LOU RAWLS / “Street Corner Hustler’s Blues, World of Trouble”
Jazz for folk not too heavy into jazz. Jazz for having a good time. In its own singular way, deep but always swinging, deeply swinging. Humorous, albeit hip. Observations from an insider shared with those who may or may not have witnessed such sights.
They don’t make them like this anymore. Yeah, I know people say that all the time, but see, sometimes the thing not made anymore is an Edsel and didn’t deserve to be made in the first place. Other times, we’re talking a little red Corvette.
Lou Rawls could be seen as Joe Williams part two—big baritone-voiced, blues-based singer coming up out of Chi-town. His early musical education was in gospel. Indeed, he was a classmate of Sam Cooke in high school, toured with and almost died with Cooke in their young adult years. (In a 1958 automobile accident in Arkansas while touring with the Pilgrim Travelers gospel group, Cooke walked away no serious injuries; the chauffeur was killed; and Lou was pronounced dead on the way to the hospital but instead survived—well, you know: five days or so in a coma, three or four months of amnesia, and a year of recuperation.)
In the fifties both Cooke and Rawls had been rising stars on the gospel circuit, Rawls even replacing Cooke in the Highway Q.C.’s. See if you can pick out Rawls in the above picture of the famous Pilgrim Travelers (that’s him bottom, left). So gospel was the grounding. But after Cooke went secular and Rawls returned from a brief stint as a paratrooper in the army (sergeant, Screaming Eagles), Rawls started his own seriously secular career. Even became a street bard of sorts. You would’ve thought he was brought up in a barroom.
* * *
Trivia: that’s Lou doing the second voicing on Cooke’s early hit, “Bring It On Home To Me.”
* * *
In the mid-sixties Lou’s career took wing and this write up features the two early giant steps that thrust Lou through the doorway of stardom: Lou Rawls Live
(1966) and Soulin’
(1967). Gold record, #1 R&B hit with “Love Is A Hurting Thing.” He was on his way. But where was he going?
Most careers aspired for the nirvana of pop stardom. Lou was a bit more savvy and also a whole lot more conscious. The savvy part was recognizing the value in doing commercials, especially for Budweiser Beer. The conscious part was two-fold: a) he religiously performed for American soldiers through USO tours and what not and b) he single-handedly championed the United Negro College Fund (insert Lou’s baritone and say: Ya know, a mind is a terrible thing to waste!).
The commercials led to voice-overs and a bunch of other small parts in movies and even Broadway for a hot minute. Before it was over he was a featured voice for cartoon characters—don’t laugh, it was a lucrative business.
Think on this in terms of the military. Post-World War II, the U.S. Military was the best employer of Black men. Period. Nobody else was even close. The level of discrimination was much, much lower. It was a good gig, in many ways, especially pre-Vietnam. I remember when I left, some of the old timers thought I was crazy. I had made sergeant in less than three years, if I re-upped I would be automatically promoted to staff sergeant, get a five figure signing bonus (this was in 1968), and wouldn’t hardly have to work at all as I was in a specialty MOS (nuclear missile electronic repair, which including arming the nuclear warhead). They all told me I had it made, if they were in my position, blah, blah, blah. A lot of the allegiance to the military was not simply idealistic patriotism but rather was a clear-eyed assessment that you could do better in the Army than in corporate America. The military was more integrated than major corporations. Lou, who didn’t have a college degree, understood.
Lou may have only had a high school education but he understood the importance of a college degree. Over the course of close to thirty years, Lou Rawls raised approximately 200 million dollars for UNCF, sponsoring over 10,000 scholarships. He was responsible for the college education of two or three generations of Black folk.
Some people consider Harlem the capital of Negro America. That may be true, but my appraisal is that Chicago has always been the capital of Black Nationalism in America. Thus Lou’s commitment was in keeping with ethos of the community from which he came. Think Ebony
, Negro Digest
; think Afro Sheen and Johnson products; think Nation of Islam; think the AACM and Sun Ra; think Third World Press; think Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH—Lou even cut a single supporting Jesse Jackson’s Presidential campaign: “Run Jesse Run.”
Though he has not received the broad acclaim that he deserves. Lou Rawls was a genuine stand-up for the people, full blown “Natural Man” (which was the title of one of his mid-career hits).
* * *
When you dig Lou Rawls’ back story, then you understand that what touched people was not simply the lyrics and songs he sang, but the righteous delivery. He sang not only with a soulful feeling but also with a strong sense of social concern and commitment to uplift. Lou’s songs were coded messages to an oppressed people struggling for better days.
Listen again to that opening number, “Love Is A Hurting Thing.”
Lou is preaching dialectics, Lou is preparing us to deal with the inevitable ups an downs of relationships in this world. The next four numbers taken together are a virtual textbook on grasping the lessons of life from a looking back perspective, even though the songs were sung by a young man on only his second and third albums.
