Lou Rawls: Ever kicking it on Tobacco Road
Why Lou? Because his phenomenal Tobacco Road was the first jazz song I heard as a child, and it turned me out, practically jacked me by the collar and stopped me in my little tracks. Touched my young soul. I'll never forget that day, hearing that fine as wine baritone voice sort of "preach" atop that sparse, creeping bass line. All wafting ominously from a tinny radio in my friend's mother's pitch black bedroom. I tiptoed past that dark room slowly: I'd never heard music as halting as that and was compelled to consume as much as I could. I suppose that was the moment I was first exposed to something in life called "coolness." Loved it!
Years later, I heard another Lou Rawls hit: Your Good Thing's About to Come to an End. Here again, I was knocked out by that smooth, accessible voice and that earthy passion delivering such a potent message to an unappreciative lover. Not that I was old enough to actually have a "lover." But whenever I got one, thanks to cool Lou, I'd know better than to be a pathetic beggar for unrequited love.
Many many years later, I actually met Mr. Rawls in Los Angeles. I was handling PR for a corporation that supported his "Lou Rawls Parade of Stars," a longstanding telethon benefitting the UNCF. The man felt like a close family friend. Like one of the fun-spirited gentlemen who played Bid Whist with my folks every weekend. Lou's personality was as warm and familiar as butter melting on piping hot toast. I didn't sense one iota of that disdainful "Baby, I'm a star" mentality. I had immense respect for him, for his commitment to helping make all of those scholarships happen for students. You can't name one other celebrity whose very face symbolizes anything so important in the African American community.
By then I was living in Chicago, Lou's hometown, and not very far from that once-bustling avenue in the 'hood he made famous: Tobacco Road. (Officially, it's 47th Street. But around the world, it's affectionately known to jazz and blues lovers as, well you know...) Still haunted by that smokey classic, I purchased Lou Rawls's double CD anthology a few years ago, to listen closely to Tobacco Road. It's a poignant tune about a place Lou hates and loves at once.
From an aural perspective, that cool, creeping sound still magically whisks me away to an undefinable space. But now that I'm older, I can actually identify with Lou's lyrics, his torn sentiments about the humble place that'll always be home. Deep, universal stuff.
Turns out there would be numerous other goodies by Mr. Rawls that would bring me pleasure. Among them are Scotch and Soda, The Blues Is a Woman (in a tight black dress), and St. James Infirmary. Of course, there are many radio hits to his credit, but I'm moreso loving the jewels that you'd never hear on-air today.
Well... job exceptionally done, Mr. Rawls. Tonight I just may hit a neighborhood bar near Tobacco Road and join others in The Chi who're surely celebrating your remarkable life with a little Scotch and Soda.