Date of Birth: 4 March 1944, Cleveland, Ohio, US
Birth Name: Bobby Womack
Bobby Womack, was a rhythm and blues guitarist and songwriter and, despite a life that was luridly eventful even by the grand guignol standards of the milieu, the last great surviving exponent of the “testifying” style of soul singing.
“Testifying”, rooted in gospel music, came to the fore in the 1960s through the impassioned performances of such singers as Otis Redding, James Brown and Wilson Pickett. Womack’s own voice ran the gamut from a smooth, beseeching baritone to an urgent, gravelly growl, often rising to a piercing, full-throated scream that vividly suggested a man in the grip of powerful emotions beyond his control.
His songs, punctuated by moralising soliloquies on the subject of love and betrayal, saw him cast in the figure of “The “Preacher” a role which had been his childhood ambition when performing on the gospel circuit, “because all the preachers had everything in the neighbourhood, they had all the money and the Cadillacs and they got the best part of the chicken”.
But Womack was not a preacher. Instead his life was laced with drug addiction, gunplay, financial exploitation and chaotic personal relationships. Nonetheless, he managed to outlive all his contemporaries, and as a result billed himself “the Soul Survivor”. As one song, Only Survivor, put it: “They call me a living legend/But I’m just a soldier who’s been left behind.”
Bobby Womack was born on born March 4 1944 in Cleveland, Ohio, the third of five sons of a steelworker, Friendly, and his wife Naomi. Friendly was also a sometime gospel singer, but channelled his musical ambitions into his sons, organising Bobby and his four brothers, Harry, Cecil, Friendly Jnr and Curtis, into a group, The Womack Brothers, which performed on the local gospel circuit.
It was there that Womack met the two men to whom he would later attribute his singing style: Sam Cooke, then the lead singer of the Soul Stirrers, and Archie Brownlee, from the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. From the former, Womack took a dulcet, seductive crooning; from the latter the “testifying” screeches and yelps. A child musical prodigy, Bobby got first hand experience of Brownlee’s style at the age of 13, playing guitar for him.
“I modelled my screams on Archie,” he once recalled, “but I never could get them as clear as he did, because he’d mellow it in gin. He’d lie down on stage to sing because the drink had eaten the lining of his stomach so much. They’d kneel down there and put a microphone up close. He always said he wanted to die right there, wailing his head off, and he did, singing Leave Me In The Hands Of The Lord.”
Womack would look back on his short period with the Blind Boys with great affection. “I would take them to their hotel rooms, dress them, take their clothes and get ’em cleaned, and they’d let me get a little nooky on the side when their girlfriends would go for it.”
At the same time The Womack Brothers were also spotted by Sam Cooke, who was shortly to abandon gospel for the more lucrative pastures of secular Rhythm and Blues. In 1962 he sent for the Womacks from Los Angeles and, encouraging them to follow his example, signed them to his SAR label, renaming them The Valentinos.
The group’s first single, Lookin’ For A Love (1963), sold a million copies, and provided an early lesson in music business practice. “We didn’t know that we were supposed to get paid,” Womack would later recall. “We was just honoured to be with Sam Cooke’s company, an’ we didn’t get no royalties. He said, 'Well, that car you bought was your royalties. You stayed in a hotel; you know what that cost me? We took care of you guys, paid for the session. You may be gettin’ screwed, but I’ll screw you with grease. James Brown, he’d screw you with sand.’”
Cooke provided a further lesson with the release of the group’s fourth single, a Womack composition entitled It’s All Over Now. Cooke – who had a piece of the song’s publishing – gave the song to The Rolling Stones, whose version went to the top of the British and American charts, eclipsing The Valentino’s original. “I was still screaming and hollering right up until I got my first royalty cheque from the song,” Womack recalled. “Man, the amount of money rolling in shut me right up.”
Cooke took Womack under his wing, employing him as a guitarist in his touring group and treating him as his protégé. It was a relationship that would come to a violent end with Cooke’s untimely death in 1964, shot dead by the manageress of a motel where he had been enjoying a tryst with a prostitute.
