Luther Vandross Re-Emerges

That voice. From Luther Vandross' early days as a jingle and background singer to his first R&B chart-topper on Epic (1981's "Never Too Much") through an ensuing string of R&B/pop hits, the Gr

That voice. From Luther Vandross' early days as a jingle and background singer to his first R&B chart-topper on Epic (1981's "Never Too Much") through an ensuing string of R&B/pop hits, the Grammy winner's silky-soul tenor continues to elicit reverential comments. Its subtly powerful resonance has remained consistent throughout his much-publicized weight battle.

"Fortunately, you can't tell. My voice has remained the same," acknowledges the now-svelte singer, who also sang lead on the 1980 Change hit "The Glow of Love," which is sampled on the Janet chart-topper "All for You." "When I did 'So Amazing' [in 1987]," recalls Vandross, "I had a 34-inch waist. But in 1989 with 'Here and Now' and 1991's 'Power of Love,' I was over 300 pounds."

Now, after a stint with Virgin (1998's "I Know") and three years of staying trim -- "I guess I like Gucci better than McDonald's now" -- that voice returns June 19 with an eponymous debut on J Records.

In addition to being his first self-titled effort, the album represents another milestone. With longtime musical colleagues Marcus Miller and Nat Adderley Jr. in tow, the singer also collaborated with an enviable lineup of contemporary producer/songwriters. That circle includes Warryn Campbell, Babyface, Shep Crawford, Harvey Mason Jr. and Damon Thomas (aka The Underdogs), Soulshock & Karlin, Jon B., KayGee, and Next's R.L.

Asked to assess the difference between his last studio album and his new project, Vandross answers with two words: Clive Davis. The J Records chief says that, on this set, Vandross "shows why he's simply the best male singer in the world."

"The difference," explains Vandross, "is knowing you're recording with someone who's really ready to escort you into the world of artistry. I just like excellent music, music people can feel. And there's stuff on this album that will definitely move you."

"Luther Vandross" begins with a cha-cha-rhythmed lead single, the Campbell-produced "Take You Out." At No. 29 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart, the tune is the opening salvo on an album that presents a new-millennium Vandross without sacrificing his stature as one of R&B's premier balladeers -- or alienating core fans by force-feeding a too-hip-for-the-room version of the venerable artist.

"We wanted to take his timeless voice and pair it with contemporary tracks that didn't stretch that image," says J's senior VP of black music Ron Gillyard. "Luther is very aware of his first audience, but he also wants to reach a broader audience.

"The first single accomplishes that," Gillyard continues. "Lyrically, from the romance standpoint, it embodies everything Luther has always stood for. However, because he's played on urban AC radio and quiet-storm shows, people have short memories about his career. He's also done mid- and uptempo songs that people have partied to. Now we're giving them something else to groove on."

A prime example of this is the uptempo "Grown Thangs," written by Jon B. and Babyface. Its sentiment -- a couple finding time for each other while juggling work and kids -- is reminiscent of his '86 hit "Stop to Love." Not stinting on the ballads, the album offers such choice selections as the tender "Bring Your Heart to Mine" (whose co-writers include KayGee and R.L.), the poignant, Crawford-penned and -produced "I'd Rather," and the Vandross/Miller composition "Love Forgot."

In keeping with his penchant for covering classic tunes, Vandross-whose songs are published by Uncle Ronnie's Music Co./EMI April Music Inc. (ASCAP)-interprets two '60s songs, both co-written by Burt Bacharach: the retitled and reworked "Are You There (With Another Guy)," recorded by Dionne Warwick, and "Any Day Now," a hit for Chuck Jackson.

The international version of the album will feature the bonus dance track "You Really Started Something," written by Vandross and Denise Rich. The album bows June 19 in Canada, Asia, and Japan. European release is scheduled for September.

The "Take You Out" video recently premiered on BET's "106 & Park." Vandross is also slated to appear on the cable network's first annual awards show on June 19, and he will appear the next night on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

Vandross wants to tour in the fall once "people are familiar with the album," he says. "There's nothing like singing live on stage and seeing people accept the music. In fact, I'd love to join Janet on stage and do 'Glow of Love' at the end of 'All for You.'"

In the meantime, Vandross wants people to know his new album symbolizes a re-emergence, not a comeback. "It's a continuation," he explains. "Like Agatha Christie. She wrote different stories, but her theme was the same: murder. It's kind of like that. I still want to murder you with every song."