Lou’s voice is as distinctive and instantly recognizable as any in music. It all began on December 1, 1933, in Chicago with the birth of a boy, who would become the legendary Lou Rawls. From Lou’s early days in gospel, his collaborations with Sam Cooke, “The Dick Clark Show” at the Hollywood Bowl in 1959, the opening for The Beatles in 1966 at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, his monologues in the 1970s that presaged rap music to becoming a “crossover” artist before the term was invented, there has been one constant in Lou Rawls’ career––a voice that one critic proclaimed was “sweet as sugar, soft as velvet, strong as steel, smooth as butter.”
Lou’s 52 years in entertainment as a recording artist, included an astonishing 60-plus albums, three Grammy wins, 13 Grammy nominations, one platinum album, five gold albums and a gold single and a Star on the Hollywood Hall of Fame. Lou has epitomized the ultimate song stylist. "I've gone the full spectrum--from gospel to blues to jazz to soul to pop--and the public has accepted what I've done through it all. I think it means I've been doing something right at the right time."
Not surprisingly, Lou began his career singing gospel. He was raised on the South Side of Chicago by his grandmother and became a member of his Baptist church choir when his was seven-years-old. As a teenager, Lou's horizons expanded with trips to The Regal Theatre to see Billy Eckstine, Arthur Prysock and Joe Williams. "I loved the way they could lift the spirit of the audience," Lou often stated. Influenced, as well, by doo-wop, Lou would harmonize with high school classmate Cooke and together they joined groups including The Teenage Kings Of Harmony.
In the Fifties Lou ventured to Los Angeles and was recruited for The Chosen Gospel Singers, with whom he was first heard on record. Lou later joined The Pilgrim Travelers before enlisting in 1955 as a paratrooper in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, The All Americans. Three years later, Sergeant Rawls left the service and rejoined The Travelers.
It was during a tour of the South with Cooke and The Travelers that a serious car accident nearly ended his career and his life. One passenger was killed, Cooke was slightly injured and Rawls was pronounced dead on the way to the hospital. Alhough he slipped into a coma for five-and-a-half days, suffered memory loss and didn't completely recovered for a year, Lou survived. "I really got a new life out of that," Lou said. "I saw a lot of reasons to live. I began to learn acceptance, direction, understanding and perception--all elements that had been sadly lacking in my life. I might have lived long enough to learn all this in the long haul, but I would have been just another soul taking up time and space for a long spell before I learned."
Playing small R&B, pop and soul clubs in Los Angeles, Rawls was performing at Pandora's Box Coffee Shop for $10 a night plus pizza in late 1959 when Nick Venet, a producer at Capitol, was so impressed with Lou's four-octave range that he invited Lou to make an audition tape. Lou did and was signed to Capitol. I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water, his 1962 solo debut album, became the first of more than 20 albums on that label in only a decade. It was Love Is A Hurtin' Thing in 1966 which shot Rawls to the top. The album was nominated for two Grammy awards: Best R&B Recording and Best R&B Solo Vocal Performance.
During this period, Lou began his hip monologues about life and love on "World of Trouble" and "Tobacco Road," each more than seven minutes long. Called "pre-rap" by some, for Rawls they grew out of necessity."I was working in little joints where the stage would be behind the bar. So you were standing right over the cash register and the crushed ice machine. You'd be swinging and the waitress would yell, 'I want 12 beers and four martinis!' And then the dude would put the ice in the crusher. 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." His "raps" were so popular that 1967's "Dead End Street" won him his first Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance.
In 1971 Lou's popularity could be measured by the fact that he won the Downbeat magazine poll for favorite male vocalist, besting perennial champ Frank Sinatra, who has praised Rawls for having "the classiest singing and silkiest chops in the singing game." The 1970s began with a second Grammy win for Natural Man. But, then came disco and Rawls, a symbol of quality and a relevance that transcended trendiness, balked. "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.'"
In 1975 while other artists succumbed to the beat, Lou moved to Philadelphia International, the Mecca of producers/songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and their renowned Philly sound. His integrity was rewarded the next year when "You'll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)" became Lou's biggest hit. The next year he took home his third Grammy, Best R&B Vocal Performance, for Unmistakably Lou.
In 1976 Lou became the corporate spokesman for Anheuser Busch, the world's largest brewery, which led in 1980 to that company's sponsorship of two events which have continued to this day. One was a series of concerts for American military personnel on bases around the world. The other was The Annual Lou Rawls Parade of Stars telethon to benefit the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). “An Evening of Stars” continues today as the longest running fundraising telethon. Although Lou did not attend college, he recognized the importance of higher education. Through Lou’s tireless efforts, the telethon has raised more than $200 million and has helped more than 65,000 students obtain higher education.
Epitomizing cool, class and soul, Lou's humanitarian efforts have won him more than honors, more even than a street named after him in Chicago, where South Wentworth Avenue is now Lou Rawls Drive. His work for the UNCF has been the joy of a man who never went to college but has since been awarded numerous honorary doctorates. "I remember a woman came up to me once and said, "Thank you. You made my grandson the first college grad in our family."
"That makes it all worth it," Lou concluded.
In addition to singing, Rawls' talents extend to acting, a second love. Over the years he has appeared as a series regular, guest star and host in television series as well as television and theatrical movies. In the recent years Lou ventured in to the feature film arena, taking on lead roles in independent films as well as smaller parts in movies such as Oscar winning Leaving Las Vegas and Blues Brothers 2000. In 1999 Rawls appeared on Broadway for a stint in Smokey Joe's Cafe.
Lou also brought his flair to children's programming, becoming the singing voice of the animated feline Garfield. In 1982, he was Grammy-nominated for Best Recording for Children for Here Comes Garfield and is the musical star of the "Garfield" TV specials. More recently, Lou sang the title song for "Jungle Cubs," an animated series. He is also the voice of the Harvey the Mailman on Nickelodeon's "Hey Arnold" series and the grandfather on Bill Cosby’s animated series, “Fatherhood.”.
In 1998 Rawls released Seasons 4 U on his own newly created record label, Rawls & Brokaw Records. He also put together two CDs, The Best of Lou Rawls: Volume 1 and The Best of Lou Rawls: Volume 2 on the label. In 2001 Lou released a long awaited gospel CD entitled I'm Blessed on Malaco Records. In 2003 he release the critically accaimed Rawls Sings Sinatra CD on Savoy Records. As always, Lou’s fans motivated him to continue to travel extensively from clubs to jazz festivals, from America to Europe to Asia until one month prior to his death on January 6, 2006.
Sinatra once said about the two of them that they were saloon singers--voices that's all, reaching into hearts and souls. Throughout the years, Rawls has stayed true to his voice. "People may not know what I'm doing," Lou said of his changing styles, "but they know it's me."
Notwithstanding all of Lou’s accomplishments, success and recognition, it was the love of Lou’s family which fulfilled him most. He leaves to cherish his memory his beloved wife Nina and his children: Aiden, Kendra, Lou Jr. and Louanna as well as his grandchildren: Louis, Chayiel, Jonathon and Katrina.
In the end as he was in life and always will be, Lou was Cool!
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