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The Season of Lou Rawls
Reclaiming his dynamite 1967 Christmas album from obscurity
Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’
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With it now December, it’s time to turn attention to some of the sounds of the season (for those less inclined to holiday music, have no fear, the usual fare here will resume in January). First up is an essay on an album that has slipped through the cracks: Lou Rawls’ dynamite 1967 album Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho!
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No one is quite sure how a bitter, winter wind was given the nickname Hawkins or, for short, the Hawk. There are references as early as the mid-19th century to this piece of Black American slang (one example is this report in the Daily News of Chester, Pennsylvania: “Hawkins was out last night in full force”). Equally uncertain is how the winds of Chicago specifically were bestowed this sobriquet. Metrologically speaking, Chicago’s winds are not much different in average velocity than New York City or Boston, for two examples. But where there is little doubt is that no one popularized the term for the blusters of Chicago more than Lou Rawls.
The short monologue that precedes ‘Dead End Street,’ a top-40 hit for Rawls in 1967 written by Ben Raleigh and frequent Rawls collaborator David Axelrod, starts with a paean to the Hawk. Anyone caught in a downtown wind tunnel in the dead of winter can relate to Rawls as he raps:
“I was born in a city they call the Windy City
And they call it the Windy City because of the Hawk
The all-mighty Hawk
Talkin’ about Mr. Wind, kind of mean around winter time.”
A song about the struggle for upward mobility—one whose challenges are compounded when, as Rawls sings, “the odds are all against you”—‘Dead End Street’’s subject is mirrored in his monologue introducing ‘Tobacco Road’ on his 1966 live-in-the-studio album, Live!
“In the winter time, when it’s very, very cold
and it gets colder in Chicago than any other place on Earth,
because when it’s around 10 degrees above zero and it’s about 12 inches of snow outside and the Hawk,
I’m speaking of the all-mighty Hawk, Mr. Wind.
When he blows down the street at around 35, 40 miles an hours, it’s just like a giant razer blade blowin’ down the street,
And all the clothes in the world can’t help you,
And when you lived in a place like I lived where everyone had a key to the front hall door because it once was a flat but then they cut it up into kitchenette apartments,
And you leave that front hall door open and the Hawk gets in there and you be callin’ it a bunch of dirty names before you can get in your room.
I speak about this as I said before because I know,
’Cause I was born
in a dump…”
Rawls, born on December 1, 1933 on the south side of Chicago, trod the path of many of his contemporaries in singing first in the church and then cycling through a series of gospel groups, including taking friend Sam Cooke’s place in the Highway Q.C.’s in 1951—a group which began in 1945 (Cooke was an inaugural member and Johnnie Taylor was another member of note), moving onto the Cloudburst Singers and then in 1953, joining the Pilgrim Travellers, which got its start in 1936 (beyond Rawls, the group’s most well-known member was J.W. Alexander, who, in addition to being a singer, songwriter and producer, eventually became a close musical and business associate of Cooke).
Prior to the Pilgrim Travellers, Rawls left Chicago to head out for Los Angeles (he made no secret of his vast preference for the West, saying in one of his monologues that “the West is the best.”). After two years with the group, he joined the U.S. Army and became a paratrooper, making a total of 26 jumps. In 1958, Rawls rejoined civilian life and the Pilgrim Travellers. It was while on tour with the group and Cooke that he nearly lost his life in a car crash on the night of November 10 in Mississippi. The driver of the car, Eddie Cunningham, Cooke’s chauffer, was killed and Rawls, as he once recounted, “was in a coma for five days, with a brain concussion. They pronounced me dead on the spot. But I lived, thank God. He kept me here for something.”
It took a year for Rawls to recover. He then followed Cooke’s move to secular music. The first time the general public heard Rawls’ forceful tenor was almost undoubtedly on Cooke’s double A-side smash, released in the spring of 1962: ‘Bring It on Home to Me’ backed with ‘Having a Party.’ Rawls’ punctuations, which punch right through Cooke’s lead, are an unforgettable ingredient in these two early soul-music anthems.
While there is a deep connection between Rawls and Cooke, when considering his sixties recordings on Capitol Records—a collection of music that contrasts markedly with his later reinvention through the Philly sound of Gamble and Huff—it is another singer: Joe Williams, that provides a key to understanding Rawls’ uniqueness.
Williams made his initial reputation as a blues singer of exquisite polish. With the Count Basie Orchestra, in which he was the band singer from 1954 to 1961, his recordings of blues or blues-inflected numbers like ‘Every Day I Have the Blues,’ ‘Roll ’Em Pete’ and ‘Allright, Okay, You Win’ found the middle ground between the blues preaching of Big Joe Turner and the dapper purity of Nat Cole and Billy Eckstine. No surprise then that Williams was also one of the era’s premier interpreters of the Great American Songbook as well as a ballad singer of close intimacy and uncommon depth.
Similar, Rawls’ debut for Capitol Records, Stormy Monday, recorded and released in 1962, showcases his emerging brand of blues with a glossy finish. With just pianist Les McCann and his trio backing him, Rawls brought a sophisticated touch to such evergreens as the album title track, ‘I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water,’ ‘’Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do’ and one that Williams himself recorded with Basie: ‘In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down).’ Soon, he moved from small groups to larger orchestras, and a music that could be best described as supper-club soul informed by the blues, pop and jazz.
