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Luther Vandross, singer defined smooth R&B

NEW YORK -- Eight-time Grammy Award-winner Luther Vandross, whose deep, lush voice on hits like ''Here and Now" and ''Any Love" sold more than 25 million albums while providing the romantic backdrop for millions of couples worldwide, died yesterday. He was 54.

Mr. Vandross died at 1:47 p.m. at the John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Edison, N.J., said hospital spokesman Rob Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh did not release the cause of death, but said in a prepared statement that Mr. Vandross ''suffered a stroke two years ago which he never really recovered from."

Since suffering the stroke in his Manhattan home on April 16, 2003, the R&B crooner stopped making public appearances, but in 2004, captured four Grammys as a sentimental favorite, including best song for the bittersweet ''Dance With My Father," for his compact disc released the previous year.

Mr. Vandross delivered a videotaped thank you from his wheelchair.

''Remember, when I say goodbye it's never for long," he said then. ''Because" -- he broke into his familiar hit -- ''I believe in the power of love."

Mr. Vandross was arguably the most celebrated R&B balladeer of his generation. He made women swoon with his silky yet forceful tenor, and his Grammys included one for Best Male R&B Performance, taking home the trophy in 1990 for the single ''Here and Now," in 1991 for his album ''Power of Love," in 1996 for the track ''Your Secret Love," and for ''Dance With My Father."

The album, with its single of the same name, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts while Mr. Vandross remained hospitalized from his stroke.

It was the first time a Vandross album had topped the charts in its first week of release.

Earlier this year, he was nominated for a Soul Train Music Award for a duet with Beyonce on ''The Closer I Get To You."

Mr. Vandross's sound was so unusual few tried to copy it; even fewer could.

''I'm proud of that -- it's one of the things that I'm most proud of," he told The Associated Press in a 2001 interview. ''I was never compared to anyone in terms of sound."

Mr. Vandross's style harked back to a more genteel era of crooning. While many of his contemporaries and successors belted out tunes that were sexually charged and explicit, he preferred soft pillow talk and songs that spoke to heartfelt emotions.

''I'm more into poetry and metaphor, and I would much rather imply something rather than to blatantly state it," he said. ''You blatantly state stuff sometimes when you can't think of a poetic way to say it."

A career in music seemed predestined for the New York native; both his parents were singers, and his sister, Patricia, was part of a 1950s group called the Crests.

But he happily toiled in the musical background for years before he would have his first hit. He wrote songs for projects as varied as a David Bowie album (''Fascination") and the Broadway musical ''The Wiz" (''Everybody Rejoice (Brand New Day)"), sang backup for acts such as Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand, and even became a leading commercial jingle singer.

Mr. Vandross credited singer Roberta Flack for prodding him to move into the spotlight after listening to one of his future hits, ''Never Too Much."

''She started crying," he recalled. ''She said, 'No, you're getting too comfortable [in the background] . . . I'm going to introduce you to some people and get your career started."'

Mr. Vandross's first big hit came as the lead vocalist for the group Change, with their 1980 hit, ''The Glow of Love." That led to a recording contract with Epic Records, and in 1981, he made his solo recording debut with the disc ''Never Too Much." The album, which contained his aching rendition of ''A House is Not a Home," became an instant classic.

Over the years, Mr. Vandross would emerge as the leading romantic singer of his generation, racking up one platinum album after another and charting several R&B hits, such as ''Superstar," ''Give Me The Reason," and ''Love Won't Let Me Wait."

Yet, while he was a household name in the black community, he was frustrated by his failure to become a mainstream pop star.

Indeed, it took Mr. Vandross until 1990 to score his first Top 10 hit -- the wedding staple ''Here & Now."

''I just wanted more success. I didn't want to suddenly start wearing blond wigs to appeal to anyone," he told the AP.

Another frustration for Mr. Vandross was his lifelong battle with obesity.

Health problems ran in his family, and he struggled for years to control his waistline. He also had hypertension and diabetes.

Mr. Vandross's two sisters and a brother died before him. The lifelong bachelor never had any children, but doted on his nieces and nephews. The entertainer said his busy lifestyle made marriage difficult; besides, it wasn't what he wanted.

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