Luther Vandross, R&B Legend, Dies at 54

Luther Vandross has died. Two years ago, the R&B legend suffered a stroke in his New York apartment. He never fully recovered. Vandross, 54, was known for his silky, soulful tenor. A gifted songwriter, arranger and producer, he sold millions of albums worldwide.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, how to make money singing in a bar.

But first, rhythm and blues singer Luther Vandross has died. Two years ago, 2003, Mr. Vandross suffered a stroke in his New York City apartment and never fully recovered. Luther Vandross was best known for his silky, soulful tenor. He was also a gifted songwriter, arranger and producer who sold millions of albums around the world. NPR's Nova Safo has this appreciation.

NOVA SAFO reporting:

Luther Vandross grew up the youngest of four kids on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His dad died when he was eight. As a kid, Vandross listened to the great female singers of the 1960s. From them, he learned about phrasing and how to deliver even the simplest of lyrics.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LUTHER VANDROSS: (Singing) Here and now, I promise to love faithfully.

Group: (Singing) Faithfully.

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) You're all I need.

Mr. MARCUS MILLER (Bassist, Song Co-writer): When I first met Luther, the thing that amazed me was that he was a expert on singing.

SAFO: Marcus Miller worked with Vandross for more than 20 years as his bassist and co-writer and spoke about him on the DVD "From Luther With Love."

Mr. MILLER: He would sit me down. He'd play me Dionne Warwick, and say, `Listen. Listen to the tone here. OK, now she's going to go this note and no vibrato; vibrato with now.' Right. I'm going, `Whoa!' You know, and I realized what that did emotionally, how that made a song better. I mean, he was an astute man of singing.

SAFO: Vandross' first break came when he wrote a song that appeared in the Broadway musical "The Wiz."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) Everybody look around 'cause there's a reason to rejoice, you see.

Group: (Singing) Everybody come out and let's commence to singing joyfully.

SAFO: Vandross worked as a writer and backup singer for some of the biggest stars of the 1970s, including David Bowie, Carly Simon, Bette Midler and Roberta Flack. He also had a lucrative career singing jingles for everything from Juicy Fruit to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Vandross surrounded himself with accomplished and versatile musicians. His music director was Nat Adderley Jr. On the DVD documentary, he says Vandross drew from spirituality and deep personal experiences.

Mr. NAT ADDERLEY Jr. (Music Director): My absolute favorite songs of his tend to be the real, real deep emotionalist, the ones that I hear for the first time and I'm home crying because I know, `Oh, my goodness, that really came from Luther. That's what he was just going through.'

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) But a chair is not a house, and a house is not a home when there's no one there to hold you tight and no one there you can kiss good night.

SAFO: One of Luther Vandross' dreams came true when he produced an album by Aretha Franklin. The title track, "Jump To It," became a huge hit. In 2004, he won four Grammys, including for the sentimental favorite, "Dance With My Father." On his Web site, Vandross wrote that the title track is, quote, "Not just about losing one's father, but about missing someone who is gone for whatever reason." Vandross was too ill to attend the Grammys and taped an acceptance.

(Soundbite of Grammy speech)

Mr. VANDROSS: Hello, everybody. I wish I could be with you there tonight. I want to thank everyone and--for your love and support. And remember, when I say goodbye, it's never for long because I (singing) believe in the power of love.

(Soundbite of applause)

SAFO: Luther Vandross died Friday afternoon at a hospital in New Jersey. He was 54 years old. Nova Safo, NPR News.

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