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.
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.