New York Earning a gold album is an achievement most singers brag about.
But when you're Luther Vandross, owner of numerous platinum albums, gold seems a little tarnished.
So perhaps it's understandable that Vandross was disappointed when his 1998 debut for the Virgin Records label, "I Know," failed to reach the million mark in sales a first for a Vandross album.
"It's just that I think it should have done better," the silky-voiced singer said during a recent interview. "The music on that album was spectacular, spectacular. But there seemed to be no one there who understood it."
The four-time Grammy winner was so dissatisfied by the sales that he left Virgin.
"I just didn't want to put out another product right away and promote and put myself emotionally on the line, to possibly repeat what went on with Virgin," he said, declining to comment further on the split, citing a confidentiality agreement. "I just wanted a break."
The "break" lasted 3 1/2 years. While Vandross didn't disappear from show business entirely he kept touring he stayed away from the recording studio, spending his spare time globe-trotting and spending time with his various nephews and nieces.
The vacation could have even lasted longer, Vandross says, if he hadn't gotten a call from legendary record mogul and longtime supporter Clive Davis, the Arista Records founder who was looking for artists for his new label, J Records.
"It wasn't even called J Records at the time. There was no name for the label, but who cares, with him?" Vandross said of Davis, responsible for creating hits for Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Carlos Santana and others.
"This is the special circumstance that I was looking for someone who would really stick by your project, commitmentwise, and see it throughout to fruition. That's when I agreed immediately."
His new self-titled album for J Records debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 200 albums chart last month.
"I have high expectations, very optimistic hopes for the performance of this album," Vandross said. "I know the record company is in there with all the elbow grease, they are putting the pedal to the metal, so I am really hoping, and I am working hard as well to promote and doing all of this stuff."
Not that Vandross needs to work too hard to get the record-buying public's attention. After all, this is the singer who has made women swoon for more than two decades with his rich voice, and provided the romantic soundtrack for untold relationships with such ballads as "A House is Not a Home," "Here and Now" and "Any Love" for more than two decades.
"Nobody has a voice like Luther," said Sean "Puffy" Combs, a friend of the singer's. "His voice, his charisma ... also his energy, and his karma. If you know Luther, he's just so positive."
Indeed, the 50-year-old bachelor appears to be in good spirits these days, cracking jokes and talking freely during a recent interview. One big reason is that Vandross has dropped the excess weight that had become one of his defining characteristics and kept it off.
His battles with his weight are almost as well-known as his powerhouse voice. Fans got used to seeing Vandross overweight, skinny, then overweight again.
Being overweight led to diabetes and hypertension at one point, he weighed more than 330 pounds. But today, Vandross is fit and healthy, finally mastering the right balance of diet and daily exercise. He's now kept his weight off for about three years, which he considers "phenomenal, because I never kept it off ... the other times that I tried it. This is the 14th time since I was 19."
While fighting obesity has been one of Vandross' major personal struggles, one of his biggest professional frustrations has been the failure of his music to cross over to the pop charts. Although he's had a few pop hits and sold 19.5 million albums in the United States, his songs have been consistently bigger on the R&B charts.
Even if songs from his new album don't make the pop charts, they've managed to leap the age barrier, garnering airplay on stations that traditionally favor younger acts. Among the producers on the new record are young R&B crooner Jon B. and Babyface, known for crafting pop hits for the likes of Madonna, Toni Braxton and Eric Clapton.
"I think the main thing is that he's with a whole lot of new producers, and they are really making an effort to connect Luther with a bigger audience, which is strange, because he's already (big)," said bassist Marcus Miller, a longtime friend and collaborator.
Still, Miller said that even if Vandross never crosses over, his recording career has been extraordinary.
"I know crossing over is cool, but (he's) been like a staple of R&B for more than 20 years now," Miller said.