Don’t ever count an old soul man out. That seems to be one of the lessons of the wonderful career of Lou Rawls, who died this week at age 70 or 72. Ben Ratliff of the New York Times has a comprehensive obituary: “Lou Rawls, singer of pop and gospel, dies at 72.” Daniel Gewertz of the Boston Herald has a poignant take: “You’ll never find another singer like Lou Rawls.”
Rawls was brought up by his grandmother on the South Side of Chicago and was a classmate of Sam Cooke. Rawls’s grandmother was a churchgoing woman; Rawls started out singing as a young boy in church and came up singing gospel with Cooke as a high school student. Rawls’s entree to professional singing came when he took Cooke’s place in a gospel group.
Rawls took a break from his early singing career for three years in the Army, where he served as a paratrooper. Out of the Army, he made his name as the lead singer of the Pilgrim Travelers. Rawls was riding with the Travelers and with Cooke in 1958 when he was almost killed in an automobile accident. His recovery affected his outlook on life, giving him an optimistic sense of mission that he never lost.
Cooke led the way to pop music. Rawls’s unmistakable baritone provides the bottom harmony and the response on Cooke’s beautiful “Bring It On Home To Me.” Rawls himself had a terrific run in the 1960’s on Capitol Records, reaching some kind of an artistic peak on “St. James Infirmary” on his live 1966 album and on his hit single “Love Is A Hurtin’ Thing” the next year. He followed up with “Dead End Street” and its memorable autobiographical spoken intro. In the mid-seventies Rawls teamed up with Gamble and Huff for the hits that made him a superstar.
On Power Line we last checked in on Rawls in November 2003 following a live performance in Boston. Frank Sinatra had been a notable fan of Lou’s in the sixties, and late in his career Rawls repaid the compliment with a disc of Sinatra songs. Boston Globe correspondent Bill Beuttler provided a glimpse of Rawls touring behind his tribute to Sinatra (now sadly out of print): “Finding there is none like Lou Rawls.”
I saw Rawls perform in Los Angeles in 1970. As I recall, he was fronting a big band in a hotel lounge during a week of sold-out shows. Los Angeles had been his home base for the launch of his career in pop, and he seemed at home among friends. His set hit all the highlights of his career to date, closing somewhat surprisingly with the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers.” RIP.
UPDATE: Tom Spaulding of Caught Up in the Fable and Here’s the Deal writes:
Great stuff on his official site…He enlisted in the 82nd Airborne, organized a series of benefit concerts for the troops, etc.
I love his philosophy of music: “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.'”
What man didn’t try to match the deep and sexy delivery of “You’re Gonna Miss My Lovin'” when it came on the radio? Just singing “You’ll never find…” in a deep voice sets my wife to smiling. And in how many other songs do you get to play a bit of extremely rare “air piano,” hammering out the lick that answers that opening line?
He was a guy you could listen to with your parents and both would agree that he was great. That puts him up there with Sinatra in my house.
I should have mentioned that I saw Lou in 1970 together with my dad. As Tom suggests, we both thought he was great.