By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
He couldn't be all that he could be until he was 30, yet Luther Vandross managed to become the premier romantic balladeer of his time, as much the voice of his generation as Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Al Green had been of theirs.
Yet as tempting as it is to listen to Vandross's lush, soulful tenor and place him in a pantheon of classic soul men that stretches back to Ray Charles, his richest, most lasting influences were on women, particularly the great old-school divas such as Dionne Warwick, Cissy Houston and Aretha Franklin. That's one reason Vandross's singing rang so true -- particularly with women, who recognized the vulnerability and insecurity at the heart of his songs.
Men, Vandross once told me, were locked into stereotyped roles. "The female singer who wants to be gruff and convincing, she will tend to go ahead and do that quicker than a male singer will soften up and become sensitive. That's society, that's rearing, that's the package. I refuse to buy into that."
In a time when R&B increasingly became sexually explicit and vulgar, Vandross, who died on Friday at age 54, continued to hold out for romance. His old-soul agenda was revealed in song titles such as "Power of Love/Love Power," "Love Won't Let Me Wait," "Stop to Love," "There's Nothing Better Than Love" and "Any Love." They were not about the bump-and-grind of sex but the convolutions of the heart -- the rush of new love, the anguish of lost love (so beautifully expressed in "A House Is Not a Home"), the thrill of meeting someone special, and the fear of being rejected. These were songs about wanting and needing, about emotional connection, not notch-making. For many, Vandross was the multipurpose confessor/adviser/soul mate.
"My first responsibility is to be honest in what I'm singing," Vandross said in one of a half-dozen interviews we did over the course of 20 years. "My favorite thing is when somebody's emotional state, more than their romantic state, is helped by one of my songs.
"I sing about love, but I also sing about introspection and emotional status and the emotional journey that people go through during the course of a day and how it can affect you -- all the decisions that you make for your life. It's not 'meet me in the shower' and 'let's rub oil on each other.' You'll never hear me sing about those things."
Then he added: "That's my choice, Luther's perspective. It does not mean that anyone who does that is less worthy or less competent."
Vandross, who passed away without ever having fully recovered from a major stroke two years ago, never judged others. He simply knew what was right for him, and it turned out to be right to the tune of 25 million records sold and a loyal constituency that always understood exactly where he was coming from because they'd been there themselves.
Certainly Vandross wasn't a sex symbol. He fought serious weight-related problems for much of his life. In fact, weight almost silenced Vandross's remarkable voice before anyone had a chance to hear it. As a sensitive 300-pound teenager coming of age in New York's Alfred E. Smith housing project, Vandross was unwilling to call attention to himself, so he didn't sing -- at home, at school, at church. But he was consumed by music, finding solace and inspiration in the girl groups of the '50s and '60s and the great divas.
When Vandross did join his school choir, his size led to him being denied opportunities that his talent would have warranted. As a teenager, he already knew all about voices, how they could work together, how they could be best showcased, "but they didn't want me to front the group," Vandross recalled, admitting: "I carried that with me for a long time."
Eventually, he gravitated to studio work, where anonymity made physical appearance irrelevant, and quickly became a top session vocalist and vocal arranger. But where Vandross first showed platinum potential was applying an instantly recognizable yet completely unidentified tenor to commercials. He invited us to eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken (and Gino's and Burger King) and to quench our thirst with Coke (or Pepsi or 7-Up). When the U.S. Army broke out its "Be All That You Can Be" campaign, Vandross subbed for Uncle Sam so well that the Navy enlisted him, too. Vandross would often trot out these old jingles during his concerts, unembarrassed and always amused when audiences recognized those first "hits."
Vandross's initial forays into the charts came under the anonymity of disco, singing leads on Change's "The Glow of Love" and Bionic Boogie's "Hot Butterfly." Because there was no demand for live performances, who'd know?
(Years later, Vandross's substantial fluctuations in size always seemed to be much more important to the media than to his fans. It never affected his singing, and they loved him through thick and thin. "Sincerity is not measured in pounds," he noted.)
Eventually -- with a little help from Washington's Roberta Flack and only after insisting on being allowed to produce himself -- Vandross signed with Epic. When his 1981 debut album, "Never Too Much," sold 2 million copies, it simply proved that it was never too late to champion the emotional openness of '60s soul, even dressed up in contemporary production.
Luther Vandross didn't sing just about love, of course. He could serve up a delicious dance track or a bittersweet tribute like his last recording, "Dance With My Father," but what he'll be remembered for are those rich, romantic ruminations on the power of love. In our last conversation four years ago, I suggested that such ballads tend to last longer than most pop music, and Vandross enthusiastically agreed.
"Absolutely! That's because ballads remind you of how you felt emotionally at that period of time when you heard a particular song, and that counts for a lot in people's lives."
Luther Vandross made it easy to remember, and in doing so, made it impossible to forget him.