Sound Check: Friendly Womack Jr.—Coming Full Circle After Lookin’ For a Love

Along the gospel highway in the 1950s through the early 1960s, the gospel greats known as The Soul Stirrers sparked a movement in music that influenced the likes of The Womack Brothers—five siblings from Cleveland, Ohio (Friendly Jr., Curtis, Bobby, Harry, and Cecil). Their sanctified harmonizing drew the attention of The Soul Stirrers’ young front man, Sam Cooke. Fast forward a few years after Cooke successfully crossed over into secular music and started SAR Records, he launched the springboard that would catapult the church-infused quintet into music history. After releasing two gospel singles on SAR, Cooke encouraged the group to add R&B to their repertoire. That decision, with their father’s blessing, a name change into The Valentinos, and Cooke’s talent for catching the soulful emotional performances in the studio, helped the group land on the Billboard charts with the single “Lookin’ for a Love.”

After several singles were released, the unthinkable happened: Sam Cooke was killed December 11, 1964, and many of their recordings were buried as SAR folded. Friendly had already left the group prior to Cooke’s death. Bobby married Cooke’s widow, putting a black mark on the launch of his solo career. The remaining three Valentinos went on to record several singles for Chess/Checker and then Jubilee. Friendly Jr. rejoined the group and the quartet went on sing background vocals for Bobby over the next few years. Their story isn’t without more tragedy. Harry was stabbed to death by his girlfriend in 1974. Cecil married Motown’s Mary Wells, and later Sam’s daughter Linda Cooke, forming the hit singing duo Womack & Womack. He died in 2013, and a year later, Bobby Womack passed away in June, leaving behind a powerful discography that still speaks to the music lover’s soul.

Fifty years after Sam Cooke’s death, ABKCO Records recently released Lookin’ For a Love: The Complete SAR Recordings, which consists of tracks recorded between 1961 and 1964.  For the remaining two brothers, Friendly Jr. and Curtis, it’s been a long time coming for the group’s first album to be released.

SoulTrain.com caught up with Friendly Womack Jr. to discuss working with some of music’s great artists from Sam Cooke to James Brown and how his brothers are being remembered.

SoulTrain.com: With the release of The Valentinos’ album, it’s technically the group’s very first album and it’s been released over 50 years later. How does that feel for it to finally be out?

Friendly Womack Jr.:  This really is our first album, because we released a lot of singles back then, so especially with the compilation of the songs they picked out this is a good album.

SoulTrain.com: What was it like working with Sam Cooke the producer in the studio?

Friendly Womack Jr.:  Well, Sam Cooke was good at what he did. Working in the studio with him, you always thought you had it right but he always had a different twist to put on it and make it better. His whole thing was to make you sing and perform in a way that would not be easily imitated by others. We would be in the studio for a long time, but Sam didn’t have a hard job because we had been singing together for so long, we could comprehend musically whatever he wanted us to sing.

SoulTrain.com: What have you been doing over the years? You left the group at one point and opened a record store. Talk about what has been keeping you busy over the last few years.

Friendly Womack Jr.: I don’t have the record store anymore—it was in Cleveland; then I relocated to Los Angeles, and then for the past 20 years or so, I’ve been living in Little Rock, Arkansas. As far as music is concerned we’ve always done background vocals for a number of artists over the years, like Patti LaBelle and Teddy Pendergrass. Along with that, we have been doing our own stuff also.

SoulTrain.com: Mr. Womack, why didn’t you pursue a solo career and release your own album?

Friendly Womack Jr.: You know, the funny thing about that, it’s in the works. I was just approached about doing an R&B album and so I’ll be going in the studio soon and it’s just very exciting for me.

SoulTrain.com: Reading the Bobby Womack: My Story book, it has the story of how your father discovered that you and your brothers could sing and play instruments. It’s so similar to the story that we all know and love about how Joe Jackson discovered how his boys could sing, and how Tito broke the guitar string and the rest is history.

Friendly Womack Jr.: It’s interesting because I always felt like we were the Jacksons of our time. We didn’t learn how to play and sing, we were self-taught. We would listen to other groups sing and listen to our father and his group sing during their rehearsals, and we were able to just have a gift of being able to pick out the voices and sing them verbatim, and that’s what he was trying to teach his group.

