Nearly six months after suffering a serious stroke, Luther Vandross is showing slow, steady signs of progress. Music has become a central part of his therapy and the R&B singer has been testing his voice daily as he regains his strength, according to his longtime assistant.
"Every day he's a little bit stronger," assistant Max Szadek said. "From the beginning, he's been much more responsive to anything that has to do with music. He has been singing for awhile now and his band and backup singers have been coming in to take part in his therapy. He is a long way from where he was, but he is taking it slowly and making strides every day."
Vandross, 52, is still unable to get out of bed or walk without assistance and is expected to remain at a New York-area rehabilitation facility for an undetermined amount of time. "He still needs his team of health-care providers," Szadek said. "He's getting a lot of therapy and they meet weekly to discuss how much longer he needs to stay here."
The most encouraging sign is the slow return of Vandross' singing voice. "He's been able to sing and it sounds great," Szadek said. "He is sharing his gift with friends and family." In addition to singing along to instrumental tracks of his favorite songs, such as "So Amazing" and "Here and Now," Vandross has been harmonizing with friends Patti LaBelle and Aretha Franklin, who've both come to visit and duet with the singer in his room.
Though he still drifts in and out of lucidity, Vandross was on his game enough recently when Labelle visited to correct her when she flubbed the lyrics to a song they were singing together. "Not only did he correct her on the lyrics, but he corrects people on what notes they're singing," said Szadek, who is also working on getting a keyboard for Vandross so that he can play along while he sings. "Singing is a part of his essence and so doing it daily is a big part of who he is."
Vandross is undergoing up to five hours of intensive physical and occupational therapy every day, including work intended to help him re-learn everyday tasks such as getting in and out of a car. Along with singing, Szadek said part of Vandross' therapy includes two of his other favorite pastimes, playing blackjack and video games.
Szadek found Vandross on the floor of the singer's New York apartment on April 16 (see "Luther Vandross Suffers Stroke") where he had suffered a massive stroke that friends and family have attributed to overwork and stress prior to the release of his latest album, Dance With My Father. A story in a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly quotes Vandross' mother as saying that her son — who has publicly struggled with his weight and had gained quite a bit before the stroke — ignored signs that he was pushing himself too hard, including a nagging headache that lasted nearly a week before his stroke.
Vandross lapsed into a semi-coma after being admitted to the hospital and was just barely conscious for a time. Soon after, he was fitted with a tracheotomy tube in his throat to ward off pneumonia. The tube was inserted in a manner that avoided damage to his vocal cords; it was removed in June.
The crooner will not perform in public anytime soon, but his first live album, Luther Vandross Live at Radio City Music Hall 2003, is slated for release on October 28. The album was recorded on Valentine's Day of this year during the last public performance before his stroke. Among the 11 songs on the LP are such classics as "Never Too Much," "Stop to Love," "Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)," "A House Is Not a Home" and "The Glow of Love."
Dance With My Father has sold more than 1.3 million copies in the U.S. to date, according to SoundScan. The album recently garnered two American Music Award nominations, including Favorite Male Artist and Favorite Album.