Lou Rawls, The Voice Wrapped In Silk

Lou Rawls performing at a Beverly Hills club in 1998. At left, the singer with Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder at a gala last year to benefit the United Negro College Fund. Over the years, Rawls helped raise $200 million for the fund.
Lou Rawls performing at a Beverly Hills club in 1998. At left, the singer with Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder at a gala last year to benefit the United Negro College Fund. Over the years, Rawls helped raise $200 million for the fund. (By Jill Connelly -- Associated Press)
By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 7, 2006

They were the Pilgrim Travelers and they were roaming the countryside in the 1950s singing their gospel. Black men in a time of segregation.

A day would unfold like this: A gospel fest in the afternoon, then dinner -- smothered chicken, collard greens, cornbread, maybe some sweet potato pie, whatever a kind host set on the table -- then back on the road. Jesse Whitaker was one of the Pilgrim Travelers, and so was the young Lou Rawls. Whitaker and the others always tried to upset Rawls by playing jokes, by ribbing him -- they looked on him as just a youngster. "We teased him a lot," Whitaker, 85 and the last surviving member of the Travelers, recalled yesterday from his home in Missouri. "But he was slow to anger."

If ever there was a cool-cool singer, it was Lou Rawls, who died yesterday at the age of 72 in California of brain and lung cancer. Rawls's recording career stretched across genres, covering pop, gospel, blues and jazz. "Lou had a big, strong voice," Whitaker says. "He could go up or down, whatever you needed in a song."

Rawls, raised poor in Chicago, cut his teeth in the world of gospel. There'd be church ladies inside those brick Chicago churches, patting young men on their heads, young men who sang so pretty, who hummed so fervently. Rawls was just one Chicago youth, Sam Cooke was another. Where other young men may have had different pursuits -- sports, the nightlife, dreams of teaching in black colleges -- Rawls and his ilk were in basements, singing "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well."

There seemed no better training ground for singers than gospel music, that world with its own rules -- natural-born singers believing in themselves, hungry for management and a road out of poverty. And the really good ones knew they'd be venturing away from the tent of gospel, sooner or later.

"During those days, gospel singers would drive 1,000 miles to make just $200. And then they'd spend that among themselves," says Bobby Womack, a longtime Rawls acquaintance, talking yesterday by phone from his California office.

Womack says he believes that Rawls had no problem walking the road from gospel to pop. "He believed in God. So I believe Lou said, 'I love singing so much, let me make a living doing it.' He knew it was hard to make a living in gospel."

Rawls and Cooke -- who himself went on to rhythm and blues fame before being shot dead by a motel employee in 1964 -- ventured out to heady Los Angeles together in the late 1950s. They played small nightclubs and lent each other dollar bills.

"Lou had both ambition and curiosity to explore different areas," says Peter Guralnick, who befriended Rawls while researching his recently published biography, "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke."

Guralnick goes on: "Rawls marked off a territory of his own that was a takeoff from his gospel roots that had a sophisticated, uptown feel. He synthesized all these different elements from his upbringing -- blues, jazz, gospel."

The hits began in the 1960s with "Tobacco Road" and "Love Is a Hurtin' Thing" and "Your Good Thing (Is About to End)."

Rawls's singing style was masculine and confident. He looked up to Arthur Prysock, to Billy Eckstine, to Percy Mayfield. "He was an old-school singer," says Billy Vera, who produced or co-produced four of Rawls's albums, including the much-praised "Rawls Sings Sinatra." "He didn't write songs like Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles. You just gave him material that fit that wonderful voice. He was a singer rather than an auteur."

For all their gifts, Prysock and Eckstine were singing in smaller venues by the 1970s. Lodge halls offered a paycheck different from the Hollywood Bowl. Jazz singers had to scuffle.

Rawls, always savvy in the marketing of his career, told David Brokaw -- his publicist and later manager -- that he was going to call legendary songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. They were revered for their "sound of Philly soul" -- gritty and sweet tunes that were the rage of inner-city America from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s and featured, among others, Billy Paul and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. "He had imagination," Brokaw says of Rawls.

Rawls's Gamble & Huff hits -- "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine," "Groovy People" -- were huge.

A whole generation that had become accustomed to lounge singer Lou Rawls had lost him to the disco era. "Lou had this innocent ego," Brokaw says. "Not arrogance. He was having fun in a kind of cocky way. These Gamble & Huff songs opened things up for him."

Rawls was offered $15,000, Brokaw says, to do a voice-over commercial for Budweiser. The commercial was a hit. Rawls wasn't satisfied. "He said, 'How do we make this bigger?' " Brokaw says.

Rawls proposed inviting Busch wholesalers and distributors to his shows. He'd chat with them backstage. "He'd take pictures. We got to know everybody," Brokaw says.

Rawls befriended beer magnate August Busch III. "August really loved Lou," Brokaw says.

Rawls also came up with an idea for a college fundraiser for the United Negro College Fund. He told Brokaw to call Busch, and Busch came aboard. Rawls eventually helped raise more than $200 million by hosting the annual event.

There were occasional acting gigs, more albums later in life. He talked to friends about his life, which he thought lucky: an Army paratrooper who was never hurt, survivor of an awful car accident (Sam Cooke also was in the car), a singer who escaped the harsh pavement of Chicago.

Last November, Lou Rawls was invited to a celebratory event in Cleveland, honoring Cooke at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was ailing, and there were many who believed he wouldn't make it. But there he was, the kid who used to have to tie string on the door of the old Oldsmobile to keep it from flying open when Jesse Whitaker was at the wheel during those true and lovely and struggling days of gospel traveling.

At the event, Lou Rawls sang "Jesus Be a Fence Around Me."

People cried.

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