Nearly two months after suffering a major stroke, R&B singer Luther Vandross is finally showing some signs of recovery.
Vandross, who had the stroke in his New York apartment on April 16 (see "Luther Vandross Suffers Stroke"), is breathing on his own, moving his head and mouthing a few words, according to J Records spokesperson Lois Najarian. "He's responding to questions with gestures and nodding his head a bit," she said, adding that Vandross was moved out of the intensive-care unit on Wednesday.
The singer, 52, who has famously struggled with his weight over the years, was on an eating binge in the days and weeks leading up to the stroke, according to his mother. In a mad dash to finish his album Dance With My Father (released Tuesday), a stressed Vandross was dangerously overeating.
"He just worked himself to where he is right now," Mary Vandross told the Associated Press. "He had regained his weight back, and that of course really bothered me tremendously, because I knew how hard he was struggling not to gain the weight. And yet he would eat uncontrollably."
In the past week, Vandross has begun intense physical therapy, some of which involves therapists taking turns waving fragrant objects in front of his face to spark his sense of smell, Najarian said.
Mary Vandross and other family members and friends keep a near-constant vigil at the singer's side, reading him e-mails and letters, singing to him and showing him photos of his family and close friends. Vandross' background singers came in to perform some of his favorite songs for him last week.
In the weeks following the stroke, Vandross developed pneumonia, and a tracheotomy, which involves inserting a tube in the throat, was performed to help him breathe more easily (see "Vandross Undergoes Tracheotomy, Remains In Critical Condition"). The procedure was done in a way to avoid damage to his vocal chords. He was listed as "minimally responsive" for several weeks and his spokespeople were cautious about raising optimism for a full, swift recovery.
Though he was expected to spend at least another month in the intensive-care unit, the singer was moved out of ICU and into a private room on Wednesday due to his rapidly improving status, according to business manager Carmen Romano. "I am happy to report that Luther Vandross continues to improve and that he is more and more responsive every day," Romano said in a statement. He will continue to undergo intense physical and neurological therapy, but is unable to speak because of the tube in his throat and is now listed in critical, but stable condition.
Even as he is confined to a hospital bed, the title track from the album Vandross considers one of his best is taking off at radio. The album features guest spots from Busta Rhymes, Queen Latifah and Beyoncé Knowles, who joins Vandross on a cover of the 1978 Donny Hathaway/ Roberta Flack duet "The Closer I Get to You," which will also appear on her upcoming Dangerously in Love album.
"Dance With My Father" is #1 this week on New York's #1 music station, WLTW, one of the first outlets in the country to play the track. "He sent me a letter last year and said, 'I have written what I consider to be my career song. I feel really great about it,' " the station's program director, Jim Ryan, said. "I asked his label for the record the next day and they said I couldn't play it. A couple of days later, Luther had the stroke and I kept bothering J Records and they said they weren't ready to let me play it. Finally, when it was featured on 'Boston Public' on April 28, I said I have to play it and they said yes."
Ryan said that the homage to Vandross' father immediately became the station's most requested song and has spawned a number of weepy phone calls and requests. "People are going nuts over it," he said. "It's been touching them because he's a New Yorker and people are following his story, but they also hear him sing the words, 'I'd love, love, love to dance with my father again,' and they think of it as Luther saying he'd love to get up and dance and they'd like to see him get out of that bed."
Former "American Idol" finalist Tamyra Gray performed the single on NBC's "Today" show on Tuesday and a number of Vandross' friends will stage an all-star tribute to him at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans (July 4-6), at which Vandross was slated to perform. Ashanti, Kelly Price, Faith Evans, Patti LaBelle, Gerald Levert and Vandross' band are scheduled to take part in the July 4 tribute.