Bobby Womack’s album The Bravest Man in the Universe came out yesterday – it’s the veteran R&B singer/guitarist’s first new album in over a decade, and a collaboration with Blur’s Damon Albarn. Here’s the first single from it, “Please Forgive My Heart”:
Womack has spent nearly 60 years turning up again and again where something interesting has been happening in music: He’s worked with Sam Cooke, Janis Joplin, Sly Stone, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones and Gorillaz, among many others. But one particular song was his signature tune for the first few phases of his career, and — in an earlier form — it predates his career by another half century. It’s not clear who wrote the spiritual “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” but the first recording of it is a 1909 record by the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet.
When the Womack Brothers — Bobby Womack and his brothers Curtis, Harry, Cecil and Friendly Jr. — turned up in 1961 for their first recording session for Sam Cooke’s label SAR Records, they were a straight-ahead gospel group. Curtis sang lead on “Somewhere There’s a God,” but after they finished it, Cooke asked the group to try an idea he’d had: They backed him up while he sang it as “Somewhere There’s a Girl,” demonstrating that their sort of gospel and his sort of pop weren’t so far apart. The same session also yielded a recording that came out as the second Womack Brothers single: their arrangement of “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” with Bobby singing the lead vocal.
Cooke made his own transition from gospel (he’d been the Soul Stirrers’ lead tenor) to pop a few years earlier. That shift was something artists didn’t make lightly in those days. When the Womacks told their father that they wanted to play secular music, he told them that, if they did, they could no longer live in his house. They decided to do it anyway. When the brothers returned to the studio in early 1962, they recorded “Lookin’ for a Love” — simply a remake of “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” with new, secular lyrics by SAR Records’ J.W. Alexander and Zelda Samuels. The group found a new name, too: They called themselves the Valentinos.
The Valentinos toured with James Brown (opening for him at his famous October 1962 engagement at the Apollo Theatre in New York), then with Cooke, and Bobby became Cooke’s guitarist. Their career was just starting to take off — “It’s All Over Now,” a song Bobby wrote for them, became the Rolling Stones’ breakthrough single — when Cooke was shot and killed by a motel manager in December 1964. Less than three months later, Bobby married Cooke’s widow Barbara. After that, Bobby’s music career foundered for a few years while he got by as a songwriter and session musician; Bobby and Barbara divorced after Barbara discovered him in bed with Linda Womack, her daughter with Cooke, and shot him (he survived, obviously).
Bobby, incidentally, wasn’t the only one of his brothers with a complicated marital life. Cecil Womack married Mary Wells, of “My Guy” fame; after they divorced, Wells had a daughter with Curtis Womack. Cecil then married Linda Womack — they formed the duo Womack & Womack, whose hits include the 1984 club classic “Baby I’m Scared of You.”
Even while Bobby’s career was flagging, though, “Lookin’ for a Love” was in circulation. The doo-wop group the Olympics were the first to revive it, as a 1967 B-side:
Then, the J. Geils Band — yes, the “Centerfold” ones — had one of their first Top 40 hits with their own cover of “Lookin’ for a Love” in 1971. Here they are playing it live on TV a couple of years later:
By then, Bobby Womack himself had made the first of his many comebacks — he’d had his first #1 R&B single ever in 1972 with “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” a sinuous mid-tempo groove co-written by Linda Womack.
The Valentinos had never quite broken up, but they hadn’t recorded together for a few years, either. After Bobby became a regular chart presence again, though, the Womack Brothers’ act released a few more singles. They also backed Bobby up at a 1973 recording session at which he revisited “Lookin’ for a Love.” The new version of it became his biggest hit ever, but it was also the last recording he and his four brothers would ever make together. The song hit #1 on the R&B chart of March 16, 1974. A week earlier, a jealous girlfriend stabbed Harry Womack to death after she discovered a strange woman’s clothes in the room in Bobby’s house where Harry slept. The clothes actually belonged to Bobby’s latest girlfriend.