05/05/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Life had seemed particularly sweet to Luther Vandross lately. "He just bought this amazing place overlooking Central Park," says a friend of the R&B star. "And I've never seen him more excited about an album." In fact, says his pal, Vandross, 52, believed that the title track of his upcoming—and most personal—album, Dance with My Father, would be a "career-defining song."
Now it's an open question whether the three-time Grammy winner will survive, much less sing again. On April 16 he suffered a massive stroke while alone in his apartment and was taken to New York City's Weill Cornell Medical Center. "He is truly battling for his life," says the friend. (The hospital will confirm only that Vandross is in critical but stable condition.)
Friends say the Manhattan-born singer seemed in robust health prior to the stroke. "I just talked to him," says Aretha Franklin. "Luther can double you over with his humor." But Vandross, who is single, has suffered from diabetes and hypertension; in the past few years his weight has seesawed between 180 and 320 lbs. So drastic were the fluctuations, he said recently, "when I'm out walking, people are like, 'Could, you be...hmmm?' There's always some hesitance about whether or not I'm actually Luther."
What has remained rock steady is a voice so velvety that Vandross, nicknamed the Love Doctor, has sold about 20 million albums in two decades, from Never Too Much in '81 to 2001's Luther Vandross. "It was so upsetting to hear this news," says David Bowie, credited with launching Vandross's recording career in 1974. Still, says the rocker, adding to the chorus sung by fans, "we know he'll make it through this."