Friday, April 3, 2009

Crying All The Way To #1

Back in the mid to late 80s, in-car CD players were largely the domain of luxury model vehicles, often of European heritage. My particular mode of transport, circa 1988, was a humble, but trusty, little ‘84 vintage Ford Laser hatchback. It’s music related amenities comprised two speakers, a radio, and cassette player. To a 19 or 20 year old, even one with a voracious appetite for popular music, a functioning engine and four wheels that could turn, mattered more than the opulence of having a CD player on the road. Besides, I couldn’t manufacture my own compilation CD’s in those days, and the audio cassette still held sway as the principal mode of recording said compilations. In a cruel irony of sorts, the relentless pace of technological development has, in more recent years, seen the in car CD player go the way of road maps - rendered an antiquated auto-accessory, supplanted in kind by MP3 players, Sat-Navs, and such like. What is this an episode of ‘Top Gear’? Get to the music already!

In late ‘88, I moved out of the big city smoke, and back to a small country town. I continued working in said urban environment (for a time), and so extended commutes to and from work became the day to day norm. Commercial radio (and even JJJ) could only offer so much on board entertainment, so I began making countless audio cassette compilations to accompany me (soundtrack style) on these daily journeys. After just a few years, I had accumulated so many of these cassettes in my car, that it necessitated me storing them in a small blue eski (ice-box), as a means of preventing them from melting on especially hot summer days (of which we receive more than a few in this part of Australia). The eski storage system worked a treat by the way, other than the fact that it was a little difficult rummaging around in side the eski for a fresh cassette title, whilst driving in traffic. Did I say that? I meant it necessitated me pulling over safely to a stop, to carry out the cassette change over.

When I bought a vinyl 45 single during the late 80s, it was almost immediately dubbed to cassette, for driving related purposes. So as a consequence, twenty years on, I strongly associate many of my favourite songs from that era, with driving on the open road (or being stuck in city traffic). The groove-laden track ‘Teardrops’, by Womack & Womack, is one such song that became a travelling companion of sorts to me during that time.

Womack & Womack were the husband and wife team of Cecil Womack, and Linda Womack. To their union in marriage, indeed their union in music, both members of the couple brought with them considerable musical pedigree. Cecil (brother of Bobby), Linda (daughter of Sam Cooke). Singer/guitarist Cecil Womack grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, playing music alongside his brothers, initially in a gospel group called, appropriately enough, the Womack Brothers during the late 50s. Bobby, Cecil, Curtis, Harris and Friendly Jr. established themselves as a leading act alongside other gospel circuit acts like the Soul Stirrers, featuring lead singer Sam Cooke. After Cooke hit the big time as a solo act, he signed the Womack Brothers to his Sar label, under the name The Valentinos. The quintet scored a string of minor R&B style hits between 1962 and 1964, most notably ‘It’s All Over Now’ (US#94), which was later covered to great success by the Rolling Stones, and ‘Lookin’ For A Love’ (US#72 - later covered by J. Geils Band, and also Bobby Womack). Following Cooke’s death in 1964, The Valentinos disbanded, and the Womack brothers went on to various endeavours, music and non-music related.

Bobby Womack, known as ‘The Preacher’, married Sam Cooke’s widow Barbara in 1965 (technically making Linda his stepdaughter), and went on to become one of the most respected session guitarists in the business. He played/toured with the likes of Wilson Pickett, The Box Tops, Joe Tex, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Janis Joplin, and Sly Stone, to name a few. Bobby Womack also developed as a song writer of rare distinction, writing hits for Wilson Pickett and George Benson, among others. He also carved out a successful solo career from the late sixties onwards, scoring several major hits, including ‘That’s The Way I Feel About Cha’ (US#27-1972), the former Valentinos’ hit ‘Lookin’ For A Love’ (US#10-1974), and ‘I’m Back For More’ (UK#27-1993). Albums such as ‘Communication’ (1971), and ‘The Poet’ (1981), further solidified Bobby Womack’s reputation as one of the outstanding soul/R&B artists of his generation.

Following the break-up of The Valentinos, Bobby’s younger brother Cecil also went on to session work. In 1967 he married singing sensation Mary Wells (‘My Guy’), and the couple had three children during their ten year marriage. Cecil Womack then caused a bit of a stir by marrying his brother’s stepdaughter (which though a little unconventional is fine in a legal sense) Linda Cooke, or maybe she was already going by the Womack family name. Regardless, the newly weds struck up a successful songwriting partnership during the late 70s/early 80s, working for a time out of the famed Philadelphia International Records stable, and penned songs for the likes of soul/R&B legends like Teddy Pendergrass, Wilson Pickett, Patti LaBelle, George Benson, and Aretha Franklin.

