Saturday, July 02, 2005

SOULOBIT: Luther Vandross

Allowing several news anchors to make cringe-inducing references to "a voice being silenced on a day of music", Luther Vandross has died at the age of 54.

His first breakthrough came as a backing singer during the early 1970s - he provided voicals for the legendary Chic, David Bowie (on the Young Americans album) and Dinna Summer amongst others. Roberta Flack encouraged him to try and develop a solo career, but it would take a while before he settled on an identity; a contract with Cotillion records saw him taking a 'first name only' guise as Luther for a couple of albums. It was signing to Epic in 1981 and re-attaching his surname which allowed him to start selling in larger quantities. His first album for the label, Never Too Much, sold two million (he would go on to sell 23 million further records in his career) and gave him a number one in the R&B charts. This also opened other doors for him, and he developed a lucrative sideline as a producer, working with Aretha Franklin amongst others.

Although achieving success on a scale to match Prince or Stevie Wonder during the 80s, Vandross never quite made the same stride into mainstram success beyond the sould circuit. His 1991 Best Of album contained a new track, Here and Now, which gave him his first US top 10 hit, but even then he never quite made a move to become a regular on the pop lists, relying on duets with the likes of Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey to keep a toe on radio beyond the R&B and soul stations - and, indeed, if it wasn't for those collaborations, Vandross would never have had a UK Top 10 hit. Meanwhile, though, he was quietly adding to what would become a total of 22 R&B US chart hits.

Eyebrows were raised over Vandross' sexuality - he was a confirmed bachelor, and hints were often dropped over his closeness to producer Marcus Miller and the out saxophonist Dave Koz.

In recent years, Vandross has suffered from ill health. Diabetes runs in his family, taking his father when Luther was just five; ironically, Vandross' last studio collection Dance With My Father was dedicated to the memory of Luther senior. (The title track won Vandross a Best Song grammy in 2004, shared with Richard Marx.) On April 16th 2003, Vandross suffered a massive stroke; it was compilcations from this which would eventually end his life yesterday (July 1st).

In a career garlanded with awards, Vandross won five grammys, a BET Walk of Fame tribute and, astonishingly, every one of his fourteen albums went at least platinum in the US.

Besides his music, Vandross is also credited with one fo the 20th Centruy's greatest inventions, the Luther Burger. Supposedly created on a day when he'd run out of burger buns, the Luther employs a glazed donut to hold the patty. It sounds like perfect diabetic fayre to us.