NEW YORK – The album Luther Vandross considers the best of his career hits stores Tuesday — with no videos, television interviews or concerts to trumpet its arrival. With the 52-year-old singer yet to regain full consciousness after an April 16 stroke, there is virtually none of the normal promotional hoopla surrounding the release of “Dance With My Father.”
Which raises an uncomfortable question — how do you promote the work of an incapacitated artist?
Record companies don’t have such problems when the artist is dead. Last year, an Aaliyah disc released after her plane crashed sold more than a million copies. Selena’s English-language debut, released after she was slain by her former fan club president, debuted at No. 1. And the estate of Tupac Shakur puts out albums so often, some doubt that he’s really dead.
But it is rare — perhaps unprecedented — for an album to be released when an artist is still alive, yet very ill.
“It is safe to say that it is an unusual circumstance,” said Billboard’s Geoff Mayfield, who couldn’t recall another such situation.
Vandross’ label, J Records, has no plans to make videos without Vandross.
“We’re just in effect releasing the music; the rest will take care of itself,” said label founder Clive Davis, a legendary music mogul. “I think the music will tell its own story.”
Davis could have delayed the disc’s release, but he said that was never an option.
“I think (Vandross) was very much at a creative peak. He felt that it was the best album he had ever recorded,” he said. “Everyone knows that he wanted his music to be out.”
But which music? Also on Tuesday, Vandross’ former label is releasing “The Essential Luther Vandross,” featuring classic hits like “Here and Now” and “A House Is Not a Home.”
The label denied that the project was rushed out after the stroke. Rather, greatest hits packages are usually timed to coincide with an artist’s new project, said Tom Cording, a spokesman for Legacy Records, a division of Sony Music.
“Dance With My Father,” is the R&B crooner’s first disc since he released his self-titled comeback disc in 2001. That album, which sold over one million copies, re-established Vandross as a platinum-selling artist. Except for his 1998 disc, “I Know,” all of Vandross’ albums over his 20-year-plus career have sold at least one million copies.
Some of “Dance With My Father” marks a departure for Vandross, whose elegant, seductive ballads cater to an older audience. Rappers Busta Rhymes and Foxy Brown appear on the new disc, as does Beyonce Knowles (news).
Davis, who engineered Carlos Santana’s Grammy-winning comeback “Supernatural” by pairing the veteran guitarist with younger artists, says there was no such agenda for “Dance With My Father” other than Vandross’ plan to make the album “contemporary.”
“He really had worked on his own on the album, and indeed had arranged for all the duets on his own,” said Davis. “He was the one that reached out for each of the duet partners.”
But it’s the title track, Vandross’ emotional tribute to father who died when Vandross was 7 years old, which has garnered the initial attention.
Jim Ryan, a program director at WLTW in New York City, first became aware of the song when Vandross wrote him a letter earlier this year.
Ryan said it read, in part: “I have written what I consider to be my career song. It’s called ‘Dance with my Father. I’m feeling great about it.'”
After Vandross’ stroke, Ryan got permission from the record company to start playing the song. Fan reaction was immediate and strong — Ryan recalled some fans calling up in tears to request it, moved by it’s touching nature.
“It’s one of our five most-played songs,” said Ryan. “I think it’s really struck a chord with our listeners.”
The song is rising up Billboard’s R&B chart, although Mayfield said it doesn’t appear to have garnered a boost from the publicity surrounding Vandross’ illness.
“It had a decent debut and it’s had steady growth since then,” said Mayfield. “It did what you would expect.”
But Mayfield said there may be a strong commercial response once the album arrives in stores.
“The consumer is different than the radio programmer,” he said. “The consumer might very well have an emotional response to the fact that it might be his last album.”
Vandross has been hospitalized at Weill-Cornell Medical Center since his stroke. He contracted pneumonia and needed a tracheotomy to help him breathe. It remains unclear whether he has suffered any long-term paralysis or nerve damage.
However, Vandross recognizes family and friends, has recently begun mouthing words, and has started mild physical therapy, according to family and friends.
“Luther is going to be just fine,” his mother, Mary Vandross, said this week. “This is God’s way of saying, ‘You’re tired.'”