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Remembering Luther Vandross, the R&B sex symbol outed in death by longtime friend Patti LaBelle

Emma Powys Maurice April 20, 2021
Luther Vandross

R&B icon Luther Vandross performing in Chicago, Illinois, on 12 January 1984. (Paul Natkin/Getty)

The world is paying tribute to Luther Vandross, the incredible “velvet voiced” R&B legend who would have been 70 years old today.

When the superstar singer died aged 54 in 2005 he’d sold more than 35 million records, won eight Grammy Awards and performed alongside the likes of David Bowie, Ringo Starr, Beyoncé and Mariah Carey.

He left behind 14 studio albums, all of which went either platinum or multi-platinum, and a collection of timeless hits including “Never Too Much,” “Here and Now” and “Power of Love”.

He also left behind what’s been called the “biggest unkept secret” in R&B history – his sexuality.

Luther Vandross was rumoured to be gay throughout his career, and his sexual orientation was the subject of frequent media speculation. According to Gene Davis, a television producer who worked with the star, “Everybody in the business knew that Luther was gay.”

Nevertheless, it remained something of an open secret until he was posthumously outed by his longtime friend Patti LaBelle 12 years after his death.

The singer confirmed the rumours once and for all in an interview on Watch What Happens Live! with Andy Cohen in 2017.

“Did he struggle with the idea of coming out publicly? Was that something you talked about, at all?” the gay talk show host asked her.

LaBelle nodded and replied: “Yeah, we talked about it. It was basically, he did not want his mother to be – although she might have known – but he wasn’t going to come out and say this to the world.”

She added: “And he had a lot of lady fans and he told me that he just didn’t wanna upset the world… It was hard for him.”

Reactions to the interview were mixed: it certainly wasn’t the revelation of the century, as it simply confirmed what many people already knew.

The star’s mother Mary Ida Vandross was not alive to hear it as she’d already passed away in 2008, yet some still felt it wasn’t Patti LaBelle’s place to break the news.

Vandross was born in 1951, long before LGBT+ people were widely accepted, and to be both Black and gay was even more radical at the time.

“One can only imagine the anxiety Luther Vandross must have felt to even fathom the idea of being an out gay Black man at the height of his musical career in the ’80s,” wrote The Grio‘s Gerren Keith Gaynor.

“Luther was a sex symbol, and in the world of R&B, which was also deeply rooted in the African-American church, and Black experience at large, his sexuality would have certainly sent shockwaves through the community.

“Even if he wanted to, there was no historical context for Vandross to feel secure in knowing that he would’ve still been loved for his talents despite the the community’s homophobia and deep obsession with toxic masculinity.”

Unfortunately we’ll never know Vandross’ thoughts on the matter – but it may have been something of a comfort for him to know he’d still have his family’s support, even after his sexuality became public knowledge.

The Vandross family spoke lovingly of the singer after Google honoured him with a Doodle on its homepage on Tuesday (20 April), calling it a “wonderful showcase”.

“It is a true reflection of Luther Vandross’s musical legacy around the world to be honoured by Google with an animated video Doodle that fittingly captures the joy Luther has brought the world,” they said in a statement.

“Luther made each of his songs about one simple, universal subject – love; an emotion and feeling common to the human experience no matter who you are, where you’re from or what you look like.

“No one else has expressed this emotion, in song, at the level Luther did for over 35 years. To have Google broadcast that around the world is a wonderful showcase of his immeasurable talent.”

More: coming out, Gay, Luther Vandross, patti labelle

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