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20 People Who Changed Black Music: Soul-Stirrer Luther Vandross, Balladeer Extraordinaire

By the time Luther Vandross released his first successful solo album, "Never Too Much," in 1981, he had already been writing, recording and touring with success for more than 10 years.

The man who sang songs of love with love sold 25 million to 30 million albums in his lifetime. And even after his death, the sales continue, along with his influence on generations of musicians and music lovers.

"Never Too Much" reached double platinum in 1997. Vandross' final LP, "Dance with My Father," which was released after his stroke in 2003, has sold more than 3 million copies. And the 2005 album "So Amazing: An All-Star Tribute to Luther Vandross," featuring some of Vandross' closest friends singing his hits, continues in its popularity.

"Luther always knew what he wanted musically. When I met him the first time, I had never seen anyone like him before," Fonzi Thornton, Luther's longtime friend, told BlackAmericaWeb.com. The two were part of a group called Shades of Jade when they were teens.

"He could tell all us what to do with our parts, then he'd say what he was going to do," Thornton said. "He was phenomenal."

Over the years, Vandross and Thornton would sing backup together for other artists. And Thornton sang on all of the Vandross' albums. Following Vandross' stroke, Thornton helped pull together the "Dance with My Father" album, which went on to win a Grammy Award in 2004 for its title track, named Song of the Year.

That song has special meaning for Evangelist Mary Ida Vandross, the singer's 83-year-old mother.

"The first time Ronnie let me hear the rough cut, I cried," she told BlackAmericaWeb.com. While most referred to the singer by only his first name, his mother calls him Ronnie, short for his middle name, Ronzoni.

"When he was boy, my husband and I would dance together for the children, just like we were movie stars. Then my husband would dance with the children. Ronnie always liked to be in his father's arms," she said. "He was only seven years and five months old when my husband died. He was so young, but still he remembered. He had a good father. I had a good husband."

Accepting Vandross' role as a singer and songwriter was difficult at first for the evangelist.

"He had come home for the holidays, and when he told me he didn't want to return to school at Western Michigan, he said 'I want to be a writer,'" she recalled. "I knew he liked to listen to Dionne Warwick and the Sweet Inspirations all the time, but I was thinking that's just something he likes to do."

At work, Vandross' mother said she cried and she prayed over her son's decision to leave college.

"The Lord gives direction for what he wants us to do. I had to accept that this was what Ronnie was to do with his life," she said. "You see, God gives us a gift. He gives us the gift of love, and that's what Ronnie sang about."

Vandorss hits like "Here and Now" and "Forever, For Always, For Love," have been staples at weddings and other celebrations for years.

"Luther always said he didn't sing about making love; he sang about love's situations," Thorton said.

And because he had such a dynamic vocal range, Vandross could sing one smooth hit after the other, without duplicating a rhythm or style, said Emmett Price, professor of ethnomusicology at Boston's Northeastern University.

"He was a transitory figure. He was a bridge between the era of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding," Price told BlackAmericaWeb.com. "He made it relate to a contemporary audience."

But like many greats of his day, Luther was a full package - a singer and songwriter. "Look at Gamble and Huff. Look at Smokey Robinson and Motown," Price said.

Before Vandross made it as a solo artist, he was writing music that helped make other individuals and even Broadway musicals successful, Price said.

The 1975 hit musical "The Wiz" included Vandross' fast-moving song, "Everybody Rejoice." And he co-wrote David Bowie's "Fascination" before going on tour with the rock star in 1974.

Also in the 1970s, Vandross appeared on several albums with artists such as Average White Band, Ben E. King, Quincy Jones and Roberta Flack. At the same time, he was building a resume as prominent jingle singer, doing the vocals for a popular Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial. But all the while, he kept his vision on the goal of becoming a major solo recording artist.

Vandross picked up his first Grammy in 1989. In his career, he won a total of eight. He also received several American Music Awards, BET Awards and NAACP Image Awards.

"Luther Vandross was successful because of his talent and his amazing drive," said Carmen Romano, longtime business manager for the deceased singer and current executor of his estate.

"He would eat, sleep and work," Romano told BlackAmericaWeb.com. "He would not stop pursuing his dreams."

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