How did Luther Vandross die? Google Doodle honors Soul legend who wooed generations with his 'Velvet Voice'
The 'Pavarotti of Pop' had an illustrious career in which he not only cemented his legacy but also worked with some of the biggest names in music
Google replaced its homepage logo on Monday with a Doodle honoring the late Grammy-winning R&B, soul and disco singer Luther Vandross.
Vandross, who was an in-demand background vocalist for several musical greats including Cat Stevens, Judy Collins, Chaka Khan, Carly Simon, Diana Ross, David Bowie, Ben E King, Ringo Starr and Donna Summer, was honored on what would have been his 70th birthday via the search giant's iconic doodle. Vandross started writing his own music at 13 and released 14 iconic albums, each of which either went platinum or multi-platinum.
Happy 70th birthday, Luther Vandross!— Google Doodles (@GoogleDoodles) April 20, 2021
Today's music video #GoogleDoodle celebrates the award-winning singer, songwriter, & producer, whose "Velvet Voice" has romanced generations 🎙
🎨 by guest artist and animator @artbysambass → https://t.co/ki6f440ED7 pic.twitter.com/GYEMiUMnq9
And he wasn't just a singer! From the design of the background singers' sparkling gowns to the stage lights that set the mood, he contributed to almost every part of all his live performances. Here's all you need to know about the singer who was nicknamed "The Velvet Voice".
Who was Luther Vandross?
Luther Ronzoni Vandross, Jr was born on April 20, 1951, in the Kips Bay area of Manhattan, New York City, at Bellevue Hospital. The youngest of four children, he was born into a musical family. His mother Mary Ida was a nurse and his father, Luther Vandross Sr, was an upholsterer and singer, who died of diabetes when he was eight. Vandross was raised by his mother in the NYCHA Alfred E Smith Houses public housing complex on Manhattan's Lower East Side. He taught himself to play the piano by ear when he was three years old and had his own phonograph.
He graduated from William Howard Taft High School in 1969, where he began singing informally and founded the first Patti LaBelle fan club, of which he was president. He also performed in a group called Shades of Jade that once played at the Apollo Theater. Vandross would go on to make several appearances in Apollo's famous amateur night. He then studied electrical engineering for a year at Western Michigan University but left to pursue a musical career.
Roberta Flack, David Bowie, and a first break
He got his first break when he was asked to sing the alphabet on the first episode of Sesame Street, and his hit, 'Everyone Rejoice', was featured in 1975's 'The Wiz', a black musical based on 'The Wizard Of Oz'. The song went on to be used in a Kodak commercial during the mid-1970s.
Before this, he added backing vocals to Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway in 1972 and co-wrote 'Fascination' for David Bowie's ninth studio album 'Young Americans'. In 1974, Vandross' friend, guitarist Carlos Alomar, invited him to see 'Young Americans' being recorded, which Alomar was working on at the time. When Bowie overheard Vandross singing, he hired him on the spot to sing and arrange background vocals for the album. He later co-wrote the hit song 'Fame' with Bowie and John Lennon and went on to tour with Bowie as a back-up vocalist in September 1974.
Failed albums, and a debut that hit No 1
Vandross worked on sessions with Bette Midler, Ringo Starr, Cat Stevens, Sister Sledge, Gary Glitter among others, and quickly becoming one of the most sought-after background singers. He was the lead singer on Chic's 'Dance, Dance, Dance' in 1979, and he was also featured on the 'No More Tears' hit by Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer. Before launching his solo career, he made a fortune writing commercial jingles for companies including Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pepsi Cola, and the US military.
Vandross formed the group Luther in 1976 and released two albums that were not well received. He went back to doing background vocals and jingle singing while searching for a recording contract that would allow him to create his own material. No one seemed willing to take a chance on Vandross, but his lead vocals on studio group Change's two British hits, 'Searching' and 'Glow Of Love', persuaded Epic to sign him. Vandross' debut, 'Never Too Much', which he sung, arranged, and recorded, reached number one on the US R&B charts in 1981.
'A female voice is just special'
From then on, there seemed to be no holding back, as Vandross would prove to be one of the most productive and consistent hit-makers of the 1980s. He relaunched Aretha Franklin's career by writing and recording her 'Jump To It' album in 1982, and the following year, he released an album for Dionne Warwick, which included the hit duet 'How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye'.
