Monday, June 30, 2014

Bobby Womack of the Valentinos - A Lonesome Man (Checker 1122)

A Lonesome Man

Part One Of The Story - first posted in 2006

Friendly Womack sang Gospel with his brothers down in the coal mining country of West Virginia. They called themselves The Womack Brothers, and Friendly promised the Lord that if he sent him five sons, he would see to it that they would carry on the tradition and sing Gospel under that name. He moved to Cleveland, got work in a steel mill, and before long his prayers had been answered.

Friendly's new group, The Voices Of Love, would rehearse up at the Womack house, and his boys would listen in, doing imitations of the various members later on that kept them in stitches. The middle brother, Bobby, began sneaking around and playing his father's guitar while he was at work. Left handed, he had to figure out his own method, with the strings "upside down". (He still plays that way today...)

By the early fifties, Friendly was keeping his promise, and had his boys singing Gospel at churches around the area. In 1953, he asked S.R. Crain, a senior member of The Soul Stirrers, if they could open up for them at a program held at Cleveland's Friendship Baptist Church. He was in the process of telling them to "stick to Sunday School", when Sam Cooke overheard and pushed Crain to let them do it. The Womack Brothers were a big hit, and Sam made sure that the congregation forked over some "quiet money" to the family to help them with expenses. The $73 they collected seemed like a million bucks to 9 year old Bobby, and, from that moment on, he wanted to be "just like Sam Cooke".

The Brothers career took off from there, and they began traveling the "Gospel Highway", working with groups like The Staple Singers and The Five Blind Boys Of Mississippi. The Blind Boys were impressed with young Bobby's guitar work, and took him on the road with them. When their fabled lead singer Archie Brownlee died of pneumonia in 1960, he was replaced by the great Roscoe Robinson. It was Robinson who believed in the potential of the Womack boys, and called old friend Sam Cooke.

Cooke, who had just started up his own SAR label, was in the market for young talent and agreed to meet the brothers in Detroit. Sam was pushing them to 'cross-over' as he had done, but the Womacks, fearing the wrath of the Father (both the one up in Heaven, and their own back in Cleveland), were reluctant to do so. He made a deal with them; "Okay, fellas, we'll cut you all a Gospel record. But if it don't hit, will you all cut me a pop?" The deal was done, and The Womack Brothers' first single Somebody's Wrong, was released on SAR in 1961.

It flopped. Now it was their turn to make good on a promise. J.W. Alexander, Sam's partner at SAR, changed their name to The Valentinos and they re-worked the lyrics to a Gospel song Bobby had written for their first session (Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray) and came up with the great Lookin' For A Love. It sold two million copies in the summer of 1962, and spent over 3 months on the charts, cracking the top ten R&B and even breaking into the Billboard Hot 100. Friendly wanted no part in any of this, of course, and was just as glad to see his boys take off for California in the car Sam paid for, than to hear them sing 'the devil's music' in his own home.

It was Sam who saw something in Bobby, and made him the lead singer in place of his brother Curtis. "Curtis sings pretty like me." he said, " But now Bobby, he sings with authority. When Bobby sings he demands attention." Cooke sent the Valentinos out on tour with James Brown to school them in the ways of the R&B road, and when they came back all starched, pressed and walking in unison, he knew their 'basic training' had been a success. Sam next took Bobby out with him as a guitar player in his own band (much to his brothers' chagrin), and, in many ways, made him his "protegé". He chose to let Bobby ride in the limo with him (while everyone else in the band was back in the station wagon), and they talked for hours while America rolled on by. Bobby always had his guitar on hand, and Sam, it is said, got quite a few song ideas by listening to him play (when Womack confronted him with this, Sam said, "Okay, I'm taking your shit, but I'm doing you better than James Brown would... "). Suffice it to say that both men got something they needed from the other.

