Gritty Soul Men: Remembering Lou Rawls and Wilson Pickett

Some have hailed the recent emergence of male vocalists like Anthony Hamilton, Ricky Fante and Calvin Richardson as a much needed return to soul’s grittier past — the reversal of too many years of smoothed-out R&B. Indeed, a revisionist view of the soul world suggests that somehow the gritty soul emanating from the Fame Studio was somehow more “authentic” that that being produced at the Hit Factory, as if Steve Cropper and the boys weren’t digging the Funk Brothers and vice-versa. But grit was not just about the “sound” of soul, but also the grittier social and political realities that soul music offered transcendence from. The recent deaths of Lou Rawls and Wilson Pickett mark the passing of two of the grittiest Soul Men to walk the earth.

In the latter years of his life, Lou Rawls was probably better known for his smoothed out demeanor and his work with the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) than any of his music. When his music was referenced, it was no doubt some mention of his smash-hit “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine”. This is perhaps fitting for an artist whose “voice” first came to prominence well before audiences knew his name — it was Rawls’s vocals that were featured in the background harmony of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” (1962). A native of Chicago, Rawls and Cooke were oft-running partners on the gospel scene where Rawls sang with The Pilgrim Travelers and Cooke, of course, starred as the lead of the Soul Stirrers. Rawls, in fact, laid in a coma for nearly six days in an automobile accident in which Cooke was injured and his driver Eddie Cunningham was killed in 1958. Cooke and his success as a secular artist were an influence on Rawls and, as such, Rawls went out on his own as a secular artist in 1960. One of the things that Rawls took from Cooke was an appreciation of vocal versatility — indeed, through much of his career Rawls could be correctly described as a jazz, blues, soul, rhythm and blues, gospel and pop singer.

When Capitol Records paired Rawls with pianist Les McCann for Rawls’s debut album Stormy Monday (1962), they hoped to take advantage of the singer’s comfortability with jazz and blues tunes like “T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do” and “Blues Is a Woman”. Because Rawls, like Cooke, never sought to overpower a song — muting some of the less-nuanced features of the black gospel tradition — Rawls seemed destined for a career singing for the same supper-club crowd that label-mate Nancy Wilson had become so adept at reaching. Recording at a time when Motown was just catching its stride and the Stax/Muscle Shoals sound had yet to make its imprint, Rawls’ career seemed be in flux. But it was his third album Tobacco Road and the title track that gave some inkling of the style that would finally prime for mass appeal.

“Tobacco Road”, written by J. D. Loudermilk, found Rawls fine-tuning the talk-singing, story-telling style that would mark his breakthrough recording, Lou Rawls Live! (1966). On Lou Rawls Live!, the singer reprised some tunes that he recorded earlier in his career like “St. James Infirmary”, “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water”, the aforementioned “(They Call It) Stormy Monday” and Oscar Brown Jr.’s “World of Trouble”. The latter tracked featured a spoken-word intro by Rawls called “Street Corner Hustler’s Blues” which gave voice to the gritty underside of urban-life. Decades before “repping for the street” became the mantra of hip-hop culture and rap music, Rawls detailed the pitfalls, drama, pain and humanity of life on the street in a way that was arguably unprecedented in American pop music at the time. Indeed Rawls’s 1967 track “Dead End Street” (which he penned himself), gave an insider’s view to growing up poor in Chicago and earned him his first Grammy award.

As the 1960s waned and black pop was pushed aesthetically by the likes of Norman Whitfield and Sly Stone, Rawls struggled to find footing, often relying on the upscale soul that was featured on “Love Is Hurtin’ Thing” (his first chart-topper in 1966) by recording tracks like a vocal version of King Curtis’ “Soul Serenade” (1968) and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” (1970), which was written and originally recorded by Motown’s Brenda Holloway in 1964 and later became a major hit for Blood, Sweat, and Tears. Rawls version of the latter song would latter be sampled by De La Soul on Buhloone Mindstate (2003).

When Rawls left Capitol in 1970, there was likely a sense that he was beyond his prime. Rawls resurfaced in 1971 on the MGM label with “Natural Man”. Though the song was fairly standard soul fare for the era, with it’s critique of racial status-quo, it did give an inkling to the “race man” politics that Rawls would embrace for the rest of his life. “Natural Man” earned Rawls his second Grammy Award. Ultimately it was the genius of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff that made Lou Rawls the “Lou Rawls” that we’ve came to know and love as the duo fitted Rawls’s smoothed-out gruff with the Philly Sound. The initial product, “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine”, (from the 1976 album All Things in Time) quickly became Rawls’ signature tune. Rawls revisited the Philly formula on Gamble and Huff-produced tracks like “Lady Love” and “See You When I Get There” (both from 1977).

