October 20, 2003 12:00 PM

In the car with Luther Vandross’s mother, Mary Ida, and two others on Sept. 28, Patti LaBelle dreaded what lay at the end of her trip: her first visit with her friend since his massive stroke on April 16. “I was petrified,” LaBelle admits. “I didn’t know what to expect.” Armed with two of Vandross’s favorite snacks, watermelon and corn bread, she entered his room at a New Jersey rehab facility and identified herself. “I know who you are,” he answered, then got quickly to the point: “Would you hurry up and give me that corn bread!” Over the next three hours the fashion-conscious Vandross, attired in jeans, brown shirt, suede boots and a twisty do under his hat, pressed LaBelle for details about her own outfit, while he joked and ate nonstop. LaBelle says that his mind was so sharp that when they sang a duet, he corrected her on a lyric. “His voice is the same as it was,” she says. “He’s back.”

Actually, the beloved R&B star still has a long way to go. The Sunday of LaBelle’s visit, “he had a really good day,” says Carmen Romano, Vandross’s longtime manager, who sees him regularly. “But two days later was a really bad day. A bad day is when, for whatever reason, if he’s really tired, he becomes disoriented.” Like the other friends and relatives who have formed a protective cordon around Vandross, 52, Romano finds himself treading a delicate line: While he doesn’t want to quash anyone’s hopes for a full recovery, he also doesn’t want to fan unrealistic expectations. “As well as he’s doing, Luther’s not there yet,” Romano says. “He hasn’t been on TV. You’re not interviewing him. That tells you something.”

People who visit regularly say they see enormous improvement since Vandross came out of his coma in early June. “Luther wasn’t moving for five weeks,” says Max Szadek, Vandross’s personal assistant since 1993. Now, he says, Vandross stands and walks, and “he needs less and less assistance.” Several friends say that since the removal in late June of a tracheotomy tube, inserted while he battled meningitis and pneumonia, Vandross is once again talking, teasing—and singing. “It’s not like he’s performing his songs fully,” says Szadek. “But he’s not just humming them, either.” Mary Ida, 79, has been buoyed by her son’s phone calls. Once, she says, “he called and sang ‘So Amazing’ from beginning to end and then told me the year that he first recorded it. I was helping him, so he says, ‘You know, Mama? I’m gonna let you do some singing. But you’ve got to do some rehearsing.’ ”

At the rehab facility, the singer is rehearsing for a normal life. Most days Vandross undergoes at least five hours of therapy. He’s relearning how to get in and out of a car. Other exercises include stretching and isometrics to strengthen his body and, to improve his mental faculties, fifth-grade-level crossword puzzles, word games and even blackjack—which, his niece Seveda Williams, 37, reports, brings out his cheating streak. She adds on a more serious note, “He’s calmer now. He realizes this is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Vandross’s family won’t allow his doctors to speak to the press, but other physicians caution that residual impairment is likely. “The dramatic recovery is probably over,” says Dr. Keith Siller, director of the stroke unit at New York University Medical Center. “Now it’s a matter of him retaining what he’s gained from rehabilitation and preventing another stroke.” Siller warns that while Vandross’s youth and motivation are positives, his hypertension, diabetes and weight (which has ranged as high as 320 lbs.) could provoke another stroke if not properly controlled.

Still, there’s never any predicting what miracles a positive attitude can produce. Upbeat by nature, Vandross got a huge boost when his 15th album, Dance with My Father, debuted at the top of the Billboard chart in June; his first No. 1 album, it has sold 1.5 million copies. “His reaction was unbelievable,” says Romano. Now Vandross is anticipating the Oct. 28 release of his first live album, Luther Vandross: Live at Radio City Music Hall “It’s live. It’s imperfect,” says Nat Adderly Jr., Vandross’s musical director and a friend since high school. “Luther would not love that. But I think his fans are going to adore it.”

For now, music’s greatest value to Vandross is its therapeutic qualities. Friends use old songs to help therapists track his memory loss and play his favorite tunes to cheer him up. He has gotten live performances too, from friends like Dionne Warwick, who sang “Alfie” with him, and Aretha Franklin. As for whether the man with the velvet voice will ever be back to his old self, his friend and collaborator Richard Marx sounds a note echoed by many of Vandross’s loved ones: “I have to believe it. I choose to. The alternative is not something I want to think about.”

JILL SMOLOWE

Mark Dagostino in New York City

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