In June of 1964, J.W. Alexander was pulling out all the stops to promote the new Valentinos single, It's All Over Now. Radio stations all over the country were flooded with advance promo copies of the rockin' shout out record with the 'hook' that just couldn't miss (Bobby had written it after hearing his uncle Wes say that about his Aunt Betty about a thousand times). The Rolling Stones heard it in New York while they were in the studio for an interview with Murray The K (aka 'the fifth Beatle'). Their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, contacted Sam about performing rights, and they recorded the song within a week at the Chess Studios in Chicago. Their record company (Decca/London) got into the act and "rush-released" the single, putting it out on both sides of the big pond the day before the Valentinos' version was officially released. Can you imagine these guys?

It was the Stones' breakthrough record, becoming their first number one hit in the UK, and rising to #26 here in the US. The Valentinos' original didn't stand a chance, spending only two weeks on the charts and stalling at #94 R&B. When they found out Sam had okayed the licensing of the song, they couldn't believe it. "What do I need this Pat Boone shit for?" Bobby said, "Let them get their own songs. They mean nothing to me!" Cooke, always the visionary, tried to explain to them that this was the way things were headed in the the music industry, and that they'd be a "part of history". Although it took him quite a while to get there, Bobby finally admiited "...he was right, man. He was always in the future."

When Sam Cooke wrote A Change Is Gonna Come in late 1963, it scared him. After he had gone into the studio and recorded it, with René Hall's great big arrangement and everything, he called up Bobby. "Come on over, I want you to hear something", he said. He played the song for him on his huge movie theatre speakers, there in the dark. Sam 'looked right through him'... "what do you think, Bobby?", he asked. "It sounds like death... it's just so eerie. It gives me the chills, Sam." Cooke said he had to agree, and told him "I promise I won't ever release that song... not while I'm alive."

When Sam was shot to death On December 11, 1964, Bobby's world was torn apart. He remembered his reaction to the song, how he had told Sam a second time, "It sounds like death, like somebody died or somebody is going to die"... RCA released A Change Is Gonna Come on December 22nd, as the B side of Shake.

On March 5th 1965, Bobby Womack married Sam Cooke's widow, Barbara Campbell at the Los Angeles County Court House (they had been turned away two weeks before because he had not yet turned 21). Whether Barbara was motivated by love, a need for support or some kind of revenge, we'll probably never know. Bobby has said that he married her to protect Sam's family, and to keep Barbara from "doing something crazy". In any event, the record-buying public (as well as Sam's family in Chicago) viewed it as too much too soon. They saw Campbell as a shameless woman who had no respect for their idol, and Womack as a little gold digger who could never fill Sam's shoes. The papers ate it up.

As SAR began to disintegrate around them, the Valentinos signed with Chess Records, but nothing much was happening. Today's selection is the B side of Bobby's first single under his own name, and was released on their Checker subsidiary in 1965 (it's the flip of I Found A True Love, the original version of the tune Wilson Pickett would take to #11 in 1968). They couldn't give the record away. As Bobby has said, at this point disk jockeys were "throwing his records in the garbage", as nobody wanted to hear them. I personally think this is a great song, and shows what a pro Womack had become during his years with Sam. Although it may be a little over-produced (there's no production credits on the label, so I'm not sure by whom), it still cranks along with Bobby's guitar holding down the bottom. I love the vocals, which definitely show Cooke's influence (how could they not)? When he belts out there towards the end that "don't nobody seem to want ol' Bob", it sounds like a wry commentary on what was going down at the time...

We'll pick up the rest of The Womack's unreal story in some future post, but meanwhile let me recommend his recently released autobiography Midnight Mover: The True Story of the Greatest Soul Singer in the World (modest, he's not) as well as the encyclopedic (and indispensable) Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke by our man in the street, Peter Guralnick.

Great stuff.

(to be continued...)

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Bobby Womack - Don't Look Back (Liberty 56186)

Don't Look Back


OK, folks, it's hard to believe it was over a year ago that I promised you a second installment of the Bobby Womack saga, but time flies when you're having fun, I guess...

