Right now, my feet are cold. And Lou Rawls is in the Bahamas.
These two facts are actually more connected than they might seem. To begin with, the three-time Grammy winner’s late-booked gig in the sunny, rum-soaked Caribbean usurped our scheduled phone time.
And on this blustery winter day, so far removed from white-sand beaches and intoxicating fruit drinks, I’m trying to steal a little heat from anywhere I can. Thus, I’m donning extra socks and listening to a bunch of old Lou Rawls songs — “Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing,” “Your Good Thing (Is About to End),” “Natural Man,” “Groovy People,” “You’ll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine).”
Because Rawls has a voice like butter hammered out of velvet. It’s hot the way Drambuie is. Classy and, at times, pretty hip. And always smooth, smooth, smooooooth.
Rawls’ haunting, essential a cappella version of that hoary New Year’s nugget “Auld Lang Syne” smolders with the kind of warmth we all pray will grace us in the uncertain days ahead. Such zeniths of interpretation handily forgive his occasional lapses into schmaltz (a pre-Bette cover of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” for instance), and his corporate-mouthpiece gigs (he bellied up to Anheuser-Busch in 1976; for years, that “King of Beers” voice on TV was him).
The singer was amping songs like the David Axelrod/Ben Raleigh number “Dead End Street” with trend-setting spoken-word intros several years before poet-performer Gil Scott Heron would hotly declare that the revolution wouldn’t be televised, or the seminal “pre-rap” band The Last Poets would suggest that there’d be no revolution at all.
And at 70, Rawls is the reigning king of smooth. So much for “Auld Lang Syne”: His own New Year’s Day 2004 included wedding his 33-year-old flight-attendant girlfriend in Memphis, Tenn. (and the mayor, no less, performed the ceremony).
Rawls was reared in Chicago, a place that his “pre-raps” suggest he holds in little regard — “I got away as fast as I could, Jim,” he proclaims at the outset of “Tobacco Road,” an early hit — though a street there now bears his name.
He left home as a young man to hit the gospel-music touring circuit, his fledgling career interrupted in 1955 by a three-year enlistment in the Army. Seven years later, Rawls’ debut album, I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water, was released on Capitol.
1966 saw his first serious hit, with “Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing.” And by the mid-’70s, when other A-list R&B acts were drowning in the wake of disco, Rawls orchestrated a great coup, signing on to Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International label. The writing/producing duo’s “You’ll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)” became the singer’s biggest hit in 1978.
In recent years, Rawls has redirected his attention toward blues-flavored material (hear his saucy duet with Dianne Reeves on the ’40s Nellie Lutcher hit “Fine Brown Frame”) and jazz (last year, he released Rawls Sings Sinatra, citing his debt to Old Blue Eyes, an early champion of his music).
“Lou can go anywhere,” bass player Curtis Robertson Jr., a 14-year veteran of Rawls’ touring band, declared by phone last week. “If he were to stay just within the repertoire of the 80 albums he’s been on, he [still] does it all.”
Rawls’ continued passion for his art keeps it fresh, noted David T. Walker, the singer’s longtime live-show guitarist, in another phone conversation.
“I work with people even today on sessions and things, and I can see they’re only going through the motions,” Walker elaborated. “That’s not the case with Lou. He likes what he does — and that, to me, is inspiring.”
Through the decades, Rawls has evolved from multi-genre vocalist to “entertainer,” an ultra-classy Mr. Show who can go hard-jazz on your ass, or pull that lounge-singer shtick with the best of them. He’s taken turns at acting, both serious (a small part in Leaving Las Vegas) and frothy (the club owner on Baywatch Nights); he’s done frequent USO shows and telethons (most notably for the American Negro College Fund); and he’s tackled prominent children’s-TV programming (Rawls is the Grammy-nominated voice of Garfield, the over-caffeinated cartoon cat).
His live shows are weighted toward the hits, and fleshed out by crackerjack backing. Walker, for instance, hit the road in the early 1960s with the likes of The Coasters, The Olympics and Little Willie John; the guitarist later did sessions with seminal Motown artists (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the early Jackson 5), and with Aretha Franklin, The Crusaders, Joe Sample, and on and on.
“I’ve had a lot of smiles,” he mused.
The ever-modest Walker credits his incomparable resume to good fortune. Yet his distinctive balance of economy and flash helped define ’70s soul.
“Well,” he conceded with a laugh, “I do practice a lot.”
And as I watch an icy-looking, futilely bundled-up jogger shudder past my window, I can’t escape the thought that Walker and Robertson are also now in balmy, seaside Nassau. Both musicians are real sweethearts, so I honestly feel bad about saying this: I hope their feet are sweating.
Resort to jazz
An oaky merlot and a big stone fireplace with logs a-blazing — and the added romance of Lou “You’ll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)” Rawls.
The iconic vocalist headlines this year’s All That Jazz Weekend at the Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa (290 Macon Ave.; 252-2711), which runs Friday, Jan. 30 through Sunday, Feb. 1. Showtime for Rawls is 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 31; tickets cost $40.
GPI’s 12th-annual event of jazz clinics, formal concerts and informal jam sessions will likewise include a performance by New Orleans piano man Ellis Marsalis and his quartet. A respected performer and teacher, Marsalis is paterfamilias to young jazz lions Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason. Showtime is 8:30 p.m. on Friday; tickets cost $32.
Weekend packages — including accommodations for both Friday and Saturday nights, preferred-seating tickets to all shows and entree to meet-the-artist cocktail receptions — cost $599 per couple.