With a passion as deep and rich as his baritone voice, Lou Rawls describes a successful Wall Street apprentice, a female plastic surgeon and a fiery young attorney--all black, and all thankful beneficiaries of "The Lou Rawls Parade of Stars" which in 10 years has raised $77 million for the United Negro College Fund.
"I run into older people who shake my hand and say, 'Thank you. For the first time in my family's history my grandchild is going to attend college,' " Rawls said.
For this year's "Parade of Stars," airing Saturday from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Channel 13 (5 p.m., WGN, cable), the Grammy-winning singer has pulled together such celebrities as Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby, Sheena Easton, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Frank Sinatra, Patti LaBelle, Denzel Washington, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
Daniel Cerone spoke with Rawls about his telethon.
Q. How did "The Lou Rawls Parade of Stars" get started?
I signed on with Anheuser-Busch (in 1976) to do some Budweiser covers for black radio. I got to meet (president) August A. Busch III, who was taking over from his father. We were flying from St. Louis to San Antonio in his private jet. He knew that I did a lot of community work and asked me if there was something they could support me in.
Q. How did the first telethon go?
The first show . . . was like pulling teeth trying to get people to participate, because agents and managers were not aware of what was going on. Being an artist, I understood that, because we're always being called upon for fund-raising events. So I started going to the artists directly, getting on the phone and talking to them. Then all of a sudden it caught on. Now, we have to turn people away because we have too much talent.
Q. What can viewers expect to see on the telethon Saturday?
They can expect to see some honest entertainment, and not a lot of begging. Telethons, I've done all of them. And the one thing I found a turnoff was that they just kept bombarding you with the pledges and pitches, and then every now and then they'd throw you some entertainment. I said, "Hey, let's give them entertainment and we can work the pitches in without turning the people off."
Q. Anheuser-Busch is still the telethon's major sponsor. Critics might see that as a conflict.
The way I respond is to say that's what education is all about, to enlighten people to the fact that alcohol is not the route to go. Alcohol is a deterrent and a negative. Budweiser has this "Know When To Say No" campaign, and they started the whole thing with designated drivers. They are very conscious and aware.
Q. It seems you feel a personal conviction to keep these schools alive.
I do. Some of them are closing down. The sad comment is that out of these schools come the majority of black politicians in the country today, and some of our leading black doctors and scientists and lawyers. I know it would be a great, great loss if we lost these schools.