Grammy-winning singer Lou Rawls, whose smooth baritone voice interpreted gospel, soul, jazz, blues and pop and whose talent raised millions for charity, died Friday in Los Angeles from cancer, according to a spokesman for the singer. He was 72.
The Chicago-born Rawls, known for his 1976 crossover hit, You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,' and 1967's half-spoken, half-sung Dead End Street, had been battling lung cancer since November 2004. He was diagnosed with brain cancer in May 2005.
In addition to his singing career, which took him around the globe on tours that continued through late 2005, Rawls appeared in 18 movies, including Leaving Las Vegas and Blues Brothers 2000, and acted in 16 television series, including Fantasy Island and The Fall Guy.
"I know that voice whenever I hear it. Bam! That's Lou Rawls," said Mike Jeffers, publisher of Chicago Jazz magazine. "The soul and the history that he brought to his music was just incredible."
"That fantastic voice drove the women, including me, wild," said Judy Roberts, a Chicago-based jazz pianist who shared the stage with Rawls several times.
"Not only was he a great singer and entertainer, he was a class act and a role model of how to behave on and off the stage."
His pet project away from the stage was the Virginia-based United Negro College Fund. He is credited with founding the group's Evening of Stars telethon, whose telecasts have raised more than $200 million since 1979.
"Tens of thousands of college-educated men and women are the recipients of his enormous generosity," said Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO of the college fund.
Rawls's wide-ranging career was a "fascinating trajectory," according to Aaron Cohen, associate editor of Down Beat magazine.
The territory that Rawls covered after growing up singing in a Baptist church, starting at age 7, was impressive, Cohen says. He sang jazz standards and moved into blues and mainstream soul with the help of R&B icon and schoolmate Sam Cooke. He later helped pioneer jazz fusion in cutting-edge sessions produced for Capitol Records by David Axelrod between 1966 and 1970.
His early use of storytelling in performances like his Southside Blues/Tobacco Road medley on his acclaimed Live! album of 1966 was a precursor to today's rap. His tale of growing up on Chicago's South Side in Dead End Street earned him his first Grammy in 1967.
Rawls, who spent much of his final three years in Scottsdale, Ariz., had his share of rough-and-tumble experiences.
He and Cooke were involved in a 1958 car crash while on tour in the South with the gospel group the Pilgrim Travelers that left one passenger killed and Rawls in a five-day coma. The singer, who needed a year to recover, said the experience gave his life new meaning and focus.
He later followed Cooke to Los Angeles as the two mixed heavy doses of pop into their gospel sounds in the early days of soul music. He sang backup on Cooke's early soul hit, 1962's Bring It on Home to Me.
Rawls landed a solo deal with Capitol in 1962 after being discovered singing at a coffee shop for $10 a night plus pizza. He recorded at a blistering pace, releasing 20 albums in 10 years.
He enjoyed moderate success early on but then scored high on both the R&B and pop charts (No. 1 and 13 respectively) in 1966 with Love Is a Hurtin' Thing.
That paved the way for several gold albums (500,000 copies sold), appearances on all the popular TV variety shows of the time and frequent stints at Las Vegas' top showrooms.
It was during that period that Rawls contributed vocals to Axelrod's jazz-fusion recordings, in which funk and rock were melded with jazz.
"Lou Rawls is the vocalist on a considerable number of (Axelrod's tracks), so that great, deep baritone became one of the first voices of what we think of as fusion," says Down Beat's Cohen.
Rawls moved to MGM in 1971 and won a Grammy for A Natural Man, which contained subtle references to black pride. He won Down Beat's poll for favorite male vocalist, beating out Frank Sinatra, who praised Rawls for having "the classiest singing and silkiest chops in the singing game."
But Rawls' time at MGM brought friction when he balked at some of the lightweight fare that the label asked him to produce. Rather than give in, Rawls left the label, a stand that inspired other African-American artists at a time when record companies often dictated what they could release.
In the mid-'70s, Rawls' sound took another turn when he teamed up with the hit making duo of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff on their Philadelphia International label.
He released his biggest hit, the heavily produced, string-laden You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine (No. 1 and 2 on the R&B and pop charts, respectively) and even enjoyed play in disco dance clubs. His 1977 Unmistakably Lou album brought his third Grammy, for Best Male R&B Vocal.
His hit making power cooled as the '70s ended, but Rawls kept his profile high as the spokesman for Anheuser-Busch, maker of Budweiser beer. He persuaded the company to help fund both the college fund telethons, initially called The Lou Rawls Parade of Stars, as well as a series of concerts for U.S. military personnel around the world.
In 2004, Florida Memorial College named its performing-arts center for Rawls and made him a distinguished visiting professor.
"He has consistently demonstrated his commitment to learning, education and creation of opportunities for young people," the college's president, Albert E. Smith, said at the time.
"He was highly visible in his charity work, and his voice-overs for those (beer) commercials kind of 'branded' him as well," said Carlos Adams, national chief of Virgin Megastore's marketing for urban, blues and gospel music.
Rawls' voice-overs later carried into children's television after he provided the singing voice for the animated Garfield the cat on TV specials. He also provided voices for Nickelodeon's Hey Arnold, as Harvey the Mailman, and Rugrats.
In the '90s, as he passed age 60, Rawls, who sold more than 40 million albums, focused on touring rather than shooting for the record charts. He teamed up with symphony orchestras in such cities as San Diego to perform his hits and jazz standards.
He continued to perform after his 2004 lung cancer diagnosis.
"Lou (in 2005) had been playing concert halls and major festivals in places like the Bahamas and Detroit," said Paul Shefrin, who became Rawls' publicist two years ago, after knowing the singer for decades. "He and Aretha Franklin were the main headliners at a tribute to Sam Cooke in Cleveland that was tied into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."
Franklin, R&B icon Isaac Hayes, producer Quincy Jones and activist Jesse Jackson were among the celebrities in touch with Rawls as he wound down his battle with cancer. Rawls and Jones teamed to honor Stevie Wonder for the 2006 college fund telethon, which was taped in September at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. An Evening of Stars — Tribute to Stevie Wonder airs Jan. 6-8 (check local listings).
The last months of Rawls' life also found him fighting to annul his marriage to his third wife, Nina, 35, from whom he had been estranged since November 2005.
A judge in Phoenix in December awarded sole custody of the couple's young son, Aiden, to Nina Rawls, citing her husband's failing health.
The singer and his wife also were battling for control over hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds, stocks and real estate at the time of his death.
Rawls is survived by three adult children, daughter Louanna Rawls and son Lou Rawls Jr., both of Los Angeles, and daughter Kendra Smith of Long Beach, Calif.; and his wife and son, Aiden who live in Uniontown, Ohio.