Had Bobby Womack's music career encompassed only his vocal chops, he would have been regarded as one of R&B's most distinctive voices, with a gritty, gospel-steeped sound that drove such hits as "That's The Way I Feel About Cha," "Woman's Gotta Have It" and the title track for "Across 110th Street" (1972) to the top of the charts between 1970 and 1975. But Womack was also an accomplished songwriter whose credits included "It's All Over Now," which gave the Rolling Stones their first No. 1 single in the United States, as well as George Benson's "Breezin'" and "Lookin' for a Love," which he penned for the Valentinos, an R&B act he formed with his brothers under the aegis of Sam Cooke. However, Womack's success was frequently offset by tremendous personal losses, from a scandal that erupted in the wake of his marriage to Cooke's widow, to tragic family deaths and a crippling drug addiction. All would eventually contribute to the decline of his star status in the mid-1970s, which would undergo sporadic revivals over the next three decades. But his best work earned him a devoted fanbase among other musicians, who frequently covered his songs or, like the U.K. "virtual band" Gorillaz, tapped him to lend old-school vocal fire to their neo-funky efforts like "Stylo." Bobby Womack's enduring fame and exceptional accomplishments lent credence to the title of his 1987 LP, The Last Soul Man. His death on June 27, 2014 was preceded by a final burst of creativity that served as a summation of his singular career.
Born Robert Dwayne Womack in Cleveland, OH on March 4, 1944, he was, as mentioned in the lyrics to "Across 110th Street," the third brother of five boys born to minister Friendly Womack and his wife, Naomi. His father was also a guitarist who, after discovering that his sons had their own musical abilities, put them on the road as a gospel act called The Womack Brothers. Backed by their parents on organ and guitar, and featuring 10-year-old Bobby on guitar, the group toured the gospel circuit before releasing their first single, "Buffalo Bill" on the Pennant label as Curtis Womack and the Womack Brothers. As Womack grew up, he developed a raw, soulful baritone that boosted his position in the group from backing vocalist to co-lead with his brother, Curtis. He befriended singer Sam Cooke in 1956 after the Womacks opened for his gospel group, the legendary Soul Stirrers. Cooke would serve as mentors for the group, and later signed them to his label, SAR Records, with the intention that they would move away from gospel to record secular R&B. Upon learning of this news, Womack's father threw his sons out of his house, forcing them to borrow money from Cooke to make the move to Los Angeles, where Womack frequently backed the singer on guitar in live performances.
After renaming them as The Valentinos, Cooke produced their first hit single, "Looking for a Love," which marked Womack's first success as a songwriter. It reached No. 8 on the R&B chart in 1962 and garnered them a spot on the James Brown Revue, where they earned their stripes as his opening act. Two years later, Womack scored again by penning "It's All Over Now," a minor hit for the Valentinos but a No. 1 smash for the Rolling Stones, who recorded their own version after hearing the original on New York DJ Murray the K's radio show. Initially incensed over the news, Womack soon changed his tune with the arrival of his first sizable royalty check from the song. The murder of Sam Cooke in 1964 cast a pall over the future of SAR Records, and the Valentinos soon disbanded. Womack attempted to launch a solo career, but found himself blackballed after marrying Cooke's widow, Barbara Campbell, three months after her husband's death. They would remain together for six years before divorcing in 1970.
Womack was soon supporting himself as a studio musician for acts like Aretha Franklin and Joe Tex, but his fortunes changed for the better after soul shouter Wilson Pickett recorded several of his songs, including "I'm in Love," which reached No. 4 on the R&B charts in 1968. By 1970, Womack had become a triple threat, scoring as a singer with gritty covers of such eclectic material as "California Dreamin'" and "Fly Me to the Moon" while penning hits for jazz guitarist George Benson ("Breezin'") and Janis Joplin ("Trust Me"). Womack also collaborated with Sly and the Family Stone on their groundbreaking record There's a Riot Goin' On (1971). The following year, Womack moved to United Artists, where his 1971 solo effort Communication reached No. 5 on the strength of its versatile mix of songs. Soulful covers of pop tunes like James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" and Burt Bacharach's "(They Long to Be) Close to You" flowed smoothly into country material ("Everything is Beautiful," by Ray Stevens) and funky originals like the Womack-penned "That's the Way I Feel About Cha," which featured the Valentinos on backing vocals. The song reached No 2 on the R&B charts and broke into the Top 30 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972.
