Luther Vandross emerged from jingles and background singing to become one of the preeminent black male vocalists of the era. With the exception of his solo debut and his post-1994 material, all of his LPs have been certified platinum or double platinum.
Vandross, whose older sister Patricia was a member of the doo-wop group the Crests, began playing piano at age three. In 1972 his song "Everybody Rejoice (A Brand New Day)" was included in the Broadway musical The Wiz. Throughout the '70s, Vandross sang on numerous commercials (from ads for the U.S. Army to Burger King). His singing was distinguished by his impeccable phrasing and vocal control. He first came to the attention of the pop world after his friend, guitarist Carlos Alomar, introduced him to David Bowie. Vandross ended up writing ("Fascination") and singing on David Bowie's Young Americans (1975) LP; he later toured with Bowie, then recorded and toured with Bette Midler (he appeared on her Songs for the New Depression).
He quickly became one of the busiest backing vocalists and arrangers in the business, recording with Ringo Starr, Carly Simon, Donna Summer, Barbra Streisand, and Chaka Khan, among others. During this time Vandross cut two little-noted albums under the name Luther, and sang on "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)" and "Everybody Dance" for Chic. He continued his highly lucrative jingles career. Following his lead vocal appearances on "Searchin' " and "Glow of Love" (from Change's hit album Glow of Love), several labels expressed interest in signing Vandross as a solo act. With the encouragement of his friend Roberta Flack, he invested $25,000 of his own money in two demos: "Never Too Much" and "A House Is Not a Home."
In 1981 he signed with Epic Records, who, on the basis of his demos, granted him full creative control, allowing him to write and produce. Never Too Much was a Number One R&B album and the title cut was a Number One R&B single (Number 33 pop); the album went platinum. Until 1993, each of his albums (with the exception of the Number Two R&B The Best of and the platinum Never Let Me Go; Number Six pop, Number Three R&B) had topped the R&B chart. Any Love and Power of Love were also Top 10 pop albums. Other hit LPs include the platinum or multiplatinum Never Let Me Go (Number Six pop, Number Three R&B, 1993), Songs (Number Five pop, Number Two R&B, 1994), and Your Secret Love (Number Nine pop, Number Two R&B, 1997); and the gold This Is Christmas (Number 28 pop, Number Four R&B, 1995), One Night With You — The Best of Love, Vol. 2 (Number 44 pop, Number 17 R&B, 1998), and I Know (Number 26 pop, 1998; Number Nine R&B, 1999). The latter was Vandross' debut for Virgin Records. He signed to Clive Davis' J Records in late 2000.
His hit singles include "Bad Boy/Having a Party" (Number Three R&B, 1982), "I'll Let You Slide" (Number Nine R&B, 1983), "Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)" (Number Five R&B, 1984), " 'Til My Baby Comes Home" (Number Four R&B, 1985), "It's Over Now" (Number Four R&B, 1985), "Give Me the Reason" (Number Three R&B, 1986), "Stop to Love" (Number One R&B, 1986), a duet with Gregory Hines entitled "There's Nothing Better Than Love" (Number One R&B, 1987), "I Really Didn't Mean It" (Number Six R&B, 1987), "Any Love" (Number One R&B, 1988), "She Won't Talk to Me" (Number Three R&B, 1988), "For You to Love" (Number Three R&B, 1989), "Here and Now" (Number Six pop, Number One R&B, 1989), "Treat You Right" (Number Five R&B, 1990), "Power of Love/Love Power" (Number Four pop, Number One R&B, 1991), "Don't Wanna Be a Fool" (Number Nine pop, Number Four R&B, 1991), "The Rush" (Number Six R&B, 1991), the Janet Jackson duet "The Best Things in Life Are Free" (Number 10 pop, Number One R&B, 1992), "Sometimes It's Only Love" (Number Nine R&B, 1992), "Little Miracles (Happen Every Day)" (Number 62 pop, Number 10 R&B, 1993), "Heaven Knows" (Number 94 pop, Number 24 R&B, 1993), "Never Let Me Go" (Number 31 R&B, 1993), the Mariah Carey duet "Endless Love" (Number Two pop, Number Seven R&B, 1994), "Always and Forever" (Number 58 pop, Number One R&B, 1994), "Love the One You're With/Going in Circles" (Number 95 pop, Number 28 R&B, 1995), "Every Year, Every Christmas" (Number 32 R&B, 1995), "Your Secret Love" (Number 52 pop, Number Five R&B, 1996), "I Can Make It Better" (Number 80 pop, Number 16 R&B, 1996), "When You Call on Me" (Number 36 R&B, 1997), and "Nights in Harlem" (Number 29 R&B, 1998).
Throughout his career, he has continued to write and produce for other artists. He produced Aretha Franklin's Jump to It! in 1982; the title cut and the album went to Number One on the R&B chart. He also produced Franklin's 1983 Get It Right, Cheryl Lynn's 1982 LP Instant Love, which contained their duet "If This World Were Mine," a cover of a Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell hit, and records for Dionne Warwick, Teddy Pendergrass, and Whitney Houston. In 1993 he made his motion picture debut in Robert Townsend's Meteor Man. A diabetic, Vandross' health began to decline following a stroke in 2004, and on July 1, 2005, he died of undisclosed causes.
Portions of this biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).