Bobby Womack: “I live what I sing. Everything I write about, I’ve been through.”

Ten years on from his death in 2014, MOJO pays tribute to soul legend Bobby Womack

Bobby Womack

by Geoff Brown |
Published on

Bobby Womack was the gospel prodigy turned soul superstar who played with Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett and Sly Stone. Ten years on from his death in 2014, MOJO’s Geoff Brown pays tribute to a master singer, songwriter and guitarist who reinvented his career time and time again...

It was 4.30 in the afternoon on a hot, late April day in 1975 and Bobby Womack, recumbent on his west London hotel bed, resplendent in grey pyjamas, was breakfasting on fried chicken. In town recording Ronnie Wood’s second solo album, Now Look, he’d got to bed only at midday and had been awoken soon after by his manager, ringing from the States. Despite that our interview lasted well over an hour during which he was lucid, candid, opinionated and amusing about the foibles of some of the stars he’d worked with, from Sly Stone and Wilson Pickett to Wood and Rod Stewart.

“Me and Rod [Stewart] was originally supposed to get together,” he said at the time, “but I just didn’t hit it off with Rod like I did with Ronnie. When I saw Rod it was like he kept holding back… but Ron would just come in wild and crazy like he’d known me for a hundred years and I dug it.”

That first meeting set the tone for the subsequent four or five conversations this writer had over the decades with the soul talent who’d sat at the feet of the style’s originators Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, absorbed their lessons, and become a singer, songwriter, guitarist, collaborator and session man whose wide reach embraced all styles of contemporary music, way past the obvious gospel, soul, R&B and blues that were his stock in trade.

That span of influences, and a distinctive guitar-playing style, enabled Womack to reinvent himself five times during a career that started as a 1950s gospel prodigy in a vocal quintet. He followed the trail blazed by his mentor Cooke into secular soul singing, was reborn as a prolific and effective sideman in the ’60s until later that decade he restarted his R&B career with a series of superb solo albums lasting into the mid ’70s. When that style stalled in the face of disco’s charge, Womack re-emerged in the ’80s as a maturer soul star until, gripped by drugs, illness and a sense he was losing touch with music in the ’90s and early part of this century, he had one last incarnation as soul legend and survivor and a featured appearance at Glastonbury 2013.

Some months after that performance, I spoke to Womack one last time for MOJO’s 20th anniversary issue, and although he sounded as frail as any 70-year-old who’d lived such a full and eventful life had a right to, and had battled drug addiction and cancer so late in it, he did not show many signs of the Alzheimer’s he was said to be suffering from when he cast his mind back to the man he was at 20 years old working with his prime influence, Sam Cooke. He relished it, in fact. “Sam was a leader… I had a lot of respect for him. He was easy-going, but he kept you growing.”

Robert Dwayne Womack was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on March 4, 1944, the third brother of five, as he put it in his theme song for the 1972 film Across 110th Street, and his career in music would encompass enough achievement, heartache and triumphant returns for all four brothers: the eldest, Friendly Jr, named for his father, Friendly, and Curtis, and his two younger siblings, Harry and Cecil. It was on Friendly’s guitar that Bobby, aged six or seven, taught himself to play in that inimitable fashion, holding the right-hand strung instrument upside down to play it left handed. He developed his vocal chops in church with his brothers as The Womack Brothers who, when Bobby was eight or nine, were spotted by Sam Cooke.

Later Cooke, aged 22, signed The Womack Brothers to his SAR label, produced gospel tracks for them in 1961 and a year later encouraged them to defy their father and sing secular music. Taking the gospel song Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray, they gave it earthier lyrics as Lookin’ For A Love and changed the group’s name to The Valentinos.  Cooke took Bobby on the road as his guitarist, influencing his singing style – that strong sense of melody, an optimism yet with a gritty edge in moments of passion or heartbreak. He advised Womack to let The Rolling Stones cover It’s All Over Now despite the younger man’s misgivings. It became, of course, their first UK Number 1 hit.

But the gospel world had long known all about this prodigy. At 13 his parents let him go on the road with The Blind Boys Of Mississippi for a weekend as long as he was brought back in time for school. “They kept me out for a month and a half! I didn’t wanna go to school no way, when you had to live you had to deal with the streets and life itself… we’ll be at school forever.” As if to prove it, Bobby learned his gospel-soul scream from the Blind Boys lead voice Archie Brownlee.

In 1965, 20-year-old Bobby’s world imploded when Cooke was shot dead. Convinced he should provide for Cooke’s widow, Barbara, who was 29, he alienated the gospel and R&B communities by marrying her. It took him years to recover his place in the arena that had been his marketplace. In the interim he threw himself into songwriting and any session work he could find. He was a prolific songwriter and productive guitar player for others: as band member and co-writer with Wilson Pickett and in Ray Charles’s band (1965-68), on sessions for Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley (Suspicious Minds) and The Box Tops (The Letter) among many top dates.