In 1966, Rawls scored a big hit with ‘Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing,’ a compact mélange of these varied strands. Soulin’, in which the song appeared, includes a ten-minute suite on the second side which links three songs on the passage of time: ‘Memory Lane,’ a Sam Cooke and J.W. Alexander collaboration, ‘It Was a Very Good Year,’ an old Kingston Trio number that became a Sinatra signature and ‘Old Folks,’ a poetic standard, with one of Rawls’ specialties: the monologue, an oratorical device that revealed his street-smart Chicago cred, a reminder that beyond the elegance of his music was someone who had definitely seen some stuff.
Maybe that’s why in the middle of a jazzy interlude recorded the next year of another poetic standard, Rawls inserted another quick jab on the ubiquitous of the Hawk. “Folks dressed up like Eskimos,” Rawls intones, “keeping the Hawk off.” It’s a seemingly off-handed moment in an affecting interpretation of ‘The Christmas Song,’ complete with muted trumpets whipping up a sonic scene of soft, falling snow as Christmas nears. And at the beginning of December, as I write this essay, Christmas is indeed drawing near. Amidst the albums that Rawls released on Capitol from 1962 until 1970 was a seasonal collection, Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho!, that has slipped through the cracks—unlike many of the Christmas albums of fifties and sixties vintage, it has not been treated to a vinyl release—but is a persuasive document of the rarified redolence of Rawls in addition to being a festive frolic through a program of perpetually endurable favourites and others that beg rediscovery.
Representative of the latter is ‘Good Time Christmas,’ written by J.W. Alexander. Over a driving orchestral soul rhythm—the arrangements on the album are by H.B. Barnum who, along with producer David Axelrod, were Rawls’ primary collaborators during the latter part of the sixties—that heralds the celebratory return of the song’s protagonist with promises of a Yuletide full of soul food, presents and “good egg nog.” Something far deeper is going on here, however. Consider this couplet, song almost parenthetically by Rawls: “Mother, I know you’ve been praying, the Lord has seen me through.” This isn’t just a son coming home for the holidays, this is a true homecoming, the triumph after the trial, whatever that might have entailed. Perhaps it has to do with why, as Rawls sings on another song in which Alexander had a hand, ‘Christmas Will Really Be Christmas, “When hearts are filled with joy instead of worry and fear, that’s when the words Merry Christmas will be so much more sincere.” He doesn’t preach here, Rawls just lays down the message with soul.
Rawls’ voice is many things, it can be light as air, it can thicken as he plumbs the depth of his baritone range, it can also be tender and direct. It’s all three on ‘Little Boy Dear.’ Barnum’s snow globe arrangement, full of flutes and muted brass, accentuates this showcase of Rawls’ versatility. His voice can also make a line like “knowing Santa is on his way” soar upward as it does on ‘A Child With a Toy,’ which starts in a Northern soul frame of mind but loses a bit of its magic as it resolves into a jazz swing. No matter, what distinguishes Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho! at its’ merriest is how mood, ambience and setting so often dovetail with a Rawls vocal.
‘Christmas Is,’ saccharine filled when in the hands of easy-listening king Percy Faith seduces when Rawls is in the driver’s seat. Barnum has the reeds dig in with an eminently catchy riff that ends on a sustained note as Rawls lays back on the beat. He joyfully ad-libs during an instrumental interlude and a closing cadenza with just guitar accompanying him, demonstrates his range and brand of intimacy: a little coy but with a generous amount of warmth.
It permeates Rawls’ urbane interpretation of ‘Merry Christmas Baby’—the archetypal blues number for the holidays—and brings a different view—perhaps a bit too askew—to Frank Loesser’s ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,’ more street than suave seduction.
Part of the magic of Christmas music is its very durability, both in how certain recordings continue to be revisited every Yuletide and in how the repertoire, in particular, the canon of carols and songs, withstands reinvention upon reinvention for generations and for some, even centuries. Indeed, the interpretations here of four staples of that canon all have something original to say.
Barnum’s arrangement of ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ emphasizes the harmonica and also employs brass and reeds in a call-and-response with Rawls leading to a gradual build-up in intensity that is kept in check. The overall effect is more Bel Air than Bethlehem and Rawls smooths out the often-stately melody to fashion a more soulful sermon.
Rawls on ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ which includes the more upbeat lyrics that Sinatra inaugurated in 1957, demonstrates such laid-back ease and cool as the verse concludes—Rawls’ voice almost evaporates into thin air—that on the repeat of the verse, under a vibraphone obbligato, he further lightens his touch to permit a feeling of absolute bliss to wash over the listener.
Excitement is the name of the game for ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,’ especially in an interlude where the song’s locomotive, tambourine-driven pulse—this Santa is a locomotive man—gives way to a finger-snap swing for Rawls to sing part of the song’s verse. He stretches out the final line, “the reindeer and his sleigh,” lets out an exclamatory “yayyyyy” and then in a extraordinary turnaround to the bridge, he improvises “look out, look out, look out, he’s comin’, yeah,” over the whoosh of the hi-hat—plenty of air in that cymbal. Energized, Rawls motors through to a cadenza: an extended exhortation in which he climbs up and down the musical scale more than once on a final “town.” A song recorded thousands an thousands of times that here retains a vitality that delights and captures some of the child-like anticipation that is Christmas Eve.
It’s also found in the skittering thrust of Rawls’ version of ‘The Christmas Song,’ as he recounts the warmth needed to beat back the Hawk. It may be cold outside now but when Lou Rawls sings at this time of the year, it’s good to know that it’s once again Christmastime in the city.