LOS ANGELES — Lou Rawls, who earned fame with his glorious voice and respect through his prodigious fund raising for the United Negro College Fund, died Friday of cancer.
Rawls began as a gospel singer and spent nearly five decades working his soulful, velvet-voiced magic on classic tunes including "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" and "Lady Love."
"His voice was so unique," said legendary producer Kenny Gamble, who with Leon Huff wrote "You'll Never Find." "The other thing was that he had a sense of community. Thousands and thousands of young kids benefited from his celebrity."
With his wife, Nina, at his bedside, 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. Rawls' family and Shefrin said the singer was 72, although other records indicate he was 70.
A longtime community activist, Rawls played a major role in United Negro College Fund telethons that raised more than $200 million. He often visited and performed at black colleges.
"He's just someone who recognized, like many African-Americans of a certain generation, that education was something that our kids didn't get access to and that it was critically important for their future, and for our communities' future and for the nation," said Dr. Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the UNCF.
In September, Rawls performed in the organization's "An Evening of Stars," which was to be televised nationwide through the weekend.
"He appeared frail, but he was in good voice, and he was in great spirit," Lomax said. "He was there with his son, newly adopted, and his wife. He was a happy and contented man."
Aretha Franklin said Rawls was a "memorable musical stylist who made a serious impact in the interest of historically black colleges and black folks."
Rawls' trademark was his smooth, four-octave voice, which Frank Sinatra once called the "silkiest chops in the singing game."
Starting as a church choir boy, Rawls ultimately applied those silky tones to a variety of musical genres and more, including movies, TV shows and commercials. As a pitchman for Anheuser-Busch Cos. breweries, his was the familiar voice that said, "When you've said Budweiser, you've said it all."
Rawls was raised on the South Side of Chicago by his grandmother, who shared her love of gospel with him. He also was influenced by doo-wop and harmonized with his high school classmate Sam Cooke. The two friends were part of groups such as the Teenage Kings of Harmony.
When he moved 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.
While touring with the group, Rawls and Cooke were in a car crash that nearly ended Rawls' life. Cooke was slightly hurt, but another passenger was killed and Rawls was declared dead on the way to the hospital, according to Shefrin.
Rawls was in a coma for 5 1/2 days and suffered memory loss, but 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 singing 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 audition. He was signed by the label soon after.
The album "Stormy Monday," recorded in 1962 with the Les McCann Trio, was the first of Rawls' 52 albums. That same year, he collaborated on Cooke's hit "Bring It On Home to Me."
In 1966, Rawls' "Love Is a Hurtin' Thing" topped the charts and earned his first two Grammy nominations. He also opened for The Beatles in Cincinnati.
During that period, Rawls began delivering 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 noisy bars.
"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. The singer won three Grammys in a career that also included the hits "Your Good Thing (Is About to End)" and "Natural Man." He released his most recent album, "Seasons 4 U," in 1998 on his own label, Rawls & Brokaw Records.
"He was one of the few singers that you knew without hearing more than a few notes, that it was him," singer and composer Burt Bacharach said.
Rawls' main musical legacy is "You'll Never Find," released in 1976 after he signed with Gamble and Huff, architects of the classic "Philadelphia Sound."
"That was the first record we put out on him," Gamble said. "It captured the best of his voice. It had all the dimensions, it had the low and it had the excitement. And plus the lyrics were something people could relate to."
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." He voiced Garfield the cat in the animated project "Here Comes Garfield."
He 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.
Asked about reports Rawls tried to treat his cancer holistically, Shefrin said: "He did try alternative methods. He used traditional and alternative methods."
Along with his wife, Rawls is survived by four children: Louanna Rawls, Lou Rawls Jr., Kendra Smith and Aiden Rawls.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete, Shefrin said.