07/18/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT
Like many of Luther Vandross's close friends, Patti LaBelle had never lost hope that the singer famous for his swoonworthy slow jams would fully recover from the stroke he suffered in 2003. "I just thought he would be okay," she says. But as time wore and Vandross's condition failed to significantly improve. "I saw him and I said to myself so many times, 'He'll never sing again, but I'm not gonna let anybody know that.'" she says. "I was keeping hope alive with everybody. I was praying for this miracle."
Sadly, a miraculous recovery eluded Vandross, who died at 54 during physical therapy on July 1. He had been dramatically weakened by the stroke, and moments of joking and even singing with his loved ones were sporadic. Still, his death shocked even his inner circle. "There was no turn for the worse," says his longtime friend and business manager Carmen Romano, who visited the singer a week before his death at the Edison. N.J., medical center where he had been residing.
His only public appearances since the stroke had been videotaped—once with Oprah
and again at last year's Grammy Awards to accept his trophy for song of the year (the touchingly personal "Dance with My Father"). "He was such a man of dignity," says his friend and frequent songwriting partner Richard Marx, who cowrote "Dance with My Father." "The times that I went to see him [after the stroke], my thought was 'If he really knew what was happening here, he would be miserable.'"
Gracious, witty and impeccably style-conscious—he rarely took to the stage in anything but a tuxedo and showered his elderly mother, Mary Ida, with designer clothes— Vandross was "just the nicest guy and always sweet and funny as hell," says R&B producer-singer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. In private, he could display a biting wit that was "hilariously caustic," says Marx. "He was one of those guys who, the angrier he got, the more articulate he got. He was razor sharp."
For his fans, it was the seductive voice—one that "puts you in a space you can't help traveling through," says singer Alicia Keys—that helped Vandross sell more than 30 million albums and win eight Grammys. Says LaBelle: "He had the one and only voice like that in the world. So many people had babies because of Luther Vandross. He made you want to just make love and be happy."
His own life had been marked by sorrow. The youngest of four kids reared in New York City, Vandross lost his father to diabetes when he was 8. Vandross himself battled diabetes, hypertension and obesity—his weight fluctuated from 180 to 320 lbs.—and all three of his siblings died from various health complications. His mother, Mary Ida, to whom he was extremely close, "buried all her children," says Nat Adderley Jr., Vandross's longtime musical director. "She outlived all four of them. I'm so sad for her."
Onstage the singer, who was discovered by David Bowie in 1974 and who sang backup for Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand before breaking out as a solo superstar with '81's Never Too Much, "just shined," says Babyface. "His fans loved him, so whenever he'd go out and perform, you'd hear someone scream out, 'Oh my God!' It was an amazing thing."
At the planned memorial service—where Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle are slated to sing— Vandross's friends and family intend to honor the singer in true Luther style. "Mary Ida said, 'Well, Luther would probably want us in this color.' He was a fashion fanatic, and we gotta represent," says LaBelle. After his funeral, she adds, "I'm gonna have a glass of red wine and toast to his memory. We're gonna be dancing for him at the party."
Michelle Tauber; Mark Dagostino; Tiffany McGee; Sean Scully in Philadelphia