Bobby Womack: A Soul Storyteller, At Home In The Hall He wrote hits and and played guitar for the biggest names in pop music, and he had plenty of hits of his own. But for Bobby Womack, joining the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame represents an actual homecoming for a soul survivor.
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A Soul Storyteller, At Home In The Hall

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A Soul Storyteller, At Home In The Hall

A Soul Storyteller, At Home In The Hall

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Performers from rock, rap, soul and heavy metal are all in Cleveland tonight as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honors its 2009 inductees. Coming up, we'll explore the inventive exuberance of Elvis Presley with some experts and some of our listeners. But first, a Cleveland native who played with Elvis will be getting his due tonight.

From member station WCPN, David C. Barnett tells the story of a soul survivor named Bobby Womack.

DAVID C. BARNETT: 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 soul star Sam Cooke, who was a strict taskmaster as he coached them through their first session.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. SAM COOKE (Singer): Since you're singing words, let's stay on this precise as we can, huh? Yield not to temptation for yielding is sin. Get me?

Unidentified Man: Right.

THE WOMACK BROTHERS (Music Group): (Singing) Yield not to temptation for I know it is sin.

BARNETT: 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.

Mr. PETER GURALNICK (Biographer): And Sam said, You listen to that rough-voiced one, you listen to Bobby Womack. He's the one that's really going to go places.

(Soundbite of song)

THE WOMACK BROTHERS: (Singing) Then one day when I first saw the Lord...

BARNETT: The Womack Brothers had gospel in their blood, and Bobby says their father saw it as a way out of the ghetto on Cleveland's East Side.

Mr. BOBBY WOMACK (The Womack Brothers): He use to always say, I'm telling you, never get nothing going, 'cause I can't afford to send you all to college, can't think about it. But you could sing your way out.

BARNETT: One day, the Staple Singers came through town. Mavis Staples recalls hearing the Womacks at a local church with her father.

Ms. MAVIS STAPLES (The Staple Singers): And that Bobby Womack, he was like a little preacher. We always thought he was going to preach. Pops thought that they were so good, he said, We're going to take the Womack Brothers on the road with us.

BARNETT: 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.

(Soundbite of song "Looking for a Love")

Mr. COOKE: (singing) Yeah, sometimes you get up in the morning and rub my head...

BARNETT: 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.

Mr. WOMACK: James Brown was very hard to work with, 'cause you had to be perfect, everything had to be - your shoes had to be shined, you had to sing like you were hungry, and we really were. You know, so by the time we came out of that, man, we were polished.

BARNETT: And ready for another pop hit. Writer Peter Guralnick says this new tune, co-written by Bobby, was unlike anything you normally heard on the radio.

Mr. GURALNICK: It's a funny kind of a combination of elements, just 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.

(Soundbite of song, "It's All Over Now")

THE VALENTINOS: (Singing) Well, baby used to stay out all night long. She made me cry. She did me wrong. She hurt my nose open, that's no lie.

Mr. 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.

(Soundbite of song, "It's All Over Now")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Because I used to love her but it's all over now. Because I used to love her but it's all over now.

BARNETT: The 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 number one hit in the U.K. and it buried the Valentinos' version here. Bobby was outraged, until the royalty checks started rolling in. Life was good. And then Sam Cooke was killed in a mysterious shooting in Los Angeles. Friends and fans were stunned. But another surprise was yet to come.

Mr. GURALNICK: Within a very short period of time after Sam's death, within days, really, Bobby began a relationship with Sam's widow, Barbara, whom he married maybe two and a half months later.

BARNETT: 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. Eventually, Womack found work as a session guitarist, playing rhythm on countless songs by 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.

(Soundbite of song "Breezin'")

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

Mr. WOMACK: I finally said, okay, I'm going down, and I go down to the studio and I played the rhythm on it. After that, I left.

(Soundbite of song "Breezin'")

BARNETT: "Breezin'" won Benson his first Grammy. But Bobby Womack's slow climb back up was tempered by stormy marriages, the death of an infant son, and the murder of his brother Harry. Depression sent him to drugs.

Mr. WOMACK: Getting high was just the - it was like waking up in the morning. I felt like I invented it.

BARNETT: He still managed to record a number of popular soul ballads, which featured long philosophical recitations over the intros. These earned him the nickname The Storyteller.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. WOMACK: You know, people always ask - they say, Bobby, why do you always talk before you sing? Like I notice in most of your songs you always have something to say...

BARNETT: These days Bobby Womack has plenty of time to reflect on this life. He says he has put the drugs aside and lives a quiet existence 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.

Mr. WOMACK: It's amazing how they make issue, 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.

BARNETT: Bobby Womack is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones.

For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett, in Cleveland.

(Soundbite of song)

SIMON: Bobby Womack wrote his first song when he was seven years old. He called it "Give That Man Some Cover." It was based on his childhood experience of sleeping in the same bed with four brothers who fought over just one blanket. You can hear it on our Web site,

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