When we last left our hero, he was taking a lot of heat for marrying Sam Cooke's widow, and was unable to get his records played on the radio, as the disk jockeys that had known and loved Sam were 'throwing his records in the garbage'. Releases on the Him label and Fred Smith's Keymen Records went nowhere, and Bobby was itching to get back to work. In 1965, he auditioned for a spot in Ray Charles' band

Ray was reportedly amazed by the fact that Bobby could keep up with him, no matter what changes he called, without being able to read the music they had set in front of him. "My music is way more complicated than Sam Cooke's stuff," Ray told him, but in spite of that, Womack was hired. He spent the next year or so out on the road with Brother Ray, playing over 200 dates a year. Conditions were less than rosy, however, and Bobby, as the newest member of the outfit, had to take the brunt of it.

From ill fiiting hand-me-down uniforms, to doubling up in hotel rooms with the epileptic Curtis Aimey, Bobby seemed to be the last one on the list. The thing that finally got him fired, however, was that he complained about the fact that Ray would fly the band's plane himself. "Man, I couldn't sleep for thinking about our flights between gigs," Bobby said, "...a blind man was flying the plane. I had attacks about that." Incredible. Ray fired him in early 1967.

According to the liner notes of Atlantic Unearthed: Soul Brothers, Bobby's lone session for Atlantic was held in September of 1966. When Atlantic 2388 was released in early 1967, his last name had been misspelled as 'Wommack'. As you may recall, that same spelling had been used on the writer's credit for the first song he gave to Wilson Pickett, Nothing You Can Do, which was recorded at Fame in Muscle Shoals. I'm guessing that Bobby's single was recorded there as well.

It was Pickett who told him about the studio in Memphis he was headed to next... "Bobby," he said. "there are some white boys down there; if you closed your eyes, you could not tell they weren't black. Those f#*@ers can play!" The studio he was referring to, of course, was American Sound, and in July of 1967, Bobby Womack flew into town, installed himself into the Trumpet Motel, and showed up at American for Pickett's first sessions there. In addition to playing guitar, he brought along another one of his compositions, the amazing I'm In Love, which The Wicked One would take to #6 R&B later that year. When Pickett left, Bobby stayed on, becoming an integral member of the 'American Group' during its absolute heyday.

" one bothered me there. No one asked me about Sam Cooke or nothing... they just knew me as Bobby Womack, guitar player," he said, "It was the place to be, I loved the atmosphere, and there was a little soul-food place around the corner. Perfect." His serious chops got him accepted right away, "I was especially good at the intros. That's what made Moman and the others notice me... they called me cold-blooded, the way I could slip a guitar break in to make a track sing. Give a crafty hook to the intro, something people don't forget."

All of these quotes are taken from the fascinating autobiography Bobby published last year, Midnight Mover: The True Story Of The Greatest Soul Singer In The World. In the book he describes the American Group as "a strong house band, with Bobby Emmons on keyboards, Tommy Cogbill on Bass, Bobby Wood the piano player, drummer Gene Chrisman, and Mike Leech who also played bass and arranged strings." No mention of Reggie Young, though... When Barney Hoskyns asked Chips Moman about Womack in those days, he said "He and Reggie played guitar together for a couple of years there, and the two of them would be just magic, alternating between lead and rhythm, and getting each other's playing down totally." That sounds about right, and I think the friendly competition between the two guitarists created something more than the sum of its parts. Chips saw that, and was happy to have Bobby on board.

Womack also became a regular member of Wilson Pickett's touring band, and has some stories to tell about that whole experience. As Pickett travelled back to Muscle Shoals to record, Bobby made the trip with him, supplying much of his material in the process. All in all, Wilson recorded some seventeen Womack compositions (like I'm A Midnight Mover and I Found A True Love), and Bobby was happy to sit back and collect the publishing checks.

