By Peter Lindblad
“My father loved singing,” says Bobby. “He’d get up and walk to work — 6 o’clock in the morning. He’d get back around 1 or 2. We knew he was tired; he was so tired. But he’d come in, [and] the first thing he’d want to do is rehearse. And we sung, and we sung, and we knew we had an hour with him before he’d fall asleep. So he had nothing left.”
That blue-collar work ethic of Friendly’s must have rubbed off on Bobby, a music-industry survivor if there ever was one.
Known for his lean, organic guitar playing and that rough, emotive voice, Bobby Womack has triumphed over addiction and tragedy to punch his ticket to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
An immense talent whose contributions to soul and R&B have gone largely unnoticed by the public at large, Womack, a protégé of Sam Cooke, will become the first solo performer from the Hall’s hometown of Cleveland to make it.
“That’s where it all started,” explains Womack. “You know the song ‘Across 110th Street’ … that’s very true. I was the third brother of five, making music to survive. Music was everything and still is.”
A gritty study of street life awash in strings, with a swirling, funky undercurrent, “Across 110th Street,” composed by Womack with J.J. Johnson, might be Womack’s best-known work, due to its inclusion in the films “Jackie Brown” and “American Gangster.” Although it was “It’s All Over Now,” the song he originally penned for his group The Valentinos, that made him a rich man after The Rolling Stones took it to #1 — their first ever — in the U.K.
2009 is shaping up to be a big year for Womack, with reissues of his The Poet and The Poet II on ABKCO, as well as a Bobby Womack retrospective, due for release.
Just how Womack got to this point is one of the most remarkable stories of perseverence in music history. And to think, it all started with Womack and his brothers getting in hot water with their father.
In Part I of this two-part story, we’ll explore Womack’s beginnings and his friendship with Cooke.
Let’s go back to your beginnings, with your family and your upbringing. It was strict and religious, and you had siblings, and you formed a gospel quintet.
Bobby Womack: I think how our group started [was] we used to mock the group that [my father would] sing in. They had, like on a particular night, they’d come to our house to rehearse. And we’d listen to ’em, and I think we started mocking them only because my mom used to fix all these desserts. And they would sing — not that good — but they wouldn’t leave nothing but the crumbs. And we started mocking them [and] how they sang; if the one didn’t sing that well or was flat, one of my brothers would play his part. And my father had to walk in and catch us singing, and that’s when he went nuts. “I’ve been praying for these boys all these years, and I didn’t know what they’d turn out to be,” [he said]. And we’d come out singing.
It was the early 1950s, and Bobby and his brothers Cecil, Curtis, Harry and Friendly Jr., had formed a gospel quintet called the Womack Brothers.
An opportunity for bigger and better things would present itself when the Soul Stirrers, with Sam Cooke recently hired as a singer, brought their act to Cleveland.
Womack: My father was trying to get us on the bill to see if they would let us sing, because he knew it would be a big break for us and an inspiration at the same time. And the group turned us down. They said, “No, they’re too young and blah, blah, blah, blah … whatever. Tell ’em to come back when they get older.” Because we were little guys, and Sam said, “No, no, no.” He said, “You guys can sing? Yeah, let ’em sing. Let ’em go on out.” And that was a big thing. We sung at the Temple Baptist, which was probably the biggest church in Cleveland at the time, and so my brothers and I got on there and sung. And after that, I remember him saying, “I want your mother to go to the back of the church,” and she had a big old purse. She was carrying my youngest brother, which was for putting his diapers in and all that stuff in there. [Sam] told the people that [he] wanted everybody to go around before we start performing and put some money in her purse, and I’ll never forget it. There was like $75 … oh man, that was a lot of money. And so, from that point on, I kept saying, “That guy’s got to have a lot of power.” He just joined the group because the original lead singer, R.H. Harris, couldn’t perform in Cleveland and [it] got to a point where he couldn’t perform anywhere else because he had kids everywhere … uh, child support. They’d be looking for him. So Sam took his place. And Sam hadn’t been in that group more than six months, and for him to come in and take control and say, “No, they’re going to perform. I want them to put some money in their mother’s purse.”
And he was knocked out with us. I remember that, ’cause I remember looking up at him and [him] saying, “Man, go easy on me tonight.” You know, that was making me feel good, but he was just kidding.
Years later, Cooke’s old friend from his gospel days, Roscoe Robinson, asked Cooke if he’d be interested in recording the Womack Brothers.
“And Sam said, ‘Yeah, I would love to. I would love to hear ’em,’” says Bobby. “But he said, ‘You know, gospel … there’s no money in gospel. You can’t make a living doing that.’ And I knew we had a problem right then because my father was so into gospel he wouldn’t think of that.”
Cooke gave the Womack Brothers one last shot to make it as gospel artists.
