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20 Things You Didn’t Know About Luther Vandross

The late R&B legend’s birthday is April 20. Here are 20 little known facts, including Olympic-level shade-throwing & connections to Jennifer Lopez, Andy Warhol, David Bowie, and Big Bird.

1. 1. Luther made his TV debut on Sesame Street

2. 2. In college, Luther pretended to be Dionne Warwick’s brother

But his roommate caught him in the lie when he met Dionne after a concert. The roommate confronted Luther about it, but Luther just laughed it off: “Oh, she’s so crazy.”

3. 3. Luther wrote “A Brand New Day” from The Wiz

He was also the voice of this guy in the movie.

4. 4. Luther got his first big break singing for David Bowie

While working for Bowie, Luther met his future background singer, Ava Cherry.

5. This is Ava before working for Luther

6. This is Ava after working for Luther

7. 5. Luther once had to put Bette Midler in check

After seeing him sing background for Bowie, Bette invited Luther to tour with her.

When Luther showed up for rehearsal, Bette said, “You must be Luther,” and then proceeded to bite his nipple.

Luther wasn’t havin’ it: “Look, I know you’re famous and I’m not, but I don’t play that way. I don’t need this gig that bad. Back off!”

8. 6. LUTHER ONCE GOT PAID IN MACADAMIA NUTS

Producer Patrick Adams remembered this session with a laugh: “He ate those macadamia nuts! But that was fine, because this was during the height of the drug experience in the industry. I’ve seen a lot of bad things in the studio, so to have a singer come in and all they wanted was some macadamia nuts, well, that was fine with me.”

9. 7. Before becoming a superstar, Luther sang jingles

Best Juicy Fruit commercial ever, am I right?

Some likened doing jingles to “musical prostitution,” but Luther did them for one key reason: “The money was fierce!”

10. 8. Luther was once in a group called, uh, Luther

Member Christine Wiltshire (far right) cracked up while reminiscing about the group’s image: “Lord, have mercy! We didn’t have no clothes! We didn’t have no look!”

Luther once joked that the group’s two albums “sold fourteen copies combined.”

11. 9. Luther had a favorite color. Guess what it was?

12. 10. Sheena Easton beat Luther for “Best New Artist” at the ‘81 Grammys

This began a devastating losing streak that, despite multiple nominations, would last a full decade.

13. 11. Luther had an EPIC fight with Aretha Franklin

Luther grew up obsessed with Aretha’s music, even going so far as to call himself an “Arethacologist.” He was also thrilled when he got the chance to produce her Jump To It album, and it became her biggest hit in ages.

But things didn’t go so smoothly when they got into the studio to record the followup.

At one point, Aretha felt like Luther was being too controlling in telling her how to sing.

14. He said, firmly: “I’m the producer.”

15. She came back with, “Well, I’m the Queen of Soul!”

16. Luther was like, “Well, I’m the person who produced your first gold record in years!”

17. With that, the Queen grabbed her fur and was out the door.

18. 12. Andy Warhol was a Luther fan

After seeing Luther perform at Radio City Music Hall, Andy said in his diary: “So Luther sang and his songs were all long, long stories. But very good…”

19. 13. Luther “came out” to Emmy-winning writer Bruce Vilanch

Luther and Bruce first met when Bruce was writing stage banter for Bette Midler. Years later, when Luther was doing his own tours, he called on Bruce to write material for him.

One night, in the mid-80s, they had their most intimate conversation ever. Luther confessed to Bruce, an openly gay man, that he was “in the life.” This is a phrase that has been used to refer to African American gay men and lesbians at least since the Harlem Renaissance. (It was also the title of a groundbreaking anthology of black gay writing that was published in 1986.)

Luther also told Bruce that he was deeply closeted, even to those closest to him. This made it difficult to find a relationship.

“Do you want me to hook you up?” Bruce asked.

20. Luther cracked, “Do you know someone who could handle all of this?”

21. 14. Luther ended relationships when he felt used

He explained: “You know, a lot of times you find yourself trying to fit your big, enormous life into someone else’s small box of a life because they don’t have ambition of their own. That never works out. I don’t want nobody riding on me, because it just doesn’t feel good.”

22. 15. Luther fought Patti LaBelle over an alligator bag

While shopping together at the posh Beverly Hills boutique Maxfield’s, they both spotted an alligator bag that each just had to have.

23. Luther said, “I’m getting that bag!”

24. “No, you’re not,” Patti shot back, “I’m getting it.”

Patti later explained: “The bag was like twelve thousand dollars, and I knew I would have to do so many shows to pay for that sucker. But I had a credit card, so I put it on the card while he was looking at other stuff in the store.”

Every time Luther saw her with the bag, he’d say, “You heifer, you got my bag.”

27. 16. Anita Baker stood Luther up for a duet not 1, not 2, but THREE times

I. In 1987, they were supposed to sing the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell classic “Your Precious Love” on the Grammys. They even rehearsed the arrangement at Luther’s house. But on the morning of the show, Anita changed her mind and decided to perform Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child” solo.

II. They did a co-headling tour in 1988. Luther kept asking Anita to do a duet, but she always refused. (She later blamed this on a pregnancy that, sadly, resulted in a miscarriage.) Luther, who went on stage last, got Anita back by referring to her as his “opening act.”

III. By 1990, they’d reconciled and Luther invited her to duet on a cover of Ben E. King’s “I (Who Have Nothing).” But on the day they were supposed to record, “she simply didn’t show up,” Luther said.

28. 17. Luther called the police on En Vogue in Miami

When Luther toured with the Funky Divas in 1993, he was not impressed.

Tensions between the two camps ran so high that the backstage area was cordoned off so that they wouldn’t have to see each other.

29. But in Miami, Luther spotted En Vogue in his area.

30. Luther called the po po and demanded En Vogue be arrested for trespassing.

31. Shortly thereafter, En Vogue left the tour.

32. 18. Boyz II Men kept Luther from his dream of a No. 1 pop single

Luther always wanted a No. 1 pop record. As he said in 1991: “My career cannot continue until I can claim that I’ve had a number-one record. I’m ravenous for one. I don’t think it’s unreasonable or self-serving to ask for. Somebody has it every week.”

The closest he got was in 1994 when “Endless Love,” his duet with Mariah Carey, hit No. 2. But it was kept out of the top spot by Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love To You.”

34. 19. Diddy asked Luther to serenade Jennifer Lopez

In 2001, just before Valentine’s Day, Puffy hired Luther to surprise his on-again, off-again girlfriend Jennifer Lopez. She entered a recording studio to work on her album, but the lights were dimmed and sitting on a stool in the middle of the studio was Luther. He gestured for her to come close to him and then he sang “A House Is Not A Home” to her with their faces inches apart.

35. J-Lo was feelin’ it!

“It was the most amazing thing that ever happened to me,” she later said.

But it did little to improve her relationship. She broke up with Puffy days later.

37. 20. He hated his songs being called “baby-making music”

Luther explained: “I think it trivializes the musical contribution that I’m trying to make…and how I’m trying to be remembered. I don’t want to be remembered in the context of the bedroom. I don’t want to be in that bag. I want to be in the bag that includes the best singers of our time…”

39. Happy Birthday, Luther!!!

You can find out more about Luther in the biography, Luther: The Life and Longing of Luther Vandross.

40. Bonus: The 10 Best Luther songs

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