Will Luther Vandross sing again? Insiders open up -- For the first time, friends and family discuss the R&B star's devastating stroke

By Tom Sinclair
Updated October 10, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Luther Vandross
Credit: Luther Vandross Photograph by Platon

A warehouse may not be a home — to paraphrase the Burt Bacharach song that is one of Luther Vandross’ signature tunes — but Whitehall Storage, located in a dicey area on the extreme west side of Manhattan, certainly holds its share of emotional memories for Vandross’ 79-year-old mother this chill October afternoon.

Propped up on one of the two canes arthritis has forced her to use, Mary Ida Vandross — or Mrs. V., as her son’s associates call her — is somberly surveying 20 years’ worth of Luther’s flamboyant stage costumes.

Stretched out before her, on rack after endless rack, is a rainbow riot of lavender and pink and red and blue and yellow and fuchsia jackets, shirts, and pants, most of them studded with glittering gems. Vandross, the velvet-voiced R&B titan felled by a severe stroke on April 16, may have worn basic black on occasion, but you couldn’t prove it by this sampling of his color-mad wardrobe.

”My son had good taste,” Mrs. V. says, eyeing the finery. She hesitates, then corrects herself. ”HAS good taste.”

The past six months have been excruciating for Vandross’ friends and family. They’ve watched him struggle to survive a stroke that left him in a semi-coma. They enjoyed a bittersweet victory when his new album, ”Dance With My Father,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 while a barely coherent Vandross languished in a New York-area hospital, unaware that adoring fans had rallied around his latest release. And they’re now confronting — and, for the first time, discussing publicly — the hard realities of what his future holds. On the eve of the release of a new CD, ”Luther Vandross Live at Radio City Music Hall 2003,” a huge question looms: Will Luther Vandross ever sing for us again?

Almost everyone in Vandross’ inner circle agrees that in the weeks before April 16, the singer was pushing himself too hard. Earlier that month, he had just about completed ”Dance With My Father,” which features guests like Beyoncé and Busta Rhymes, and which the singer viewed as his most personal and ambitious work ever — in particular the title track, a heartfelt remembrance of his father, Luther Sr., who died when his son was 7. He was also gearing up for a promotional tour, sorting through tapes for his live album, and supervising extensive renovations on his New York City apartment. ”We were supposed to leave for the tour at the end of that week,” says Vandross’ personal assistant, Max Szadek, who’s worked for the artist for the past 10 years. ”I was inundated, [his housekeeper] was overwhelmed with getting the renovations completed. In fact, the day this happened I was going over to tell [Luther] that it was all becoming too much for me.”

Vandross too was overextended, ignoring obvious warning signs of his imminent medical crisis. ”He called me the very same day [he had the stroke] and said, ‘Momma, I’ve had a headache for six days,”’ recalls Mrs. V. ”When I called him back later, I got no response.? He should have gone to the hospital the second or third day. Six days is too long to have a headache. I’m surprised, because Luther is very intelligent, and he [was usually firm] with everybody about going to the doctor.”

Carmen Romano, Vandross’ longtime business manager, has a theory as to why his client avoided his physician. Vandross, who is diabetic and had been plagued with high blood pressure, had also long fought a very public battle with obesity. According to Romano, the 6’3” Vandross could veer anywhere between 190 and 340 pounds. ”I think he was afraid to go to the doctor because he had gained a lot of weight,” Romano says, ”and he just didn’t want to get a lecture about it.”

Romano remembers well how he heard about Vandross’ stroke. ”I was in my car, coming back from Tiffany’s, where I had just bought Luther a birthday present,” he says. ”I was literally in the car with the gift when I got the phone call from Max.” Max Szadek had arrived at Vandross’ apartment that morning to take him to the recording studio, but got no response at the door, which was chain-locked from the inside. ”What should I do?” Szadek asked Romano. ”Should I break the door down?” They made a decision. ”He broke it down and found Luther on the floor.”

Vandross’ associates describe a frightening scene. Although he would lapse into a semi-coma shortly after being admitted to the hospital, Luther was immobile but still conscious and able to speak when Szadek came through the door. ”He was thirsty and asked for something to drink,” says Romano. ”Then he said to Max, when the ambulance got there, ‘Make sure you call my mother.”’