Luther's mother bears pain of great loss

The pain is still fresh, but Mary Ida Vandross has to find a way to face the music. A year after burying the last of her four children, the great song stylist Luther Vandross, the Philadelphia resident can hardly bear to hear recordings of her son's famed champagne tenor.

"I'm getting a little adjusted to listening," she says. "Before, I just couldn't do it. It's one day at a time."


She's promoting The Ultimate Luther Vandross, a posthumous best-of collection with two previously unreleased songs. The album hit stores last week. "Shine," one of the new cuts on the 18-track set, was a surprise hit on adult-urban radio this summer.

Vandross sighs. "Sometimes I'd run to the radio or the TV and turn it off when his music came on." In addition to promoting the CD, she is also raising awareness of diabetes, the disease that ultimately killed Luther and several other members of the family, including his father, who died in 1959 when the singer was 8 years old. "I've lost so much as a mother," says Vandross, 82. "I've lost four children, three to diabetes and one to asthma. I'm hurting, and I will always hurt somewhat."


A recent survey overseen by Novo Nordisk, a health care company based in Princeton, N.J., found alarming educational, behavioral and attitudinal gaps about diabetes across three generations. In changing diet and exercise habits that could improve their health, young folks with the disease (ages 18 to 40) lag behind baby boomers (41 to 59) and seniors (60 and older). The survey, which evaluated nearly 2,000 people, revealed that seniors took better care of themselves -- exercised, ate more fruits and vegetables and regularly checked their blood glucose level -- by nearly 80 percent over the younger groups.

The information hit home with Vandross, who recently lost yet another relative to complications from diabetes: Ramon, one of her 11 grandchildren. He was 31.

"Diabetes is cruel and heartless," she says. "It doesn't care who it affects. If you can do anything about it, do it. Don't let it go through your family."Although throughout his 30-year career Luther's weight fluctuated drastically, he never discussed his health problems with his mother. She had no idea there were any serious issues until April 16, 2003, the day Luther suffered a debilitating stroke in his New York City apartment.

"He never discussed his diabetes with me," says Vandross, a retired nurse. "I wonder why. I wonder what I could have done. The stroke was a rude awakening. As a mother, I wanted to do something." To work through the pain, she often reflects on the good times with Luther, whom the family called Roni, a shortened version of his middle name, Ronzoni. There were extravagant trips to the Caribbean, shopping sprees in Beverly Hills, lavish holiday dinners. Luther toured the globe often and usually brought along several relatives."He'd have his nephews when they were little, and he'd be backstage changing diapers right before a show," Vandross says, giggling.

A lifelong bachelor dogged by gay rumors throughout his career, the singer, who was 54 when he died on July 1 of last year, never discussed such personal issues with his mother.

"He was a very private man in some areas of his life," Vandross says. "If something was bothering him, he wouldn't share with me. I'd say, 'Roni, what's wrong? Let me worry for you.' He wouldn't share. He wanted to be grown and handle his own business."

She says he always found solace in music. As a child, she could hardly pull him away from his Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin records.

"He'd do what you told him to do," Vandross says. "He never gave me any problems. You know, none of my four children ever stood up and sassed me. If it was Roni's week to wash dishes, he'd do it. But he did it with those records playing. He learned to cook to music, and Roni was an exceptional cook. I taught both my sons to cook and clean like it's nobody's business."


Though The Ultimate Luther Vandross doesn't trump the more extensive two-disc Essential collection Sony released last year, it succinctly sums up the singer-songwriter's career on Epic and J Records. "Shine," which heavily samples Chic's 1979 jam "My Forbidden Lover," is perhaps Luther's most exuberant dance cut since 1981's classic "Never Too Much."

Vandross says the song brings on a smile, but then the sadness weighs on her; the tears start to flow and she turns the music off.

"I've felt the loneliness," she says, her voice breaking. "To listen to the music now, it hurts. I'm serious in wondering, 'Lord, when will it stop hurting?' But Roni made so many people happy with his music. That was his gift."