'Power of love' triumphs

It wasn't simply a message, it was a miracle.

Only a few months ago, Luther Vandross lay in a coma, his prognosis uncertain. But last night he was able to thank the world via video, in speech — "When I say goodbye it's never for long" — and in song: "I believe in the power of love."

Vandross knows he's gotten by with more than a little help from friends, family and, most recently, a new crop of fans.

"He's had a hard road to travel back to reality," says Vandross' mother, Mary Ida, who has been at her son's side almost constantly since he suffered a stroke last spring. "And I thank God for this recognition."

Last night's big wins for Vandross — for R&B album, male R&B vocal performance, R&B performance by a duo or group (with Beyoncé), and song of the year for "Dance With My Father," co-written with longtime collaborator Richard Marx — validated the singer's long and difficult journey to achieve a crossover dream.

"I asked him, just before he took sick, 'What are you trying to do? Why are you working so hard?' " his mother recalls. "I warned him, 'You're going to kill yourself.' He said, 'I want to give them the best that's in me. I want them to hear it and see it.' "

Vandross, 52 and a four-time Grammy winner, has long been an R&B powerhouse, his chart-topping hits serving as an optimistic soundtrack for date night as well balm for a broken heart. But the top of the pop charts had persistently eluded him. Until now. "Dance With My Father" debuted at No. 1.

"He'd been the victim of the age of videos," says culture critic Nelson George, author of "Post-Soul Nation" (Viking Press). "There was a constant soap opera around his weight. He didn't have a Jheri curl. He also made R&B music, which wasn't embraced by MTV. And Luther is the preeminent black male balladeer.... He represented a very particular kind of black romanticism ... and expressed a kind of yearning desire for connection during a period where hip-hop was rising and that old-school soul music was under attack."

But Vandross didn't waver. He stuck to what he did best, tapping an emotional core, George says. And it was his exploration of the deeply personal — father-son relationships, strained or loving — that resonated with a universal audience.

Those closest to Vandross knew he put his all into this, his 15th album. "He told me that this was the most important song of his career," Marx says, "that this was his 'Piano Man.' And I've been so honored to be a part of it."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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