The goldmine that is the ABKCO vault continues to pour out its riches. Earlier releases from the Stones, Sam Cooke, Herman’s Hermits, and the Cameo-Parkway catalog, are now complemented by a pair of seminal compilations by the Soul Stirrers and Valentinos. The former launched Sam Cooke’s career, and he returned the favor by signing the group to his own SAR label. The latter, comprised of future solo-legend Bobby Womack and his four brothers, (Friendly Jr., Curtis, Harry and Cecil), wove their father Friendly Sr.’s deep faith into a soulful sound born of Cleveland’s meanest streets. They held onto the fire of their church grounding even as their material moved from gospel to secular, and the arrangements from harmony-laden worship to hard-charging soul.
The group’s transition from sacred to profane didn’t happen all at once, nor ever completely. The driving rhythm of their first single, “Somebody’s Wrong,” and the soulful croon of “Somewhere There’s a God,” were never really left behind. Their lyrics soon turned to a search for romantic love, but the vocal fervor continued to resound with a congregant’s search for heavenly connection. Having himself made the transition from gospel to R&B in the mid-50s, Sam Cooke well understood both the stigma and opportunities. But after failing to gain commercial traction with Bobby Womack’s original gospel “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” Cooke convinced the group to try R&B, commissioned his staff songwriters to rework the melodic hook of “Pray” into “Lookin’ for a Love,” rechristened the group as the Valentino’s, and scored their first and biggest hit single in 1962.
It wasn’t the last time that the Womacks and their songwriters would develop R&B material from gospel roots. The 1962 B-side, “Somewhere There’s a Girl” borrowed its melody and lyrical structure from 1961’s “Somewhere There’s a God,” and 1963’s “She’s So Good to Me” was based on the gospel standard, “God is Good to Me.” Curtis and Bobby Womack wrote the lion’s share of the group’s material, supplemented by songs from Sam Cooke, J.W. Alexander and a few others. “Lookin’ for a Love” was followed by the low-charting “I’ll Make it Alright” and the non-charting “Baby Lots of Luck,” putting the group’s commercial fortune in question. But two years after their breakthrough, Bobby Womack offered up a song that would top the charts. Just not by the Valentinos.
The Valentino’s country-tinged original “It’s All Over Now,” co-written by Womack and his sister in law, Shirley, was just starting to gain notice when the Rolling Stones rushed into the Chess studio in Chicago to wax their immortal cover. The Valentinos original still managed to climb to #21 R&B, but stalled out in the low 90s Pop as the Stones version rode to the chart’s upper reaches. Womack initially felt oppressed, like so many other African-American artists before him who’d been covered on pop radio, but his mood quickly turned. As he told Terry Gross in 1999, “Well, I didn’t like their version ’cause I didn’t think Mick Jagger – and to this day I say Mick Jagger can’t out-sing me. You know, but, when I saw that first royalty check, I liked their version.”
A final single for SAR, “Everybody Wants to Fall in Love,” was released in 1964, and with Cooke’s death in December of that year, the label folded. Bobby Womack, who’d been playing in Cooke’s road band, moved on to session work and solo stardom, and a depleted Valentinos finished out the decade with Chess and Jubilee. Of the nineteen tracks included here, ten appeared on the 2001 anthology Sam Cooke’s SAR Records Story, but – incredibly – this is the first official reissue of the Valentinos’ full SAR catalog, including both sides of all seven singles, six previously unreleased masters (13, 15, 18, 19, 20, and 21), and a hidden bonus track of Sam Cooke giving direction in the studio. The 12-page booklet features session, chart and personnel data, photos, ephemera and extensive liner notes by Bill Dahl. This collection is decades overdue, but now that it’s here, you’ll find it was more than worth the wait. [©2015 Hyperbolium]