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Singer Lou Rawls Dies of Cancer at 72

Lou Rawls, the Chicago-born crooner known for his velvety baritone, died this morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 72. Rawls was hospitalized last month for treatment of brain and lung cancer.

While Rawls was talented enough to cross easily from jazz to R&B to blues and back again, he was almost equally known for his charitable acts, especially for founding the Lou Rawls Parade of Stars Telethon. The foundation raised more than $200 million for the United Negro College Fund in the 1980s.

Born in Chicago on Dec. 1, 1933 – although some sources say 1935 – Rawls was raised by his grandmother in the city’s rough South Side. He began singing when he was seven, when his grandmother introduced him to gospel music, and he began singing at his Baptist church. He soon became taken with the popular music of the era, attending shows at the Regal Theatre and becoming an admirer of performers such as Billy Eckstine, Joe Williams and Arthur Prysock.

He and childhood friend Sam Cooke – the eventual grandfather of soul – tried their hand at harmony-group singing in a gospel group called the Teenage Kings of Harmony. Rawls moved on to sing with the Holy Wonders, but ended up replacing Cooke in the Highway Q.C.’s in 1951.

After stints with different groups throughout the ’50s, Rawls dropped out of the music industry temporarily in 1956 when he enlisted in the Army as a paratrooper. He was discharged two years later and embarked on a tour with Cooke. It was on this tour that Rawls nearly lost his life, when the car he and Cooke were riding crashed into a truck. Cooke escaped with minor injuries, but another passenger was killed and Rawls was declared dead on the way to the hospital. Rawls actually remained in a coma for five and a half days, and did not regain his memory for three months; he was not entirely recuperated for a year.

A bit ironically, it was after the accident and his full recovery that Rawls switched to secular music, playing all over the L.A. circuit. In 1962, producer Nick Venet saw Rawls perform at a coffee shop near Capitol Records headquarters and asked Rawls to record an audition tape. The hastily recorded tape eventually led to a recording contract and later that year, Capitol released Rawls’ debut album, Stormy Monday. Over the next couple years, Rawls recorded a wide range of albums for the label, spanning jazz, R&B and pop influences.

While his 1966 Live! captured his live jazz and blues-influenced performances and proved to be a gold-selling hit, it was his switch to full-on soul music later that year that would establish him as a successful vocalist. After the success of Soulin’, Rawls recorded 1967’s Too Much, which earned him his first Grammy award for the song “Dead End Street.”

In 1971, Rawls split with Capitol and signed to MGM, releasing Natural Man, which earned him his second Grammy, for the title track. Rawls was unsatisfied with the material MGM pushed him to record, however, and he left the label a year later. It wasn’t until 1975 that Rawls was again a signed artist, this time to indie Bell. He soon left Bell for Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s legendary soul label Philadelphia International. His label debut, 1976’s All Things in Time, was a resounding success, reaching the Billboard Top Tens and going platinum.

Throughout the 1970s, Rawls remained one of Philadelphia International’s best selling and performing acts, culminating in his third, and final, Grammy win for the album Unmistakably Lou in 1977. He also became the corporate spokesman for the Anheuser-Busch breweries in 1976.

From the 1980s on, Rawls focused on his role as entertainer with his Parade of Stars Telethon and his extensive international touring of military bases. Though he was an Epic artist from 1982-86, none of the four releases were commercially successful. He also recorded for Blue Note, including the Grammy-nominated At Last in 1989.

Rawls spent the latter half of the ’90s focused on his acting career, which he briefly began in his tenure in Los Angeles with a small part on the hit detective series 77 Sunset Strip. In the 1990s, he appeared in movies including Leaving Las Vegas and Blues Brothers 2000 and did voiceover work for cartoon series, including Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold and Rugrats.

He released his last album in 2003, Rawls Sings Sinatra on Savoy. The following year, in December 2004, Rawls was diagnosed with lung cancer; he was diagnosed with brain cancer in May 2005.

Rawls is survived by his wife, Nina, and his four children: Louanna Rawls, Lou Rawls Jr., Kendra Smith and Aiden Rawls.

Originally Published