Luther Vandross, the smooth-voiced R&B crooner who suffered a severe stroke more than two years ago and never fully recovered, died Friday at the age of 54.
Vandross died at the John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Edison, N.J. He had a considerable number of health problems since the stroke, including pneumonia. Previously, he had suffered from diabetes and hypertension.
The singer, whose weight roller-coastered over the years, was about to launch an album with J Records when he suffered a stroke at his Manhattan home on April 16, 2003. His 15th album, “Dance With My Father,” was released in early June 2003 and sold 441,000 copies in its first weeks, one of the biggest debuts of that year. Vandross’ mother Mary hit the talkshow circuit to promote the album while her son was in a New York intensive-care unit.
The album and its tracks brought Vandross four Grammys, including song of the year for “Dance With My Father.” Vandross accepted his awards in a videotaped thank you, saying “Remember, when I say goodbye it’s never for long. Because…” and he started singing “I believe in the power of love.”
Vandross was one of the dominant forces in R&B in the 1980s, although it took him nearly all of the decade to cross over into the pop realm. A songwriter and producer, his tenor voice was as distinguishable as the voices of his peers Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. His albums sold more than 25 million copies during his life.
The singer was extraordinarily popular with women, and the deafening screams of “Luther” could be heard at any of his concerts, whether he was down to a 34 waist and wearing an Armani suit or showing up at more than 300 pounds.
Born in New York, Vandross began his career in the studio, singing jingles for soda companies and networks and backing Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand and David Bowie, for whom he helped write parts of “Young Americans” and “Fame.” Vandross also had a band called Luther that made two albums that went nowhere. But in the late 1970s, he sang on hits by acts such as Chic before securing a solo deal with Epic. Singer Roberta Flack had prodded him to try making it as a solo act after working with him as a producer and songwriter.
He made his first album, “Never Too Much,” when he was 30, and it became a jewel in the R&B subgenre quiet storm. It hit No. 1 on the R&B album chart as would his next six studio albums. Among his hit albums were “The Night I Fell in Love” and “Give Me the Reason.”
In 1991, after his “Best of” album brought him some notice in the pop world, Vandross crossed over with “Power of Love,” which got him into the pop top 10. All but one of his next six albums did likewise. He spent 18 years with Epic before making a single disc for Virgin and then two with J.
In addition to the four Grammys Vandross won in 2004, he had four others, including 1991’s best R&B song for “Power of Love/Love Power.”
Vandross, who never married and was predeceased by two sisters and a brother, is survived by his mother, nine nieces, eight great-nephews and three great-nieces.
Funeral services and viewing will be held at Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, 1076 Madison Ave., New York, on Wednesday and Thursday, 4-9 p.m. A memorial service will be held noon Friday at Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Drive.