Rawls was born in Chicago on December 1, 1933, and raised by his grandmother in the Ida B. Wells projects on the city's South Side. He began singing in the Greater Mount Olive Baptist Church choir at the age of seven and later sang with local groups through which he met future music stars Sam Cooke, who was nearly three years older than Rawls, and Curtis Mayfield.
After graduating from Chicago's Dunbar Vocational High School, he sang briefly with Cooke in the Teenage Kings of Harmony, a local gospel group, and then with the Holy Wonders. In 1951, Rawls replaced Cooke in the Highway QC's after Cooke departed to join The Soul Stirrers in Los Angeles. Rawls was soon recruited by the Chosen Gospel Singers and moved to Los Angeles, where he subsequently joined the Pilgrim Travelers.
In 1955, Rawls enlisted in the United States Army as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. He left the "All-Americans" three years later as a sergeant and rejoined the Pilgrim Travelers (then known as the Travelers). In 1958, while touring the South with the Travelers and Sam Cooke, Rawls was in a serious car crash. Rawls was pronounced dead before arriving at the hospital, where he stayed in a coma for five and a half days. It took him months to regain his memory, and a year to fully recuperate. Rawls considered the event to be life-changing.
Alongside Dick Clark as master of ceremonies, Rawls was recovered enough by 1959 to be able to perform at the Hollywood Bowl. His first two single releases were "Love, Love, Love" and "Walkin' (For Miles)" on Herb Alpert's Shar-Dee label in 1959-60, then two more in 1960-61 on Candix with "In My Little Black Book" and "80 Ways". He was signed to Capitol Records in 1962, the same year he sang the soulful background vocals on the Sam Cooke recording of "Bring It On Home to Me" and "That's Where It's At," both written by Cooke. Rawls himself charted with a cover of "Bring It On Home to Me" in 1970 (with the title shortened to "Bring It On Home").
Rawls' first Capitol solo release was Stormy Monday (a.k.a. I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water), a jazz album with Les McCann in 1962. The next two Capitol releases did well and used Onzy Matthews as the musical director along with a 17-piece big band; both these albums (Black and Blue, Tobacco Road) charted with Billboard and helped to propel him into the national spotlight as a recording artist.
Though his 1966 album Live! went gold, Rawls would not have a star-making hit until he made a proper soul album, appropriately named Soulin', later that same year. The album contained his first R&B #1 single, "Love Is a Hurtin' Thing". In 1967 Rawls won his first Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance, for the single "Dead End Street." In 1967, Rawls also performed at the first evening of the Monterey International Pop Music Festival.
In 1969, the singer was co-host of NBC's summer replacement series for the Dean Martin Show along with Martin's daughter, singer Gail Martin.
After leaving Capitol in 1971, Rawls joined MGM, at which juncture he released his Grammy-winning single "Natural Man" written for him by comedian Sandy Baron and singer Bobby Hebb. He had a brief stint with Bell Records in 1974, where he recorded a cover of Hall & Oates' "She's Gone." In 1976, Rawls signed with Philadelphia International Records, where he had his greatest album success with the million-selling All Things in Time. The album produced his most successful single, "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine", which topped the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts and went to number two on the pop side, becoming Rawls' only certified million-selling single in the process.
Subsequent albums, such as 1977's When You Hear Lou, You've Heard It All yielded such hit singles as "Lady Love". Other releases in the 1970s included the classic album Sit Down And Talk To Me.
Rawls' 1977 Grammy Awards performance of "You'll Never Find" was disrupted by a coughing fit.
In 1982, Rawls received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
He sang the lyrics to WGN-TV's 1983 "Chicago's Very Own" ad campaign, a slogan that the station still uses to this day.
The first African-American astronaut in history, Guion Bluford took the Lou Rawls album "When The Night Comes" (Epic records 1983) into space with him featuring the hit single "Wind Beneath My Wings". On January 19, 1985, he sang Wind Beneath My Wings at the nationally-televised 50th Presidential Inaugural Gala the day before the second inauguration of Ronald Reagan. He was introduced by Patricia Neal.
In 1989, he performed vocals for "The Music and Heroes of America" segment in the animated television miniseries This is America, Charlie Brown.
On the night of September 29, 1977, Rawls performed the national anthem of the United States prior to the Earnie Shavers-Muhammad Ali title fight at Madison Square Garden. He would be requested to sing the anthem many times over the next 28 years, and his final performance of it came in his hometown of Chicago. Rawls was asked to sing the national anthem to kick off Game Two of the 2005 World Series between the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros at U.S. Cellular Field. A lifelong fan of his hometown Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bears, he was said to be "out of this world" thrilled and honored at the chance to sing the anthem and to see his boyhood south-side idols play in a World Series at the same time. Though tired, very ill, and seemingly knowing this could be one of his final performances, his rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner on the evening of October 23, 2005 is said to be one of the most moving performances of his career. He had also sung the national anthem at two previous World Series games and one NLCS (National League Championship Series) game: the 1982 World Series opener between the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers and Game Three of the 1985 World Series between the Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals, and Game 6 of the 1987 NLCS between the Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants. All three games were played at Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis.
