There was never a more complicated time to be an African-American entertainer than the early 1960s, when Lou Rawls’ populist soul was hitting mass saturation. On his 1962 Capitol recording of Fats Waller’s “Black and Blue” — which the great border-crosser Louis Armstrong had already milked — Rawls moaned, “I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case,” but he was lying three ways: 1. He wasn’t white inside. 2. If he had been, it would’ve helped his case. 3. His case didn’t need help.
Really, Rawls was whiter on the outside. He squeezed into the tux that so ably served Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Poitier, Ray Charles, Harry Belafonte and Flip Wilson, and straddled the fence with Olympic agility, neither pushing his luck like Muhammad Ali nor flirting with minstrelsy like Satch. Though integration was still controversial before MLK was shot, there was a growing suspicion that black individuals might be human, and Rawls was onboard to characterize (caricaturize?) his race with a clean presentation and a relaxed smile, rapping endlessly on the virtues of black-eyed peas and cornbread.
Rotten were the choices Rawls had to make, but he was no tortured Jackie Robinson figure. He was a singer who aimed to please, and please he did, racking up countless TV appearances, three Grammys, and hits such as the down-not-out chugger “Dead End Street” (1967), the hip-wiggling “A Natural Man” (1971) and the discofied “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” (1976). His activism focused largely on charity, and he scored hugely as a fund-raiser.
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Rawls’ 1959 alliance with Dick Clark and his split from Blue Note Records ultimately rendered him an unhip quantity, critically ignored. But listen for two minutes to that deep, grainy, distinctive voice as it casually delivers a pulse-snapping rhythm, and you know it was never meant for the shadows.