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Obituaries

Luther Vandross, 54; 'Soul Balladeer' Sang With Eloquence and Restraint

July 02, 2005|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

Luther Vandross, the Grammy-winning R&B singer whose emotionally charged Top 40 love declarations remapped contemporary soul singing before his career was interrupted two years ago by a stroke, died Friday. He was 54.

Vandross died at John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Edison, N.J. The cause of death was not reported.

After an April 2003 stroke left him incapacitated, Vandross gave up most public appearances, although he had recovered enough to appear on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" a year later.

But he made a dramatic return to the public spotlight with his 2003 album "Dance With My Father," which earned him four Grammy Awards, including song of the year for the bittersweet title track. The album gave him the first No. 1 album on the pop chart of his long career.

During last year's Grammy ceremony, a video tribute to Vandross, featuring many of his peers dancing with their fathers as the song played, brought the music industry crowd to its feet. The highly emotional finale featured Vandross expressing his appreciation to fans for their support and to Grammy voters for the recognition. A month later, he was given four NAACP Image Awards.

"I asked him, just before he took sick, 'What are you trying to do? Why are you working so hard?' " his mother, Mary Ida Vandross, recalled last year after the Grammy show. "I warned him, 'You're going to kill yourself.' He said, 'I want to give them the best that's in me. I want them to hear it and see it.' "

"Luther Vandross had a peaceful passing under the watchful eye of friends, family and the medical support team," according to a statement released Friday by the hospital.

"As you know, Luther Vandross suffered a stroke two years ago, which he never fully recovered from," the statement said. "Throughout his illness, Luther received excellent medical care and attention from his medical team. Luther was deeply touched by all the thoughts and wishes from his fans."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a friend of Vandross, on Friday described him as "a boy so mellow, so powerful; a boy of rare, rare vintage. We lost Luther very early because of his medical condition, but his legacy will be a powerful legacy."

Vandross stood out in a crowded field of garden-variety pop balladeers, overproduced records and pat sentiments, distinguishing himself in the 1980s as a singer of eloquence and restraint.

With a cluster of hits -- including "Never Too Much," "Here and Now," "Power of Love/Love Power," "Don't Want to Be a Fool" and "Endless Love," a duet with Mariah Carey, Vandross was considered one of the leading romantic singers of his generation.

Influenced by a cross-section of African American music styles from gospel to classic R&B, and bridging the gap between classic soul and post-disco R&B, the singer, songwriter and producer broadened the definition of contemporary soul singing.

He concentrated on coaxing the emotion out of a song, stretching a line or fragment of verse. He repeated a word until he breathed new meaning into it.

With his wide vocal range and production acumen, Vandross quickly became a pacesetter, paving the way for a new generation of male singers, including Babyface and Freddie Jackson, laying bare their emotions in a sensitive manner.

"I think Luther is like Frank Sinatra, in that he's got this 18-karat gold depression in his voice," said author and music historian David Ritz.

"A haunting loneliness. He's an archetypal soul balladeer. The very top. He had this kind of cry in his voice which is penetrating.

"Very few people had it. Marvin [Gaye] had it, Sam Cooke had it," Ritz said.

Luther Ronzoni Vandross was born in New York in 1951, the youngest of four children. His mother was a practical nurse and his father, Luther Vandross, an upholsterer who died of diabetes when the younger Luther was 8.

The household was steeped in music -- gospel, doo-wop, soul. His sister Pat was a member of the doo-wop group the Crests, who scored a 1958 hit with "16 Candles," and Vandross exhibited a natural affinity for song. His mother fed his interest and encouraged his musical education.

It soon became the only thing he was interested in studying. As a high school student, Vandross obsessed over female singers: Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, the Shirelles and particularly the high-concept Motown ensembles, including the Supremes.

"It was the women who drew me to the stereo," Vandross said in a 1990 interview. "Men feel they have something to prove. They don't trust their automatic-pilot chops. Females do. They go on deeper dramatic trips, take more chances. Put it out there with greater flair."

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