Monday, October 12, 2009

The Rich Soul of Williams and Rawls

I'd like to celebrate two sensational jazz/blues singers in this entry: Joe Williams and Lou Rawls. By happy accident, they both wound up in my listening rotation recently. While I listened, I enjoyed comparing the arrangements and the vocal attack of each artist.

Both singers tackle a rich variety of material. On the Joe Williams albums, reissued by by Collectables Jazz, he sings standards like "Sleepy Time Gal" and "My Romance" as well as popular songs of the day ("People", "That Face"). But he also stirs in the blues upon which he acquired his fame with the Basie Orchestra in the 1950s. He sings "Rocks in My Bed" and "Kansas City". The orchestrations are energetic, and Joe swings effortlessly through, backed by top-notch musicians such as Clark Terry, Phil Woods, and Hank Jones.

The Lou Rawls collection--again, two albums on one CD issued by Capitol Jazz--features songs that Williams undoubtedly sang earlier with Basie: ""Goin' to Chicago Blues", "Everyday I Have the Blues", as well as a song that would soon become Rawls' signature: "Tobacco Road". In these sessions from 1962-1963, the orchestra positively cooks throughout. There is no way to sit still when listening to this music.

To think that the albums were issued just before the British Invasion. What a turn the musical world was soon to take! These albums were Rawls' third and fourth albums on Capital. He was 30 years old and still making a name in the business. A childhood friend of Sam Cooke, he had survived a car crash after an engagement (despite being declared dead on the way to the hospital!)

Both singers were from Chicago. It was Lou Rawls's birthplace, and Joe Williams moved there from Georgia when he was 4. When they were young both were trained to sing gospel, and both were exposed to the jazz influences of the time. For Williams, 15 years older than Rawls, that meant going to hear Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ethel Walters, and Cab Calloway. A young Lou Rawls would be influenced by Billy Eckstine, Arthur Prysock, and Joe Williams (!)

I first became aware of Joe Williams by listening to A Man Ain't Supposed to Cry, an extremely powerful set of torch songs and ballads that he recorded in 1958 after leaving the Basie band. His voice is so satiny smooth on this album. It's absolutely gorgeous, and reminiscent of Sinatra's best sides with Gordon Jenkins.

I have gradually developed a taste for the substantial blues in his repetoire, but I am more enthusiastic whenever he swings on uptempo numbers. Joe Williams's voice was so deep and rich. There was such complete command and authority. If you've never listened to him, you MUST!

People my age might remember Lou Rawls for his hit "You'll Never Find". Or perhaps as spokesperson for Anheuser Busch beginning in 1976. This association led to their sponsorship for Lou's efforts to raise funds for the United Negro College Fund. For years he would host a telethon to raise money for the Fund, even though he had never attended college.

I guess I'd always thought that Lou Rawls was a little cheesy, but when I dug into his tracks from the 1960s I completely revised my opinion. This man rocks and rolls with the best of the swingers! He's a terrific storyteller (in fact, his website claims he was "pre-rap" thanks to his talking/singing songs like "Tobacco Road") plus his phrasing is always inventive.
His vocal decisions always display nuance and subtlety, and he brings something new to everything he sings. (I especially love his swinging version of "Ol' Man River".) No wonder Frank Sinatra declared that Lou had "the classiest singing and silkiest chops in the singing game."

I recommend these CDs highly. They are representative of that last flash of jazz heat in popular music before rock and roll buried it completely. After listening, you will be inspired to investigate both singers much further, I assure you!

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