The success of Communication spawned a series of critically acclaimed albums from Womack that consistently entered the upper strata of the charts. Understanding (1972) produced his first No. 1 R&B single, "Woman's Gotta Have It," which he co-wrote with his step-daughter, Linda Campbell, who later married Womack's brother, Cecil, before forming the singing duo Womack & Womack. A second single, "Harry Hippie," written by country singer Jim Ford about Womack's carefree brother, Harry, also entered the Top 10, but lost much of its gentle humor after its subject was murdered by a girlfriend in Womack's home in 1974. Understanding was soon followed by the soundtrack to the MGM crime film "Across 110th Street" (1972), which featured six original songs by Womack, including the searing title track, which was later featured in the films "Jackie Brown" (1997) and "American Gangster" (2007). Facts of Life (1973) landed a No. 2 hit with Womack's rearrangement of the much-covered blues standard by Jimmy Cox, while Lookin' for a Love Again (1974) gave him a second No. 1 R&B hit with a remake of his classic Valentinos tune.
But at the peak of his fame, Womack's personal life began to crumble under the weight of a serious drug problem. He had used cocaine since the late 1960s, but by the mid-1970s, his habit had blossomed into a full-blown addiction. His emotional state, which had never fully recovered from his brother's death, was dealt a devastating blow when his infant son, True, from his second marriage to Regina Banks, died in 1976. He attempted to bury his feelings in his work, but the hits began to dry up after his 1976 song "Daylight." An album of country songs titled BW Goes C&W spurred UA to move him to Columbia, where he floundered for the remainder of the decade. Womack soon reined in his career to wrest some control over his spiraling personal life. He contributed guest vocals to Inherit the Wind (1980), a solo effort by Jazz Crusader Wilton Felder, which generated a hit with the title track and an invitation to sign with the Beverly Glen label.
Womack's 1981 album, The Poet, spawned a No. 3 R&B hit with "If You Think You're Lonely Now," which preceded a string of Top 10 singles, including 1984's "Love Has Finally Come at Last" with Patti LaBelle. Contractual issues forced him to abandon Beverly Glen for MCA, where he produced several hits, including "I Wish He Didn't Trust Me So Much." In 1986, he brought his legacy full circle by joining the Rolling Stones on their version of the Bob and Earl classic "Harlem Shuffle" from Dirty Work, but his newfound success was unmoored by the 1986 suicide of his son, Vincent, from his marriage to Barbara Campbell. Last Soul Man in 1987 marked his final album for a major label for over a decade. He bounced between various indie imprints for much of the 1990s while contributing to various projects, including a cover of George Gershwin's "Summertime" for the Red Hot + Rhapsody benefit album. The all-star 1994 LP Resurrection, for Ron Wood's Slide Records, indicated a comeback of sorts, with contributions by longtime admirers like Keith Richards and Rod Stewart.
But his legacy was best kept alive by his growing list of admirers, which came to include K-Ci Hailey of Jodeci, who covered "If You Think You're Lonely Now" in 1994, while Mariah Carey namedropped Womack in her No. 1 pop hit "We Belong" (2005). Kelly Rowland would score a U.K. chart hit with her cover of his 1976 song "Daylight" in 2008. The following year, R&B singer Calvin Richardson released Facts of Life: The Soul of Bobby Womack, a Top 40 album of Womack covers timed to coincide with his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. Womack earned his biggest audience in decades with a guest appearance on "Stylo," a single from Plastic Beach, the third album from Blur singer Damon Albarn's wildly popular side project, Gorillaz. Womack reunited with the group for their 2011 album, The Fall, but the year was largely dominated by a series of health issues, including pneumonia, which left him hospitalized. He recovered with renewed vigor, as evidenced by a 2012 comeback album, The Bravest Man in the Universe, produced by Albarn. The album's launch was hampered by Womack's ongoing health issues: funk bassist Bootsy Collins announced on his Facebook page that Womack had been hospitalized with colon cancer. In May 2012, Womack was declared cancer free following surgery to remove a tumor. Suffering from multiple major illnesses, Bobby Womack died on June 27, 2014.
By Paul Gaita