SoulTrain.com: Was your father a big disciplinarian?

Friendly Womack Jr.: Like Joe Jackson? My dad was a lot stricter than Joe Jackson. We had to rehearse just like the Jacksons, we had to rehearse every day for hours. He didn’t let up off of us. The only difference between us and the Jacksons is we were doing gospel, and they were doing R&B and dancing. We weren’t doing all that; we just sang.

SoulTrain.com: Many who started in the industry at such a young age talk about missing out on the experiences that are common during childhood. Do you feel like you missed out on any part of your childhood?

Friendly Womack Jr.: No. We may not have had as complete a childhood that most youngsters, but we were doing something that we loved to do, so we didn’t really miss playing basketball and stuff like that. We did get a chance to do it, but just not as much as other kids.

SoulTrain.com: Let’s skip a couple of years and talk about meeting Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, and how he helped you crossover into secular music.

Friendly Womack Jr.: We met Sam Cooke when he was still with the Soul Stirrers and at the time he was probably about 19 years old. We were appearing with him in a program in Cleveland. He was so impressed with the group. At first the other Soul Stirrers didn’t want us to sing, but he persisted and they let us sing and he never forgot the group. We just didn’t know how to get in touch with him once he left gospel music to do secular music. A friend of ours was singing with the Five Blind Boys and he put us in touch with Sam Cooke, and that’s how the relationship really got started to record for his label. We ended up making an agreement with him that if the gospel songs that we had recorded for SAR Records did not do well commercially, then we would consider doing R&B but he’d have to clear it through our dad first.

SoulTrain.com: That was probably a gigantic hurdle to get across, wasn’t it?

Friendly Womack Jr.: Oh yes! Our father was very stubborn and a very religious man, so he wasn’t about to agree to us doing secular music. So Sam Cooke’s partner at the time, J.W. Alexander, was probably more influential getting my father to change his mind. He was able to assure my father that he would take care of us. Both of them were Masons, so he believed J.W. would take care of us and make sure we didn’t get into drinking and drugs.  We learned a lot about the music business once we got to Los Angeles, and Sam was able to really guide our career by putting us with people who were good at what they did, like James Brown, and he was able to put us with people in his organization that helped guide us with dancing and singing, and basically carry our own weight.

SoulTrain.com: What was that like being in the James Brown boot camp?

Friendly Womack Jr.: I have never worked with anyone that worked as hard as James Brown. He had Bobby Byrd mentor us and he worked tirelessly with us. We were able to put a show together that pleased James Brown and that’s basically what he wanted. James Brown was a very good teacher himself; we watched him work with the Flames and Fred Wesley and the band. Everybody did their job and they did it well—he wouldn’t have had it any other way. James ran things like the military, everybody had to dress, talk, and walk the same. We learned how to be extremely disciplined about the way we performed after working with him. Everything was for the audience, and if it didn’t please the audience then James felt like you hadn’t done your job.

SoulTrain.com: So once you crossed over, The Valentinos started seeing some songs on the charts. At that point did you go to your father and say, “we told you so?”

Friendly Womack Jr.:  We hadn’t gotten that familiar with our father. We let him say it, he appreciated the fact that commercially we were able to do things. His main concern is that we could take care of ourselves and he could take care of my mom, because no one had gone to college and we hadn’t had any way economically to go to college. So he thought that singing would be a way out for us.

SoulTrain.com: Tell me your thoughts and interactions with the following people: Jimi Hendrix.

Friendly Womack Jr.:  When we first met Jimi Hendrix he was the guitar player for Little Richard. We were out with Little Richard and Jimi played guitar upside down like my brothers did, so they had a lot in common.

SoulTrain.com: What about Sam’s brother, L.C. Cooke?

Friendly Womack Jr.: We actually met L.C. Cooke before we met Sam. L.C. was recording for Chess Records at the time and had a hit record in secular music. L.C. was just like Sam, they talked alike, looked alike, and L.C. was into his own career and wasn’t really trying to help us in that direction. L.C. was a good friend and as a matter of fact, he is one of my good friends today. We talk quite frequently.

SoulTrain.com: How about Jackie Wilson?

