Saturday, January 07, 2006

January 6: The Day Chicago's Music Died

Friday was a sad day for music in the Second City, former home of the SWNID family. Genre-defying singer Lou Rawls, a native Chicagoan, passed away from cancer, and in the neighborhood where Rawls grew up, Pilgrim Baptist Church, regarded as the birthplace of gospel music, burned to the ground.

Rawls's roots were in gospel. With classmate Sam Cooke, he was part of a quartet, the Teenage Kings of Harmony, and later the Pilgrim Travelers, before Cooke left to go solo. Rawls's work always reflected his roots in gospel, not the mention the grit of the South Side.

For SWNID, Rawls will always be the singer of the definitive recording of the "Star Spangled Banner." Rawls's blues-touched version was the sign-off music on the dear, departed WNOP through the years when its license only allowed broadcast from dawn to dusk. Cincinnati jazz fans knew that Rawls minor third and seventh melisma on the last note of the National Anthem was the end of music for the day. We find it fitting that we last heard him sing on TV when he sang the anthem at game 2 of this year's World Series.

Pilgrim Baptist was the home of Thomas A. Dorsey, the Father of Gospel Music. Dorsey was best known for "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," written in response to news of his wife's death. But he wrote more than one song. Dorsey integrated elements of the blues and other indigenous African-American musical idioms into his sacred music. The move scandalized some of the faithful, of course, as such moves always do. But it proved enormously successful, establishing the gospel genre. Ironically enough, people were scandalized again a generation later when Ray Charles took Dorsey's gospel idiom back into secular music.

We've more than enjoyed listening to Rawls today, as his songs have been in heavy rotation on WCIN (with its weak AM signal barely audible within Cincinnati's city limits) and WBGO (our very favorite online music source, deserving its claim to be the best jazz station in America). It's been a fitting tribute to Rawls, and to the church that was part of the community that nurtured him.

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