In 1980, Rawls began the "Lou Rawls Parade of Stars Telethon" which benefits the United Negro College Fund. The annual event, known since 1998 as "An Evening of Stars: A Celebration of Educational Excellence", consists of stories of successful African-American students who have benefited from and/or graduated from one of the many historically black colleges and universities who receive support from the UNCF, along with musical performances from various recording artists in support of the UNCF's and Rawls' efforts. The event has raised over US$200 million in 27 shows for the fund through 2006.
In January 2004, Rawls was honored by the United Negro College Fund for his more than 25 years of charity work with the organization. Instead of hosting and performing as he usually did, Rawls was given the seat of honor and celebrated by his performing colleagues, including Stevie Wonder, The O'Jays, Gerald Levert, Ashanti, and many others. His final television performance occurred during the 2005-2006 edition of the telethon, honoring Stevie Wonder in September 2005, just months before entering the hospital and after having been diagnosed with cancer earlier in the year. This program, aired in January 2006, contains his final public television performance, where he performed two classics, "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and a final ode to Frank Sinatra with "It Was A Very Good Year".
At the time of Rawls' death, news and UNCF figures noted the significance of his final performance, "It Was a Very Good Year." The song is a retrospective of one's life and its lyrics include, "When I was seventeen, it was a very good year. It was a very good year for small town girls and soft summer nights.... And now those days grow short, it is the autumn of years, and now I think about life as vintage wine from fine old kegs, from the brim to the dregs, it pours sweet and clear, it was a very good year."
Rawls appeared in a segment aired during the first season of Sesame Street, to sing the alphabet. He dismissed the concept of using cue cards for the performance, but reversed that decision when he forgot the order of the letters.
Throughout Rawls' singing career, he had the opportunity to appear in many films, television shows, and commercials. His first acting credit was in the western television series The Big Valley (starring Barbara Stanwyck, along with Lee Majors and Linda Evans). Here he delivered the memorable line, "Ain't a horse that can't be rode; ain't a man that can't be throwed." He can be seen in such films as Leaving Las Vegas, Blues Brothers 2000, and Angel, Angel, Down We Go. He had a role and sang some of his songs in Lookin' Italian, an independent mafia film. He had a supporting role in the Baywatch spin-off, Baywatch Nights. He guest-starred as a singer framed for and targeted for murder in a 1972 episode of Mannix.
Rawls lent his rich baritone voice to many cartoons, including Hey Arnold! as the voice of Harvey The Mailman, Garfield, Captain Planet and the Planeteers as the voice of Dr. Rice in the season 3 episode "Guinea Pigs", and The Proud Family (also appearing in animation form in one episode). For many of the Film Roman Garfield specials, Rawls would often compose songs for them, which he would then sing usually doing a duet with Desiree Goyette, as well as the singing voice of the title character himself.
For many years, he was a spokesperson for the Colonial Penn Life Insurance Company, helping promote the brand on radio and TV to African-American markets much as Ed McMahon did for the white audience (and Alex Trebek continues to do to this day). He was also a spokesman for brewing companies. First appearing in television and radio commercials in the mid-to-late 1960s for Spur Malt Liquor, a Rainier Brewing Company product out of Seattle, he later appeared in a number of Budweiser advertisements. Budweiser was a key sponsor for the Rawls telethon and UNCF. There was no attempt to avoid the similarity between the title of the 1977 album When You've Heard Lou, You've Heard It All and his corporate sponsor's slogan "When You Say Budweiser, You've Said It All". A track on the 1978 album Lou Rawls Live, features Rawls singing the commercial slogan. Anheuser-Busch, the brewers of Budweiser, also suggested his telethon work to him.
Rawls was also a regular guest host on "Jazz Central", a program aired on the BET Jazz cable channel.
He appears as "Dr. Rawls" in a dream on an episode My Wife and Kids in which he breaks into a parody version of "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" when a frightened Damon Wayans is afraid of having a colonoscopy the following day. Rawls uses the scope as a microphone in the scene. Rawls appears as a commentator in the second half of both the rated and unrated versions of the commentary for Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy DVD commentary track, despite having nothing to do with the film itself. During the track, he indulges the commentators' request, participating in a scatting contest with Will Ferrell.
Rawls was a regular cast member of Baywatch and acted as a beach policeman on the show. He was also on the first season of Baywatch Nights. He was in the pilot episode of The Fall Guy as Country Joe Walker.
Lou Rawls appears in action figure form in an episode of Action League Now!, entitled, "Hit of Horror".
Rawls was also a guest star during the second season of The Muppet Show. He also made an appearance on the series finale of Martin.
