I sneaked my first beer in February 1978. I was eleven at the time, and I blame it all on Lou Rawls.
Every night that winter, I’d lie in bed with a white plastic earphone plugged into my transistor radio, listening to Pistons or Red Wings games on Detroit’s WJR. And every night, Lou would come to me during the commercial breaks, cheerfully extolling the virtues of Budweiser with a croon as smooth and supple as the leather on a pair of $500 Italian loafers.
“No matter what you do,” he sang, “No matter when or where/You know a glass of Bud/Is like an easy chair.” He drew the last two words out long and low (“Eeee-zay chaaaiiir”), as if he were actually sinking into an overstuffed recliner — Bud in hand, of course — in the midst of recording the spot.
Damn, I thought — that sounds good. So one cold and dreary Ann Arbor afternoon, finding myself alone in the house after a hard day of sixth grade, I took Lou’s advice and snagged one of several cans of Budweiser that had been left in the fridge from my dad’s weekend poker game.
Easing (Or maybe “Eeee-zayng”?) back into a white beanbag chair in our TV room, I popped the pull top and took my first swig of Bud… and promptly spit it up all over the rug. Clearly, my tastebuds weren’t sophisticated enough to handle this particular nectar of the gods. I resolved to stick to Faygo for the foreseeable future.
I wasn’t the only one who was tempted to taste a Budweiser by Lou Rawls. As a corporate spokesman for Anheuser-Busch, the veteran R&B singer helped move untold gallons of Bud during the second half of the 1970s with a series of print, radio and TV ads that portrayed the beer as the ultimate end-of-the-day reward for any thirsty working man or woman. Lou’s warm smile, soulful pipes and “I’m tellin’ it to you straight, Jim” attitude made him a perfect fit for the campaign.
It also didn’t hurt that, after a prolonged slump during the first half of the decade, Lou had revived his singing career in late 1975, around the same time he’d inked his deal with Anheuser-Busch, by signing with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records.
Lou’s first hit for the label, the sublime “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” (which was penned and produced by Gamble and Huff), grooved its way to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1976, greatly boosting the singer’s profile — and bolstering his value as a commercial spokesman — in the process. Lou scored several other big hits before the decade was out, further solidifying the Rawls-Bud connection in the minds of his fans by naming one of his albums When You Hear Lou, You’ve Heard It All, a play on the slogan, “When You Say Budweiser, You’ve Said It All”. His relationship with Anheuser-Busch would continue up until his death in 2006.
Right as “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” was ascending the charts, the Miller Brewing Company began airing commercials for their latest acquisition, Löwenbräu beer. Previously sold in the US as a German import, Löwenbräu was now being brewed here with an “Americanized recipe” by Miller, and the company needed a memorable campaign to establish the brand with American consumers.
And thanks to Bill Backer — the same guy who wrote “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing” for Coca-Cola in 1971 — they got one, complete with a serious earworm of a jingle that positioned Löwenbräu as a “special” beverage meant to be enjoyed at festive gatherings:
Here’s to good friends
Tonight is kind of special
The beer will pour
Must say something more, somehow
So tonight, tonight
Let it be Löwenbräu
The words were sung in a burnished baritone that sounded suspiciously like that of Budweiser’s pitchman — even today, many folks still mistakenly believe that it was Lou Rawls. But the Löwenbräu vocalist was actually Arthur Prysock, a seasoned R&B performer who’d been treading the boards for nearly a decade longer than Rawls. Prysock didn’t get any face-time in the Löwenbräu ads (which typically featured a small group of thirty-something white guys convening for a celebratory dinner), but his smooth delivery of the jingle helped make the beer a household name in the late 1970s.
The Löwenbräu ads also revived industry interest in Prysock, to the point where he was able to score his first sizeable hit since the mid-sixties with “When Love Is New,” which reached #10 on the Billboard R&B chart in early 1977. Recorded for the tiny Old Town label, the single was actually a cover of a Gamble and Huff composition originally penned for Rawls’ Philly Int’l labelmate Billy Paul; Prysock’s rendition was set against a lush, disco-lite production that made it sound like a close cousin of “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.” As with the Löwenbräu jingle, any resemblance to Rawls’ work was clearly more than coincidental.
In August 1978, Prysock tried to go Rawls one better by actually releasing a single based on Backer’s Löwenbräu jingle. Produced by legendary Chicago record man Billy Davis, “Here’s to Good Friends” fleshed out the jingle’s melody and lyrics while turning it into a beer-free love song.
But despite the promotional muscle of MCA Records, the record pretty much sank like a stone; Prysock doubtless made far more money off the residuals from his Löwenbräu commercials, which continued to run well into the early eighties.
Nearly forty years after my first illicit beer, I still haven’t developed a taste for Budweiser. (Sorry, Lou!) And my unremarkable encounters with Löwenbräu — now no longer available in the US — primarily occurred in college, on those rare occasions when our local liquor store would run out of the “good stuff” like Heineken, Beck’s, or Grolsch.
But despite my lack of enthusiasm for either brand, I’ll always feel considerable affection for their 1970s ad campaigns. After all, in this odious age of “extreme” advertising, it’s nice to remember that there was once a time when two top-shelf soul singers would go head to head on national television, mellifluously painting alluring pictures of the joys of beer consumption.
Whether I’m kicking back with a favorite brew after a rough day, or meeting up with friends for a drink or three, Mr. Rawls and Mr. Prysock are still always with me in spirit.
Gentlemen, I raise my glass to you.
AB InBev is an investor in October through its venture capital arm, Zx Ventures