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Luther Vandross’ style harkened back to a more genteel era of crooning, with songs that spoke to heartfelt emotions and gentle pillow talk rather than explicit sexuality.
“I’m more into poetry and metaphor, and I would much rather imply something rather than to blatantly state it,” the Grammy award winner once said. “You blatantly state stuff sometimes when you can’t think of a a poetic way to say it.”
Vandross, whose deep, lush voice on hits such as “Here and Now” and “Any Love” provided the romantic backdrop for millions of couples, died Friday. He was 54.
The singer died at John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Edison, N.J., said hospital spokesman Rob Cavanaugh. He did not release the cause of death but said in a statement that Vandross “never really recovered” from a stroke two years ago.
Since the stroke in his Manhattan home on April 16, 2003, the R&B crooner stopped making public appearances — but amazingly managed to continue his recording career. In 2004, he captured four Grammys as a sentimental favorite, including best song for the bittersweet “Dance With My Father.”
Vandross, who was in a wheelchair at the time, delivered a videotaped thank you.
“Remember, when I say goodbye it’s never for long,” said a weak-looking Vandross. “Because” — he broke into his familiar hit — “I believe in the power of love.”
Vandross also battled weight problems for years while suffering from diabetes and hypertension.
He was arguably the most celebrated R&B balladeer of his generation. He made women swoon with his silky yet forceful tenor, which he often revved up like a motor engine before reaching his beautiful crescendos.
Jeff O’Conner, Vandross’ publicist, called his death “a huge loss in the R&B industry.” O’Conner said he received condolence calls Friday from music luminaries such as Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones.
Singer Roberta Flack, on tour in Japan, said she was mourning the loss of her friend of more than 20 years.
“He was a musician who couldn’t help but give you all he had,” she said by telephone. “He was the kind of guy who was born to do what he did musically and let the world know about it. He was not born to keep it smothered in the chest.”
Vandross was a four-time Grammy winner in the best male R&B performance category, taking home the trophy in 1990 for the single “Here and Now,” in 1991 for his album “Power of Love,” in 1996 for the track “Your Secret Love” and a last time for “Dance With My Father.”
The album, with its single of the same name, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts while Vandross remained hospitalized from his stroke. It was the first time a Vandross album had topped the charts in its first week of release.
In 2005, he was nominated for a Soul Train Music Award for a duet with Beyonce on “The Closer I Get To You.”
Vandross’ sound was so unusual few tried to copy it; even fewer could.
“I’m proud of that — it’s one of the things that I’m most proud of,” he told The Associated Press in a 2001 interview. “I was never compared to anyone in terms of sound.”
A career in music seemed predestined for Vandross; both his parents were singers, and his sister, Patricia, was part of a 1950s group called the Crests.
But the New York native happily toiled in the musical background for years before he would have his first hit. He wrote songs for projects as varied as a David Bowie album (“Fascination”) and the Broadway musical “The Wiz” (“Everybody Rejoice (Brand New Day)”), sang backup for acts such as Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand, and even became a leading commercial jingle singer.
Vandross credited Flack for prodding him to move into the spotlight after listening to one of his future hits, “Never Too Much.”
“She started crying,” he recalled. “She said, ‘No, you’re getting too comfortable (in the background). ... I’m going to introduce you to some people and get your career started.”’
Vandross’ first big hit came as the lead vocalist for the group Change, with their 1980 hit, “The Glow of Love.” That led to a recording contract with Epic Records, and in 1981, he made his solo recording debut with the disc “Never Too Much.” The album, which contained his aching rendition of “A House is Not a Home,” became an instant classic.
Over the years, Vandross would emerge as the leading romantic singer of his generation, racking up one platinum album after another and charting several R&B hits, such as “Superstar,” “Give Me The Reason” and “Love Won’t Let Me Wait.”
Yet, while Vandross was a household name in the black community, he was frustrated by his failure to become a mainstream pop star. Indeed, it took Vandross until 1990 to score his first top 10 hit — the wedding staple “Here & Now.”
“I just wanted more success. I didn’t want to suddenly start wearing blond wigs to appeal to anyone,” he told the AP.
“This is the same voice that sang Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola, NBC ’proud as a peacock,’ ... America, the world, has heard the voice, so there’s no reason that that music shouldn’t have gone the complete distance, I mean, to number one.”
Another frustration for Vandross was his lifelong battle with obesity. Health problems ran in his family, and Vandross struggled for years to control his waistline. When he first became a star, he was a hefty size; a few years later, he was almost skinny. His weight fluctuated so much that rumors swirled that he had more serious health problems than the hypertension and diabetes caused by his large frame.
Vandross’ two sisters and a brother died before him. The lifelong bachelor never had any children, but doted on his nieces and nephews. The entertainer said his busy lifestyle made marriage difficult; besides, it wasn’t what he wanted.”