THAT'S WHERE IT'S AT
LOU RAWLS talks to Spencer Leigh
I’ve just heard the news that Lou Rawls has died and I thought I would put my interview with him on the website. It was recorded at EMI in London on 21 February 1990 when he was promoting his excellent Blue Note album, ‘At Last’. It always helps if you genuinely like the new album when you do an interview! The interview was broadcast on BBC Radio Merseyside and it sounded great as he had the deepest of deep voices and was in very good humour. The interview has not appeared in print before.
In 1967, you painted a bleak picture of Chicago in Dead End Street. Is
that how you feel about it now?
Pretty much the same. There have cleaned it up under the guise of urban renewal, but they haven’t cleaned it out. The bleak story that I painted of it was right on ’cause if you go there in February or March, you will experience the Hawk – that’s the wind off of the lake and that’s pretty bad. But the song’s right. I lived in a city ghetto and that’s what I had to deal with.
How did you come to record 'Dead End Street'?
I was looking for songs to record and I was told that this was just the song for me, Dead End Street. I related it to the south side of Chicago and I put that monologue on it. I’d say it was one of the first rap records. Joe Tex and Solomon Burke were rapping too but that was more romantically. This was a social statement and I made up that story while I was recording the song.
You put a lot of feeling into ‘Tobacco Road’?
Yes, that too was like autobiography as I could relate it to what I had seen. Tobacco Road is just outside Macon, Georgia and I have walked down it – it is now a landmark. That song also says something about urban living, and it is more a state of mind than an actual place.
Who inspired you the most?
Sam Cooke. Sam Cooke, the Staple Singers and myself grew up together. We went to the same schools and sang in the same choirs. We formed a teenage quartet, but Sam became a professional, singing with an adult group and then recording as a pop artist. Nat ‘King’ Cole was the only big black pop artist then and Sam became a very great pop singer. He’s called an R&B singer but I think he was anything but.
Is gospel singing good training?
The best. It gives you a sense of rhythm, syncopation and tonality. If you are in the tenor, baritone, bass or alto section, your voice goes right to it ’cause you are surrounded by other voices in that realm, providing you have a good ear.
Did you work much with Sam Cooke?
Yes, we complemented each other. I travelled with him and did background vocals on records as well as shows. We did duets on ‘Bring It On Home To Me’, ‘Having A Party’, ‘Only Sixteen’, ‘Win Your Love For Me’ and ‘Chain Gang’. I love saying the titles – Sam wrote a lot of great songs! When the records came out, I could always hear myself, but RCA would never put my name on there because I was not signed to the label.
And there is still a lot of gospel in his secular songs.
Yes, most of Sam’s songs had gospel overtones, and it’s the same with Aretha Franklin. Sam would write a lot of his songs at my mom’s house, so I would know the songs and would be able help out with the words.
Did you see him write ‘Chain Gang’?
Yes, when he wrote ‘Chain Gang’, we were travelling down south and that is where the chain gangs were. You could drive along the road and see them. We would talk to the guys and of course, they knew who Sam was.
You do a Sam Cooke song with Ray Charles, ‘That’s Where It’s
At’, on the new album.
Yes. The minute Ray heard that song, he said, ‘That’s the one.’ When we finished, he said, ‘Oh boy. I bet ol’Sam would be happy about this.’
Much of your work has been in the jazz field.
Yes, I’ve had the opportunity to work with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie and they all impressed on me the fact that variety was the key to longevity in show business. If you can do more than one thing, you will last longer because you are going to burn out on what you are doing, and that makes sense. I learnt a lot of songs when I started recording. I learnt about 300 standards as well as the new songs as I always knew that the standards would be the saving grace for me. I added songs like ‘When I Fall In Love’ and ‘Unforgettable’ to my repertoire and it keeps growing.
How did the gospel audience feel when Sam Cooke went from gospel to pop?
Well, there were numerous artists who had made the transition before Sam Cooke, but no one was really aware of them. It was a big thing because Sam was so well known. He had recorded with the Soul Stirrers and his voice was unique. They soon realised that he wasn’t being blasphemous and so they accepted him doing pop songs. He wasn’t singing lowdown dirty blues. (Laughs)
Did you know Otis Redding?
