Soul singer Lou Rawls, who went public with his yearlong battle against brain and lung cancer just last month, died in Los Angeles Friday morning of complications from the disease. He was seventy-two years old.
Rawls' last months were fraught with problems that extended beyond his health issues. He was dealing with an ongoing dispute with his estranged wife Nina — who also acted as his manager in his later years — over cash that he insisted she "absconded with." In a marriage annulment hearing initiated by the singer, Nina Rawls insisted she was merely trying to keep Rawls' daughters from taking control of his estate. The legal tussle had not been resolved at the time of Rawls' death.
The Chicago native, who won three Grammy Awards over the course of a career that spanned more than a half-century, got his start in the gospel realm, replacing high school classmate Sam Cooke in a group called the Highway QC's in 1951. After a stint in the Army, in which he rose to the rank of sergeant, Rawls rekindled his working relationship with Cooke, whom he backed on tour throughout the late Fifties.
A car crash on one of those treks nearly cost Rawls his life. He was actually pronounced dead at the scene of the 1958 accident, and spent five days in a coma, an event he'd later refer to as one of the most pivotal in his life. Rawls emerged from a year of rehabilitation ready to broaden his musical horizons, an effort that bore its first fruits when he provided backing vocals on Cooke's "Bring It on Home to Me."
That behind-the-scenes effort garnered the twenty-six-year-old newcomer considerable notice within the industry, leading to a recording contract that spawned a wide-ranging array of releases, from the straight-ahead jazz of 1962's Stormy Monday to the sumptuously sultry crooning of 1966's Soulin'. The latter release gave Rawls his first Top Ten single, "Love Is a Hurtin' Thing," as well as his first Grammy, a Best R&B Vocal Performance nod for "Dead End Street."
Soulin' would also cement Rawls' reputation as one of the era's most elegant singers, earning kudos from no less than Frank Sinatra, who singled him out as having "the classiest singing and silkiest chops in the singing game." Equally fluent in standards, pop and jazz, he would become a fixture on television and in supper clubs, marking himself as one of the few R & B contemporaries equally comfortable performing with a symphony orchestra and a smoky piano trio. That fluidity helped him in other ways as well: His calm yet charismatic demeanor and affable personality led to appearances in dozens of commercials for Budweiser beer, a breakthrough among African-American performers.
As the Seventies dawned, Rawls developed into one of the most recognizable voices in Philly soul, thanks to his association with producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who worked with him on the track that would become his signature song, "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine." His half-spoken delivery — which he liked to call "delivering soliloquies as works of art" — imparted a palpable sensuality, a mood that was underscored by the resonance of his baritone.
Rawls would often shrug off praise of his instrument, telling one Philadelphia paper in 1999, "I can't help it. My voice is at that rock-bottom level where it's gonna stay forever."
That comment proved prescient. While his presence on the charts faded in recent years, Rawls enthusiasm for singing — and ability to honey-coat just about any song put before him — remained undiminished, as proven by such acclaimed discs as 2003's Rawls Sings Sinatra.
In addition to his touring schedule, which he maintained until the final few months of his life, Rawls remained active in his charitable duties — primarily with the United Negro College Fund, for which he raised hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of nearly twenty-five years' worth of annual telethons.
Rawls is survived by his four children, Louanna Rawls, Lou Rawls, Jr., Kendra Smith and Aiden Allen, who will turn one year old on January 10th.