OAKLAND — One of the hottest pop tours of the year, starring balladeers Luther Vandross and Anita Baker, almost didn't happen.
A couple of hours before going on stage earlier this week at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, Vandross--a giant of a man--sat precariously backstage on a chair that wasn't quite big enough.
"I didn't want to face something about me that being on tour made me face," said Vandross in a genial, forthright mood.
The thing he didn't want his fans to know was that he had gained back nearly all the 120 pounds he'd lost on that well-publicized diet two years ago. In those days, Vandross--like Oprah Winfrey now--was parading his slimmed-down frame in front of the media, showing how he had slimmed down.
But the weight is back, noted Vandross, waving his hands slowly over his 300-pound frame.
"I hate being like this," he said. "I hate that I gained all this back. On tour, I have to own up to it. It was really traumatic at the beginning of the tour--actually long before the tour."
But the box-office potential of the 50-city tour--which includes shows tonight, Friday, Saturday and Monday at the Los Angeles Sports Arena--was too tempting for Vandross to pass up. With tickets priced at $25, the Los Angeles dates alone are expected to gross $1.6 million.
Still, it took a lot of struggling before Vandross, 37, agreed to make himself so visible. He was so sensitive about his weight that he hadn't even wanted to attend a photo session earlier this year for the cover of his new album, "Any Love," his sixth consecutive million-seller. "I wanted them to use a cover that didn't have my picture on it."
But Vandross' managers talked him into the session. "The first time (the session was scheduled), I sat in my car in front of the photographer's studio for a half hour and then pulled away," he said. But, after finding an elegant shirt he felt comfortable in, Vandross finally succumbed to the photo session.
The singer also admitted that embarrassment over the weight gain drove him to canceling his co-hosting duties at this year's Soul Train Music Awards show. But backing out of a gold-plated tour for weight reasons was a bit much. At least that's what friends like singers Cissy Houston and Dionne Warwick kept telling him.
"They said I was ridiculous not to go on tour just because I had gained weight," he said. "They said my fans wouldn't care. The fans are there for the music."
That's what he's discovered on this tour. Fans come to see him pour his soul into ballads like "A House Is Not a Home" and "Love Won't Let Me Wait." Women swoon over that high, sensual voice, his amazing vocal agility and his fiercely romantic style. Bulky or slim, he's loved by his fans.
The adoration helps, but the weight problem is still there.
"It's like drugs or booze," he said. "I don't drink or do drugs. I (just) eat--and eat and eat. It's always been my way of coping. Maybe if I was totally happy and stress-free, I wouldn't be heavy. I just started drifting back into my old habits. You start making excuses and insulating yourself and bingo!--it's back to the old size.
"There's something that controls this weight thing--something I can't get at. I've tried a hypnotist, but I haven't tried a psychiatrist. That might help."
Memories of his lean days haunt him. "I loved being able to go into the Giorgio Armani shop and go to the rack that had the size 34 pants," he said. "And I loved my high cheekbones. Skinny, I was the same person though--just less burdened."
Vandross is ecstatic about the pop success of "Any Love," his first album to reach the Top 10 on the Billboard magazine pop charts. Despite impressive sales, the previous albums sold mainly in the black community. He was disappointed that his records didn't attract more of a following in the wider pop--or white--market.
"But I didn't fault the music so I never tried to do something different for the sake of appealing to the pop audience," said Vandross, who produces and co-writes his material. "I was selling out arenas and I had built up this big audience--mainly a black audience. I couldn't really complain."
One reason for the success of the new album in the pop market is that pop audiences seem to be tuned into soul ballads these days, thanks in part to all the airplay attracted by Vandross' tour co-star Anita Baker.
Another possible reason for the album's success may be simply its quality. While no more overtly pop than the others, the album has been widely hailed as Vandross' best. The songs are strong and the vocals have a more searing edge.
Vandross, who grew up in New York, first attracted industry attention as a vocal arranger on David Bowie's "Young Americans" album in the mid-'70s. After his group, Luther, failed in 1977, Vandross dedicated himself to building a solo career.