I think it was rock critic Robert Christgau who coined the admonition: Don’t ever count an old soul man out. It’s an admonition that seems to be one of the lessons of the career of Lou Rawls, who died in January 2006 at age 72 and the anniversary of whose birth is today.
Rawls was brought up by his grandmother on the South Side of Chicago. He was a classmate of Sam Cooke. Rawls’s grandmother was a churchgoing woman, so 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 to spend 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 very nearly killed in an automobile accident. His recovery supported his optimistic outlook on life, giving him a 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 as a pop artist in the 1960’s on Capitol Records, where he recorded a powerful debut album backed by the Les McCann Trio, leading off with “Stormy Monday.” In 1966 his live album, leading off with “Stormy Monday” again, put him on the charts.
He followed the live album with the hit singles “Love Is A Hurtin’ Thing” and “Dead End Street” (with its memorable autobiographical intro). After he played out his string on Capitol, Rawls teamed up with Gamble and Huff for the hits that made him a superstar in the mid-severnties. Lou communicated an infectious joy in the music: “I’m not braggin’ on myself…”
I saw Rawls perform in Los Angeles in 1970. 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 “Rawls sings Sinatra.” Boston Globe correspondent Bill Beuttler provided a glimpse of Rawls touring in support of his tribute to Sinatra in “Finding there is none like Lou Rawls.”
When Rawls died in January 2006, Ben Ratliff wrote a comprehensive obituary for the New York Times. Daniel Gewertz provided a poignant take for the Boston Herald under a headline that said it all: “You’ll never find another singer like Lou Rawls.” (I’m hoping that Gewertz’s obit will be made accessible online tonight through the kind offices of our friends at the Boston Herald.)
UPDATE: Our friends at the Herald write that they were unable to retrieve Gewertz’s article from the Herald’s cache and post it at the old URL. They have retrieved Gewertz’s obit from an archiving service and secured one-time permission for us to post it:
It could be called “the day the music survived.” Lou Rawls and his Los Angeles gospel group the Pilgrim Travelers were touring the south in 1958 with pop star Sam Cooke when a terrible car crash occurred. One singer was killed. Cooke was injured. Rawls, 22, was declared dead on the way to the hospital.
Rawls did regain a pulse, but he slipped into a coma for five days. Then slowly, over the period of a year, he recovered his memory and his health.
He often talked of the new lease on life he gained from that accident. It deepened him as a man and an artist.
Rawls died yesterday of lung and brain cancer. Though most music research sources list his age as 70, his family said he was 72. Despite ill health, Rawls did make it back to his hometown of Chicago last October to sing the national anthem before a White Sox World Series game.
Owner of one the smoothest, creamiest, deepest voices of his era, Rawls drifted from gospel and blues to jazz, soul and middle-of-the- road pop. Yet his rich, urbane pipes were always unmistakable. Even when jazz and r & b fans rejected Rawls in his slickest Las Vegas pop mode, no one could deny the basic beauty of his voice, his phrasing or his lasting influence as a singer.
Is the velvet-toned crooner relevant to the hip-hop era? You bet. His memorable monologues on “World of Trouble,” “Tobacco Road” and, most famously, “Dead End Street,” have been called pre-rap.
Rawls said he invented the gambit merely as a way to get boisterous bars to settle down before the body of the song began. In 1967, “Dead End Street” won him the first of his three Grammy awards.
Rawls was considered a has-been by 1975, but while others of his generation took the disco road, Rawls had the smarts to link with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records. His adult contemporary records of the late ’70s included his biggest hit, “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.”
Rawls’ performances in the late ’80s and early ’90s certainly could be called middle of the road. The longtime corporate spokesman for Anheuser-Busch would interrupt his slew of hits to sing his TV beer jingles. Yet both jazz and blues still enlivened his act: He was a fan favorite at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1991, a singer who still dearly loved connecting to an audience.
In 1995, Boston’s Dan Frank, the president of Fine Hotels, ran into Rawls in a hotel lounge in St. Louis and asked him to perform at the Barry L. Price Rehabilitation Center fund-raiser in Mansfield.
“He agreed to it on the spot,” Frank said. “He said his set would last one hour, unless he was having fun. Well, he must have had lots of fun, because his show ran over 90 minutes.”
“The amazing thing is that his mother had just died,” Boston publicist Sue Auclair said, remembering the same event. “I talked to him before the show, and he was really grieving. But he still put on a great show. What a lovely guy he was.”
Reprinted with the gracious permission of the Boston Herald.