Yes, I knew Otis when he was singing gospel. I used his band once when I was at a record convention and my band had missed the flight. I thought Otis was great. I loved the way he did ‘Try A Little Tenderness’. Some songs lend themselves to that treatment and others would be destroyed. You know, there is a certain feel which goes with a song and if you stray too far from that, you lose the meat of the song. Look at how many ways they have done ‘Misty’ but that song is so strong that it will stand up in all circumstances.
What’s the story on ‘Love Is A Hurtin’ Thing’?
I was going through some romantic problems, and if you want to make a good record about love, fall out with your old lady! (Laughs) The timing was right. Everything at the time was heavy metal, acid rock, really ear-shattering stuff, and I came along with this which was soothing to listen to. I came through with something like Nat ‘King’ Cole. It went over real good and we got nominated for a Grammy.
I love ‘You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine’.
So do I. It’s a good song as it spans the gambit of young and old. Young kids love the song and it conjures up memories for the old. It has all the ingredients. It was even a No.l disco song in Canada and America and yet I didn’t even think it was disco.
You have done a fair amount of charity work.
Yes, there was ‘Clean Up The Ghetto’, which was a collective effort with myself, Teddy Pendergrass, Billy Paul and Phyllis Hyman. We got a big corporation to supply us with equipment and we went to the cities and got the youth involved. I do a TV show once a year for helping colleges and it makes me feel good as I am giving something back to the community.
You also had the idea of introducing football to America.
When Pele came to the States to promote soccer, we met and he asked me to go around with him, but there wasn’t much follow-up on it. Everything is so instant in America: there has to be an instant return. I could see the advantages in it. You let a kid run around for 90 minutes and the last thing he will want to do is some mischief because he will be too tired. In America, we have basketball – well, if you are not six foot tall, forget it. American football – if you don’t weigh 200 pounds, forget it. That is why I like soccer, but American football and baseball are so ingrained into the system and the top players are making more than God. Soccer is a new thing in the States, but once television picks it off, we should be all right. And then what? I’m still trying to figure out rugby. (Laughs)
This is a promotional visit to the UK but wouldn’t you like to be
doing more concerts?
I did the Dominion last year and I would like to spend more time here. This is hard work and I am passing a lot of places that I would like to see. We do one concert here and then some more in Belgium, Rotterdam and The Hague. I’ll be in Australia for a month in June and hitting five places then, but really I go to places all around the world and never see them properly. I’ve been going to New York City for years and I never went to the Statue of Liberty until two years ago. We did a show cruising around Manhattan Island and the boat stopped there. I was born and raised in Chicago, but I’ve never been to the Field Museum. I’m always too busy, but I do know a lot about airports. (Laughs).
You are now on Blue Note which is a jazz label.
Blue Note had a problem when they issued the album in the States as people might think it was a jazz record. The label wants to get away from being a strict jazz label as there is no strict anything now: there used to be jazz, blues, rock’n’roll, pop and now there is jazz fusion with lots of crossover. I have used a lot of jazz artists on this new album but how I could resist Stanley Turrentine, Ray Charles, George Benson and Fathead Newman? I want to work with them. There’s a version of ‘You Can’t Go Home’ with George Benson with a lot more talking, but they thought it was too much for the record.
You also do a great version of ‘At Last’ with Dianne Reeves?
Thank you. Etta James had the definitive version on ‘At Last’ and it felt good to do the song – I felt that at last, I was back where it started for me. Dianne Reeves is a great, new talent and she is a cross between Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan in her stylings.
My favourite track is ‘If I Were A Magician’?
Billy Vera who produced the album thought I could it well, and people enjoy listening to it. There is a song on my first album called ‘Lost And Looking’ and that is in the same style, so I’m going back again.
Lou Rawls, thank you very much.
Thank you. It’s a long day though – it started at half-past six and it don’t finish until eleven. (Laughs)