Listening to the authenticity of “Memory Lane,”
the frank tale-telling that bespoke experience with the various ages of human relationships made so vivid in “It Was A Very Good Year,”
and finally the wistful and elegant mellowness of “Old Folks.”
All of that tied together with a monologue from a master storyteller.
Listen to the brilliant big band arrangements of H. B. Barnum, full-bore blasting in some places, silky voicings in other places. I remember listening to this in the late-sixties, totally impressed with not only Lou’s baritone but also by the splendor of the big band. And, of course, this is an continuation of the Count Basie/Joe Williams legacy. Soulin’
is a classic album, perhaps the best big band vocal recording of its era.
* * *
Lou Rawls Live
, which was a recorded a year earlier than Soulin’
is equally a classic although not unmatched. There are a number of live jazz combos with blues-drenched voices. One that comes immediately to mind is Esther Phillips’ Burnin’
. Or Ray Charles In Person
. Carmen McRae has a couple. Indeed, at one time, this was a standard for the jazz world.
A lot of people could match it but few surpassed it. The recording captures Lou not only in great voice but the backing combo is dead on it. Solid. Swinging. Even though it’s only a quartet, it’s a monster. Actually, we should say it’s a quintet with the audience as the fifth member. The handclaps. The shouts. Grunts, moans, amens. And the laughter, good God, the laughter. They made you wish you were there. Yes. Indeed, they made you feel like you were there.
Song for song, this is the Kind Of Blue
of live, small jazz combo with a male vocalist. Yes, I have to revise my assessment. When you consider the whole of the album, none other surpasses it in total although others may have one or two really strong cuts. Check what my man does with “The Shadow of Your Smile.”
They end up swinging so hard, it seems like they will never stop and then Lou grabs the closing for a full display of the glory of his instrument.
And then there are the two songs “Tobacco Road”
and “World Of Trouble,”
both of which had their riveting monologues: “Southside Blues”
and “Street Corner Hustler’s Blues,”
respectively. This was some years before Isaac Hayes and, later, Barry White. At that time nobody told and sung tall tales better than Lou Rawls, especially not with the richness and sensitivity of his baritone.
Here was a black man, singing about the world as he knew it, singing in a coded language that on the surface may have seemed devoid of (and if not devoid, at least unconscious of) politics. But when the truth is told, when you understand the code, here was another fist in the struggle for uplift, the struggle against our downpressors, another encouragement to straighten the backbone, to cease bowing and shuffling. Go to college and become somebody even as we laugh and joke and have a good time in our boisterous and somewhat bawdy fashion.
Lou Rawls teaching us you don’t have to forget nor forgo who you are in order to become whom you want to be. These two recordings, one live in a nightclub, the other prepared in a studio, ushered in the golden era of deep, black, baritone male voices.
In one sense, as a musical stylist, Lou Rawls was a continuation of Billy Eckstein, Arthur Prysock, Johnny Hartman and, of course Joe Williams, as well as others, but in another sense, Lou Rawls marked out new territory. While musically he was smack dab in the middle of the tradition, socially he marked a turning away from acquiescence to the status quo in favor of an activist stance as an artist, a stance which manifested itself not simply in the songs he choose to sing but also in his approach to singing. He put the sound of us, the noise of us, the joy-squeezed-from-sorrow of us into whatever were the paper lyrics. That’s what we hear and respond to when listening to Lou Rawls.
Lou Rawls. Black. Proud. An open advocate for the advancement of his race. You’ll never find…
—Kalamu ya Salaam
These songs are hip
"This is the Kind Of Blue
of live, small jazz combo with a male vocalist."
A few years ago, there was this movie named Babe
. It was about a friendly pig that conversed with the other barnyard animals. The filmmakers laughingly billed it as 'The Citizen Kane
of talking pig movies.' I always thought that was a funny line, now here comes Kalamu saying basically the same thing. What I'm trying to say is, "live," "small combo" and "with a male vocalist" are three qualifications in one sentence. That's pretty funny.
Anyway, despite all that, and despite the fact that I always thought of Lou Rawls primarily as a television fund drive host, I have to admit that these songs are hip. The only one I've heard before is the feature track, "Street Corner Hustler's Blues"/"World Of Trouble."
The others are almost as good though. I like the beginning of "Southside Blues"
: "Soon as I was big enough to get a job, save me some money, buy me a ticket, catch the first thing smoking...I left!" I know the feeling, my man. Damn, I know the feeling. Then Lou starts talking about how every city has a particular neighborhood that's so messed up, everybody who's in it is trying to get out. I hear that, too.
Like I say, I always assumed Lou Rawls was kind of a tight-laced individual, a guy who just stood around singing Broadway songs and show tunes. Shows you how much I know.
—Mtume ya Salaam
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