Russ: This man is one of my all time favourite singers – a man with a distinctive and instantly recognizable silky baritone voice – a man who has covered the gamut of musical vocal styles from gospel to jazz, to spoken word (rap), to pop – a singer / songwriter / actor and philanthropist!
I think it was around 1963 when I first remember hearing Lou Rawls, and it was a bluesy jazz song with the wonderful Les McCann on piano. The song was “Tobacco Road”.
Rawls released his first album in 1962, “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water”. But it wasn’t until the 1966 smash single “Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing” that he hit the top of the R&B charts and earned his first gold record.
Rawls included spoken word segments in some of his songs, like a precursor to rap music. He ultimately went on to release such blockbuster pop hits as “You’ll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)”, “Lady Love”, and many more.
A gifted performer, his award-winning career spanned 40 years in both music and acting, and he sold more than 40 million records as a Grammy Award-winning singer.
Girl From Ipanema
You’ll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)
Aretha Franklin & Lou Rawls / At Last
1963 / Tobacco Road
1966 / Shadow Of Your Smile
1967 / Dead End Street
1971 / A Natural Man
1975 / YOU’LL NEVER FIND (ANOTHER LOVE LIKE MINE)
1977 / Lady Love
It all began on December 1, 1933, in Chicago, Illinois, USA with the birth of a boy, Louis Allen Rawls, who would become the legendary Lou Rawls.
His father abandoned his family and his paternal grandmother was left to raise little Lou. His first introduction to music was when he was just seven years old, when he began to sing gospel music in a Baptist church choir.
Rawls later sang with local groups through which he met other future music stars Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield.
Lou was mostly influenced by shows at Chicago’s Regal theatre where he saw the greatest of black entertainment. Billy Eckstine and Arthur Prysock were only two of the best that Lou saw.
In high school Lou would sing harmony with classmate, Sam Cooke [yes, another great singer] in the school washroom.
After graduating from Chicago’s Dunbar Vocational High School, he sang briefly with Sam Cooke in the Teenage Kings of Harmony, a local gospel group, and then with the Holy Wonders.
In 1951, Rawls replaced Cooke in the Highway QC’s when Cooke departed to join The Soul Stirrers in Los Angeles.
Then Rawls moved to L.A. and was recruited for The Chosen Gospel Singers, with whom he was first heard on record.
The Chosen Gospel Singers w/ Lou Rawls – I’m Goin’ Back
The Chosen Gospel Singers w/ Lou Rawls –Walk With Me
Rawls later became a member of another gospel group, the Pilgrim Travelers, which also included Sam Cooke.
Here is what he sounded like in that group.
The Pilgrim Travelers – I Remember The Time
The Pilgrim Travelers – Come Home
In 1955, Rawls put music on hold, leaving the Pilgrim Travelers to enlist in the U.S. Army as a paratrooper in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, The All Americans. He became a Sergeant with the Screaming Eagle Paratroopers. Three years later, Sergeant Rawls left the service and rejoined The Pilgrim Travelers.
Serious Car Accident
By then (1958), his friend Sam Cooke had become a successful solo artist, touring with the Pilgrim Travelers. During this tour, Rawls was with Cooke in a vehicle when they were involved in a serious car accident that nearly ended his career and his life.
Cooke’s driver was killed in the crash and Cooke was also injured, getting a piece of glass in his eye. Rawls was pronounced dead on the way to the hospital. Although he slipped into a coma for five-and-a-half days, suffered memory loss and didn’t completely recover for a year, he survived, saying,
“I really got a new life out of that. 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.”
Turning towards less religions music, Rawls was appearing at small R&B, pop and soul clubs in Los Angeles. One night he was performing at Pandora’s Box Coffee Shop for “$10 a night plus pizza” in late 1959 when Nick Venet *, a producer at Capitol Records, was so impressed with Lou’s four-octave range that he invited Lou to make an audition tape. Lou auditioned and was signed to the Capitol label.
[* Nick Venet has worked with an impressive list of clients during his career: the Beach Boys, Tommy Sands, Jim Croce,Lou Rawls, Linda Ronstadt, Glen Campbell, and The Letterman, to name a few. He has produced over 300 albums in his legendary career which spanned four decades.When asked in a interview who his favorite person to work with was, Mr Venet responded “Bobby Darin.”]
When Rawls signed the deal with Capitol they started right off with two recording sessions in February 1962, accompanied by the Les McCann trio for his first album: “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water” (also known as “Stormy Monday”)
Here is one of Lou’s songs from that breakthrough album, “Blues Is A Woman”.
This recording had a jazz and blues feel to it, featuring a number of standard cover songs chosen by Rawls. These included Billie Holliday’s “God Bless the Child” and Ma Rainey’s “See See Rider” as well as a few tracks he wrote himself. It would be the first of more than 20 that Lou would make for that label, and all in the span of one decade.
But it was not until the 1966 hit single, “Love is a Hurtin’ Thing” from the album “Soulin’” that Rawls started to attract more listeners.
Love Is A Hurtin’ Thing
That song shot Rawls to the top of the R&B charts, and with this album he earned his first gold record. The album was nominated for two Grammy awards: Best R&B Recording and Best R&B Solo Vocal Performance.Young Performer.
Released that same year, the album “Lou Rawls Live!” also did well on the charts.
During this period, Lou 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 these musical monologues 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 Male R&B Solo Vocal Performance. The track had a talking introduction and was from his hit album, “That’s Lou”, which really showcased Rawl’s outstanding voice with all its rich and smooth qualities.
