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. They are 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, 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.
The syndicated all-star telethon from Los Angeles' Star Search Theater is billed as the nation's second most-watched, behind Jerry Lewis' annual muscular dystrophy extravaganza.
Rawls, 54, has recorded 58 albums, ranging from jazz to blues to pop, and has long been the familiar voice of the Budweiser commercials on TV. His biggest hit came in 1976 with "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine."
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, Texas, 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.
I had just done some telethons, and I said, "Well, I have been observing there's been nobody doing anything for education, and that's where we're having a big problem, in our school systems." I told him I wanted to do something for United Negro College Fund, because I had been on some of their campuses and was aware of their plight.
Q. Was that all there was to it?
He had to check with his legal department. Being an alcoholic beverage company there's limitations to what they can do. Alcoholic beverages and schools, education-the two don't mix. We had to be careful how we put this together and presented it.
Q. How did the first telethon go?
The first show we did I was like pulling teeth trying to get people to participate, because the agents and the 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, it's funny, 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. Let's give them a real variety show, almost like what Ed Sullivan used to do, without being offensive and making people jump up and run to the kitchen to make a sandwich."
Q. Anheuser-Busch is still the telethon's major sponsor. Critics might see that as a conflict.
The way I respond to that 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.
People also say to me, "Don't you feel you're promoting segregation by furthering black universities and colleges?" My response is no, because if they were educated they would know better then to suggest that. This is not promoting segregation; it's just giving people opportunities to better themselves and further their education. Do you think graduates from Xavier's pharmaceutical program are just going to fill subscriptions for black people?
Q. It seems that 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. Most of the students come from small communities, and you throw these people into a major college or university and they're like a fly in a bottle of buttermilk. It's really a necessity to maintain and keep these schools alive. They turn out strong people.
How does the telethon make you feel? It makes me feel real good, man. It's like the song I recorded, "Tobacco Road," on my second album. I grew up in the inner city, on the south side of Chicago-that's Tobacco Road. The line is, "I'm going to leave Tobacco Road, get a job, save my money. Get rich, I know, and bring it back to Tobacco Road. Tear it down. Build it up. Start all over again." That makes it all worthwhile, because I'm giving something back to the community that put me where I am.
"The Lou Rawls Parade of Stars" airs Saturday from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. on KCOP.