Womack’s efforts at comforting Cooke’s widow, Barbara, resulted in them marrying three months after the singer’s death, angering Cooke’s friends who felt that Womack was exploiting a grieving widow. Womack insisted that the match had started at her instigation, and it was Barbara who put up the money to pay for Womack’s first solo recordings for the Chess label. But the marriage was to end catastrophically when she discovered he was having an affair with her teenage daughter, Linda, obliging Womack to beat a hasty retreat from the family home at the end of the barrel of a gun. Linda, in turn, would go on to marry Womack’s younger brother, Cecil, thus leaving Womack in the possibly unique position of having been the same woman’s stepfather, lover, and brother-in-law in short order. Cecil and Linda would later enjoy success as Womack and Womack with the singles Love Wars and Teardrops.
With his early solo recordings having passed without notice, Bobby Womack concentrated on songwriting and session work. As a member of the house band at the famed American Sound Studio in Memphis he played on recordings by a host of artists including Joe Tex, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, who recorded no fewer than 17 Womack songs in three years.
In 1968 he resurrected his singing career with the R&B hit What Is This. More hits followed with judicious covers of such songs as Fly Me To The Moon, Sweet Caroline and California Dreaming, and Womack’s own, rootsier compositions. The albums Communication, Understanding, Facts of Life and Lookin’ For A Love Again, established him in the vanguard of soul music and provided a run of hit singles including A Woman’s Gotta Have It, Nobody Wants You When You’re Down And Out and the million-selling Harry Hippie, a song written by Jim Ford but which Womack adapted as a tribute to his younger brother.
Across 110th Street was a highly-lauded soundtrack album for one of the classic “blaxploitation” movies of the time (and later for the Quentin Tarantino movie, Jackie Brown). And Womack also recorded a country album, BW Goes C&W. (His record company balked at his original suggestion for the title, “Step Aside Charlie Pride And Give Another Nigger A Chance”. Womack was also obliged to withdraw his interpretation of Gene Autrey’s song I’m Back In The Saddle Again, which he had retitled “I’m Black In The Saddle Again”, after Autrey threatened a lawsuit.)
But by the mid-70s Womack’s albums were showing signs of creative fatigue from his increasingly erratic lifestyle. He had become close friends with Sly Stone, playing on Stone’s There’s A Riot Going On, and proving an enthusiastic participant in Stone’s infamous drug-binges. And he was further undermined by a series of family tragedies.
In 1974 his younger brother Harry was murdered by a jealous girlfriend while he was staying at Bobby Womack’s house. The girl, happening upon some women’s clothes in the closet of the room where Harry was sleeping, assumed he was carrying on an affair and stabbed him in the neck with a steak knife. The clothes belonged to a girlfriend of Bobby.
Four years later Womack’s first child by his second marriage, Truth, died at the age of four months after suffocating in bed. Another son, Vincent, by Barbara Cooke, committed suicide at the age of 21.
Enveloped in what he would later describe as “the paranoia years”, Womack himself had taken to carrying a gun. Lying in bed one day he saw the handle on the bedroom door slowly turn. He reached for his gun and emptied it into the door. The door swung open to reveal his son Bobby Truth, “not yet in long trousers” standing there. The bullets had gone over his head. But the boy did not escape such an upbringing entirely without cost. Following his father’s troubled path, Bobby Truth would later be sentenced to 28 years imprisonment for second-degree murder.
In 1981 Womack returned triumphantly to form with the album The Poet, which couched the titanic passion of his voice in elegant arrangements. The album restored Womack to the R&B charts, but he saw none of the royalties, leading to a protracted, and fruitless, court case. “I owed money to everybody,” he would later recall. “The only reason they couldn’t sell my house is because I wouldn’t move; and the only reason I wouldn’t move is because I didn’t have a Master Charge to pay the truck. Things were bad.” He would later admit that it was only the timely intervention of his wife that prevented him from shooting firstly the record-company boss who owed him money, and then himself.
However, a follow-up album in 1984, The Poet II, featuring a guest appearance by Patti LaBelle, restored his fortunes.
Over the next 20 years Womack continued to record and tour, but with diminishing returns, until yet another surprising resurrection in 2010, when he was invited to perform with Damon Albarn’s loose aggregate of musicians, Gorillaz, singing live with the band and on two albums, Plastic Beach and The Fall. In 2012, Albarn produced Womack’s album The Bravest Man in the Universe. A 28th album, entitled The Best is Yet to Come, is to be released posthumously.