I think it was 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 whose birthday 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 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, where he recorded a powerful debut album backed by the Les McCann trio and leading off with “Stormy Monday.”
In the video above, Rawls reprises his 1962 debut with McCann on piano and Stanley Turentine making a guest appearance on saxophone live in 1989. 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.
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 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.” Lou, take an encore.
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