This barrage of productivity encouraged Minit to sign him, initiating a series of remarkable albums in which his own R&B compisitions were matched with instinctively soulful readings of unlikely songs – his uptempo Fly Me To The Moon gave the ballad made famous by Tony Bennett a jaunty reinvention – and unpromising material like Jonathan King’s Everyone’s Gone To The Moon. But just as good were Womack’s own songs. On those earliest albums, 1968’s Fly Me To The Moon and ’69’s My Prescription, his co-write with Wilson Pickett, Midnight Mover, I’m In Love (also a Pickett hit), Oh How I Miss You Baby, More Than I Can Stand and I’m Gonna Forget About You have stood the test of time as tender, heartfelt, soulful love songs, usually based on personal experiences.

In 1970 a move to United Artists signalled a higher profile. Many of his compositions and recordings immediately after Cooke’s death and its nuptial consequences were clearly inspired by Womack’s emotional dislocation, from I’m In Love (why I married Barbara) to the traditional Tried And Convicted (why they hate me). He’d moved on now, but the well of emotion still found expression on early ’70s albums like Communication and Understanding – I Can Understand It, Woman’s Gotta Have It, the gospel song Yield Not To Temptation, which he first recorded as the B-side of The Womack Brothers’ debut single in 1961, Jim Ford’s Harry Hippie, which became a tribute to Harry Womack after his brother was stabbed to death by a girlfriend in 1974, and Bobby’s interpretations of such as James Taylor’s Fire And Rain and The Carpenters’ Close To You. Womack improvises on those familiar hits giving them strong overtones of blues and gospel as the warmth and grittiness in his voice lift them out of their folk and pop beginnings.

In our 1975 interview, as well as expressing satisfaction that he’d at last been allowed to produce his own album (I Don’t Know What The World Is Coming To), he groused about his record label’s reluctance to issue the country music he’d recorded (BW Goes C&W was eventually released in 1976). He had ventured into jazz on Gabor Szabo’s 1971 album High Contrast, unveiling his songs Breezin’ (later the title track of George Benson’s breakthrough Number 1 US hit) and If You Don’t Want My Love.

Significant R&B hits, Womack’s ’70s albums rarely made the US pop charts, and certainly not the UK’s, yet rock artists clamoured to use him: he worked on the chaotic sessions for Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On; Janis Joplin covered his Trust Me on Pearl, Bobby playing on the track. Womack was the soul man for all seasons: a soundtrack (Across 110th Street) was the equal of iconic blaxploitation scores Shaft and Curtis Mayfield's Superfly; a storming The Womack Live set, its monologue, The Preacher, illustrating his skill as an on-stage raconteur.

In the later ’70s he tired of record labels, and they tired of him; his marriage to Barbara failed by 1970 when she caught him in bed with Linda, her daughter with Sam who would later marry Bobby’s brother Cecil, who had been married to former Motown star Mary Wells; in 1978 and now with a new wife, Regina, Bobby found their four-month-old son Truth dead in bed. Yet Womack rose again in the ’80s.

He sang on Crusader saxman Wilton Felder’s 1980 hit Inherit The Wind, and signed to Otis Smith’s Beverly Glen indie, using long-time songwriting colleague Jim Ford plus brothers Cecil, Curtis and Friendly Jr, among others, for 1981’s The Poet and its hurtin’ gem, If You Think You’re Lonely Now. It was the first of what became a soul album triptych – with 1984’s Poet II, including three duets with Patti Labelle, and ’85’s Some Day We’ll All Be Free – that put Womack’s voice right back at the top of the soul agenda. However, a dispute with label boss Otis Smith kept Bobby in court for much of 1982, and by ’85 he’d switched to MCA. After featuring on Wilton Felder’s hit album Secrets, and its hit single (No Matter How High I Get) I’ll Still Be Lookin’ Up To You, a duet with Alltrinna Grayson all too typical of the ’80s, Womack fared less well under his own name through the rest of the decade, including the valedictorially titled The Last Soul Man.

Weariness with the business and disillusionment with music’s direction again saw Womack at a low ebb as drug addiction gripped him once more. But in the new century yet another chance presented itself and like a fighter on the ropes who doesn’t know when he’s beaten, Womack got up, cleaned up, and at Damon Albarn’s request sang a vocal on Stylo, a track on Gorillaz’ third album,  2010’s Plastic Beach.

By now suffering from or recovering from a cocktail of illnesses – diabetes, prostate cancer, pneumonia among them – that weakened his body, and voice, he nonetheless recorded a one more solo album, The Bravest Man In The Universe, with Albarn and producer Richard Russell. The pain and fragility of Womack’s singing was touching, and noble.

“I live what I sing,” Womack told me in ’75, “and everything I write about, I been through it. It’s easy to write ’cos it’s been my life. Like, ‘Nobody wants you when you’re down and out.’ I know what it feels like to be down and out.” Happily, when Bobby Womack left us he was back at the top where he belonged.

This article originally appeared in MOJO 250. The latest issue of MOJO is on sale now, more info and to order a copy HERE.

MOJO 369
Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us