Lou Rawls, the velvet-voiced singer who started as a church choir boy and went on to sell more than 40 million albums and win three Grammys, has died, his publicist announced.
Rawls died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was hospitalized last month for treatment of lung and brain cancer, said his publicist, Paul Shefrin. His wife, Nina, was at his bedside when he died.
Rawls' family and Shefrin said the singer was 72, although other records indicate he was 70.
Rawls' deep, smooth voice was his trademark, and he used it in a variety of genres.
"I've gone the full spectrum, from gospel to blues to jazz to soul to pop," Rawls once said on his Web site. "And the public has accepted what I've done through it all."
A longtime community activist, Rawls played a major role in United Negro College Fund telethons in the 1980s that raised more than $200 million. In the 1960s he often visited schools, playgrounds and community centers.
"We know his music. It is timeless in its appeal, but it is his work for the children, his voice for the poor, his creating opportunity for young Americans, who had to overcome odds, that he most wanted to be his lasting legacy," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said in a statement.
Rawls' introduction to music came in his hometown of Chicago from his grandmother, who shared her love of gospel while raising him. He made trips to the Regal Theatre to see Billy Eckstine, Arthur Prysock and Joe Williams when he was a teenager.
"I loved the way they could lift the spirit of the audience," Rawls once said.
Rawls was also influenced by doo-wop and harmonized with his high school classmate Sam Cooke. The two friends joined groups such as the Teenage Kings of Harmony.
When he went to Los Angeles in the 1950s, Rawls was recruited for the Chosen Gospel Singers then moved on to The Pilgrim Travelers. He enlisted in 1955 as a paratrooper in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. Sgt. Rawls rejoined The Pilgrim Travelers three years later when he left the Army.
While touring with the group in the South, Rawls and Cooke were in a car crash that nearly ended Rawls' life. A passenger was killed, Cooke was slightly hurt, and Rawls was declared dead on the way to the hospital, according to a biography provided by Shefrin.
Rawls was in a coma for 5 ½ days and suffered memory loss, but he was completely recovered a year later.
"I really got a new life out of that," Rawls said at the time. "I saw a lot of reasons to live. I began to learn acceptance, direction, understanding and perception — all elements that had been sadly lacking in my life."
Rawls performed with Dick Clark at the Hollywood Bowl in 1959. Late that year, Rawls was performing for $10 a night plus pizza at Pandora's Box in Los Angeles when he was spotted by Capitol Records producer Nick Venet, who invited him to make an audition tape. He was signed by the label a short time later.
His debut effort, "Stormy Monday," recorded with the Les McCann Trio, was the first of his 52 albums. In 1966, his "Love Is a Hurtin' Thing" topped the charts and earned Rawls his first two Grammy nominations.
During that period, Rawls began what were called hip monologues about life and love on the songs "World of Trouble" and "Tobacco Road," each more than seven minutes long. Some called them "pre-rap."
Rawls explained that he had been working in clubs where the stage was behind the bar and had to compete with noisy blenders and waitresses.
"You'd be swinging and the waitress would yell, 'I want 12 beers and four martinis!' And then the dude would put the ice in the crusher," Rawls recalled. "There had to be a way to get the attention of the people. So instead of just starting in singing, I would just start in talking the song."
His "raps" were so popular that 1967's "Dead End Street" won him his first Grammy for best R&B vocal performance.
Later in his career, Rawls opened for The Beatles at Crosley Field in Cincinnati.
Frank Sinatra praised Rawls for having "the classiest singing and silkiest chops in the singing game."
The singer won three Grammys in a career that spanned nearly five decades and included the hits "Your Good Thing (Is About to End),""Natural Man" and "Lady Love." He released his most recent album, "Seasons 4 U," in 1998 on his own label, Rawls & Brokaw Records.
But his trademark will always be "You'll Never Find," released in 1976 and written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, architects of the classic "Philadelphia Sound."
Rawls also appeared in 18 movies, including "Leaving Las Vegas" and "Blues Brothers 2000," and 16 television series, including "Fantasy Island" and "The Fall Guy."
n 1976, Rawls became the corporate spokesman for the Anheuser-Busch Cos. breweries. For millions of television viewers and radio listeners, Rawls was the familiar voice that said, "When you've said Budweiser, you've said it all."
Anheuser-Busch spokesman Johnny Furr Jr. called Rawls an American icon and praised his work with the United Negro College Fund and the "Lou Rawls Parade of Stars," which the company sponsored.
"As do the thousands of students whose lives he touched, we will greatly miss him," Furr said.
Rawls was diagnosed with lung cancer in December 2004 and brain cancer in May 2005. Rawls told Shefrin he quit smoking 35 to 40 years ago.
Along with his wife, Rawls is survived by four children: Louanna Rawls, Lou Rawls Jr., Kendra Smith and Aiden Rawls.
—The Associated Press