January 6, 2006 – Louis Allen “Lou” Rawls was born on December 1st 1933 in Chicago, Illinois. He was raised by his grandmother in the Ida B. Wells projects on the city’s South Side and began singing in the Greater Mount Olive Baptist Church choir at the age of seven. He later sang with local groups through which he met future music stars Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield. Even though it is sometimes falsely reported as though Lou was a high school classmate of Sam Cooke – Cooke was nearly three years older than Rawls, they sang together in the Teenage Kings of Harmony, a ’50s gospel group.
After graduating from Chicago’s Dunbar Vocational High School, he sang briefly with 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 after Cooke departed to join The Soul Stirrers in Los Angeles. Rawls was soon recruited by the Chosen Gospel Singers and moved to Los Angeles, where he subsequently joined the Pilgrim Travelers.
After 3 years in the US Army as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, leaving as a sergeant, he travelled to LA with The Pilgrim Travelers. While touring the South in 1958 with the Travelers and Sam Cooke, he was in a serious car crash and pronounced dead before arriving at the hospital, it took him nearly a year to fully recuperate.
Signed to Capitol Records, he released his first album in 1962, I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water (Stormy Monday), but it wasn’t until the 1966 hit single “Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing” that he hit the top of the R&B charts and earned his first gold record. It was the first of 28 albums made with Capitol.
In 1967 Lou won his first Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance, for the single “Dead End Street” and he performed the national anthem “The Star Spangled Banner”, prior to the Earnie Shavers-Muhammad Ali title fight at Madison Square Garden. They requested him to sing the anthem many times over the next 28 years.
Around this time, Rawls started incorporating spoken word segments to his songs. These bits are considered by some to a precursor to rap music. According to Rawls’s Website, these raps were born of necessity. He often worked in small clubs that had stages behind the bars. “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.”
In 1967, Rawls received his first Grammy Award for “Dead End Street” for Best Male Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance. The track had a talking introduction and was from his hit album, That’s Lou (1967), which really showcased Rawls’s outstanding voice with all its rich and smooth qualities. That same year, he performed at the legendary musical event, the Monterrey International Pop Festival, which featured a range of performers, from Otis Redding to The Grateful Dead to The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Career Ups and Downs
In the next decade, Rawls went on a roller coaster ride professionally. It started promisingly with him winning another Grammy Award. 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. Even Sinatra spoke admiringly about Rawls’s talents. But as the 1970s progressed, Rawls went through several years without a hit and ended up switching record companies again, moving from MGM to Philadelphia International.
His new label, run by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, was famous for its soulful Philly sound. The duo also wrote his biggest hit of all time, “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.” Appearing on the album All Things in Time, 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.
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. He also became a spokesperson for the beer company, Anheuser Busch, around this time. The company became a sponsor of two of Rawls’ charitable activities: a concert series for members of the armed forces and an annual telethon for United Negro College Fund (UNCF).
Originally known as the Lou Rawls Parade of Stars Telethon, the 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.
Branching Out in Acting
In the 1980s, Rawls branched out in acting. 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.
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. At Last (1989) reached the top of Billboard’s contemporary jazz charts while Portrait of the Blues (1993) and Rawls Sings Sinatra (2003) both broke into the top five of the jazz charts.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.
Although he was seriously ill with cancer, his final anthem performance was on October 23rd, 2005 at his favorite Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros, Game Two of the 2005 World Series.
Lou Rawls was 72 years 1 month 5 days old when he died on 6 January 2006 from complications of lung and brain cancers