By Lynn Elber
In a bittersweet coda to Lou Rawls' life and long dedication to the United Negro College Fund, the annual fundraiser he took part in last September was broadcast shortly after his death.
"An Evening of Stars," a syndicated telethon honoring Stevie Wonder, showed Rawls in typically smooth voice and engaging form as he performed twice and was heard narrating the stories of students helped by the UNCF.
The program aired nationally throughout the weekend. Rawls died of cancer Friday in Los Angeles, a loss the program acknowledged with an on-screen message.
"In memory of Lou and in celebration of his devotion to UNCF, please make a contribution to help deserving students earn a college degree," the message read, in part.
The telethon, which Rawls initiated nearly three decades ago, had raised more than $15 million in pledges, according to an on-screen tally shown Saturday night during the Los Angeles area broadcast. It was to air Sunday in other cities.
The evening included an exhortation by Rawls, who didn't attend college, for the cause he held dear.
"Year after year, the UNCF keeps fighting the good fight and creating opportunities for deserving young students to become tomorrow's leaders. And that's what it's all about," said Rawls, who looked thin but dapper wearing a pinstriped suit and relaxed smile.
He and other performers, including Smokey Robinson, Toni Braxton and Fantasia, offered their versions of Wonder hits.
Rawls, in his singular velvet tones, first performed "You Are the Sunshine of My Life." In his second appearance on stage at the Kodak Theater, he turned to a song most closely identified with Frank Sinatra, with a special resonance.
"It Was a Very Good Year" was done in a swinging, big-band arrangement, with a nod to the evening's honoree.
"But now the days grow short. It is the autumn of the years," Rawls sang. "And now I think about life as vintage wine from fine old kegs. From the brim to the dregs, Stevie, it pours sweet and clear. Yes, it was a very good year. It was a very good year."
Sinatra once said that Rawls possessed the "silkiest chops in the singing game."
During his telethon appearance, Rawls perched briefly on a stool but otherwise stood and sang, giving no hint of the health crisis he was facing. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in December 2004 and brain cancer in May 2005.
Last month, he was hospitalized at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He died with his wife, Nina, at his bedside. Rawls' family and a spokesman said the singer was 72, although other records indicate he was 70.
Rawls began as a gospel singer and spent nearly five decades working his soulful magic on classic tunes including "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" and "Lady Love" and winning three Grammy Awards.
A longtime activist, Rawls played a major role in the UNCF telethons, which began as "Lou Rawls' Parade of Stars" and have raised more than $200 million. He often visited and performed at black colleges.
Besides his wife, Rawls is survived by four children: Louanna Rawls, Lou Rawls Jr., Kendra Smith and Aiden Rawls.
On the Net: www.uncf.org
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