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Lou Rawls he released his first album in 1962, I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water
. But it wasn’t until the 1966 hit single "Love Is a Hurtin' Thing" that he hit the top of the R&B charts and earned his first gold record. Rawls started incorporating spoken word segments to his songs, considered by some to a precursor to rap music. His award-winning career spanned 40 years and both music and acting.
"I began to learn acceptance, direction, understanding and perception—all elements that had been sadly lacking in my life,"
– Lou Rawls
Singer, songwriter, actor, philanthropist. Born Louis Allen Rawls on December 1, 1933, in Chicago, Illinois. A gifted performer, Lou Rawls sold more than 40 million records during his long career as a Grammy Award-winning singer. Raised on Chicago’s South Side by his paternal grandmother, he began singing gospel music in his church's choir at the age of seven. Rawls later sang with local groups through which he met other future music stars Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield.
Moving to Los Angeles in the 1950s, Rawls first joined the Chosen Gospel Singers and recorded with them. He later became a member of the Pilgrim Travelers, which also included Cooke. In 1955, Rawls put music on hold to enlist in the U.S. Army.
For three years, Rawls served as a paratrooper. He left the service in 1958 and returned to the Pilgrim Travelers. By then, his friend Sam Cooke was a successful solo artist, but he was on tour with the Pilgrim Travelers that year. Rawls was traveling in a vehicle with Cooke when they were involved in a serious car accident. After being in a coma for several days, Rawls took many months to recover from the incident. Cooke's driver was killed in the crash and Cooke was also injured, getting a piece of glass in his eye. As a result of the tragedy, Rawls often said that he found a new direction in his life. "I began to learn acceptance, direction, understanding and perception — all elements that had been sadly lacking in my life," according to an article in Jet magazine.
Turning toward more secular music, Rawls was discovered by a producer while singing in a club in Los Angeles in 1959. He signed a deal with Capitol Records. Released in 1962, his first album, I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water (also known as Stormy Monday), had a jazz and blues feel to it. Accompanied by pianist Les McCann, Rawls sang a few cover songs, including Billie Holliday's "God Bless the Child" and Ma Rainey's "See See Rider" as well as a few tracks he wrote himself. But it was not until the 1966 hit single, "Love is a Hurtin' Thing" from the album Soulin' that Rawls started to attract more listeners. The track reached the top of the R&B charts. With this album, he earned his first gold record. Released that same year, Lou Rawls Live! (1966) also did well on the charts.
Around this time, Rawls started incorporating spoken word segments to his songs. These bits are considered by some to a precursor to rap music. According to Rawls's Website, these raps were born of necessity. He often worked in small clubs that had stages behind the bars.
"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."
In 1967, Rawls received his first Grammy Award for "Dead End Street" for Best Male Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance. The track had a talking introduction and was from his hit album, That's Lou (1967), which really showcased Rawls's outstanding voice with all its rich and smooth qualities. That same year, he performed at the legendary musical event, the Monterrey International Pop Festival, which featured a range of performers, from Otis Redding to The Grateful Dead to The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Career Ups and Downs
In the next decade, Rawls went on a roller coaster ride professionally. It started promisingly with him winning another Grammy Award. In 1971, Rawls changed record companies, leaving Capitol for MGM. His first album with MGM, A Natural Man, earned him a Grammy Award for the Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. The title song also fared well on both the pop and R&B charts and Rawls was named favorite male vocalist by Downbeat magazine, coming in ahead of Frank Sinatra. Even Sinatra spoke admiringly about Rawls's talents. But as the 1970s progressed, Rawls went through several years without a hit and ended up switching record companies again, moving from MGM to Philadelphia International.
His new label, run by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, was famous for its soulful Philly sound. The duo also wrote his biggest hit of all time, "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine." Appearing on the album All Things in Time, the single came out in 1976 and sold more than one million copies. The next album, Unmistakably Lou (1977), went gold and won a Grammy Award.
A huge success, Rawls was in demand for concerts and made appearances on such television shows as Dinah!, The Mike Douglas Show, The Muppet Show, and many others. He also became a spokesperson for the beer company, Anheuser Busch, around this time. The company became a sponsor of two of Rawls' charitable activities: a concert series for members of the armed forces and an annual telethon for United Negro College Fund (UNCF).
Originally known as the Lou Rawls Parade of Stars Telethon, the event has raised more than $200 million for black colleges. It started out in 1979 as a small event and went national the following year. Its name was later changed to An Evening with the Stars. "Lou was one of the earliest entertainers to understand the power of celebrity to do good," said UNCF president and CEO Dr. Michael Lomax to Jet magazine.
In the 1980s, Rawls branched out in acting. He appeared on several television shows, including The Fall Guy and Fantasy Island. Later on, Rawls had a recurring role on the syndicated series Baywatch Nights and made the most of small parts on the big screen, including Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and Blues Brothers 2000 (1998). His famous baritone voice also made him an ideal voice-over actor and he worked on such animated projects as The Rugrats Movie (1998). A born entertainer, Rawls also appeared on Broadway in the musical revue, Smokey Joe's Café, in 1999.
Still music remained at the center of his life. Rawls scored a few minor hits on the R&B charts in 1980s, including "All Time Love," "Learn to Love Again," and "I Wish You Belonged to Me." Exploring a more jazz-oriented sound, he had several albums on the jazz charts. At Last (1989) reached the top of Billboard's contemporary jazz charts while Portrait of the Blues (1993) and Rawls Sings Sinatra (2003) both broke into the top five of the jazz charts.
It seemed fitting that his final recording was a salute to Ol' Blues Eyes, featuring such quintessential Sinatra songs as "Come Fly with Me" and "That's Life." In 2004, he got married to his third wife, Nina. What should have been a happy time for the newlyweds was later shattered by some sad news. Rawls learned that he had lung cancer that December. The next spring he discovered that he also had brain cancer. Forever a philanthropist, he appeared on his telethon in September 2005 despite his illness.
Rawls died on January 6, 2006, in Los Angeles. He survived by his wife Nina, their son, Aiden, and his three children from previous relationships, Lou Rawls, Jr., Jouanna Rawls, and Kendra Smith.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson gave the eulogy at his funeral and many in the entertainment industry mourned his passing. A friend of the singer, Aretha Franklin told Jet magazine that he "was a great guy — with a great sense of humor... We should always remember and salute Lou Rawls."