Before he left California, however, Bobby had signed with Minit Records, after playing some of his songs for them as demos. They told him to go out and record something, and that they'd be happy to release it. After a couple of years of putting them off, Minit was finally looking for some 'product', only Bobby had given all of his originals away to Pickett. He started fooling around with a few standards with the guys in the studio, and the album that Minit finally received contained covers of Fly Me To The Moon, Moonlight In Vermont and California Dreamin'. They were none too thrilled.

Much to everyone's surprise (except Bobby's, of course), Fly Me To The Moon became a big hit, breaking into the R&B top twenty in the summer of 1968. California Dreamin' would do the same for the company that fall. Womack was onto something, and they let him run with it. When Womack covered a song, it became something else entirely. He made each one his own. Hoping to continue in that vein, his version of I Left My Heart In San Francisco was released as a single in early 1969, but only managed to dent the top fifty.

The album it was taken from, My Prescription, is often overlooked, but represents, in my opinion, some of the best stuff to ever emanate from 827 Thomas Street. Minit would pull three more singles from the album for release in 1969 and early 1970. All of them charted, with How I Miss You Baby climbing as high as #14 R&B. Then the company went out of business... more accurately, it was 'consolidated' by the corporate conglomerate that owned it (like the once mammoth Imperial label before it) into its parent company, Liberty Records.

Looking for more of the same, Liberty would release one more single from this mighty Minit Lp, I'm Gonna Forget About You. Written by Womack's mentor Sam Cooke, it would become an R&B top thirty hit in the summer of 1970. Today's positively infectious B side was the flip of that single. Originally written by Smokey Robinson for the Temptations in 1965, it had become Paul Williams signature song, and closed out many a Temps performance. This version is better. Way better. Let me just say here that in all the time I've been doing this, this has to be the absolute BEST RECORD I've ever put up here. I mean it, boys and girls. The unbelievable Chips Moman production, Bobby's soulful vocals, the interplay of the guitars, the organ, the drums, the cookin' bass line... like the label says, it's 'An American Group Production', this time for one of their own, and was recorded around the same time that Elvis was in the building. It just doesn't get any better.


Liberty would release a live album, as well as one last single on Bobby before being 'consolidated' right out of business itself in 1971, when something called The TransAmerica Corporation rolled it over into United Artists. The new label would release another single from the live album, one that was responsible for giving Bobby his nickname, The Preacher, as he told it like it was over both sides of the 45, just like he did at the end of his live shows.

Bobby, although he never changed anything, now found himself at his third record label in two years. As it turned out, that wasn't so bad, as the people at United Artists seemed willing to listen, and gave him creative control over his releases. 1971 was also the year that he collaborated with Gabor Szabo and came up with the immortal Breezin'. Bobby also began working with Sly Stone, and appeared on his groundbreaking There's a Riot Going On album. It was Sly who convinced him to lose the suit, and came up with the idea for the cool cover shot on his first UA album, Communication. In many ways, this was the record that kind of defined what Womack, and much of black music in the seventies, was all about. The title track would hit the R&B top forty, but the next single off the album, That's The Way I Feel About 'Cha, became his biggest hit yet, climbing to #2 R&B in December of 1971.

His next album, Understanding, was released in 1972. Just a fantastic record, Bobby Womack's genius is fully realized here for the first time. Establishing him as the R&B superstar Sam Cooke had envisioned he was destined to become, there was no turning back. One of the last albums to be recorded at American before Moman closed it down, it was produced by Womack himself, and it shows. Two 45s were taken from the album, resulting in no less than three chart hits.

The first of these, the timeless Woman's Gotta Have It, became Bobby's first #1 hit in April of 1972. Speaking to the ladies in the audience (another thing he had learned from Sam), they let him know that all was forgiven. The Womack was back. Both sides of his next single would chart, with Harry Hippie (reportedly written about his ill-fated brother, Harris Womack) going top ten, and Sweet Caroline (which he had no doubt been a part of when Neil Diamond cut the original at American) top twenty...

