At the time of this writing, Bobby Womack has released two tracks from his new record, and they’re both about forgiveness. Bravest Man In The Universe, Womack’s first album of original material since 1994, is already, weeks before its release, being heralded as a late-career triumph, a classic comeback tale of an aging soul singer being rejuvenated by a younger producer (Damon Albarn, of Blur and Gorillaz). On the title track, Womack is the old grandfather with a story to tell. The moral? “The bravest man in the universe is the one who forgives first,” he aches and moans. His voice sounds battered but invigorated, like something that’s been shattered and then reconstructed anew. On “Please Forgive My Heart,” the album’s minimalist lead single, he’s looking back and wondering where things went wrong: “Where did I lose control? Where did it all begin?”
For Bobby Womack, it all began with family. Alongside his brothers Curtis, Friendly, Harry, and Cecil, The Womack Brothers grew up singing gospel under their father’s coaching. Once Sam Cooke discovered the group, changed their name from The Womack Brothers to The Valentinos, and signed them to a record deal to his very own S.A.R. Records, Bobby and his brothers began touring with the likes of James Brown and cutting hit records like “Lookin’ For A Love.” The song, like Cooke’s early pop singles, is simply a reconfigured arrangement of The Womack Brothers spiritual “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray.” Like Charles, Cooke, and so many before him, Bobby and his brothers traded in god for girls and didn’t look back.
The Valentinos were Sam Cooke’s favorite pet project, the group under his management that came closest to achieving true pop success, and the history of the group is inextricably linked to the history of Cooke. It’s a history at times of betrayal and frustration, of aspiration and rejection, and fifty years later, it may be one of the many histories for which Bobby Womack is asking forgiveness.
What’s to forgive? In his extensively detailed and passionate biography Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, Peter Guralnik spends much time describing the inevitable feuds amongst the Womack brothers during their time recording for Cooke. From the beginning, Cooke favored Bobby, taking him on tour as his guitar player and ensuring that he replace older brother Curtis as primary lead vocalist. Curtis and his brothers in turn resented at times Cooke and to some degree Bobby for their special bond and grand pop aspirations, and the brothers would try to convince Bobby that Sam was taking advantage of them all.
Perhaps Cooke preferred Womack’s gritty, raw voice to Curtis’ elegant tenor because Curtis sounded too much like Cooke. It’s not hard to imagine Sam crooning his way through “Tired of Living In The Country,” one of the few Valentino sides featuring Curtis on lead. If Curtis, with his sophisticated, doo-wop-steeped vocals, wants to leave the country for the big city, Bobby wants to stick around and see what’s going on. Bobby’s rough, loose guitar and harsh, authoritative vocals gives The Valentino’s otherwise polished, sugary soul-pop an edge—it made them stick out. The opening riff on “It’s All Over Now” would sound at home in a Chitlin’ Circuit juke joint, so it’s no wonder a blues-loving British teenager named Keith Richards heard the song and wanted to make it his own. When recording their first secular crossover “Lookin for A Love,” Guralnik describes Sam Cooke coaching Bobby through the vocals: “ ‘If they don’t understand what you’re saying, they can’t relate.’ But he said, on the other hand, he didn’t want Bobby sounding too proper, ‘Cause then you’ll start to sound like me!’”
On Do It Right, an unauthorized compilation that comes closest to a career-spanning collection of The Valentinos, there’s a certain anxious bravado to many of Bobby Womack’s lesser-known sides with The Valentinos. Bobby’s songs are more often than not concerned with possession, real or imagined, of a girl, of love, of the type of satisfaction that Jagger and Richards, the men whose career began with a Womack tune, would soon be singing about.
“I’ve Got a Girl” is a frantic, fragile boast, and each time Womack shouts “I’ve got to have her,” it seems less clear whether the girl he has is real or just in his mind. Maybe he really does have a girl in “I Found a True Love,” “I’ve Got Love For You,” and “I’ve Come a Long Way,” where Bobby’s ecstatic cries are toned down and he ends up sounding more like brother Curtis and mentor Cooke: crisp, tame, endearing.
Even so, Bobby Womack finds ways to insert the frenetic gospel call of the church into the most sophisticated, tender Valentino singles. His loose guitar that drives and swirls all over the sweet pledge “I’ve Got Love For You,” makes one wonder how long such love could remain exclusive. In “Everybody Wants To Fall in Love,” Bobby conjures the church cry when he shouts and draws out the line “needs somebody” up against the otherwise tender, refined sound of the Womack brothers’ harmonizing. For The Valentinos, when led by Bobby, “Lookin’ for a Love” and “I Found a True Love” are two sides of the same coin. It is that ecstasy of search and discovery, which comes straight from the church, in Cleveland, where Bobby and his brothers learned how to sing.
To this day, the church doesn’t stray far from Womack’s music, at age sixty-eight. “Please Forgive My Heart” is a hymnal and a plea, it comes as much from a religious sense of redemption as “Lookin’ For a Love” comes from the gospel-filled yearning. Years later, maybe Bobby is still guilty for turning away from that very church music, maybe he feels bad for sometimes leaving his brothers in the dust for Cooke, or maybe he wants to apologize to some lovers he used to sing to in The Valentino’s music, for moving on, for finding more than one true love, for always looking for another one. Whatever Bobby Womack may be asking mercy for on “Please Forgive My Heart,” he wants one thing to be clear: “it’s not that the problem,” Womack sings of his old heart, “lies anywhere in there.”