Lou Rawls resurrects a multitude of styles

by Lee Adams

UNCG’s classic Aycock Auditorium seems the perfect setting for the singing great I am about to witness ‘— a name I grew up hearing but a voice I never paid attention to.

‘“Lou Rawls Parade of Stars’” ‘— I remember that phrase being announced on our large, fake wood television set that sat on the floor in the ’80s, but it wasn’t a show I ever watched. The 1984 television series featured some of the greatest actors, actresses and musicians of the day including Bill Cosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Ed McMahon, Sammy Davis Jr., Mel Tormé ‘— the list goes on and on.

It would be several years later before I would learn to appreciate some of the jazz greats that are no longer featured on prime-time television. Tonight as I sit in the wooden fold-out chair with a stained white vinyl cushion I am playing catch-up. The crowd around me are mostly in their mid 50s and 60s; some are older. The students helping the attendees find their seats are so young they probably have no idea who this legend is and no concept of the value of seeing Rawls live in possibly the only opportunity they’ll ever have.

Some of the patrons around me complain about the cramped seats. The auditorium was built in 1927, though I don’t know if the current seats are that old. But the historical design of the building, the seats and lack of modern décor make me feel as if I’m witnessing this event in its heyday. When a man takes the seat next to me, however, I do feel as if he’s invaded my space, so maybe some renovations would be okay.

A man and woman take the stage to announce UNCG’s two-and-a-half million-dollar campaign to remodel the auditorium, which he says will include, ‘“updated seating to accommodate the derrière.’” A light roll of laughter echoes across the room.

Behind the couple is a bright red background with a curving keyboard and random notes projected on a large screen. The same scene is on the ceiling above. As the pair leave the stage the house lights dim and musicians tune their instruments to a note on the piano.

This is big band jazz. The stage is full. On the far left an older gentleman with a large white beard and balding head sits in a chair holding an electric guitar. Behind him is a percussionist with a vibraphone, set of congas and bongos, a couple of cymbals, chimes, a timbale and multiple shakers at his disposal. Taking up a large portion of the stage in front of him is a grand piano with an electronic keyboard perched on top. A drummer sits center stage, behind the extended part of the piano. Another gentleman sits in a chair beside him with an electric bass. To the far right is a cascading set of nine seats: four sax/flutists in the front, two trombonists on the middle row and three trumpets in the back.

As the lights dim once more and the house goes dark a deep voice from somewhere in the heavens booms: ‘“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mr. Lou Rawls.’”

The band strikes up a tune and Rawls takes the stage in black slacks, a black shirt and a purple jacket. The background lights change to a kaleidoscope of yellows, whites and purples spread across in a stained glass effect. The colors complement Rawls’ jacket nicely.

He tells the crowd that he’s not into the new music of today’s age. Instead he says he’s going to take us back to another time.

‘“You can put a pip in your hip, a little pep in your step,’” he tells the audience as launches into his 1963 song ‘“Tobacco Road.’”

The percussionist plays chords on the vibes ‘— a popular instrument in the jazz of yesteryear. Later in the song the guitarist slowly rises from his chair where he’s been lazily strumming along and launches into a blues solo that’s enough to knock your socks off, all the while mouthing the notes as he plays them. When he finishes he lowers himself back into his seat to a round of applause and cheers and goes back to strumming to the music.

At the end of the song the audience is charged. Rawls gives a big grin an launches into his next song, one he says is prior to the ‘“rap attack,’” as he calls it. He identifies with his audience telling them, ‘“There was a time someone told you to do something and boy you did it.’”

Though Rawls is a jazz and blues singer his online biography credits him for having a role in rap before the ‘“attack’” happened later on. Early in his career Rawls sang at a number of bars where the loud sounds of crushing ice for drinks would nearly drown him out. To accommodate Rawls would talk the song loudly to keep people’s attention. Some have called Rawls’ style in those earlier days ‘“pre-rap.’”

Rawls’ career of more than 40 years has produced over 60 albums, three Grammy’s, one platinum album, five gold albums and a gold single. His four-octave voice and span of styles ranging from gospel to blues to jazz to soul and to pop have helped him become successful with a wide audience.

His television career hasn’t been too bad either. ‘“Lou Rawls Parade of Stars’” wasn’t his first show or his last. He’s acted in 18 feature films, 17 television shows and has done voice-overs for eight other shows. Would you have guessed he was the voice of a newborn baby in ‘“The Rugrats Movie?’”

Tonight, though, he’s singing with a deep, soulful voice. He talks to the audience during the songs, telling them of his past experiences and pointing out favorite lines. He gets the audience to sing along and he interacts with them from the stage, making them a part of the show.

He launches into a tribute to Frank Sinatra, joking that he wanted to name a recent Sinatra cover album ‘“old brown eyes.’”

His smile never leaves his face even though he keeps patting his nose with a white handkerchief between verses. He tells his audience that he just recently got a flu shot, and it gave him the flu. But that doesn’t slow him down. As he sings on he shakes his hips a little and shuffles his feet, bringing cheers from the ladies and smiles to the faces of his musicians on stage.

He sings some Sam Cooke classics as well: ‘“Don’t Know Much,’” and ‘“Wonderful World.’” Rawls was a friend of the late Cooke and sang at his funeral in1964 along with Bobby ‘“Blue’” Bland, Arthur Lee Simpkins, and Ray Charles in a soul-stirring service that was said to have made the women faint and the men cry.

Rawls ends the night with a standing ovation and sang encore ‘— Sam Cooke’s ‘“Having a Party.’” He leaves with the same smile he brought on stage earlier in the evening, causing the rest of us to leave with, a pip in our hip and a pep in our step, and smiles of our own. Some of us even have a new appreciation for an old style of music.

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