Velvet-Voiced Crooner Lou Rawls Dies at 72

Karen Grigsby Bates offers an appreciation of late R&B singer and philanthropist Lou Rawls. The singer sold more than 40 million albums and earned three Grammys in his long career, and founded a popular telethon to raise money for the United Negro College Fund. He fought a losing battle with brain and lung cancer.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

In a week of hard news, here is one more item. Singer and philanthropist Lou Rawls has died in Los Angeles. Here he is with one of his classics.

(Soundbite of "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine")

Mr. LOU RAWLS (Singer; Philanthropist): (Singing) You'll never find the rhythm, the rhyme, all the magic we shared, just a...

CHADWICK: Lou Rawls with "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine." Here's NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates with an appreciation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

That immediately identifiable velvet baritone could belong to no one else but Lou Rawls. Louis Allen Rawls was born on December 1st, 1935. A Chicago native who would celebrate his hometown in song for decades, Rawls was a high school classmate of gospel and soul singer Sam Cooke. They sang together as the Teenaged Kings of Harmony, a gospel group, in the early 1950s. After service as an Army paratrooper, Rawls reentered civilian life and continued working with a number of singing groups, some gospel, some rhythm and blues. Teaming up again with Sam Cooke, Rawls was touring the South with a group named the Travelers when he was in a traffic accident that almost killed him. His injuries were so serious he was declared dead before he reached the hospital. He was in a coma for five days and it took him a full year to recover.

Rawls signed with Capitol Records in 1962, where he sang as a background artist with a number of people, among them his old buddy Sam Cooke. He became a star in his own right 40 years ago when a single, "Love is a Hurtin' Thing," became a hit.

(Soundbite of "Love is a Hurtin' Thing")

Mr. RAWLS: (Singing) The road is rough, the goin' gets tough. Yes, love is a hurtin' thing.

BATES: Samuel Black, a Chicago cultural historian, says that unlike some R&B singers who started out in gospel, Rawls was never conflicted. He wanted a wider audience and knew R&B and jazz would provide it.

Mr. SAMUEL BLACK (Cultural Historian): He felt that the music he was singing, R&B or gospel, was something which helped people come closer together and be friends.

BATES: Rawls eventually left Chicago for Los Angeles, where he continued to produce hits through the '70s. The heavily jazz-flavored "Dead End Street" had political overtones that criticized the lost opportunities that came with racial restrictions. That was followed up with the swaggering, upbeat "Natural Man." But it was "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" that became a Rawls signature. It was a crossover hit during disco's heyday and topped both the R&B and the mainstream charts. That led to platinum sales.

(Soundbite of "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine")

Mr. RAWLS: (Singing) But I know somehow, someday, some way you are...

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Going to miss my loving.

Mr. RAWLS: (Singing) You're going to miss my loving.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) You're going to miss my loving.

Mr. RAWLS: (Singing) You're going to miss my loving.

BATES: Although Rawls would continue to tour till the end of his life, he spent a significant amount of time raising funds for the United Negro College Fund. Since 1979 he became the star and emcee of a galaxy of entertainers who contributed their talents to benefit historically black colleges and universities. UNCF says that over the years Rawls was pivotal in raising over $200 million to help educate tens of thousands of black students.

Rawls was diagnosed with lung cancer last year. He refused to resign himself to death. Even after his disease had metastasized to the brain, he told The Arizona Republic, `Don't count me out, brother. There's been many people diagnosed with this kind of thing and they're still jumping and pumping.' And he did almost to the end. Lou Rawls died in Los Angeles this morning. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of "Tobacco Road")

Mr. RAWLS: (Singing) Because I was born...

Unidentified Group: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. RAWLS: ...in the dark. My mama died and my daddy got drunk. He left me here...

CHADWICK: "Tobacco Road" by Lou Rawls.

(Soundbite of "Tobacco Road")

Mr. RAWLS: (Singing) ...you want me to love Tobacco Road. I grew up in a rusty shack. All I owned was...

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More to come on DAY TO DAY.

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