By 1983 Mr. & Mrs. Womack had made the decision to try their hand as recording artists in their own right. They signed a deal with the Elektra label, and in partnership with producer Stewart Levine (worked with Lionel Richie, Joe Cocker), recorded their debut album ‘Love Wars’ (UK#45/US#34-R&B). The lead out single, and title track, hit the UK charts in April 1984, and reached a peak of #14. The album was critically well received, and featured a strong mix of contemporary brand soul/R&B, with roots in the work of 60s soul legends like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, complimented by lyrics of undeniably authentic emotional resonance. As would become synonymous with their work, the ‘Love Wars’ album was a Womack family affair, and included contributions from Cecil’s brothers Friendly Jr. and Curtis (who performed lead vocals on the track ‘T.K.O.’, and daughter Naomi. The follow up single ‘Baby I’m Scared Of You’ reached #72 in Britain during mid ‘84, but the third single ‘Express Myself’ failed to express itself on the charts.

1985’s sophomore album ‘Radio M.U.S.C. Man’ featured an agreeable blend of laid back, soul infused grooves, including a nice cover of The Beatles’ ‘Here Comes The Sun’. Many of the album’s tracks had been unfinished Sam Cooke compositions, which Cecil and Linda Womack took it upon themselves to complete. The single ‘Strange & Funny’ missed the charts, but its source album sold moderately well (UK#56/US#51-R&B), but it would be the duo’s final outing for Elektra. In 1986, the low key affair ‘Star Bright’ was released on Manhattan Records, but neither album, nor single ‘Soul Love’ (UK#58), made any real impression. To that point, Womack & Womack had made more inroads into Britain than at home in the States. In April ‘87 the duo were featured on the bill for the all-star ‘Artists Against AIDS’ benefit concert, held at Wembley Arena, performing on the same stage as the likes of Elton John and George Michael. Further illustrating the couples obvious social conscience, they also performed at ‘Sports Aid ‘88’, held in Sheffield, England during September (alongside the likes of the Proclaimers, Mica Paris, Big Country, and Squeeze).

Conscience by nature, conscience by album title, as evidenced on Womack & Womack’s first outing for their adopted Island label home. Island founder/owner Chris Blackwell co-produced 1988’s ‘Conscience’ album, alongside a collective going by the name The Gypsy Wave Banner Co. (which was actually a pseudonym for Cecil Womack). Once more the studio was inundated with members of the Womack family, as backing vocals were provided by Naomi and Virginia, bass by Travis B., and drums by Earl ‘The Pearl’ Womack. The family atmosphere worked a treat, as the ‘Conscience’ album became by far and away Womack & Womack’s biggest selling set (UK#4/OZ#8/US#74-R&B). Sales were aided in no small part by the runaway success of the lead out single ‘Teardrops’. The song, co-written by Dr. Rue & The Gypsy Wave Banner Co. (AKA Linda & Cecil Womack), hit the British charts during August of ‘88, and its relentlessly funky rhythms carried it all the way to #3. ‘Teardrops’ also brought a smile to music fans across many European territories, breaching the top 10 in Austria, the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Switzerland. The track hit Australian airwaves soon after, debuting on the national chart during November ‘88. Over the summer of 88/89, the song received a regular workout on my private ‘in-car’ radio station, and by February ‘89, ‘Teardrops’ had peaked at the summit of the national charts. The song returned to the Australian charts in early 2008, for local singer Kate Alexa (OZ#26). The duo’s profile was consolidated over the first few months of ‘89, with the success of follow up singles ‘Life’s Just A Ballgame’ (UK#32), and ‘Celebrate The World’ (UK#19/OZ#38).

Surprisingly, Womack & Womack then moved to their fourth label in as many albums, for 1991’s ‘Family Spirit’. The Arista released set failed to build on the momentum established by its predecessor, and neither album, or singles ‘Uptown’ and ‘My Dear (The Letter)’, found an address on the charts. Cecil and Linda Womack then began their very deliberate, and public transformation from Womack & Womack to The House Of Zekkariyas. They released the 1993 album ‘Transformation To The House of Zekkariyas’, via Warner Music, and adopted the names Zeriiya (Linda) and Zekuumba Zekkariyas. With producer Russ Titelman (worked with George Harrison, Chaka Khan, Eric Clapton), the duo released the electronic-dance track ‘Secret Star’ (UK#46) in early 1994. In the mid 90s Cecil and Linda Womack moved to Africa, along with their seven children. They continued to record as The House Of Zekkariyas, and in 2002 released the album ‘Sub Conscience’, a fully fledged family affair, that reflected their committed spiritual and cultural beliefs.

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