William Goldman, the screenwriter of Hollywood boffo smashes such as, ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and, ‘All the President’s Men’ was a highly intelligent and perspicacious observer of the cultural scene.
It seems to me he was speaking the plain truth when he observed that when it comes to predicting success in any artistic enterprise, ‘Nobody knows anything … Not one person knows for a certainty what is going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one’.
That certainly holds true for writing and recording hit songs; especially songs which endure not for five or ten or twenty-five years but for 50 years and more.
Nobody has a guaranteed formula for producing songs that can get up and walk on their own, songs with the mysteriously vitality and stickability which lodges them deep in our consciousness. Songs which manage to mark our personal and collective times.
But, if you write such songs you can be sure of one thing. People, other artists, will sit up and take notice and they will want to perform and record your songs because such songs are rare beasts.
Today on The Immortal Jukebox I’m going to celebrate two of those songs, written by the teenage Bobby Womack, which he recorded with his four brothers in their group, The Valentinos, in 1962 and 1964.
‘Looking For A Love’ and, ‘It’s All Over Now’ were from the get go songs fizzing with life; songs that made you want to get up and dance, songs that made you smile whatever mood you were in before they came on, songs that you instantly fell in love with, songs that made you ring up your friends to say, ‘have you heard…’, songs that you sang under your breath invoking the warmth and light of the sun as you faced another grey school or work morning. That’ll do for me as the definition of a hit!
Everyone, especially when they’re young, is looking for a love, searching, looking here and there, looking for the love they know must be there, somewhere!
Let Bobby and The Valentinos remind you of those searching days!
Listening to The Valentinos here I feel as if I could jump a wall ten feet high! Lots of people agreed at the time as the song was a top 10 R&B hit as well as breaking into the Billboard Hot 100.
The Womack Brothers, in birth order, were : Friendly, Curtis, Bobby, Harry and Cecil. They were the sons of Friendly Senior, a pastor who had moved from the mines of West Virginia to Cleveland. Friendly Senior was a gospel singing pastor so it was little surprise that his sons followed in his footsteps performing in church.
In 1953 they got a big break when, in their home town, they opened up for the premier church-wrecking Gospel group of the day, The Soul Stirrers featuring the Immortal Sam Cooke. Sam was struck by the boys potential and noted that Bobby in particular, had something about him that presaged stardom.
Soon the brothers were working the Gospel circuit with luminaries like The Staple Singers and The Five Blind Boys Of Mississippi learning stagecraft. This would be redoubled after they went on the road with the ultimate stern taskmaster, James Brown!
Sam Cooke, ever prescient, decided that the Brothers future lay in secular pop rather than the Gospel world. So Bobby’s gospel song, ‘Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray’ was fine tuned by J W Alexander and Zelda Samuels for Sam’s record label SAR to become, ‘Looking For A Love’ and The Womack Brothers became The Valentinos. The rest as they say is history.
I’m sure the feeling of elation produced by, ‘Looking For A Love’ was also experienced by six super energetic white northern boys who came together as The J Geils Band in the mid 60s determined to blast white hot rhythm and blues at the citizens of Boston and Detroit.
The key figure here is singer Peter Wolf, a legendary DJ and record collector who on Boston station WBCN took late night calls from Van Morrison begging to hear some real rhythm and blues on the radio!
Peter was a song collector and he knew that an amped up, turbo charged version of, ‘Looking For A Love’ would be a show stopper for the band and prove that they could justifiably be called the Detroit Demolition!
Listen here to Peter on vocals, J Geils on guitar, Seth Justman on the organ, Danny Klein on bass, Stephen Bladd on drums and Magic Dick on the lickin’ stick as they demolish Detroit’s Cinderella Ballroom in 1972 with the force of a division of Panzers!
I confess I used to test the patience of the students in my residential block and the sturdiness of the window frames of my room as I played this version at stun volume over and over again in 1973 when I discovered it. Turn your dials up to 11 now!
Early in 1964 Bobby collaborated with sister in law, Shirley Womack, to write another slice of eternity shale, ‘It’s All Over Now’ a song which might be seen by the cynics among us as the inevitable second act to the youthful carefree optimism of, ‘Looking For A Love’.
I prefer to think of it as another example of Bobby Womack’s great gift for crafting a melodic story that we can all relate to wherever we are in love’s endless carousel. What Bobby Womack always had was the ability to write songs which had an irresistible rhythmic flow which defied you to sit still once they started.
Try as I might I couldn’t find an acceptable video clip of The Valentinos original of, ‘All Over Now’ but my search did uncover a glorious take on the song featuring Bobby performing with the redoubtable David Letterman Show House Band.
As you will see Bobby was a natural storyteller, a musician and performer to his fingertips and one cool dude!
As, ‘It’s All Over Now’ debuted on the American radio waves listening with keen interest were a heavy with attitude and talent bunch of Blues and R&B aficionados all the way from Britain, The Rolling Stones!
Alerted to The Valentinos’ original by DJ Murray the K, self appointed US Ambassador to the British Invasion bands, The Stones decided that the song would be ideal material for them to record when they visited Chicago’s Chess Studios where so many of their idols like Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry had wrought the miraculous records they had played until they disintegrated.
Keith Richards recalls that on entering Chess it felt as if they had died and gone to heaven! Absorbing the magic ambience and benefitting from the well honed craft of the Chess engineers The Stones were inspired to produce a performance of, ‘It’s All Over Now’ which gave them their first substantial US hit and their first UK Number 1 record.
There’s no doubt that The Stones version is a wonderfully atmospheric and dramatic demonstration of their prowess as a rhythm and blues band. As always the peerless Charlie Watts drives them along at just the right tempo, not too fast, not too slow, while Bill Wyman keeps everything anchored. Brian Jones plays nice chiming lines leaving it to the inimitable Keith to provide a master class in surging guitar energy that sweeps all before it.
Some, notably John Lennon, thought that Keith’s guitar solo was something of an untutored mess. Well, I hear the unmistakeable sound of the never to be stilled beating heart of Rhythm and Blues from someone who had, in his bones, knowledge that no amount of tutoring can ever provide.
The torch was passed on as in Freehold, New Jersey the young Bruce Springsteen bruised and bloodied his fingers until he could say, ‘Yeh, I know how to play, ‘Its All Over Now’ on the guitar – listen up!’
‘It’s All Over Now’ whether learned from The Valentinos or The Rolling Stones became a staple in the repertoire of bands wanting to show they could sway and strut like the masters.
My favourite versions are by Ry Cooder (an elegant sashay), Rod Stewart and The Faces (a bacchanalian feast), Johnny Winters (Texas Twister style) and Nils Lofgren (Twangtastic!).
When you can write songs like Bobby Womack you’ll never go out of style. People are always out there looking for a love and often later reflecting that it really is all over now. And, if you can incarnate those eternal emotional states in songs that just beg to be played you’re one of the greats. As Bobby Womack surely was.
This post dedicated to the memory of the deceased Valentinos:
Bobby Womack (1944-2014), Harry Womack (1945-1974) and Cecil Womack (1947-2013).
There’s a lovely, poignant version of, ‘ Looking For A Love’ recorded in 1974 by Bobby Womack with his brothers, just before Harry Womack’s death which is a wonderful swan-song for The Valentinos. Have a handkerchief handy.
Ace Records has issued an excellent 23 track Valentinos set called, ‘Looking For A Love’.