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Bobby Womack - If You Think You're Lonely Now (Beverly Glen Music 2000)

Monday, June 23, 2014

Al Green - L-O-V-E (Love) (Hi 2282)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Jerry Vale - 'O Sole Mio (Columbia S7-31468)

'O Sole Mio

Jerry Vale came up out of the Bronx in the 1950s with a voice as big as the whole world. If you grew up in New York like I did, you knew that voice. It spoke of Arthur Avenue and Mulberry Street, of Chianti and red-checkered tablecloths, of all things Italian-American. An aroma as much as a sound, I swear I can smell the red gravy cooking whenever I hear it. Few artists, to me, are more evocative of a time and place... "Hey Bob," my friends from Brooklyn would say, "how long have you wished you were Italian?" At least as many times as I heard Jerry Vale sing.

Eterno Riposo concedere a lui, o Signore...

Thursday, February 13, 2014

John Williams & The Tick Tocks - Operation Heartache (Sansu 459)

Operation Heartache

Back in 1976, I experienced my first Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I would never be the same.

As I've mentioned before, The Meters' They All Ask'd For You was the Carnival Song that year, and you heard it everywhere you went. As soon as I got back home to New York, I went out and bought the album that single was taken from, Fire On The Bayou. When I saw the Meters live at The Bottom Line shortly after that, there was no turning back, I was hooked on 'Dat Fonk!.

My friend Bernie (all-knowing and all-wise) then turned me on to an album called The Wild Tchoupitoulas, which featured The Meters along with Aaron, Charles and Cyril Neville (an album that would foreshadow the formation of The Neville Brothers a year later). The phenomenal opening cut on that record was about a slain Mardi Gras Indian Chief who 'died on the battlefield', Brother John.

Now seriously on the trail of all things New Orleans, a few years later I bought an import LP named Sehorn's Soul Farm. I don't think I can adequately explain what that record did to me. It cracked me open like an egg... I never knew this kind of music existed, man. The album focused on Allen Toussaint (who had produced the two aforementioned albums) and the mid-sixties Sansu, Deesu and Tou-Sea 45s he produced (according to a guy named John Broven, who had written the liner notes) " Cosimo Matassa's now defunct studio in the French Quarter."

One of the best tracks on that album, Blues, Tears and Sorrow, was by someone I had never heard of named John Williams. I played it over and over...

When the selfsame John Broven asked me to work with him on The Cosimo Code Project many years later, it was the sheer power of that music that convinced me I had to accept. There are those that say "Oh, that Cosimo Code thing ate Red Kelly..." and maybe they're right. I have devoted countless hours to the site (just ask my wife!) but, in many ways, it has been its own reward. Never more so than when we were asked to host John Williams' life story as told by his daughter Deborah. Talk about the interconnectedness of all things!

I don't want to spoil the story for you (I'd much rather that you read it for yourself), but as it turns out, John was adopted by a street-performing Gospel singer named Adelle Williams when he was only five days old. Steeped in the music, his mother told him "You are meant to sing!" While still a teenager, he was picked up by Huey 'Piano' Smith to lead his Clowns on the eternal Rocking Pneumonia & The Boogie Woogie Flu. Once The Clowns broke up (for one reason or another) John formed his own group out of the ashes and called them The Tick Tocks. An absolute fixture at The Dew Drop Inn, they were wildly popular for their antics on stage. After a couple of 45s in the early sixties for Bobby Robinson that withered on the vine, Bobby's erstwhile partner Marshall Sehorn signed them to Sansu, a new venture he had formed with Allen Toussaint. According to Mr. Fine Wine, Toussaint and Williams were old friends, who had some kind of 'trampoline and high-diving acrobatic act together...' Imagine?

When this great B Side we have here was cut in 1966, it was prime time at Cosimo's down on Governor Nicholls, and Toussaint was firing on all burners. He had used Tick Tock Walter Washington's guitar the year before to help propel Lee Dorsey's Ride Your Pony into the Top 40, and uses it here to great effect as well. Love that baritone sax, baby! Toussaint liked the track so much that he used it as the flip of Dorsey's top ten R&B smash Holy Cow (with Lee's vocals taking the place of John's) later that year. As the Louisiana Weekly article at left from early 1967 shows, Williams and The Tick Tocks were right there in the thick of things during 'The Soul Era' in New Orleans, and part and parcel of one of Allen Toussaint's most creative periods.