'Red Hot Rhythm & Blues', a 1987 album he produced for Diana Ross was less successful. Ross performed a song from the album, 'It's Hard for Me to Say', which was written and produced by Vandross, as an a-cappella tribute to Oprah Winfrey on her final season of 'The Oprah Winfrey Show'. "The female voice to me is just special, and women's interpretive values seem wider, less restricted," he once said, as reported by the Guardian.
With a tenor vocal range, Vandross was dubbed "The Velvet Voice" for his outstanding vocal ability, and was even dubbed "The Best Voice of a Generation" on occasions. Many reviewers referred to him as the "Pavarotti of Pop."
In 2008, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Vandross 54th among the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. Mariah Carey has claimed in interviews that recording the duet "Endless Love" with Luther Vandross was overwhelming. In December 2012, Vandross was inducted into The SoulMusic Hall of Fame at SoulMusic.com by popular vote.
His voice embodied distant grace and beauty, an endless swooning romance, in the part of "lover man" formerly played by Marvin Gaye and Al Green, although they added a seductive sexual finesse to their appearances. "People tend to see me platonically, fraternally. They don't lust," he said acknowledging this.
'Am I bicoastal?'
Vandross was never married and had no children. In fact, his mother outlived all her children, and his older siblings all predeceased him. Patti LaBelle in a 2017 interview confirmed that the R&B crooner was a gay man. “He did not want his mother to be [upset] – although she might have known – he wasn’t going to come out and say this to the world,” she revealed, in a report by the Grio. “And he had a lot of lady fans. He told me that he just didn’t want to upset the world,” she said, adding, “It was hard for him.”
LaBelle's outing of Vandross' sexuality was met with mixed reactions, as many felt it was not her place to say. However, it doesn’t appear that the singer ever really cared what people thought of his sexuality. He was simply unwilling to confirm or deny it. “What do you want to know?” he asked in a 2001 interview with Vibe, while jokingly responding to the years-long rumours about his sexuality. “Am I bicoastal? Yeah, I have houses in Beverly Hills and New York.” “I know that I’m paying a price for being so private…and I do wonder if it’s worth it,” he added.
A painful, unrequited, alienating love
But not being candid about his sexuality met with chatter that he had contracted AIDS. In December 1985, Vandross filed a libel suit against a British magazine after it attributed his 85-pound weight loss to AIDS. He weighed 325 pounds when he started a diet in May of that year.
In the same Vibe interview, Vandross shared that he had never been in love. "I'm still waiting," he said. “The time that I’ve spent being in love has never been reciprocated. Those are just the circumstances.” The Pavarotti of Pop said his first experience of unrequited love happened when he was just 16. “The response was, ‘Thank you, but I’m not interested,’” he recalled in the interview. “It was very painful, unrequited, and alienating - very alienating.”
How ironic, that the man who made a living singing about love and made a soundtrack of love for generations, never truly knew the feeling for himself. “I want to play house,” he added. “I want somebody – who’s not on payroll – to care about where I am.”
In the early 1990s, Vandross' sales remained high, but his glacial pop/soul style became increasingly predictable, and he was quickly eclipsed by a younger, more hip-hop focused breed of male R&B singer. 'Endless Love', a duet with Mariah Carey, was his last British hit in 1994.
Vandross battled obesity and diabetes throughout his life, claiming to have lost more than 120 pounds 14 times. Since suffering a major stroke on April 16, 2003, he never fully recovered. It affected his ability to speak or sing and he was relegated to a wheelchair. At the 2004 Grammy Awards, the singer appeared in a pre-taped video segment to accept his Song of the Year Award for 'Dance with My Father'. He said: "When I say goodbye it's never for long, because I believe in the power of love." Vandross sang the last six words. His mother accepted the award on his behalf.
His last public appearance was on May 6, 2004, on 'The Oprah Winfrey Show'. A year later, Vandross, aged 54, died of a heart attack on July 1 at the JFK Medical Center in Edison, New Jersey. Being a deeply private man, he channeled his feelings into music. In a 1989 interview, he said: "These are not little, lightweight songs. These are songs which call upon things that have happened to you." And so lives his lilting legacy.
Watch the video for 'Never Too Much' here: