by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway) figured in the pop, R&B, and/or adult contemporary (AC) charts, as the album sold over two million copies. Vandross was a sentimental favorite at the 2003 Grammy Awards, and his career total of trophies doubled from four to eight as he won Song of the Year and Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male, for "Dance with My Father," Best R&B Album, and Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for "The Closer I Get to You." He made an appearance via videotape to accept his awards and promised to return to action soon.
Meanwhile, J Records had kept his name before the public by releasing the concert collection Live Radio City Music Hall 2003, recorded in February 2003, on October 14, 2003; it reached number six in the R&B charts and number 22 in the pop charts. By all reports, Vandross continued his recovery during 2004 and into 2005; he even appeared on Oprah Winfrey's television show in May 2005. But on July 1, 2005, it was announced that he had died, having "never really recovered" from his stroke.
During his lifetime, Luther Vandross' albums were certified for sales of 23-and-a-half-million copies in the U.S.; estimates of his total worldwide record sales were as high as 40 million. Sales, of course, tell only part of the story, but it is notable that, in the precarious world of popular music, and in particular of the notoriously fickle genre of R&B and the difficult category of crossover pop, Vandross sold records in the millions consistently for over two decades. It is even more notable that, although he certainly molded his music to a certain extent to meet the marketplace, he also imposed his own direction on R&B. Prior to him, the popular music of African-Americans tended to jump from one style to another with nary a look backward. But Vandross, coming along in the wake of disco and while rap/hip-hop was in its infancy, insisted on reverence for the soul music of the recent past and deliberately reformulated it in an "old-school" approach that came to be known as the black AC radio format "quiet storm." Even as rap dominated the charts in the early years of the 21st century, he maintained his passion for romantic, melodic music, and he drew listeners along with him. His early death at the age of 54 robbed American popular music of one of its more consistent and compelling voices, and it is only a partial comfort that he left behind a substantial body of work. ~ William Ruhlmann, Rovi