In 1967, Lou performed at the legendary musical event, the Monterey International Pop Festival, which featured a range of performers, from Otis Redding to The Grateful Dead, to the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Career Roller Coaster
In the next decade, Rawls went on a roller coaster ride professionally. In 1971, Rawls changed record companies, leaving Capitol for MGM. His first album with MGM, “A Natural Man”, earned him a Grammy Award for the Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
The title song also fared well on both the pop and R&B charts and Rawls was named favorite male vocalist by Downbeat magazine, coming in ahead of Frank Sinatra, who has praised Rawls for having “the classiest singing and silkiest chops in the singing game”.
A huge success, Rawls was in demand for concerts and made appearances on such television shows as Dinah!, The Mike Douglas Show, The Muppet Show, and many others.
But, then came disco
Rawls went through several years without a hit, but being a symbol of quality and relevance that transcended trendiness, he balked the trend. “A lyric has to mean something to me, something that has happened to me. 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.'”
In 1975 while other artists succumbed to the big Thud, Lou moved to yet another label, Philadelphia International.
Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, two of great songwriting producers, ran this label and with their renowned soulful Philly sound, this duo wrote Lou Rawls’ biggest hit of all time: “You’ll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)“, which appeared on the album “All Things In Time”.
Lou’s integrity was rewarded in spades. The single came out in 1976 and sold more than one million copies. The next album, “Unmistakably Lou” (1977), went gold and won a Grammy Award.
In 1976 Lou 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 originally known as The Lou Rawls Parade of Stars Telethon to benefit the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). This event has raised more than $200 million for black colleges. It started out in 1979 as a small event and went national the following year. Its name was later changed to An Evening with the Stars. “Lou was one of the earliest entertainers to understand the power of celebrity to do good,” said UNCF president and CEO Dr. Michael Lomax to Jet magazine.
“An Evening of Stars” continues today as the longest running fundraising telethon. Although Lou did not attend college, he recognized the importance of higher education. Through Lou’s tireless efforts, the telethon has raised more than $200 million and has helped more than 65,000 students obtain higher education.
Along with Lou’s character epitomizing cool, class and soul, his humanitarian efforts have 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 has been the joy of a man who never went to college but has since been 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,” Lou concluded.
His Acting Career
In addition to singing, Rawls’ talents extend to acting, a second love. Over the years he has appeared as a series regular, guest star and host in television series as well as television and theatrical movies.
In the 1980s, he appeared on several television shows, including The Fall Guy and Fantasy Island. Later on, Rawls had a recurring role on the syndicated series Baywatch Nights and made the most of small parts on the big screen, including Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and Blues Brothers 2000 (1998).
His famous baritone voice also made him an ideal voice-over actor and he worked on such animated projects as The Rugrats Movie (1998). A born entertainer, Rawls also appeared on Broadway in the musical revue, Smokey Joe’s Café, in 1999.
Here’s one of his funnier skits…
Lou 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 is the musical star of the “Garfield” TV specials.
More recently, Lou sang the title song for “Jungle Cubs,” an animated series. He is also the voice of the Harvey the Mailman on Nickelodeon’s “Hey Arnold” series and the grandfather on Bill Cosby’s animated series, “Fatherhood.”
In 1998 Rawls released Seasons 4 U on his own newly created record label, Rawls & Brokaw Records. He also put together two CDs, The Best of Lou Rawls: Volume 1 and The Best of Lou Rawls: Volume 2 on the label.
Still music remained at the center of his life. Rawls scored a few minor hits on the R&B charts in 1980s, including “All Time Love,” “Learn to Love Again,” and “I Wish You Belonged to Me.” Exploring a more jazz-oriented sound, he had several albums on the jazz charts.
In 2001 Lou released a long awaited gospel CD entitled “I’m Blessed” on Malaco Records. In 2003 he release the critically acclaimed “Rawls Sings Sinatra” CD on Savoy Records. As always, Lou’s fans motivated him to continue to travel extensively from clubs to jazz festivals, from America to Europe to Asia until one month prior to his death on January 6, 2006.
Notwithstanding all of Lou’s accomplishments, his success and his recognition, it was the love of his family which fulfilled him the most.
It seemed fitting that his final recording was a salute to Ol’ Blues Eyes, featuring such quintessential Sinatra songs as “Come Fly with Me” and “That’s Life.” In 2004, he got married to his third wife, Nina. What should have been a happy time for the newlyweds was later shattered by some sad news. Rawls learned that he had lung cancer that December. The next spring he discovered that he also had brain cancer. Forever a philanthropist, he appeared on his telethon in September 2005 despite his illness.
Rawls died on January 6, 2006, in Los Angeles. He survived by his wife Nina, their son, Aiden, and his three children from previous relationships, Lou Rawls, Jr., Jouanna Rawls, and Kendra Smith.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson gave the eulogy at his funeral and many in the entertainment industry mourned his passing. A friend of the singer, Aretha Franklin told Jet magazine that he “was a great guy — with a great sense of humor… We should always remember and salute Lou Rawls.”
Lou’s 52 years in entertainment as a recording artist, included an astonishing 60-plus albums, three Grammy wins, 13 Grammy nominations, one platinum album, five gold albums and a gold single and a Star on the Hollywood Hall of Fame. Lou has 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. I think it means I’ve been doing something right at the right time.”
From Lou’s early days in gospel, his collaborations with Sam Cooke, his experience on “The Dick Clark Show” at the Hollywood Bowl in 1959, his opening for The Beatles in 1966 at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, his monologues in the 1970s (that presaged rap music) to his becoming a “crossover” artist before the term was invented, there has been one constant throughout his career––a voice that one critic proclaimed was “sweet as sugar, soft as velvet, strong as steel, smooth as butter.”
Sinatra once said about the two of them that they were saloon singers – voices that’s all, reaching into hearts and souls. Throughout the years, Rawls always stayed true to that voice
Lou Rawls once said of his changing styles, “People may not know what I’m doings, but they know it’s me.”