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.