Spectropop remembers

LOU RAWLS (1933 - 2006)

Lou Rawls died on January 6th at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, where he was being treated for lung and brain cancer. His wife, Nina, was at his bedside.

His voice was as distinctive and instantly recognizable as any in music. From his early days in gospel to his collaborations with Sam Cooke; from the Dick Clark Show at the Hollywood Bowl in 1959 to the opening for The Beatles in 1962 at Crosley Field in Cincinnati; from his monologues in the '70s that presaged rap music to becoming a "crossover" artist before the term was invented, there was one constant in Lou Rawls' career - a voice that one critic has called "sweet as sugar, soft as velvet, strong as steel, smooth as butter." In his 40-some years as a recording artist, spanning an astonishing 60-plus albums, three Grammy wins, 13 Grammy nominations, one platinum album, five gold albums and a gold single, Rawls epitomized the ultimate song stylist: "I've gone the full spectrum - from gospel to blues to jazz to soul to pop - and the public has accepted what I've done through it all. It means I've been doing something right at the right time."

Not surprisingly, he began singing gospel. Raised on the South Side of Chicago by his grandmother, he was a member of his Baptist church choir when his was seven. As a teenager, his horizons expanded with trips to the Regal Theatre to see Billy Eckstine, Arthur Prysock and Joe Williams. "I loved the way they could lift the spirit of the audience," he remembered. Influenced too by doo-wop, he'd harmonize with high school classmate Cooke, and they joined groups such as the Teenage Kings Of Harmony.

In the '50s, Rawls ventured to Los Angeles and was recruited for the Chosen Gospel Singers, with whom he was first heard on record. He then moved on to the Pilgrim Travelers before enlisting in 1955 as a paratrooper in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, the All Americans. Three years later, Sergeant Rawls left the service and rejoined the Travelers.

It was during a tour of the South with Cooke and the Travelers that a serious car accident nearly ended his career and his life. One passenger was killed, Cooke was slightly injured and Rawls was pronounced dead on the way to the hospital. Though he slipped into a coma for five-and-a-half days, suffered memory loss, and wasn't completely recovered for a year, he survived. "I really got a new life out of that," he said. "I saw a lot of reasons to live. I began to learn acceptance, direction, understanding and perception - all elements that had been sadly lacking in my life. I might have lived long enough to learn all this in the long haul, but I would have been just another soul taking up time and space for a long spell before I learned."

Playing small R&B, pop and soul clubs in LA, Rawls was performing at Pandora's Box Coffee Shop for $10 a night plus pizza in late 1959 when Nick Venet, a producer at Capitol, was so impressed with his four-octave range that he invited him to make an audition tape. He did, and Rawls was signed to Capitol. 'I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water', his 1962 solo debut album, became the first of more than 20 albums on that label in only a decade. It was 'Love Is A Hurtin' Thing' in 1966 which shot Rawls to the top. It was also twice Grammy-nominated, for both Best R&B Recording and Best R&B Solo Vocal Performance.

During this period, he began his hip monologues about life and love on 'World Of Trouble' and 'Tobacco Road', each more than seven minutes long. Called "pre-rap" by some, for Rawls they grew out of necessity. "I was working in little joints where the stage would be behind the bar. So you were standing right over the cash register and the crushed ice machine. You'd be swinging and the waitress would yell, 'I want 12 beers and four martinis!' And then the dude would put the ice in the crusher. There had to be a way to get the attention of the people. So instead of just starting in singing, I would just start in talking the song." His "raps" were so popular that 1967's 'Dead End Street' won him his first Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance.

In 1971 Rawls' popularity could be measured by the fact that he won the Downbeat magazine poll for favorite male vocalist, besting perennial champ Frank Sinatra, who praised Rawls for having "the classiest singing and silkiest chops in the singing game." The '70s began with a second Grammy win for 'Natural Man'. But then came disco and Rawls, a symbol of quality and a relevance that transcended trendiness, balked. "A lyric has to mean something to me, something that has happened to me," he said. "I try to look for songs people can relate to because I know the man on the corner waiting for the bus has to hear it and say, 'Yeah that's right'."

So, in 1975, while other artists succumbed to the beat, Rawls moved to Philadelphia International, the mecca of producers/songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and their renowned Philly sound. His integrity was rewarded the next year when 'You'll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)' became his biggest hit. The next year he took home his third Grammy, Best R&B Vocal Performance, for 'Unmistakably Lou'.

In 1976, Rawls became the corporate spokesman for Anheuser Busch, the world's largest brewery, which led in 1980 to that company's sponsorship of two events which have continued to this day. One was a series of concerts for American military personnel on bases around the world. The other was a telethon whose proceeds, now more than $200 million, are donated to the United Negro College Fund.

Epitomizing cool, class and soul, his humanitarian efforts won him more than honors, more even than a street named after him in Chicago, where South Wentworth Avenue is now Lou Rawls Drive. His work for the UNCF was the joy of a man who never went to college but was awarded numerous honorary doctorates. "I remember a woman came up to me once and said, 'Thank you. You made my grandson the first college grad in our family.' That makes it all worth it."

In addition to singing, Rawls' talents extended to acting, a second love. Over the years he appeared as a series regular, guest star and host in television series as well as TV Movie-Of-The-Weeks. In the past few years he ventured in to the feature film arena, taking on lead roles in independent films as well as smaller parts in movies such as Oscar winning Leaving Las Vegas. In 1999 Rawls appeared on Broadway for a stint in Smokey Joe's Cafe.

Rawls also brought his flair to children's programming, becoming the singing voice of the animated feline Garfield. In 1982, he was Grammy-nominated for Best Recording for Children for 'Here Comes Garfield' and was the musical star of the Garfield TV specials. More recently, he sang the title song for Jungle Cubs, an animated series. He was also the voice of the Harvey the Mailman on Nickelodeon's Hey Arnold series.

In 1998 Rawls released his last album 'Seasons 4 U' on his own newly created record label, Rawls & Brokaw Records. He continued to tour extensively, from clubs to jazz festivals, from America to Europe and Asia.

He is survived by his wife, Nina, two sons and two daughters.

(Adapted from an article at lourawls.com)

Lou Rawls, singer: born December 1st, 1933 - died January 6th, 2006.