A couple of weeks ago, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced it's 2009 Inductees, and lo and behold, 3 Dark End of the Street Favorites are on the list: Bobby Womack, Wanda Jackson (as early influence), and Spooner Oldham (as sideman). So this week, we did a set of Womack songs, to be followed in the coming weeks by ones on the other two. The song that starts this week's show is Bobby's version of an unreleased (at the time) song by his mentor Sam Cooke, recorded at American Studios for his second solo record, My Prescription.
Over at his excellent B-Side blog, Red Kelly did a two part post of the early career of Bobby Womack, from his time singing gospel with his brothers as the Womack Brothers, to his early secular forays under the tutelage of Sam Cooke as the Valentinos, through his time as a studio musician in Memphis and association with Wilson Pickett, up to his first couple of records. Matter of fact, Red posted the B-Side (aptly enough) of this week's song, the similarly incredible, "Don't Look Back" (which to Red's discerning ear, may be the best track of all the great ones he's put up on the site). There's no need to rehash all that information here, just click on over to Red and get back to me.
First of all, the song: Mr. Cooke recorded it in late August, 1962 at the same time as "Nothing Can Change This Love," at RCA studio with Rene Hall coordinating the arrangements. As far as I can tell, it was never released in his lifetime (it doesn't even get mention in Peter Guralnick's extensive biography, "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke" which I heartily recommend). Coming on the heels of some time in Chicago with family and a 2 week tour of the West Indies, this studio session to record the follow up to the incredible gospel flavored reworking of Charles Brown's blue number "I Want to Come Home" as "Bring It On Home" b/w the stomper "Having a Party." It was a double sided hit and Mr. Cooke wanted to rush into the studio for "Nothing Can Change This Love," which I must admit, is the flowing pop standard side of his repertoire that I don't find as compelling as his other work (as a brief aside the song itself doesn't have to fit that mold, as evidenced by the live recording on "Live at the Harlem Sqaure Club"). Depite the lush orchestration and the sugar Romantic lines, Mr. Guralnick does well to describe the other side of the coin in the "sorrowful deliberation" of the ending: "It ends with as straight forward an admission of the lover's plight as you're ever likely to get from Sam."
I can't recall where I read this (might have been in Womack's autobiography), but apparently Bobby was playing guitar at this session. And, well, I'm not sure if that makes chronological sense, but the opening guitar line sound like vintage Womack: that elegant mix of a hard plucked line with the simplicity of a vocal melody. It really just sets the tone for the number perfectly: both looming and instantly recognizable. The organ (the brooding seems so unlike the recordings of the time, and is enthralling) and and rhythm section fill out behind the introduction and Sam just sings it with all the multifarious sentiment that made Sam such an incredible singer: each line starts with a new emotion. Most if it, Sam brings such a strained sense to the difficultly of the song's narrative.
Lyrically, it also has that very Sam Cooke sense of the universal scene, such common lines as taking her picture off the wall, the same old line, and fishes in the sea take on such an internal feel with Sam that emanates to all his listeners. (Aside: the lack of detail in Cooke's songwriting is probably more a product of his time and background music than a lack of creativity--I occasionally make the unsubstantiated claim that the era of specificity in songwriting begins with Chuck Berry, but that's probably another post).
Sam had recognized early the talent that Bobby had, as quoted by Guralnick in conversation with his brother, L. C. Cooke, after just signing the Womack brothers to SAR, "Now let me show you something about Bobby. It's different when you close your eyes and listen to him. When Bobby sings, he demands attention -- whether you like him or not, you're going to listen to him." In such a short statement, that really sums up Bobby Womack best for me: he demands attention. Bobby was no innovator in soul or rock music, but the size of his talent is immense. To borrow a metaphor from baseball, he's the rare 5 tool player: singer, songwriter, musician, arranger and showman. His guitar playing, beginning with the work with Sam, through his time as session musician in what I would argue is the greatest production/backing group ever at American studios under Chips Moman, to his own solo work was always so distinctive--simple, hard hitting and unforgetable and the same time. His singing always demanded an extra listen.
The way he reworks "I'm Gonna Forget About You" is a showcase for all that talent. He keeps the guitar introduction, but moves the backing vocals echoing the line with the chorus before the vocal lead, a trick that Dan Penn had learned earlier (and this may be part of what made this an "American Group Production"), about putting the hook of the title right up front for instant recognizability. The horns swell and punch then the genius of those backing vocals (echoing the horns) to counterpoint the attention grabbing gutteral vocal sound. And that's where Bobby can hiy hard everytime, it's not the deep growl of a Bobby Bland or his deep soul followers, it's something else entirely: it's stuck in his throat while being secondary to the catch of the melody, "If you stay, I'm gonnnna move" and especially the "Don't try to tell me that you're sor-ry / Whoooa don't give me the same old line" where the organ gives way to the drums coming up in the mix and really push his register up by the time the horns come back. And then to top it all off, he just smoothly eases into the chorus again. Wow. In one word: resilent.