1976 also marked the year when Rawls became the voice of the Anheusur-Busch company. As the spokesperson for a mainstream corporation, Rawls embodied the upscale desires of an emerging black middle class. But Rawls, always the race man, also understood that responsibility also came with that ascendancy. In 1977 Rawls became the national spokesperson for the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), which helps subsidize the network of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Via The Lou Rawls Parade of Stars, which debuted in 1979, Rawls helped raise some $200 millions for the UNCF. The UNCF’s recent tribute to Stevie Wonder (taped in September 2005) marked the occasion of Rawls’s last televised performance.

Though Rawls never reached the success of his initial collaborations with Gamble and Huff, he stayed on the road and in the studio consistently throughout his career, having a comeback of sorts in 1989 with his well-regarded Blue Note recording At Last and later earning critical acclaim for one of his last studio efforts Rawls Sings Sinatra (2003).

* * *

Wilson Pickett never achieved the mainstream visibility of his Soul Man colleague Lou Rawls, but at the peak of his career in the mid-1960s, Pickett, like Otis Redding, was the very epitome of hard-core Southern soul. Dubbed the “wicked” Wilson Pickett, the singer began his career as a member of the Falcons (1961-1963) and later recorded a few solo tracks for a label run by Lloyd Price. Pickett’s fortunes changed when Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler bought out his contract and eventually paired him with Steve Cropper (of Booker T. and the MGs). The initial results of Pickett’s sessions at the Stax Records studio in Memphis were some of the most memorable Southern soul tracks ever recorded. Both “In the Midnight Hour” and “634-5789 (Soulsville, USA)” crossed-over to pop audiences and helped forever link Pickett to the great soul sounds of the era, as witnessed by the prominence of “In the Midnight Hour” in the film The Big Chill (1983).

Industry politics kept Pickett from returning to the Stax production house, but Wexler quickly set Pickett up to return home (Pickett was a native of Prattsville, Alabama) to record at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. Out of that session came “Mustang Sally”, a song written by Sir Mack Rice. Originally titled “Mustang Mama”, Rice’s Detroit neighbor Aretha Franklin, suggested the change to “Mustang Sally”, hence the song’s reference to the children’s song “Little Sally Walker”. When Aretha Franklin entered those same studios months after Pickett laid down the tracks to “Mustang Sally” the world of pop music would forever be changed.

Throughout the late 1960s, Pickett continued to record solid material like Bobby Womack’s “I’m a Midnight Mover” and “I’m in Love” (later covered by Franklin), soulful covers of The Beatles’s “Hey Jude” and The Archies’s “Sugar, Sugar” and a touching tribute to some of his influences “Cole, Cooke, Redding” that was performed to the melody of Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John”. Not the most flexible of vocal talents, the recording industry seemed to be moving on without Pickett — as it did to so many Southern soul artists in the early 1970s — when Pickett was sent to Philadelphia to record with upstarts Gamble and Huff. One of the great skills of the Philly-based songwriters and producers was that they were particularly adept at providing musical landscapes that supported male singers with gruff-vocals. This skill was on display throughout the 1970s with their work with Teddy Pendergrass, Eddie Levert, Lou Rawls and a lesser known act like The Ebony’s (see the groups “Forever”), as well as with their earlier work with Jerry Butler in the late 1960. But when Wilson Pickett recorded In Philadelphia — this in the year before Philadelphia International Records (PIR) would come into being — they were really working uncharted territory. Primary known for “East Coast” soul — think of their work with Laura Nyro and Labelle on Gonna Take a MiracleIn Philadelphia was Gamble and Huff’s first real stab at Southern soul.

Besides generating one of Pickett’s biggest hits since the mid-1960s (“Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You”), In Philadelphia also contained one of Pickett’s greatest performances. The full six-minute-plus version of “Engine Number 9 (Get Me Back on Time)” is a portrait of soul in transition, drawing back to the Southern world that Pickett literally left behind to record the project, while imagining the expansive contours of what soul could become if freed from the confines of two-minute and 30-second singles. As John A. Jackson describes the session in his book A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul, “Unlike most Gamble and Huff sessions, during which the singers methodically overdubbed their vocals to prerecorded rhythm tracks. Pickett insisted on a bit of spontaneity.” (90) The ragged guitar driven improvisation of “Engine Number 9” — listen to Pickett say amidst screams and yelps “ah this sounding alright. I think I’m gonna hold it little bit longer. I’m gonna let the boys cook this a little bit” — sounds like the “freedom train” in reckless abandon and anticipates the success a group like the Isley Brothers would fine a few years later during their 3+3 era.

Like Rawls, Pickett stayed on the grind for much of the rest of his life, though health concerns finally forced him to retire from performing in 2004. Too often though in his later years, Pickett made news for his often acerbic offstage demeanor, including a stint in drug rehab and a brawl where he nearly lost an eye. Inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, Pickett earned a Grammy nomination for his last studio recording It’s Harder Now.

* * *

A longtime contributor to PopMatters, Mark Anthony Neal is the author of four books including the recent Songs in the Key of Black Life (2003) and New Black Man (2005). He is also co-editor (with Murray Forman) of That’s the Joint: the Hip-Hop Studies Reader (2004). Neal is Associate Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University.