To hear from his daughter that John Williams was also 'Big Chief' of the Mardi Gras Indian tribe he founded, The Apache Hunters, was amazing enough, but to find out (after 38 years) that 'Brother John' was written about his tragic death just floored me... incredible! (Please be sure to check out Deborah's great retrospective of her father over on The Cosimo Code...)

Looking back, it had been Williams' tenacious spirit and personality that had run like a thread through my ongoing love affair with New Orleans, a city I have visited so many times that I've lost count. That ineffable aura of hoodoo and mystery... the quivering sensation of centuries of ghosts walking beside me on unknown streets - it still grabs me every time.

My oldest daughter is turning eighteen next month. I offered to take her on vacation during the upcoming 'Presidents Week' school holiday. "Where do you want to go?" I asked her. "New Orleans," she replied without hesitation.

My work here is done...

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Gone To Glory

It's hard to imagine a more pivotal figure in the history of American music than Joe Bihari. His courageous road trips with Ike Turner in the deep South in the early fifties changed the World. He and his brothers were the first to cut B.B. King and Etta James and, from their base out in Los Angeles, they left their mark on the history of R&B and Rock & Roll for decades.

I Want You

This great B Side we have here (the flip of 1956 top 5 R&B hit, Stranded In The Jungle) demonstrates, I think, the quality of the music they produced. The Cadets (who the Biharis also cut as The Jacks), came up out of the same West Coast Doo-Wop scene as The Robins... the group Lieber & Stoller reinvented as The Coasters - as a matter of fact, the lead singer on here, Will 'Dub' Jones, would go on to join The Coasters himself and become one of the most recognizable voices in early Rock & Roll.

Despite repeated efforts to influence the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to induct Joe Bihari while he was still alive, it didn't happen. Joe died on November 28th. The list of 'inductees' was released on December 17th... Joe wasn't on it.

Cleotha 'Cleedi' Staples who, as a founding member of The Staple Singers, lent her beautiful voice to the soundtrack of our lives for years, passed on February 28th. "We will keep on," her sister Mavis said, "and I will continue singing to keep our legacy alive."

It's Too Late

Here's Cleotha paired up with Eddie Floyd for an ambitious 1969 double Stax LP, Boy Meets Girl - released as part of Al Bell's quest to restructure the company. Cleedi's stunning vocals on here highlight what a great talent she was.
May God rest her Soul.

Shelbra Bennett, second from right in the photo above, was a founding member of The Soul Children. She would sing the lead on their biggest hit, I'll Be The Other Woman, which soared to #3 R&B in early 1974, and remains every bit as powerful today.

Love Makes It Right

Here's the follow-up single, with Shelbra once again handling the emotional lead vocals. Just great stuff, man. For whatever reason, this one struggled to make it into the top fifty, and she left the group 1n 1975. As Shelbra Deane, she would chart a couple of times in the late seventies, and make some disco singles for Henry Stone after that, but I think it's her towering work with The Soul Children that will live on forever. Shelbra left us on May 31st.

When I heard that Richie Havens died on April 22nd, I couldn't really take it in. I had seen him any number of times over the years (the last one being a mind-blowing performance at Jazz Fest in 2009), and I guess I kind of took him for granted... his music had lived inside of me for so long.


Mixed Bag is just such an important record. I cherished it and played it over and over in my high school days. In so many ways, it defined who I was, and who I would become. This utterly fantastic tune is ripped from my original mono copy of the LP, and I know every pop and crackle in the vinyl like an old friend... "Don't mind me 'cause I ain't nothing but a dream."

Please join this sentimental old fool in saying goodbye to these other greats who have passed on before us here in 2013:

May they Rest in Peace.