A few blogs ago I talked about musical icons. There was one icon that I didn’t mention because, unfortunately, he is no longer with us. However, he is one of the only singers in history that I would grant legendary status, and December 1st is the anniversary of his birth.
Louis Allen Rawls was born in Chicago on December 1, 1935, and was raised on the south side by his grandmother. Like many of his musical peers, he started singing in the church choir when he was a boy…but he would also take in shows at the Regal Theatre which featured many of the secular singers of the day, including Billy Eckstine and Arthur Prysock. By the time he was a teenager, he was singing in a series of gospel groups, many of which included his good friend, Sam Cooke. Together, they became members of the legendary Pilgrim Travelers.
Lou did a short hitch in the army as a paratrooper, but returned to the Travelers in 1958. While on tour later that year, Lou and Sam were involved in a serious auto accident. Sam received minor injuries, but one of the passengers in the car was killed, and Lou was in a coma for 5 days. It took him months to fully regain his memory, and it was almost a year before he fully recovered.
By the early 1960’s, Lou was ready to leave the gospel field and start his career as a secular singer. He signed with Capital Records, who tried to introduce him to the jazz field on his first couple of albums. But it was when they paired him with producer/arranger/songwriter David Axelrod and turned Lou lose as a soul singer that they hit paydirt. His first major hit single, the incredible 1966 smash “Love Is A Hurtin’ Thing” carved his place in music history.
I truly believe that the albums that Lou cut with David Axelrod throughout the 1960’s include some of the purest, most soulful music ever recorded. Axelrod’s style was to let Rawls’ inimitable voice carry the entire song, backing him up with just piano, bass and percussion, whose signature was a very punctuated snare drum, occasionally highlighted by a small horn section. It was pure magic.
As Lou entered the 1970’s, he left Capitol and spent the early part of the decade wondering if his career had already peaked. After a couple of albums for MGM and Bell Records, Lou was approached by Philadelphia hitmakers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who had been topping the charts with The O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and Billy Paul. His first album with Gamble and Huff in 1976 gave him the biggest hit of his career, “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.” His work with Gamble and Huff resulted in his third Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
Once again, Lou was in demand. He became a pitch-man for Budweiser, and in 1980, he began what would become a passion for him the rest of his life, the Parade of Stars Telethon which raised millions of dollars for the United Negro College Fund.
As he grew older, Lou branched out into movies and TV, providing songs for the Garfield cartoons, and later lending his voice to a couple of Nickelodeon programs.
I was fortunate enough to see Lou perform around 1998 or 99. His voice was spot-on, and he had an outstanding rapport with the audience. When he kicked into “Love Is A Hurtin’ Thing”, it was one of those moments that took my breath away. I’ve been to many concerts in my life, and I can name just a few of those moments…hearing Jerry Butler performing “Hey Western Union Man” and “For Your Precious Love”…hearing former Guess Who frontman Burton Cummings singing “No Time” with Ringo’s All Star Band…hearing Brian Wilson performing the entire “Smile” album, a work that I never thought would be completed. Hearing Lou sing that song almost made me cry it was so incredibly awesome.
Lou Rawls lost his two-year battle with brain cancer in 2006.
I never met him, but heard he was a very friendly and likeable guy. One story I’ve read had Lou leaving the recording studio late one night with a couple of friends when they were approached by a homeless person. The man replied that he was collecting money for the “United Negro Pizza Fund”. When he realized it was really Lou Rawls, he started apologizing for making fun of Lou’s pet charity. Lou just laughed and handed the guy a 20-dollar bill.
Happy birthday, Mr. Rawls. I hope you’re resting comfortably.