Singer, Producer and Grammy Nominee Luther Vandross Is R & B's Heavyweight
02/28/1983 at 01:00 AM EST
At 6'2" and 280 pounds, Luther Vandross looks, at first glance, more suited to tackling NFL running backs than packing concert halls. Yet packing concert halls is just what he did on a recent two-month, 33-city tour. At 31, the towering tenor has already been praised by critics as the "Pavarotti of Pop" and emerged as a multiple musical threat.
His latest LP, Forever, for Always, for Love, has sold 800,000 copies and the title song is up for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance at this week's Grammy awards. Vandross has also produced albums for Aretha Franklin (Jump To It) and Cheryl Lynn (Instant Love). But he is most ubiquitous as one of Madison Avenue's favorite for-hire voices singing jingles for clients such as McDonald's and Pepsi-Cola. "In the past three years," he told a reporter, "I haven't been able to turn on a pop music AM radio station for more than an hour and not hear myself in some capacity."
Vandross' bulky grace and iridescent sex appeal have combined to make him a heavyweight heartbreaker on the stage. "Girls do scream when I sing," he has said. "I thought you had to have a 30-inch waist to get screams." Vandross admits to a constant battle of the bulge. "I go for starchy stuff," he confesses, acknowledging that he once climbed to 360 pounds. "I go right for the bag of potato chips, the extra leg of chicken or the Häagen-Dazs. I never crave broccoli."
The kind of green he does crave last year totaled seven figures in royalties, concert fees, producer percentages and residuals. "I'm living my fantasy," Vandross admits.
Born in New York City, Vandross had a tough rearing. His father died when Luther was 8, and he was raised by his mother in a public housing project on the Lower East Side. His earliest interest in music was encouraged by Christmas gifts of Aretha Franklin records and the influence of older sister Pat, who was with various musical groups. The youthful conversations he remembers most vividly were those spent talking about the Supremes or Aretha.
After one year at Western Michigan University, Vandross decided he was "wasting time sitting around the student lounge listening to music." Back in New York he supported himself with a job at an S & H Green Stamp center while writing music. His first break came when his Everybody Rejoice (A Brand New Day) was accepted for inclusion in the Broadway smash The Wiz. A chance meeting led to session work with David Bowie and eventually two tours as a Bowie backup vocalist.
All the while his reputation was as a vocal arranger and background singer. His description of a typical day: "I would go from Carly Simon to Juicy Fruit to Pepsi-Cola to Chaka Khan and come home exhausted. Then I'd wake up the next morning and be off to the Army, to Chic, Bette Midler..." Exhausting though it may have been, all this to-ing and fro-ing brought in close to $500,000 a year.
Wearied of "playing Tonto to somebody else's Lone Ranger," Luther sought a solo recording career in 1981, and after holding out for the right to produce the LP himself, he scored a gold record with his first album, Never Too Much. From that, he got his chance to produce a record for the diva of his dreams, Aretha. The result, Jump To It, was a big hit, and the studio partnership is continuing, with Luther already at work on her next LP. "Luther is a very bright, meticulous, astute producer," praises Lady Soul. "And if he gets tired of singing, he could be a comedian for sure. He just cracks me up."
Crack-ups of another sort are what Luther is carefully avoiding. "I don't do any drugs," he proclaims. "I don't drink and I don't smoke." His evenings are often spent in front of the TV, enjoying, for example, his extensive video collection of Amos 'n' Andy episodes. Another favorite entertainment is professional wrestling. Even there, though, he has been known to cart along his portable tape player to provide his own funky sound track for body drops and eye gouges. "It's a real multisensory blitz!" he says.
Vandross has just bought an elegant 12-room town house on Manhattan's East Side. Upcoming projects include producing an album for Dionne Warwick and starting work on his third LP. There is just one cloud in Luther's sunny sky. So far, he hasn't found anyone to share his success. "You can't talk to your Dreyfus Liquid Assets," he says, "and the bankbook doesn't keep you warm at night."