Throwback: Luther Vandross

Early Life: Luther Vandross was born on April 20th, 1951 in Lower Manhattan, New York.  Like many of our Throwback picks, there wasn’t much to suggest he would go on to become one of the most iconic voices of his generation.  Vandross’ youth was mostly spent growing up in the Alfred E Smith housing projects. From a young age he was pushed towards music by his parents who, while both maintaining day jobs, sang in their free time.  At the age of 3, he was gifted a phonograph and taught himself how the piano, starting his legacy as a self-taught musician.  In 1959 at the age of 8, Vandross’ father, Luther Vandross Sr., passed away due to a long bout with Diabetes.  Shortly thereafter, the family picked up and moved to the Bronx, where he was raised by his mother.

In high school, Vandross’ first started showcasing his musical abilities in a band he formed called Shades of Jade. The band even achieved moderate success, even releasing a charted single, a song titled “Listen, My Brother.”  The song’s peak success was highlighted by its inclusion it the first season of Sesame Street in 1969.  After high school, Vandross initially attended the University of Michigan, before dropping out after only a year to return home and try his luck at a career in the music business. 

Rise to Prominence: Vandross would go on to spend the early part of the 1970’s working odd jobs to support his career in music, which at that time was largely spent doing backup vocals.  Vandross’ first big break parallels with last month’s Throwback Iggy Pop, as it was given by David Bowie.  When a friend invited him to one of David Bowie’s studio sessions to help with background vocals, Vandross pounced on the opportunity.  His vocals blew Bowie away, who decided to let Vandross in on producing and arranging vocals.  The two began to work so well together, they co wrote the song ‘Fascination.’  The following year, Vandross would go on to open on David Bowie’s tour, which was supporting the Young Americans album.  It was through his connection with Bowie that Vandross met Bette Midler.  At Bowie’s suggestion, Midler recruited Vandross to help with vocal arrangements on her latest Broadway play.  In turn, Midler introduced Vandross to her producer at Atlantic Records.  From this, he began to see regular jobs as a backup vocalist with Atlantic artists, as well as a prominent role as vocal arranger.  During this time, Vandross scored backup work with prominent musicians such as Ben E King, J Geils Band, Bette Midler, and Chic, to name a few.

By 1981, Vandross began receiving his due credit and recognition.  While he already scored roles in songs with just about every big name R&B and Jazz artist from the 1970’s, his production work reached its peak, with his contribution on the #1 duet from Barbara Streisand and Donna Summer ‘No More Tears.’ In 1981, Vandross signed a solo deal with Epic records and began immediately working on a debut album.

This produced the album Never Too Much, which was released in August of that year.  It was here that Vandross debuted his affinity for Neo Pop R&B.  The title track ‘Never Too Much’ quickly soared to #1 on the R&B charts, with the album following it later to become a #1 as well. 

Vandross would go on to release 5 more albums in the 1980’s, all of which went platinum.  His work didn’t stop at being a solo artist, as he continued to prominently work as a producer, writer and backup vocalist while working with legends such as Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Janet Jackson. 

The 90’s saw much of the same from Vandross, as he released another 5 albums, all of which went platinum in the US.  During this run, he was awarded 4 Grammys, 3 for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance of the Year.  The culmination of Vandross’ career came in 2003, with the release of the Dance With My Father AlbumAt this point, Vandross’ was already a legend in the R&B community, and the author of 10 platinum selling albums.  Vandross however, still had something to give. The album rushed out of the gate with 400,000 units sold, led by the title single ‘Dance With My Father.’  The song was dedicated to the passing of his own father, and would go on to win Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards.  It would also give Vandross his last award for Best Male R&B Performance of the Year.  This would be the last studio album of Vandross’ career, one that saw him sell over 30 million records worldwide.    

 

Bestselling Albums

Never Too Much (1981): Never Too Much set the pace for Luther Vandross records.  Being #1 on the R&B charts and going double platinum was nothing out of the ordinary, a feat he accomplished 10 times throughout the 1980’s and 90’s.  The album got Vandross nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammy’s that year, and showed the world what he could do as a solo artist.  The album was led was singles ‘Never Too Much’ and ‘A House is Not A Home.’ 

Dance With My Father (2003): While this was the last album of Vandross’ career, it was maybe the most prominent, led by the iconic song ‘Dance With My Father.’ The album brought the most recognition to Vandross’ career, garnering him two AMA awards and 4 Grammys.  It also marked the first time in Vandross’ career that he would reach #1 on the Billboard album chart. 

 

Give Me The Reason (1986): Give Me The Reason was the fifth studio album of Vandross’ career.  The album’s singles were very popular, all four of them charting high on the R&B charts.  The album received 1 AMA and 4 other nominations.   It would also go on to be certified double-platinum, selling 2 million records in the united states alone. 

Most Popular Singles

Dance With My Father


Never Too Much


Here And Now


Awards & Honors: Luther Vandross is one the most decorated R&B artists of all time when it comes to award shows.  He has been nominated over 30 times for the Grammys, and has won 8 of them.  He has also won 2 American Music Awards, as well as received his own star of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Current Status & Impact on Music: Like his father, Luther Vandross suffered from diabetes throughout his life.  The disease caused a series of health complications, which led to a stroke in 2003.  His health never truly recovered, and in 2005 he passed away at the age of 54.  He leaves behind a legacy as one of the greatest voices of his generation.  His musical impact has shaped the R&B world as we know it today. With his work as a backup vocalist, producer and solo artist, his impact can seen as afar back as the 1970’s and will no doubt carry long into the future.