Lou Rawls, whose deep and silky voice took him from church choirs on Chicago’s Southside to Broadway and the top of the pop charts, died Friday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He was 72.
Rawls was hospitalized last month for treatment of lung and brain cancer. His wife, Nina, and his four children were at his bedside when he died.
Over a 40-year career, Rawls released more than 60 albums, won three Grammys, organized the United Negro College Fund telethon, voiced animated characters and appeared in films and musicals. Distinguished as a man of consummate class, his four-octave voice was a cross between Nat King Cole and his teenage friend Sam Cooke — elegant yet subtly fiery.
He hit his greatest commercial fame in the mid-1970s when he shifted from blues-infused jazz and R&B to the suave side of the Philly Soul sound being pioneered by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. His classic “You’ll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)” topped the R&B chart and was No. 2 on the pop chart in 1976. The album that followed, “Unmistakably Lou,” won him a Grammy for R&B vocal perf.
Raised in Chicago by his grandmother, at 7 he joined his Baptist church choir, but as a teen, sang with Cooke in harmony groups. He stuck with gospel music, however, and in 1951 replaced Cooke in the Highway Q.C.s. He made his first recording with the Chosen Gospel Singers in 1954 and then joined the Pilgrim Travelers, which Cooke led.
He enlisted in the Army in 1955, served as a paratrooper and was discharged three years later and resumed performing with the Travelers. That year, 1958, Rawls and Cooke were in a car accident that put Rawls in a coma for almost six days. It took him a year to fully recover.
In late 1959, fully set up in Los Angeles, Rawls played small R&B, pop and soul clubs, attracting the attention of a producer at Capitol Records. He recorded his debut, “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water,” in 1962 backed by the Les McCann Trio; Capitol would release 19 Rawls albums by 1971.
In 1966, the year he recorded “The Shadow of Your Smile” for the Elizabeth Taylor starrer “The Sandpiper,” his single “Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing” hit No. 1 on the R&B charts. Recording at a time when the pop and black music charts were often wildly different, Rawls landed three songs in the top 20 of both charts, including “A Natural Man” in 1971.
Rawls concert performances over the decades found him balancing the old and the new, from his current recordings to the work of his idols Cole, Arthur Prysock and Joe Williams. “St. James Infirmary,” for example, was a staple of his live show, many of which contained spoken interludes during songs, one of which, 1967’s “Dead End Street,” nabbed him his first Grammy. Also in 1967, Rawls performed at the Monterrey Intl. Pop Festival, which introduced rock auds to Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Ravi Shankar.
Corporate spokesman for Anheuser-Busch, he used that platform to get the brewery to sponsor a series of concerts for American military personnel overseas and a telethon for the United Negro College Fund.
In the 1980s, Rawls branched into acting, appearing on “The Fall Guy,” “Fantasy Island” and “Baywatch.” His voice has been heard on a number of animated series and specials, including “Garfield,” “Hey Arnold!” and “The Rugrats Movie.”
In 1999 Rawls appeared on Broadway for a stint in “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” He made his last album, “Rawls Sings Sinatra” in 2003. Frank Sinatra, another of Rawls’ influences, had endorsed Rawls throughout his career, even when Ol’ Blue Eyes lost out to Rawls in the Downbeat critics poll in 1971.
Rawls was honored at three events in 2004. Wilberforce U. presented him with an honorary doctorate for his “life-long service to the education of historically disadvantaged populations.” He received a career achievement award at the 10th annual Temecula Valley Intl. Film & Music Festival acknowledging his “talent, body of work and contributions to the entertainment industry.” And Florida Memorial College in Miami dedicated and opened the Lou Rawls Center for the Performing Arts.
Rawls was diagnosed with lung cancer in December 2004 and brain cancer in May.
Rawls and Nina, his third wife, were married Jan. 1, 2004. Besides Nina, Rawls is survived by his three adult children, Louanna Rawls, Lou Rawls Jr. and Kendra Smith, and his infant son, Aiden. Funeral arrangements are pending.