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Cancer Claims Singer Lou Rawls at 72
Lou Rawls, the Grammy Award-winning singer whose velvety baritone was one of the most recognizable voices in pop music on hits such as "Love Is a Hurtin' Thing," "Lady Love" and "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine," died today. He was 72.
Rawls, a longtime education advocate who viewed his annual fundraising telethon for the United Negro College Fund as his "proudest achievement," died of cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, according to his publicist Paul Shefrin. Rawls, who had lived in Scottsdale, Ariz., since 2003, was diagnosed with lung cancer a year ago.
Rawls' years as a recording artist included more than 70 albums, three Grammys, 13 Grammy nominations, one platinum album, five gold albums and a gold single.
His distinctively rich baritone has been described in the press as "dark as mahogany, as deep as a rolling river" and "as warm as smooth gravel heated over a fireplace."
After hearing him perform in Las Vegas, Frank Sinatra described Rawls as having "the classiest singing and silkiest chops in the singing game."
Widely praised as a song stylist, the Chicago-born singer defied categorization: During his career, he sang everything from gospel to blues to jazz to soul to pop.
"I don't put myself in any particular category," Rawls, who began singing in a Baptist church choir as a young boy, once said. "Whatever the occasion calls for, I rise to the occasion. There are no limits to music, so why should I limit myself?"
Originally signed to Capitol Records, Rawls' first solo release was the 1962 jazz album "Stormy Monday" (also known as "I'd Never Drink Muddy Water"), which he recorded with the Les McCann Trio.
In his live act, Rawls prefaced some of his songs with lengthy monologues that led into the song. Rawls said his onstage rapping grew out of necessity.
"I started talking because it was the only way to get people's attention," he told The Times' late jazz critic Leonard Feather in 1967. "For years I played nightclubs, working the "chitlin' circuit." These clubs were very small, very tight, very crowded and very loud. Everything was loud but the entertainment. The only way to establish communication was by telling a story to lead into the song. That would catch people's attention."
Rawls' monologues, which were later credited as a precursor to what is now known as rap music, were memorably showcased in his 1966 jazz and blues album "Lou Rawls Live!"
In his richly voiced lead-in to the song "World of Trouble," he painted a vivid portrait of a young Chicago hustler standing on the corner of 47th and South Parkway looking for his girlfriend:
"He has on his silk mohair $250 hustler suit, fresh out of the pawnshop, the highly shined alligator shoes, the white-on-white shirt, the very thin, silk hustler's necktie, the very large artificial diamond stickpin, his hair is very heavily conked; he is quite patent-leatherish about the head he is wearing, his hustler's shades as you see how elated this young man is, you can't help but notice his Cadillac parked at the curb; white on white in white the finance company wonders where he is keeping his car tonight. "
Wrote Feather: "The monologue lasts about as long as the song (3½ minutes). It sets up the mood so perfectly that the audience lives every moment of it. After eight years of scuffling, the simple process of telling it like it is took Lou Rawls out of the neighborhood bars into the millionaire belt."
The 1966 "Lou Rawls Live!" album went gold and marked the singer's crossover into the mainstream market. But it wasn't until later that year that Rawls had what is considered his star-making hit, "Love Is a Hurtin' Thing."
The single, part of his "Soulin'" album, reached No. 1 on the R&B chart, almost cracked the pop Top 10 and received two Grammy nominations.
Rawls' most famous spoken introduction was on "Dead End Street," for which he won his first Grammy for best R&B vocal performance in 1967.
The "Dead End Street" intro varied in live performances, but it described the Windy City in the wintertime, "when it's around 10 above and it's about 12 inches of snow outside, and the hawk -- I'm speakin' of the almighty hawk, Mr. Wind -- when he blows down the street around 35, 40 miles an hour, it's just like a giant razorblade blowin' down the street, and all the clothes in the world can't help you."
