Published: February 19, 2009 08:33 pm

Familys McDowell County roots extend to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

By Bill Archer
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

MAYBEURY A true band of brothers with musical roots that run deep in the black gospel tradition of southern West Virginia will be honored as a family in April when their most well-known sibling — Bobby Womack — is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Womack, 64, was the third son born to Naomi Womack, and the late Friendly Womack Sr., McDowell County natives who migrated from Maybeury to Charleston and later Cleveland in search of work. The elder Friendly Womack was well-known as a gospel singer in McDowell County, and when his sons came along, he and his wife encouraged them to sing.

“After we moved to Cleveland, we started singing on the television stations there,” Curtis Womack said. “I was only 9 years old, and I was the lead singer of the Womack Brothers. We picked up songs that you could sing in church, ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ and songs like that. We started building a following and we were doing a local television show. We performed with the Mississippi Blind Boys, the Alabama Blind Boys and we were pretty big when the Staples Singers approached us when they were getting started.”

Curtis and his older brother, Friendly Womack Jr., were both born in West Virginia in Charleston and Maitland respectively, but the other three brothers, Bobby, Harry (now deceased) and Cecil were all born in Cleveland. “Bobby played guitar, but our performances were mostly all vocals. A recording company tried to record us once, but there was so much shouting at our shows that the recording equipment couldn’t pick up our vocals. We sang to some real shouting crowds.”

The great Sam Cooke caught one of their performances and wanted the Womack Brothers to make the move from gospel to secular music and record on his label, SAR Records. “Sam inspired you,” Curtis Womack said. “He made you feel that you were special. His voice was an incredible gift from God, but he also had a special way about him when he talked to people.”

When Cooke signed the brothers, he changed the name of the group to the Valentinos. “We were the Black Valentinos,” Curtis Womack said. During their all-too-brief run, Bobby (and Shirley) Womack wrote the group’s most famous song, “It’s All Over Now,” a song that the Rolling Stones fell in love with during their first U.S. tour in 1964, recorded it and the song became the Stones’ No. 1. hit in the United Kingdom.

With the success of  “It’s All Over Now,” the Valentines were starting to gain fame for their gospel approach to rhythm and blues. The Valentinos were playing major venues and even performed as the opening act for James Brown at the Apollo Theater. “The second time we performed at the Apollo, we were the opening act for Sam Cooke,” Curtis Womack said. “Sam asked us to come to Texas before Christmas to perform with him, but he was killed before that.”

Cooke was shot and killed at a Los Angeles, Calif., motel on Dec. 11, 1964. Three months after Cooke’s death, Bobby Womack married his widow, Barbara Cooke. The marriage lasted five years, but the Valentinos only remained together until 1966 before drifting apart. Bobby Womack earned a great deal of respect for his solo career, his instrumental contributions and for his collaborations with other artists. For example, Janis Joplin recorded Womack’s “Trust Me” on her last album, “Pearl,” and Curtis tells an interesting story of how his brother Bobby helped inspire Joplin’s song, “Mercedes Benz.”

“Mick (Jagger) had been pushing for Bobby to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for several years,” Curtis Womack said. “Bobby would tell us every year that he was nominated, and he was telling us this year might be the year. When we found out in January that he was going to be inducted, we were all so proud of him. Mick is planning to attend the induction ceremony.”

April 4, will mark just the second time in the 24-year-history of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that the ceremony will be in Cleveland — the home of the hall. While the ceremony will be a homecoming for Bobby Womack, the show will also be a reunion for all four surviving members of the Valentinos.

“Bobby’s label, ABKCO Music and Records, is going to re-release one of his records,” Curtis Womack said. “They even found one of our old recordings that will be made a part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The girl from ABKCO Records sent me an itinerary for the program and, God willing, we’ll be there.”

The 2009 inductees include Jeff Beck, Chic, Wanda Jackson, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Metallica, Run-D.M.C., the Stooges, War and Bobby Womack. “We still have mom here with us, and we will all be going to Cleveland if God’s willing.”

Curtis and his wife Bernice live in the Mercer County area, while Naomi Womack still lives in McDowell County. “We are down here in West Virginia, but we just wanted to get news of this out on the wire,” Curtis Womack said. “We’re a family of singers.”

– Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com