Luther Ronzoni Vandross was born on April 20, 1951 at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, New York City, United States. He was the fourth child and second son of Mary Ida Vandross and Luther Vandross, Sr.
Vandross was raised on Manhattan's Lower East Side in the NYCHA Alfred E. Smith Houses public housing development and began playing the piano at age three. He grew up in a musical family that moved to the Bronx when he was thirteen. His sister, Patricia Vandross, sang with the vocal group The Crests, who had a number two hit in 1958/59 with "16 Candles", although she left the group before the song was recorded.
Vandross' father died of diabetes when Vandross was eight years old. In high school, Vandross performed in a group, Shades of Jade, that once played at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He was also a member of a theater workshop, "Listen My Brother", which released the singles "Only Love Can Make a Better World" and "Listen My Brother". He also appeared in the second and fifth episodes of Sesame Street in November 1969.
Vandross attended Western Michigan University for a year before dropping out to continue pursuing a career in music.
His next hit credit was on an album by Roberta Flack in 1972.
Vandross founded the first-ever Patti LaBelle fan club.
Luther also sang on Delores Hall's Hall-Mark album (1973). He sang with her on the song "Who's Gonna Make It Easier for Me", which he wrote, and he contributed another song, "In This Lonely Hour". Having co-written "Fascination" (1974) for David Bowie's Young Americans (1975), he went on to tour with him as a back-up vocalist in September 1974. Vandross wrote "Everybody Rejoice" for the 1975 Broadway musical The Wiz and appeared as a choir member in the movie.
Vandross also sang backing vocals for artists including Roberta Flack, Chaka Khan, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, and Donna Summer, and for the bands Chic andTodd Rundgren's Utopia.
Before his breakthrough, Vandross was part of a singing quintet in the late '70s named Luther, consisting of former Shades of Jade members Anthony Hinton and Diane Sumler, as well as Theresa V. Reed, and Christine Wiltshire, signed to Cotillion Records. Although the singles "It's Good for the Soul", "Funky Music (Is a Part of Me)", and "The Second Time Around" were relatively successful, their two albums, the self-titled Luther (1976) and This Close to You (1977), didn't sell enough to make the charts. Vandross bought back the rights to those albums after Cotillion dropped the group, preventing their later re-release.
Vandross also wrote and sang commercial jingles during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and continued his successful career as a popular session singer during the late 1970s.
In 1978, Vandross sang lead vocals for a disco band called Greg Diamond's Bionic Boogie on the song titled "Hot Butterfly". Also in 1978, he appeared on Quincy Jones'sSounds...and Stuff Like That!!, most notably on the song "I'm Gonna Miss You In The Morning" along with Patti Austin. Luther also sang with the band Soirée and was the lead vocalist on the track "You Are the Sunshine of My Life"; he also contributed background vocals to the album along with Jocelyn Brown and Sharon Redd, each of whom also saw solo success. Additionally, he sang the lead vocals on the group Mascara LP title song "See You in L.A." released in 1979. Vandross also appeared on the group Charme's 1979 album Let It In, most notably on a remake ofToto's hit single "Georgy Porgy".