Born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City in the NYCHA Alfred E. Smith Houses public housing development, Vandross began playing the piano at the age of three. He grew up in a musical family that moved to the Bronx when he was thirteen. His sister, Patricia, sang with the vocal group The Crests, who had a number two hit in 1958 with “16 Candles“, though she left the group before the recording. Vandross’s father died of diabetes when Vandross was eight years old. Luther Vandross was in a high school group, Shades of Jade, that once played at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He was also a member of a theater workshop, “Listen My Brother” who released the singles “Only Love Can Make a Better World” and “Listen My Brother”, and appeared on the second and fifth episodes of Sesame Street in November 1969.
Vandross attended Western Michigan University for a year before dropping out to continue pursuing a career in music.