This week the legendary multi-talented Luther Vandross would have been 66 years old today.
Luther was born in New York in 1951 – he also has the unusual middle name, Ronzoni. His interest in music began when his sisters, Pat and Ann took him to the Apollo Theatre in the Bronx to see both Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick. Patricia had been a singer in the fifties band The Crests who had an American hit with 16 Candles.
He got his break in 1969 when he appeared in the first series of Sesame Street. His interest in music and the musician was immense, he founded the first Patti LaBelle fan club of which he later became president. His smooth voice soon made his an in-demand backing singers for many artists, initially with Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway in 1972 and then for singers like Ben E. King, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer, Carly Simon, Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan. In the mid-seventies he wrote and sang jingles for various American TV adverts including Burger King and KFC.
He began writing songs on an almost daily basis and supplied them to other artists. He wrote the song Fascination which David Bowie recorded and it appeared on his 1975 album Young Americans. Luther sang backing on both the title track and Fame, the latter was alongside John Lennon. He also toured with Bowie that same year. On returning from the tour the musicians/producers Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards employed Luther’s tones on a number of Chic and Sister Sledge songs.
His first lead vocal was on the 1978 song Hot Butterfly which was credited to Greg Diamond’s Bionic Boogie. Two years later became the lead singer with Change and can be distinctively heard on the hits The Glow of Love and Searching. In 1979 he was the musical arranger on No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) by Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand.
In 1982, Luther’s first hit as a writer came in the shape of Jump To It by Aretha Franklin and then surpassed that with his own solo hits beginning with Never Too Much, arguably one of the greatest songs – lyrically – of all time. Luther never revealed if it was autobiographical and it also doesn’t state whether it’s written about a male or a female. Luther was gay, but never openly admitted to it.
Luther’s family life was quite tragic, his father, Luther Sr., died of complications from diabetes when Luther was seven, his brother Charles and sister Patricia both died of complications from diabetes and his other sister, Ann, died of complications from asthma all before Luther.
In 2003 Luther wrote a song about his childhood memories of his father and stories his mother had relayed to him. He co-write with Richard Marx and was dedicated to Luther’s father. Sadly he never got to sing it live because just a couple of days after completing the session he suffered a stroke which left him in a coma for eight weeks. Whilst in the coma he contracted meningitis and pneumonia, when he came out of the coma he was confined to a wheelchair. He eventually died on 1st July 2005 aged just 54. His mother died three years later.
Luther’s personal favourite was The Glow of Love, “That is the most beautiful song I’ve ever sung in my life,” he said in an interview with Vibe Magazine in 2001. But for me, Never Too Much being one of the all-time soul/disco classics and a regular at all the summer weekenders especially Caister. I urge you listen closely to the lyrics and how Luther cleverly phrases them if you’re not too familiar with them. Pure magic.