The more and more I listen to these recordings from My Presciption, I'm just in awe of how tight the group is, how complex the layering of the arrangements are, and how well Bobby just brings it all together with the vocals. The American Group Production at its height and Bobby at his best. I just can't say enough about his talent (mostly cause I just don't have the words). This talent did him well for the rest of his career, scoring hits throughout the decades. A Hall of Famer indeed.
Department of discography: The Bobby Womack version on My Prescription is available (cheaply too in most cases) on a Charley double cd called Bobby Womack in Memphis which includes that record along with Fly Me to the Moon. It's absolutely essential Southern Soul. And for my money, My Prescription is the best solo record--great originals, stunning preformance and production that highlights both of those.
Also essential for the Womack Brothers/Valentinos and how unique Bobby's talent was even then is the double cd set Sam Cooke's SAR Story, which includes the first big commercial splash (although for some other band supposedlty), "It's All Over Now."
For his songwriting skills, the Wilson Pickett Atlanitc records from the late 60s are peppered with Womack songs--my personal favorites are The Sound of and I'm In Love, which each have 3 great Womack songs. As for his guitar playing at American Studios in the mid 60's, that's a whole nother post (or website for that matter).
If you want a whole overview of Bobby's solo career, the 2cd set, Midnight Mover: The Bobby Womack Collection has all the hits and more (including some just flat out incredible songs like the country soul "Arkansas State Prison" and the lightning in a bottle "What Is This" as well as the best of his later recordings).
The Sam Cooke version of the song appears on the even more essential 4cd set, The Man Who Invented Soul, which is really for my money the best place to start for those interested in Sam (although Live at the Harlem Square Club is a cheaper alternative if you're more into the gritty Cooke). Actually, the one problem (licensing) with that set is that it doesn't include the excellent recording done at the end of Sam's career for Abcko, so I would say buy the above mentioned 2, as well as the compilation Just Moving On, and really who at this point in our history can live without "A Change Is Gonna Come." Someone out there has put up a easy to navigate discography of Sam Cooke's recordings here.
Arthur Conley also recorded a version of "I'm Gonna Forget About You" on Sweet Soul Music, which has its own merits, and sounds worlds away from Bobby's version--more resigned than rebellious.
And check out the entertaining (although not that informative) autobiography of Bobby Womack: Midnight Mover: The True Story of the World's Greatest Soul Singer (modesty is apparently not a requirement for the HoF). If you want to learn about his recordings at American, you wouldn't find much, but if you want to hear funny stories about his experiences with prostitutes or his coke dealer, you'll be well rewarded.
Thanks for reading and listening, and I promise a Spooner Oldham show soon. Here's the set list:
James Carr; Dark End of the Street; Goldwax 317
Bobby Womack; I'm Gonna Forget About You; My Prescription; Minit
Wilson Pickett; I Found the One; The Sound of; Atlantic
Ella Washington; I Can't Afford To Lose Him; Sound Stage 7 2597
Gene Taylor; Don't Go Away; Minit 32073
Percy Sledge; Baby, Help Me; Atlantic 2383
The Valentinos; I Can Understand It, Part 1; Clean 60005
Aretha Franklin; That's the Way I Feel About 'Cha; Rare & Unreleased (Atlantic/Rhino)
Don Covay & the Goodtimers; Can't Stay Away; Rosemart 801
Geater Davis; I'm Gonna Change; Lost Soul Man (AIM)
Johnny Copeland; Dedicated to the Greatest; Wand 1114
Arthur Conley; Funky Street; Soul Directions; Atco
O.V. Wright; Into Something (Can't Shake It Loose); epon; Hi
Little Johnny Taylor; Zig Zag Lightning;
Peggy Scott & JoJo Benson; Love Will Come Sneaking Up On You; Soul Shake; SSS
Z. Z. Hill; Think People; Hill 222
Jimmy Hughes; Time Will Bring You Back; Fame 1015
The Wallace Brothers; You're Mine; Simms 174
Chris Kenner; What's Wrong With Life; The Name of the Place (Bandy)
Spenser Wiggins; Sweet Sixteen; Goldwax Years (Kent)
Otis Clay; Love Don't Love Nobody; Live in Japan; Rooster
Eddie Hinton; Cover Me; The Songwriting Sessions
Eldridge Holmes; Love Affair; Caroline Soul Survey (grapevine)
Joe Medwick; Secretly; Crazy Cajun Recordings (Edsel)
The Valentinos; I've Got a Girl (with chatter); Sam Cooke's SAR Records Story; ABKCO