Bobby Womack 101 - An Appreciation

Bobby Womack (courtesy ABKCO.  Photo by Norman Seeff)
Bobby Womack (courtesy ABKCO. Photo by Norman Seeff)
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Five wide-eyed Cleveland teenagers stepped into a Chicago recording studio in the summer of 1961. This was the Womack Brothers' big chance, thanks to the legendary Sam Cooke who was a strict taskmaster as he coached them through their first session.

COOKE (over studio speaker): Since you're singing words, let's sing them as precise as we can, huh? Get me?

MUSIC: Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray UP & UNDER

The initial assumption was that the sweet-voiced Curtis would be the focal point of the Womack Brothers. But, Cooke biographer Peter Guralnick says the star was drawn to Bobby.

PETER GURALNICK: Sam said, 'You listen to that roughed-voice one, you listen to Bobby Womack. He's the one that's really going to go places.'

MUSIC: Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray UP & UNDER

The Womack Brothers had gospel in their blood and Bobby told 90.3's Lawrence Daniel Caswell that their father saw it as a way out of a tough neighborhood on Cleveland's east side.

BOBBY WOMACK: He used to say, "You'll never get something going, because I can't afford to send you all to college --- can't think about it. But, you can sing your way out of this.

But, church music wasn't where the money was. Former gospel singer Sam Cooke knew this, and he convinced the Womacks to lend their voices to a pop tune. The original melody for Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray was given some new words with a very different meaning.

MUSIC: Looking For a Love UP & UNDER

Despite the objections of their father, who threatened to disown his sons for recording the 'Devil's music', Looking for a Love was released in 1962 and shot up the R&B charts. Cooke re-named the Womack Brothers, 'The Valentinos', and they landed a spot opening for James Brown at the Apollo Theatre. Writer Peter Guralnick says their next tune, co-written by Bobby, was unlike anything you normally heard on the radio.

MUSIC: SNEAK IN INTRO to the Valentinos' It's All Over Now

PETER GURALNICK: It's got a country feel to it, it's got a bluesy feel to it, and it's got that soulful feel to it that all of their stuff had.

MUSIC: Valentinos It's All Over Now UP & UNDER

PETER GURALNICK: They recorded it in March of '64, and the record was just breaking when they had it taken away from them by the Rolling Stones.

MUSIC: Rolling Stones It's All Over Now

The then-largely unknown group of English musicians --- on their first tour of the U.S. --- had heard the Valentinos' single and immediately recorded their own version. The song gave the Stones their first #1 hit in the U.K, and it buried the Valentinos' version here. Bobby was outraged....but huge royalty checks helped soften the blow....and it further launched on a career that included working as a session guitarist for the likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Janis Joplin and Elvis Presley.
Then, Womack wrote an airy instrumental that jazz guitarist George Benson picked-up in 1976. Breezin' won Benson his first Grammy

MUSIC: Breezin' UP…& OUT

But, Womack's success was tempered by stormy marriages, the death of an infant son, and the murder of his brother Harry. Depression sent him to drugs.

BOBBY WOMACK: Getting high was like waking up in the morning --- I thought I had invented it.

Somehow, he still managed to record a number of popular soul ballads which often featured long philosophical recitations over the intros. These earned him the nick name of 'The Story Teller'


In 2009, Womack was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and three years later he released a critically acclaimed album 'The Bravest Man In The Universe'. After a career, spanning seven decades, Womack said he was happy that people were still discovering his music.

BOBBY WOMACK: It's amazing how they make an issue, and I respect that. But, at the same time, I respect that the audiences --- even though the records are old, the stories remain to be true.

MUSIC: "Bravest Man in the Universe" UP & UNDER

And nobody could tell a story like Bobby Womack.

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