Don’t ever count an old soul man out. I think that’s an adage that Robert Christgau may have coined and it seems to be one of the lessons of the career of Lou Rawls, who died this past January at age 72 and whose birthday is today. 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” (above) 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.
I saw Rawls perform in Los Angeles in 1970. As I recall, he was fronting a big band at the Century Plaza 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 ease among friends. His set hit all the highlights of his career to date, closing somewhat surprisingly with the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers.”
On Power Line, we checked in on Rawls in November 2003 following an appearance of his in Boston. Frank Sinatra had been a notable fan of Lou’s in the sixties; 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: “Finding there is none like Lou Rawls.”
When Rawls died this past January Ben Ratliff of the New York Times wrote a comprehensive obituary: “Lou
Rawls, singer of pop and gospel, dies at 72.” Daniel Gewertz of the Boston Herald provided a poignant take with a headline that said it all: “You’ll never find another singer like Lou Rawls.” Lou, take an encore.
Continue the discussion over at Patsy’s, the new Power Line Forum page devoted to “American culture.”
UPDATE: Thanks to Boston Herald columnist Jules Crittenden and Herald Webmasater Elizabeth Albritton for restoring the archived Lou Rawls obituary by Daniel Gewertz in honor of the occasion. Please check it out!
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