Listening to Lou Rawls sing "Something Stirring in My Soul," recorded in 1966 for his Capitol release Carryin’ On, there’s little wonder why he became such an effective spokesman for the United Negro College Fund. While he’s addressing his no doubt fine lady friend, his relaxed suavity also speaks of pride and confidence. Here’s a man - a black man, no less - in total control of his bit of the universe, and ready and able to take command of some more, given the chance.
The Best of Lou Rawls: The Capitol Jazz and Blues Sessions leaves little room for doubt that Rawls’ body of work will survive long into the future, even though the man himself left us in January of this year, at the age of 72, lost to lung cancer. Even 40 or 45 years after their release, many of these 20 tracks are as hip as anything. I don’t know why we don’t hear his version of "God Bless the Child" at least once a week on the radio - it’s as perfect a rendering of Billie Holliday’s profound prayer as any - and just listen to him belt it on "Goin’ to Chicago Blues" or "How Long, How Long."
The big players of the time recognized his talents. Les McCann, Leroy Vinnegar, Benny Carter, Barney Kessel, Alvin Stoller, Richard "Groove" Homes, Herb Ellis and the disgracefully under-recognized Curtis Amy are among the jazz, soul and R&B masters who appear on these tracks. While this is always first and foremost Rawls’ disc, playing by the likes of pianist Tommy Strode or guitarist Ray Crawford add great value. Amy’s arrangements for Onzy Matthews’ orchestra are as exciting as Nelson Riddle’s famous charts. The disc also includes three previously unreleased songs that Rawls cut with Amy’s sextet in March 1963 - "Mean Old World," "Long Gone Blues" and "Fine and Mellow" - that, on their own, earn him a spot in the blues hall of fame and actually deserve the description "bonus tracks."
"Best of" albums often fail to meet their implicit promise, but compilation producer Michael Cuscuna rises to the challenge. In particular, he succeeds in capturing Rawls’ versatility, from his gospel roots on "Motherless Child" to his sexy swinging on "Nobody But Me," from the gritty and defiant ""Tobacco Road" to Randy Newman’s coolly pathological "Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield." His versions of "Georgia," with another excellent arrangement by Curtis Amy, is on par with Ray Charles’ (close to it, anyway), while "Why (Do I Love You So)" and "Street of Dreams" are as powerful as most anything Sinatra ever recorded, but with an extra, heaping serving of soul piled on. The first time I spun this disc, I had to go back and listen to "Street of Dreams" three more times.
This disc will no doubt reaffirm the admiration of long-time listeners and, I hope, turn on a whole new generation.