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On a dry and dusty morning at the end of July, I was walking across a parking lot in Hollywood toward a stage at Sunset and Gower. We were shooting the host for a documentary film I had written. I had my script in one hand and the requisite caffeine in the other.

When I walked onto the set, I saw the director of photography and the grips fine tuning lights, props, and cameras while the jib operator worked out his weight balance. I took my seat next to the director, and the executive producer led the man who would be reading my words toward me and said, “I’d like you to meet Lou Rawls.”

What I had expected that day were chocolate covered doughnuts from the craft services table, the thrill of seeing someone famous read my script, the tedium of set changes, and multiple takes of a single sentence. What I had not expected that day was a lesson in Hollywood history as it intersected with the gregarious four-time Grammy winner. But I got it nonetheless.

“People like to point fingers at Sinatra for his connections to the mafia, but in those days it was kind of hard not to be nice to the fellas if you wanted to sing in night clubs. I remember singing at a club and part of my job was to pick up this mobster’s girlfriend and bring her to the club. That particular night, I went to get her and bring her in, and the guy got knocked off right there in the club. The FBI wanted to talk to me about that, but I didn’t know anything. I told them, ‘Hey, I just drove his girlfriend to the club. That’s it.’”

“I got my start in a gospel troupe, The Pilgrim Travelers. I was touring the South with Sam Cooke and the Travelers when I got into a serious car accident. Cooke was injured, another passenger was dead, and I was pronounced dead on the way to the hospital. But I was just in a coma. It took me about a year to recover from that. I really got a new life out of that. I realized if I would have died then I would have just been another soul taking up room. I learned acceptance, understanding, direction. I was inspired.”

“We played pop and soul clubs in L.A. and little coffee shops. That’s how a lot of us got our first record contracts. That’s how it happened for me. I was playing Pandora’s Box Coffee Shop for ten dollars a night plus pizza when Nick, a Capitol producer, came in and heard me sing. That was 1959. He said he was impressed with my range and asked me to make an audition tape. I did and got signed.”

“When I was reading that part about the racetrack in San Francisco, it made me think of Cab Calloway. He loved the horses. Did you know he used to book gigs so that he could always be close to a racetrack?”

“Yeah, I was the voice of Budweiser for twenty years. ‘Have a Bud.’ ‘This Bud’s for you.’ ‘Taste the King of Beers.’ Me and Anheuser Busch did a lot of good together. We raised over one hundred million dollars in our Parade of Stars telethon. The money went to the United Negro College Fund. We also toured military bases in Korea, the Phillipines, and Japan to bring attention to the military and what a great job they’re doing.”

“I was probably most embarrassed about thirty years ago when I was singing in a night club in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. People used to pass me notes with requests. One night, a waitress passed me a note that said, ‘Dear Lou, We know you don’t know this, but all the waitresses are breaking up in the back because your fly is open.’”

The King of Cool had an uncool moment? I don’t believe it!

During breaks and set changes, Lou wandered over to our table and made conversation, entertained us with these anecdotes, charmed us with tales from the past. No wonder the Hollywood set holds such mystique and intrigue…there’s always so much to learn.

August 2002

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