Best known in the UK for the smooth, soulful single "You'll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)", a hit in 1976, the singer Lou Rawls performed in a variety of styles, from gospel to rhythm'n'blues via jazz and pop, as well as lending his distinctive baritone voice to cartoon characters and commercials.
In a career which stretched back to touring with Sam Cooke in the Fifties and continued all the way to the Rawls Sings Sinatra collection of 2003 - Frank Sinatra once said Rawls had "the silkiest chops in the singing game" - Rawls sold over 40 million albums and worked with the cream of writers, producers and arrangers. He won three Grammy Awards: in 1967 for the track "Dead End Street"; in 1971 for "A Natural Man"; and in 1977 for the album Unmistakably Lou. Rawls also acted on television and in films, and his charity work and philanthropic efforts earned him a number of honorary doctorates.
Born in Chicago in 1935, Louis Allen Rawls was raised by his grandmother and started singing gospel music at Mount Olive Baptist Church when he was seven. He subsequently joined the Teenage Kings of Harmony and the Holy Wonders and also sang with his schoolfriend Sam Cooke, who was five years older than him and became his mentor. "Sam got his inspiration from people like Bill Kenny of the Ink Spots, people with high falsetto voices," Rawls recalled. "Mine were more in the order of Joe Williams, Billy Eckstine and Al Hibbler, guys with the rich, deep voices."
In 1950, Rawls made his recording début with the Holy Wonders on "Move In the Room". The following year, he replaced Cooke in the Highway QCs but by 1953 had joined the Chosen Gospel Singers. Rawls's grandmother had died the previous year and life on the road seemed a seductive option for the teenage singer. A two-year stint in the US Army interrupted his early career but, after his discharge, Rawls became a member of another gospel group, the Pilgrim Travelers.
In 1958, the quintet toured with Sam Cooke, who had already made the switch to secular music and had scored a major US hit with "You Send Me". Rawls was enjoying himself, singing background vocals on stage with his friend, until a horrific accident that November when the car he was sharing with Cooke hit a truck on a rainy night after a date in St Louis. Their driver, Eddie Cunningham, was killed while Cooke escaped with minor injuries, but Rawls nearly didn't make it.
"The bar on top of the convertible hit me across the head and gave me a brain concussion," he said. "I was in a coma for five days. I was even pronounced dead." The singer spent about a year convalescing, eventually emerging from his ordeal with a new outlook. "I really got a new life out of that," he 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."
Lou Rawls released his solo début, "Love Love Love", in 1960, and several follow-up singles on the Candix label, and also sang harmony on Cooke's 1962 US hits "Having a Party" and "Bring It On Home to Me", but he struggled to make a living. In 1960, he played a safari attendant in an episode of the TV series 77 Sunset Strip and started showcasing his four-octave range at Pandora's Box, a coffeehouse on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, "for 10 dollars a night, plus all the pizza and cappuccino I could eat and drink. I figured: what the hell."
One night, the Capitol Records producer and A&R man, Nick Venet, came in and invited Rawls to make an audition tape. The label saw in Rawls a potential heir to Nat "King" Cole, but he released nine singles without making much impact. In 1962, Venet teamed Rawls with a jazz trio led by the pianist Les McCann for Stormy Monday, a fine collection of smooth blues and supper-club standards. They also cut "What Makes the Ending So Sad", a soulful Sam Cooke composition, which inexplicably remained in Capitol's vaults until the release of Lou Rawls Anthology in 2000.
Rawls finally achieved his breakthrough two years later with Lou Rawls Live!, masterminded by the producer David Axelrod, who turned the Capitol studio into a nightclub to record Rawls's takes on "St James Infirmary", "I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water", "The Shadow of Your Smile" and his distinctive street-savvy monologues.
"I started doing my monologues in 1965 and that brought on a whole new thing for me," Rawls explained:
I would always try to think of ways to get the audience's attention over the cash register and the crushed ice machine. One night, instead of
singing, I started talking and making up stories that related to the song. Funny thing, everyone went quiet, they were listening.
Lou Rawls Live! went gold, but Axelrod and Rawls were just getting started. Over the next four years, often with the help of the arranger H.B. Barnum, they recorded a staggering run of 10 albums which successfully fused the various styles Rawls excelled in and Axelrod's visionary production and astute song selections to create a new brand of sophisticated soul. "The skill was in finding the songs. I had to listen to maybe a hundred before finding the one I knew could be a single," said Axelrod. He was given the sublime ballad "Love Is a Hurtin' Thing", Rawls' first bona fide mainstream hit, by the writers Dave Linden and Ben Raleigh in 1966.
The following year, Axelrod wrote the atmospheric "Dead End Street" with Raleigh while laid up with the mumps and watching the television news, which was a US hit for Rawls. His version of "Your Good Thing (Is About To End)", an Isaac Hayes and David Porter song also crossed over from the R&B to the pop charts in 1969 and further established the baritone as a supreme interpreter who could now command $5,000 a concert.
In 1971, Rawls left Capitol for MGM Records where he scored another hit with "A Natural Man", and then moved on to Bell with a cover of "She's Gone", the Daryl Hall and John Oates ballad. Two years later, Rawls started working with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. "I had met them when they were producing Nancy Wilson for Capitol back in the Sixties," Rawls recalled.
I hadn't recorded anything in a while and they said: why don't you come over, let's work something out. I went to Philadelphia and they wrote "You'll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)". They had listened to all my old stuff and it was really right on as far as my vocal dexterity was concerned. It was really tailor-made.
"You'll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)" became a worldwide smash and Rawls's signature song.
The singer recorded seven albums for Gamble and Huff's Philadelphia International including All Things In Time (1976), Unmistakably Lou (1977) and When You Hear Lou, You've Heard It All (1978). His Philly singles included "Groovy People", "See You When I Git There", "Lady Love" and "Let Me Be Good To You", and he joined most of the label's other acts on "Let's Clean Up the Ghetto", a campaigning song credited to the Philadelphia International All Stars which made the Top Forty in Britain in 1977.
Rawls carried on recording and touring throughout the Eighties and Nineties and into the new millennium. In 2001, he renewed his partnership with Axelrod and sang lead vocals on "Loved Boy", the closing track on the producer's eponymous comeback album.
Over the course of the last 45 years, Rawls had become the ultimate song stylist and supper-club singer. "People may not know what I'm doing but they know it's me," he said.
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. It means I've been doing something right at the right time.
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