The Pilgrim Travelers - Talk About Jesus (ANDEX 5008)
Talk About Jesus
A B Side tribute to an American Icon.
Lou Rawls was raised by his grandmother in the Ida B. Wells projects in the "dirty thirties" of the South Side of Chicago. He was singing at the Greater Mount Olive Baptist Church by the time he was seven years old.
Gospel music was king in the "Bronzeville" neighborhood where he and his pal Sam Cooke grew up, with kids singing on the street corners and staging "singing battles" to show off their chops. He and Sam sang together briefly in the Teenage Kings Of Harmony, and as the older Sam moved on to head the Highway QC's and later, The Soul Stirrers, Lou was always one step behind.
He sang lead with local group The Holy Wonders, and was later recruited by The Chosen Gospel Singers and relocated to Los Angeles (again shadowing Cooke). He would sing on his first record with them in the mid-fifties, before joining J.W. Alexander's Pilgrim Travelers.
The Pilgrim travelers were one of the first Gospel groups to sign with Art Rupe's Specialty Records in 1947. When the musician's union went on strike in 1948, the ever resourceful Rupe continued to record the Travelers 'a capella', with a microphone recording their shuffling, tapping feet. The resulting "walking rhythm spirituals" were a huge success, with Specialty releasing one hit after another. They toured constantly throughout the forties and fifties, often sharing programs with The Soul Stirrers and Archie Brownlee's Five Blind Boys Of Mississippi.
Lou enlisted in the Army as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division in 1955. Upon his release two years later, he took up his spot as the full time lead vocalist for the Pilgrim Travelers. J.W. Alexander had by now left Specialty, formed his own publishing company, and worked out a deal with Keen subsidiary Andex Records. The Travelers went on to release 14 singles for the label, the best of which were collected in the 1957 album "Look Up!". "Talk About Jesus" (a reworking of The Bells Of Joy's million seller for Peacock in 1951) features the young Rawls' incredible voice in a truly powerful setting. A great record like this, to me, gives a sense of the depth of the Gospel experience that would color so much of Lou's (and so many others) later work.
After a show with Sam Cooke in St. Louis in November of 1958, Lou stayed behind with Sam and his guitarist Clif White while the rest of the group went on ahead to their next gig in Greenville, Mississippi. Cooke's driver, Eddie Campbell, assured everybody he'd have them there in plenty of time. They were running late. Eddie was driving fast. They slammed into a stalled truck on Highway 61. Eddie was killed instantly, Clif suffered some broken bones, Sam miraculously received only minor scratches, and Lou Rawls was pronounced dead on the way to the hospital. As it turned out, he was in a deep coma, and would stay that way for six days. When he awoke, he had suffered almost total memory loss, and it would take him a full year to completely recover. By that time The Pilgrim Travelers had ceased to exist.
Lou began singing "secular music" in local L.A. clubs and was soon noticed by Capitol Records A&R man Nick Venet, who offered him a contract. His debut album, Stormy Monday, a great smoky jazz inflected blues record recorded with The Les McCann Trio, was released in 1962, the same year he would provide the now legendary back-up vocals on Cooke's Having A Party and Bring It On Home To Me.
They would reunite the Pilgrim Travelers to back him up an on album later that year, but for the most part Capitol (who was riding high with mega-chart busting hits by The Beatles and Beach Boys) wasn't quite sure what to do with Lou.
1966's Lou Rawls Live marked the first time that his proto-rap soul style was heard on vinyl, and the record quickly went gold. Rawls, and his new producer David Axelrod, would follow that with his breakthrough monster soul hit Love Is A Hurtin' Thing, which crossed over and landed at #13 in the Billboard Hot 100.
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This unbelievable Bobby Bland styled belter, co-written by Axelrod cohort H.B. Barnum, was the B side of the follow-up record, You Can Bring Me Your Heartaches. Yeah, Baby!
Rawls would win his first Grammy in 1967 for the awesome Axelrod composition Dead End Street and it's opening monologue rap about the Windy City. They would go on to record some 10 albums together for Capitol highlighted by his 1969 cover of Mabel John's Your Good Thing (Is About To End).
The best of the material from this period has been released on the great I Can't Make It Alone: The Axelrod Years (although our current B side isn't on there).
Lou signed with MGM in 1971, and wasted no time in earning his second Grammy for A Natural Man later that year. Unhappy with MGM's approach to his music, Rawls moved around a bit before teaming up with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff to produce his best known work.
1976's You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine on Philadelphia International was an absolute stroke of genius, cutting through so much disco fluff to deliver the deep soul that was behind it all. Rawls was back on top, earning yet another Grammy in 1977 for Unmistakably Lou.
Lou always was a master at working the crowd, and saw his chance at even greater exposure by signing on as "The Voice of Budweiser" in 1979. He became personal friends with August Busch III, and used that corporate sponsorship to create the Lou Rawls Parade Of Stars Telethon which would go on to raise over $250 million for the United Negro College Fund over the next 25 years.
He never forgot where he came from.
His instantly recognizable velvet gravel voice and his way cool persona kept him in demand in Hollywood. Lou appeared in countless TV shows and movies (most recently Leaving Las Vegas and Blues Brothers 2000), as well as providing voice-overs to animated children's shows like Garfield and Hey, Arnold.
He released over 75 albums (his last work being two Gospel efforts on Malaco, and Rawls Sings Sinatra on the Savoy Jazz label), and continued to tour constantly, performing over 150 shows a year.
Lou Rawls was a lifetime Chicago White Sox fan, and sang the National Anthem before game two of the World Series this past October.
In November, he was scheduled to perform at a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame event honoring inductee Sam Cooke. The word was out that he had cancer, and it was unsure if he would make it. He showed up and sang Jesus Be A Fence Around Me. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
He had come full circle.
You've got a home up above, my brother.
May you rest in peace