Friendly Womack Jr.:  We performed with Jackie Wilson at the Apollo. Jackie was a showman and a professional. At one point Jackie had sang gospel too so he sort of knew where we were coming from so he was able to help us with showmanship.

SoulTrain.com: What about Solomon Burke?

Friendly Womack Jr.: Solomon was a young boy preacher. We met him at the Apollo and he was  a very nice person. Over the years he was a person we’d see frequently. He was a very talented musician.

SoulTrain.com: Did you have any interaction with Gorgeous George?

Friendly Womack Jr.: Now, George was a showman. He could sing but George was a tailor—he made a lot of clothes for a lot of the groups like the Temptations, The Supremes, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, The Drifters, and many more. He was a stylist and he could design clothes and as an entertainer, you don’t mind wearing yellow or orange suits to perform in. He was very good at that. I saw George at one of the last shows that Bob did with Ronald and Ernie Isley and Frankie Beverly in Mississippi. I got the chance to see him then.

SoulTrain.com: Everyone is familiar with the story of Bobby marrying Sam Cooke’s widow, Barbara, and how it may have put a black cloud over the launch of his solo career and the distancing of the rest of the family. Do you think his marriage was the reason for everything that happened?

Friendly Womack Jr.: Along that period of time, people were more adept to take a more positive or negative view as to what you did. Sam Cooke, let’s face it, was one of the most beloved artists that had come along during that time. When he passed the way that he did, Bob was his guitar player, and for him to marry Barbara Cooke, a lot of people frowned on that, especially in Sam’s home state of Illinois. He was just an artist everybody loved. A lot of people didn’t like the fact that he married Barbara Cooke.

SoulTrain.com: There has always been the rumor floating around that Bobby wore one of Sam’s suits to his funeral, which added more fuel to the fire. Is that story true?

Friendly Womack Jr.: You have to look at the fact that Bob was like 18 years old when Sam passed away. Sam had a lot of clothes and Barbara just split the clothes up between members of the group. Everybody got suits, shoes, ties, and shirts, jewelry all of that stuff. Most people give away stuff when someone dies. It really just got blown out of proportion, especially with him being a celebrity. People took it to another level.

SoulTrain.com: What was the best advice you got from Sam Cooke?

Friendly Womack Jr.:  The best advice we got from Sam Cooke was to save your money. He would always say you never know if you are going to be singing tomorrow or how things would turn out in your life. He always said save it or invest it in case you can’t sing anymore or you get too old to sing, but you need to be able to take care of yourself. Most entertainers don’t stop and take the time to get health insurance or life insurance, but he was a stickler about that.

SoulTrain.com: Are you happy with the ways your brothers Harry, Cecil, and Bobby have been remembered?

Friendly Womack Jr.: You know, I’m happy about the way they have been remembered, but maybe not so commercially. Stuff is always coming up, you know stories and stuff you didn’t know about, but I’m pretty well pleased with how they have been remembered.

SoulTrain.com: There was some mention of Bobby working on another album at the time of his death. Will that album ever be released?

Friendly Womack Jr.: It will, he actually has two. One is with Excel Records in London and then there is material that my brother Curtis had produced on Bobby. Those will be released in the near future.

To order Lookin’ For a Love: The Complete SAR Recordings check out Amazon.com.

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—Shameika Rene’

Shameika Rene’ is a journalist of all trades. She can usually be found producing television news and writing for various websites such as Charlotte Vibe, Creative Loafing, Carolina Style Magazine, Uptown Magazine, WEtv.com, or her own websites, www.themofochronicles.com and www.conversationswithmeik.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter & Instagram @mofochronicles.

One Comment

  1. CTCiss says:

    Enjoyed reading Mr. Womack’s Comments about The Womack Brothers, I’m more familiar with Bobby Womack thru his recordings its seems to me there was quite a bit of Talent with this Family. Recently I ran across a Recipe written by Chef Jeff and he let it be known that Friendly Womack, Jr. had taught him how to fry chicken tried their technique and I must say it was very good. Mr. Womack if you got any more recipes especially something your mother may have taught you, i would encourage you to put those recipes in a cookbook put out there so we all can enjoy your heritage.

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