His second Grammy was for "Natural Man" (1971). And his 1977 album "Unmistakably Lou" earned him his third Grammy for best R&B vocal performance.
After signing with producers-songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's hit-making Philadelphia International label, Rawls had the biggest album of his career in 1976 with "All Things in Time." The platinum-selling album included his most successful single: "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine," a No. 1 R&B hit that also rose to No. 2 on the pop charts.
Long after his last chart entry ("I Wish You Belonged to Me") in the late `80s, Rawls continued to be a popular concert performer.
"Hearing Rawls sing is a bit like slipping on a comfortable pair of old loafers and propping one's feet up on a hassock," music critic Don Heckman wrote in a Times review of a 2002 Rawls performance at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.
"His voice, with its unique timbre and the emotional catch, is one of the great warm-and-fuzzy sounds of pop and jazz music," wrote Heckman.
Raised by his grandmother on the South Side of Chicago after his parents went their separate ways shortly after he was born, Rawls joined the junior choir at his grandmother's Baptist church at age 7 and sang with different gospel groups as a teenager.
After moving to Los Angeles in the 1950s, he joined the Chosen Gospel Singers, with whom he made his first recording. He next joined the Pilgrim Travelers, a gospel group that included a young friend from Chicago, Sam Cooke. (Rawls later provided the uncredited background vocal on Cooke's 1962 classic "Bring It on Home to Me.")
After a two-year stint in the Army with the 82nd Airborne Division, Rawls rejoined the Pilgrim Travelers.
While driving to a gig in Memphis on a rainy night in 1958, the group's Cadillac collided with an 18-wheeler truck. The group's driver was killed, the guitar player's collarbone was broken, Cooke got a small piece of glass in his eye and Rawls suffered a severe concussion.
It took Rawls, who remained in a coma for 5½ days and suffered a three-month memory loss, more than a year to fully recover.
"I really got a new life out of that," he told the Los Angeles Sentinel in 1998. "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."
After the Pilgrim Travelers broke up in 1959, Rawls launched his solo career, performing on the blues-oriented "chitlin' circuit" and in small clubs and coffeehouses in Los Angeles.
He was performing at Pandora's Box, a small Sunset Boulevard club, when Capitol Records producer Nick Venet heard him sing. Venet was so impressed with Rawls' four-octave range that he invited him to cut an audition tape, and Rawls was signed to the label.
With his career riding high in 1976, Rawls was signed to be national spokesman for Anheuser-Busch, which led the brewing company to co-sponsor -- at Rawls' suggestion -- a telethon to benefit the United Negro College Fund. In 1979, Rawls began hosting "The Lou Rawls Parade of Stars." The annual telethon, which went national in 1980 and is now called "An Evening of Stars," reportedly has raised more than $200 million for the fund.
"I run into older people who shake my hand and say, 'Thank you. For the first time in my family's history my grandchild is going to attend college,' " Rawls told The Times in 1990.
Rawls, who believed that "educating the youth of the nation is priority one," was honored by the United Negro College Fund in 2004 for his continued support and commitment to educational excellence.
Over the years, Rawls sidelined as an actor, including an occasional role on "Baywatch Nights" and small roles in films such as "Leaving Las Vegas." He also sang on animated "Garfield" specials and did voice-over work on cartoons such as "Hey Arnold."
On New Year's Day 2004, Rawls married his third wife, flight attendant Nina Inman, 33, with whom he adopted an infant son, Aiden. Less than two years later, however, Rawls filed for an annulment, saying he wanted to protect his financial assets.
It was during the annulment hearing in early December that his wife revealed that the singer had been diagnosed with cancer a year earlier. Around the time of the hearing, Rawls was hospitalized in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Shefrin, Rawls' publicist, told The Times in December that before Rawls' hospitalization, "it had been a fairly regular touring year for Lou," who had performed three dates in the San Diego area in mid-November. He also had taped his telethon in September for airing this month.