Lou Rawls (12.1.35 – 1.6.06)
God has the unmatchable ability to do something no artist, with brush and easel, could ever do: create billions of human faces with few ever resembling another. Yes, two eyes, a nose and a mouth, but no two individuals ever exactly alike. And so it was with Lou Rawls’ voice. God gave him a voice like no other. Upon hearing his very first note, one immediately knew it was Lou Rawls. With this remarkably unique voice he was able to convincingly sing gospel (from where he originally came), blues, pop, jazz and love ballads. It was this ability that slowly brought him to the attention of an international audience.
I knew Lou personally for many years beginning when Capitol Records engaged me to write the arrangements for one of his early albums. I had just moved to Los Angeles from New York City and soon, thereafter, our families became close friends. We even sent our kids to the same private school. His first wife, Lana, from Texas, was an exceptional cook and would often send me pots of tantalizing delicacies through my wife, Bobbie.
As an affable man, Lou had a host of friends from all strata of society. One weekend Bobbie and I went to his home as we so often did, and when we walked into his living room, sprawled on the floor with both hands behind his head listening to music was the actor George Kennedy, while Lou was busy in his small projection room trying to focus an image on the screen so as to prepare for the film he would later show. We spent the evening as ordinary people enjoying each other’s company as friends.
It was during these enriching times that I began to really know Lou, not only as an artist, but—on a deep, personal level—as the man within. Here was a man who acquired his roots from the streets of Chicago, from the lower rung of society, and somehow this enabled him to develop a lasting appreciation for humankind. Thus being aware of man’s frailties, he was a kind and understanding man full of compassion and generosity. I never remember him seizing an opportunity to put another artist down. In fact, he said, “Not everyone does things the same way.”
Though he had no formal musical training, Lou had an exceptional ear for the music he heard relentlessly striking the medium of the air, his ear and his psyche. If he heard something that did not meet his approval, though he couldn’t express what he heard in technical terms, he could get you to understand his disapproval in his own way with expressions like “It’s not in the pocket,” “It’s got no snap to it,” “It’s going to sleep” or “It sounds like a car without a driver.”
I first became aware of Lou at the very beginning of his career when I heard a big-band album written by an arranger named Onzy Matthews. When I heard it I thought, “I’ve never heard a voice like this guy’s. He just might go places.” And did he ever! During the course of his brilliant career he hosted television shows, appeared in TV series, appeared in movies and made many television commercials.
As it turned out, Lou’s record producer Billy Vera approached me to write what would be Lou’s last recording and our final collaboration after so many years. Though I hadn’t been steadily writing music for his CDs, I would sometimes be called in to write isolated things, which means we never lost contact or our friendship with each other. In fact, in a telephone conversation we had just months before he died, I recalled the special car he had built, which had an exceptionally long hood that was long enough for him to set up a beach chair and umbrella and get a sun tan while having a cool drink. We laughed quite heartily that afternoon about this ridiculous hyperbole—me in New York, he in Arizona…our last laugh together.
Though the enigmatic future has always had an indistinguishable face, when it revealed itself time and time again throughout Lou’s career, it, nevertheless, always found him indefatigably trying to fashion a unique face of his own making. Billy told me that as he lay in a hospital bed in Los Angeles slowly slipping away, he was graphically planning his next CD.
Lou Rawls! Will we ever have another like him? I don’t think so.