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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Our series 50 Great Voices continues now with a singer whose voice is often described as flawless and smooth as silk.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LUTHER VANDROSS (Musician): (Singing) Love has truly been good to me. Not even one sad day or minute have I had since you've come my way.

SIEGEL: The late Luther Vandross wasn't just known for romantic music. NPR's Elizabeth Blair says he was the go-to singer for anyone looking to get in the mood.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: We'll get to the bedroom in a moment. First: the voice.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

BLAIR: Supremely fine-tuned, controlled and yet effortless.

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) And not a minute or a day or night that I don't love you. Youre at the top of my list cause Im always thinking about you.

BLAIR: Luther Vandross knew so much about singing. Before he went solo in the early 1980s, he was a backup vocalist in high demand. Bette Midler, David Bowie, Barbra Streisand, these are just a few of the stars who wanted to work with him.

He first met bass player Marcus Miller when they were both in Roberta Flack's band.

Mr. MARCUS MILLER (Bass Player): Luther was amazing. He was a connoisseur of background singers.

BLAIR: Marcus Miller was one of the most in-demand session musicians at the time. So he and Luther Vandross were almost always bumping into each other.

Mr. MILLER: I was probably 17, 18 years old when I met him. And I was a hard-core musician, mostly jazz, so I didn't really respect singers that much. They were just somebody in the front of the band to entertain the audience while we were doing the real work in the back, you know.

BLAIR: But Marcus Miller says Luther Vandross changed his mind.

Mr. MILLER: Because we're on the road, you know, and, you know, during the downtime when we weren't performing, Luther would, you know, he would educate me. Hed play me, you know, Aretha Franklin. He'd play me Donny Hathaway. He'd play me the great, great singers and explain to me exactly what they were doing. Most singers can't do that because, you know, although they're very talented, they're not really kind of technically knowledgeable about what they're doing.

But Luther was. So he'd say to me: Listen to Dionne. She's going to hold back the vibrato. She's going to add it right now, for drama. You know what I mean? He would hit me like that, and I was like: Whoa, this is like playing an instrument. This is, you know, this is pretty incredible here. And I became a fan of singing, and I became a fan of Luther.

BLAIR: And Marcus Miller worked with him for decades and became one of his closest collaborators when Luther Vandross went solo.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) Here and now, I promise to love faithfully. You're all I need. Here and now, I vow to be one with thee. Your love is all I need.

BLAIR: Before long some of the singers who Luther Vandross idolized growing up became fans of his, like Dionne Warwick.

Ms. DIONNE WARWICK (Musician): I've always described his voice as a piece of velvet. It was smooth to the touch, easy to feel, wonderful to look at. When I heard Luther's voice, I heard peace. It made me feel good.

BLAIR: And what sort of mood could Vandross put you in?

Ms. STEPHANIE WILLIAMS (Music Director, "Tom Joyner Morning Show"): Oh, see I had to censor myself right then when you asked me that question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: I'll just say baby-making mood. How about that?

BLAIR: Stephanie Williams is music director for the nationally syndicated "Tom Joyner Morning Show." So she picks songs that will appeal to the radio show's older audience. She says it's a funny thing with Luther Vandross - even though he could make just about anybody think about things to do in the bedroom, Williams says he was not the object of desire.

Ms. WILLIAMS: It wasn't a sex-symbol thing with Luther, even though his music was extremely sexy. You know, he could get us in the mood to be with this other guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: And we loved that.

(Soundbite of song, "A House is Not a Home")

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

BLAIR: You can see just how much women adored Luther Vandross in a video of the NAACP Image Awards in 1988, when he sang "A House Is Not a Home" to an ecstatic audience. Anita Baker is almost giddy. A young Janet Jackson has a huge smile on her face. And Dionne Warwick, who originally made the song famous, is beaming as Luther sings what she calls the definitive version.

(Soundbite of song, "A House is Not a Home")

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) And a house is not a home when there's no one there to hold you tight and no one there that you can kiss good night, good morning, good evening, good afternoon, hello, bye-bye baby, yeah, yeah, yeah.

BLAIR: Marcus Miller says he saw firsthand how Luther Vandross didn't need any masculine swagger to make women swoon.

Mr. MILLER: He did it like the opposite. You know, he did it with, like, sensitivity, you know, just being honest and being open with your emotions. I think that really gets to women. I'll tell you, man, he got more underwear thrown at him, man, than a little bit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLAIR: Luther Vandross apparently never liked having underwear thrown at him onstage or the nickname King of the Bedroom. Marcus Miller says Vandross believed he sang about something deeper.

Mr. MILLER: To him, love was the ultimate, two people just being connected like on that special level. I think that was the ultimate to him.

BLAIR: But Miller says Luther Vandross never really found it himself.

Mr. MILLER: I didn't meet anybody who was, like, steady with him. You know, it would work out for a while, but then, you know. I don't know, man, I think that's what made his songs so intense is that he was looking for that. The one thing he loved so much and sang about so well about is the one thing that he really didn't get himself.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) Are you going to be in love with me? I want you and need you to be still in love with me.

BLAIR: Luther Vandross died July 1st, 2005. On a DVD special called "Always and Forever," the man who started his career as the backup singer and arranger everybody wanted in their band was thrilled to say he'd come into his own.

Mr. VANDROSS: One thing that I love about what's happened in my career is that I was never heralded as the new Otis Redding, the new Sam Cooke, the new Teddy Pendergrass or Smokey Robinson. I wasn't the new anybody. I was Luther.

BLAIR: Dionne Warwick says many have tried to be the new Luther, but in her mind, no one has come close.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. VANDROSS: (Singing) Still in love with me. Are you going to be...

SIEGEL: You can hear the music of Luther Vandross and discover more from our 50 Great Voices series at nprmusic.org.

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