Womack: When Sam suggested that, “Okay, I’ll give you a deal. You sing a couple of gospel songs, but if they don’t hit,” he said, “then y’all owe me [some] secular music.” So, naturally, he put it out, and I think a couple of weeks later, [I asked] “How’s the record doing?” He said, “Man, we sold about six copies. I’m not even exaggerating.” He said, “I bought two of ’em (laughs).” So he wanted us to go on and get into the real deal. And so what happened was, I was the one who went to my father and told my dad, “Listen, Sam … I didn’t promise him, but I told him that if the gospel didn’t happen, we would sing secular music.” So he said, “You can’t sing [that] and live here.”
Forced to leave their home, the Womack Brothers were summoned to Los Angeles by Cooke. And Cooke sent them $3,000 to buy a car so they could drive out to the West Coast.
With their uncle along for guidance, the Womack boys went to a car lot to pick out a ride. Unfortunately, as Bobby admits, he chose style over substance.
Womack: We brought my father’s younger brother [who] drove with us, and he said, “Go pick a car.” He said, “But get something new, so you’ll get there.” So you know, you’re a kid. I think he said, “Get a station wagon,” or something like that. But I was at that age watching all the hustlers, and I’m not buying no station wagon. I saw the prettiest car on the lot. It was a Cadillac. So we got this Cadillac, and my uncle kept saying, “Man, I think we’re making a mistake.” He said, “That car looks good, but it’s … your money.”
And plus, I was looking at not only that but if we buy the Cadillac, the Cadillac costs only $600. We got money left. So we get the Cadillac and drive it home, and my father was not saying nothing, but he said [to his brother], “I think you should have taken control of what he bought. He don’t know what he’s buying when he’s looking at that car.”
Sure enough, we got to driving the car toward L.A., and it began to rain. And we were no more than 50 miles outside of Cleveland, and so [we] turn on the windshield wipers, and the wipers just blew off the car. And we kept saying, “There’s something wrong with the car. It’s running out of gas again.” It had a hole in the [gas] tank. All these things … there was fumes. Man … we finally got to Arizona. Sam was looking everywhere for us. He’s scared, saying, “Man, I suggested they come out here, and now they don’t know where they’re at.”
We were in Arizona. Everybody thought we were going to the hospital because we couldn’t take the fumes. So, after spending the money to get the car fixed, to get the windshield wipers back on and everything else that was going wrong with the car, when we got to Los Angeles, my brother made a call and said, “We’re here.” And Sam said, “Where are you at?” And he said, “We broke down on Hollywood Boulevard.” And [Sam] said, “Don’t move (laughs). Just stay right there. I’m on my way.” It was crazy, but we were young, ambitious, not even looking at the threats or the danger or nothing else. We [were] going to cut some hit records. And we did.”
Out in L.A., with Cooke in control, the Womack Brothers made some changes, starting with their name. Rechristened as The Valentinos, they set about crossing over to R&B, and in 1962, their recording of “Lookin’ For A Love” made the R&B Top Ten.
Believing that they needed discipline, Cooke sent The Valentinos out on the road with James Brown, hoping that Brown’s boot-camp-style operation would whip the Womack boys into shape. However, a split would occur when Bobby took up with Cooke’s backing band as a guitarist. “And they sort of resented that because they’d say, ‘Hey man, he’s breaking up our group. The only reason he put us on the show is because he wants you to play,’” says Bobby.
Cooke wasn’t the master manipulator those actions would suggest. In fact, just before he died, it was he who suggested the brothers get back together for a tour. But before that came “It’s All Over Now.” released as a single by The Valentinos in 1964 but made famous by The Rolling Stones, the song was written by Womack.
Womack: The first time I heard the Stones’ version I was really upset. I was pissed off. It’s because that was a big record for us, with me and The Valentinos. And I kept telling [that to] Sam, and Sam, he goes, “The Rolling Stones are gonna be huge. They just cut your song.” [Bobby responded] “Yeah, but they cut it. Everybody’s [going to] know it as them doing it. We’re trying to get a hit record for ourselves. Let them get their own ‘It’s All Over Now.’” And [Sam] just said, “No, Bobby, you don’t understand.” He said, “This is a huge group, and this is the first time they’re coming to our country,” and, at that time, the Stones weren’t writing, Keith and Mick.
Anyway, it came out. The record took off, and [our version] went up the charts ’til it got halfway up, and then we stopped, and the Stones’ [version] continued to go. And so I was upset … until I saw the royalties.
Cooke’s influence on the life and career of Bobby Womack is immeasurable. He was Womack’s mentor, and his friend. And when Cooke died tragically in December 1964 in a shooting at a disreputable Los Angeles motel, Womack was devastated.
Womack: We went on tour, as he suggested, because he had said “I want you to go back with your group” … He said, “You guys got to go out there and build your community then.” And we ended up in Houston. We were just turning up at the motel. [We] were getting everything out of the truck, or whatever we were driving — I think we had one of [Cooke’s] limousines and a truck that he used to carry the whole band in. And it was on the news that he had been killed. That was the saddest day of my life, still today. And I couldn’t believe it, because here’s a guy [who] had so much life — so much life and so much to give and had given so much to the world. And I said, “Man … amazing. I can’t believe that.”
A part of me died inside, and um … I’m still trying to recoup.