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R.I.P. Lou Rawls

8 January 2006

LOU RAWLS, a welcomely ubiquitous presence for four decades who, with consummate taste, wielded one of the greatest singing voices in pop music history, died of lung and brain cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on Thursday (1/6/06). He will be remembered for his velvety tone and phrasing, his charitable works, and his class and dignity.

Louis Allen Rawls was born in Chicago (sources say on December 1, 1935, but at his death, his family said he was 72). In probably the best song that he wrote by himself, “Dead End Street,” Rawls memorably depicted what it was like growing up in tough times on Chicago’s South Side. He started singing in church choir at age seven, and he spent most of the 1950s in a variety of gospel groups, sometimes alongside schoolmate SAM COOKE—with time out to be an Army paratrooper from 1955-58. While on a gospel tour with Cooke in 1958, they were in a car crash. On the way to the hospital, Rawls was pronounced dead; he spent five-and-a-half days in a coma, lost his memory for months, and wasn’t himself until over a year had passed. Lou then rearranged his priorities, dedicating himself to building a pop-music career and playing the Los Angeles clubs with a vengence (he also began to pursue an acting career). It got him his first secular record, “In My Little Black Book,” for little Candix Records.

Capitol Records signed him in 1962 and geared their production of Rawls for album success. His 1966 LP Lou Rawls Live!, featuring a show-stopping rendition of “Tobacco Road,” reached #4 on Billboard’s pop album chart and sold gold. Rawls moved smoothly from jazz to soul to cabaret to blues to R&B, backed by groups ranging from LES MCCANN’s jazz trio (on Rawls’s debut LP, Stormy Monday) to big bands and orchestras. Meanwhile, Rawls was singing on Cooke’s records, including the hit “Bring It on Home to Me,” uncredited because they were on different labels. It was soul crooning that earned Lou hits, first with “Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing” in 1966 (#13), then the Grammy-winning (Best R&B Vocal Performance) “Dead End Street” (#29, and #3 R&B), with a trademark introductory monologue. In 1969, “Your Good Thing (Is About to End)” brought more pop (#18) and R&B (#3) chart success.

Rawls became unhappy with Capitol’s growing business-over-art orientation and left. His 1971 MGM debut unleashed “A Natural Man” (by BOBBY HEBB of “Sunny” fame), which hit #17 on both pop and R&B charts in 1971 and earned him another Grammy. Rawls continued to work all over the stylistic map; on Natural Man he also sang standards, SLIM HARPO’s sly blues “I’m a King Bee,” and a funky version of “Got to Get You into My Life” (in 1966 Rawls had opened for THE BEATLES at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field). After that initial success with MGM, though, there were no more pop hits despite plenty of good songs (a cover of STEVIE WONDER’s “Evil” was especially striking).

Lou switched labels, then switched again in 1976 to Philadelphia International Records, run by producers KENNY GAMBLE and LEON HUFF. They revived Rawls’s career with “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine;” its touch of disco helped it reach #2 on the pop chart (#1 R&B) and spend 13 weeks in the Top 40. It demonstrates Rawls’s talent in an odd way: The arrangement is tacky, the Gamble & Huff lyrics are smug and shallow, and the wide-ranging melody makes unrealistic demands, yet Lou, who gets to show off the low end of his vocal range, somehow puts this hash across memorably.

Lou continued having hits (mostly R&B) for the rest of the ‘70s, and with 1977’s Unmistakably Lou he notched his third Grammy. He became a spokesman for Anheuser-Busch and in 1979, convincing them to sponsor it, he began his annual Lou Rawls Parade of Stars Telethon benefitting the United Negro College Fund, with over $200 million raised so far. (In September he recorded what’s now become his last one, airing this month.) At Epic in ‘82-86, his commercial appeal dimmed; opting for an art-oriented label, he was revived artistically on Blue Note. His 1989-92 work for that label prove him a master of bittersweet, late-night brooding.

Gradually more time was devoted to acting and also voicework for cartoons (when GARFIELD sings, it’s in Lou’s voice); Rawls’s musical interest moved back to gospel in the early 2000s, though his final disc was a FRANK SINATRA tribute (he and Frank were a mutual admiration society; Sinatra hailed him for “the classiest singing and the silkiest chops.” The album-buying public may have lost touch with Lou, but he never lost his touch as an artist.