The following is a list of Rawls singles that made the top 50 on the Billboard Hot 100. His first Hot 100 entry was "Three O'Clock in the Morning" in 1965, and his final was "Wind Beneath My Wings" in 1983. In addition to those two, nine other singles peaked at positions below the top 50 on the Hot 100, and additional singles reached the R&B, Adult Contemporary and Bubbling Under charts."Love Is a Hurtin' Thing" - 1966, #13 (also #1 R&B)
"Dead End Street" - 1967, #29
"Show Business" - 1967, #45
"Your Good Thing (Is About to End)" - 1969, #18 (sold over one million copies and was awarded a gold disc)
"A Natural Man" - 1971, #17
"You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" - 1976, #2 (also #1 R&B and #1 Easy Listening); certified gold for sales of one million copies
"Lady Love" - 1978, #24
On December 19, 2005, the Associated Press reported that Rawls tried to annul his two-year marriage to Nina Inman, who had been acting as his business manager, after it was discovered she had made unauthorized transfers amounting to nearly $350,000 from his bank account into an account solely controlled by her. She later stated that she had transferred the funds to protect them from one of Rawls' daughters from a previous relationship.
In December 2005, it was announced that Rawls was being treated for thyroid cancer that spread to both his lungs and brain. With his wife of two years by his side, Lou Rawls died from his illness on January 6, 2006, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California.
Rawls had one son with Inman, Aiden Allen Rawls. He also fathered two daughters: Louanna Rawls, a wardrobe stylist and future Launch My Line contestant, and Kendra Smith, as well as a prior son, Lou Rawls, Jr. Rawls first marriage was in the Spring of 1968, in Princeton NJ. Sidney Portier was his best man. Reception was held at Westminster Choir College.
In 2009, Pathway Entertainment announced its intention to feature Rawls as the subject of a biopic, tentatively titled Love Is a Hurtin' Thing: The Lou Rawls Story. Rawls' son, Lou Rawls, Jr., is the author of the script. Isaiah Washington will reportedly play Rawls.1962 Stormy Monday (Blue Note)
1962 Black and Blue (Capitol)
1963 Tobacco Road (Capitol)
1964 For You My Love (Capitol)
1965 Lou Rawls and Strings (Capitol)
1965 Nobody But Lou (Capitol)
1966 Live! (Capitol)
1966 The Soul-Stirring Gospel Sounds of the Pilgrim Travelers (Capitol)
1966 Soulin' (Capitol)
1966 Carryin' On (Capitol)
1967 Too Much! (Capitol)
1967 That's Lou (Capitol)
1967 Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho! (Capitol)
1968 Feelin' Good (Capitol)
1968 You're Good for Me (Capitol)
1969 The Way It Was: The Way It Is (Capitol)
1969 Your Good Thing (Capitol)
1969 Close-Up (Capitol)
1970 You've Made Me So Very Happy (Capitol)
1970 Bring It On Home (Capitol)
1971 Down Here on the Ground/I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water (Capitol)
1971 Natural Man (MGM)
1972 Silk & Soul (MGM)
1972 A Man of Value (MGM)
1973 Live at the Century Plaza (Rebound)
1975 She's Gone (Bell)
1976 All Things in Time (Philadelphia International)
1976 Naturally (Polydor)
1977 Unmistakably Lou (Philadelphia International)
1977 When You Hear Lou, You've Heard It All (Philadelphia International)
1978 Lou Rawls Live (Philadelphia International)
1979 Let Me Be Good to You (Philadelphia International)
1979 In Concert: Recorded with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra [live] (Dep Entertainment)
1980 Sit Down and Talk to Me (Philadelphia International)
1981 Shades of Blue (Philadelphia International)
1982 Now Is the Time (Epic)
1983 When the Night Comes ( Epic)
1984 Close Company (Epic)
1986 Love All Your Blues Away (Epic)
1988 Family Reunion (Gamble-Huff)
1989 At Last (Blue Note)
1990 It's Supposed to Be Fun (Blue Note)
1992 Portrait of the Blues (Capitol)
1993 Christmas Is the Time (Manhattan)
1995 Holiday Cheer (Cema Special Markets)
1995 Merry Little Christmas (EMI Special Products)
1998 Unforgettable (Going For)
1998 Seasons 4 U (Rawls & Brokaw)
1999 A Legendary Night Before Christmas (Platinum Disc)
2000 Swingin' Christmas (EMI-Capitol Special Markets)
2001 I'm Blessed (Malaco)
2001 Christmas Will Be Christmas (Capitol)
2002 Oh Happy Day (601)
2003 Rawls Sings Sinatra (Savoy Jazz)
2003 Trying as Hard as I Can (Allegiance)
2006 Lou Rawls Christmas (HyLo Entertainment)
2000 Jazz Channel Presents Lou Rawls (Image)
2003 In Concert (BMG/Image)
2005 Prime Concerts: In Concert with Edmonton Symphony (Amalgamated)
2006 The Lou Rawls Show: With Duke Ellington & Freda Payne
2007 Live in Concert: North Sea Jazz. 1992-1995 (E-M-S)