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A Soul Storyteller, At Home In The Hall

The 2009 inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame include guitarist Jeff Beck, the hip-hop pioneers in RUN DMC and the hard rockers in Metallica. Also among this year's class is a native of Cleveland — the site of the Hall of Fame — who's a true soul survivor: Bobby Womack.

Womack wrote songs for Wilson Pickett and George Benson. He played guitar on countless sessions by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Sly Stone, Janis Joplin and Elvis Presley. And Womack had a successful solo career, scoring R&B hits with "It's Gonna Rain," "That's the Way I Feel About Cha" and "Woman's Gotta Have It," among others.

But success was tempered by a difficult personal life. Womack grew up in the ghetto on Cleveland's east side. His father, a gospel singer, saw music as a way out for Bobby and his brothers.

"He used to always say, 'I'm telling you, you'll never get nothing going, because I can't afford to send you all to college — can't think about it,' " Bobby Womack says. "'But you can sing your way out of this.'"

First Sessions

In the summer of 1961, five wide-eyed teenagers stepped into a Chicago recording studio. This was The Womack Brothers' big opportunity; soul star Sam Cooke acted as a strict taskmaster as he coached them through their first session.

Most people assumed 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.

"Sam said, 'You listen to that roughed-voice one, you listen to Bobby Womack,'" Guralnick says. "'He's the one that's really going to go places.'"

One day, gospel/R&B group The Staple Singers came through town. Mavis Staples recalls hearing the Womacks at a local church with her father.

"And that Bobby Womack, he was like a little preacher," Staples says. "We always thought he was going to preach. Pops thought they were so good, he said, 'We're going to take The Womack Brothers on the road with us.' "

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

Despite the objections of their father, who threatened to disown his sons for recording what he called "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 as The Valentinos, and the band landed a spot opening for James Brown at the Apollo Theatre.

"James Brown was very hard to work with, because you had to be perfect — everything had to be," Womack says. "Your shoes had to be shined, you had to sing like you were hungry — and we really were. So by the time we came out of that, man, we were polished."

'It's All Over Now'

Guralnick says the band's next pop hit, co-written by Bobby Womack, was unlike anything on the radio.

"It's a funny combination of elements," Guralnick says. "You have that free rhythm, and 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."

The song was called "It's All Over Now."

"They recorded it in March of '64," Guralnick says. "And the record was just breaking when they had it taken away from them by The Rolling Stones."

The largely unknown group of English musicians — on their first tour of the U.S. — heard The Valentinos' single and immediately recorded their own version. The song gave the Stones their first No. 1 hit in the U.K., and it buried The Valentinos' version stateside.

Bobby Womack was outraged, until the royalty checks started rolling in.

But he would not have long to enjoy his success. In December 1964, Sam Cooke was killed in a mysterious shooting in Los Angeles. Friends and fans were stunned. But another surprise was yet to come.

"Within a very short period of time after Sam's death — within days, really — Bobby began a relationship with Sam's widow, Barbara, who he married maybe two and a half months later," Guralnick says.

Bobby Womack was condemned as an opportunist. Sam Cooke fans sent hate mail. Radio stations refused to play Womack's records. He was virtually blacklisted.

The Slow Climb Back Up

Eventually, Bobby Womack found work as a session guitarist, playing rhythm on sessions for countless albums — among them Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Going On. Womack wrote more than a dozen tunes for Wilson Pickett, including "I'm in Love" and "I'm a Midnight Mover."

Beginning in 1968, Womack began making his own records. Then, in the mid-'70s, he wrote an airy instrumental that jazz guitarist George Benson picked up.

Benson invited him to play on the track, but Womack hesitated. He didn't think jazz records made any money.

"I finally said, 'Okay, I'm going down,' " Womack says. "And I went down to the studio and I played rhythm on it. And after that, I left."

Breezin', released in 1976, won Benson his first Grammy.

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

"Getting high was just the — it was like waking up in the morning," Womack says. "I felt like I invented it."

Somehow, he still managed to record a number of popular soul ballads, which featured long philosophical recitations over the intros. They earned him the nickname "The Story Teller."

In all, Bobby Womack recorded some 20 albums of his own — not to mention the songs he wrote for others.

These days, he has plenty of time to reflect on his life. He says he's put the drugs aside, and he lives a quiet life in the Los Angeles suburbs. He doesn't perform much, but he's come home to be part of the star-studded show in Cleveland.

"It's amazing how they make an issue [out of my career]," Womack says. "And I respect that. But at the same time, I respect the audiences. Even though the records are old, the stories still remain to be true."

Ironically, Bobby Womack is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Ron Wood — of The Rolling Stones.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David C. Barnett