Bobby Womack’s death yesterday at the age of 70 sent shockwaves through the music community. Though it’s been reported that the Soul Legend had been battling stage 4 colon cancer since 2012, it was thought that he had beaten the disease and he was scheduled to begin touring in late July. The cause of his death on June 27th is thus as yet unknown.
Bobby Womack had an impressive career which spanned 50 years and multiple genres. Starting out in gospel as a teenager with his brothers and Preacher father managing, Curtis Womack and the Womack brothers toured the Midwest and were quickly discovered by soul producer Sam Cooke. Cooke signed with SAR records soon after meeting the Womack family group, and was able to get them signed as well, after changing their name to The Valentinos.
The Valentinos produced a number of hits with Sam Cooke, including “Looking for a Love,” a do-wop song released in 1960 and composed by Bobby (vocals by older brother Curtis), which saw the group sharing a stage with James Brown. Womack would later re-make this song and reach even bigger heights later in his career. The Valentinos’ second major hit and probably the group’s biggest, “It’s all Over Now,” was released in 1964 and became so popular that the Rolling Stones famously covered it that same year.
During his time with the Valentinos, Bobby Womack developed his unique guitar style and his gift for composition, and was ready to strike out on his own by 1968. In the interim his guitar playing was featured on tracks by Joe Tex and Aretha Franklin, and many of the songs he wrote were recorded by Wilson Pickett. He continued to work as a guitarist and writer for much of his early career, partnering with the likes of Sly and the Family Stone and Janis Joplin.
It was Pickett who was the impetus for Bobby’s signing to Minit Records, where he released his first solo album in 1969. This album had a hit with Womack’s cover of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” but it was clear that Womack was still trying to find his own style. In the late 60s and early 70s, it appears that Bobby caught the funk/soul bug, a genre which had been growing in popularity since his do-wop days. In 1972, Womack released “Across 110th Street” as part of his Understanding album. While “The Way I Feel about ‘Cha” went higher in the charts, “Across 110th Street” was probably his most critically acclaimed single to this day, mostly because it was made the opening and title track to the Pam Grier film in 1972.
“Across 110th Street” was the first single by Womack to reach such a wide audience with his warm, grainy baritone and unique guitar style and is seen by many as a definitive piece in the genre of soul and funk. The song has been sampled and covered countless times including in Jackie Brown the next year, and by Rza of the Wu-Tang clan in the movie Ghost Dog , and upon his death has been the most cited, shared, and googled song from his discography.
After the success of Understanding, Womack released a number of re-vamped singles, but was seen to be treading water by critics. In 1981 those critics were silenced with the release of The Poet, which reached number 1 on the R&B charts. He also had two charted duets with Patti LaBelle in the mid-80s.
Between 1985 and 1998, Bobby Womack is seen to have fallen away from music, as he was purportedly battling drug addiction. His discography, however, reveals that Womack was working and producing throughout this period, with at least one release per year on various labels. In 1994 most notably, Womack released Resurrection, which was a painful expose and thinly-veiled tell-all documenting his struggle with drugs, and the conditions of church vs. rock and roll in his upbringing which the singer credits for at least partially leading to his problems. Resurrection, though not as popular as his earlier releases, caught the attention of critics and modern musicians, and re-ignited interest in his work in the late 90s. He performed George Gershwin’s “Summertime” on Red Hot & Rhapsody, a tribute album to Gershwin, and released a new album in 1999 on The Right Stuff record label. Back to My Roots was largely gospel, signifying his still-deep ties to the genre and to the church.
Womack was active all the way up until this year, most popularly lending vocals to the Gorillaz track “Stylo,” off of their epic 2010 album, Plastic Beach. The single was nominated for a Grammy in 2011. The Gorillaz’s musical producer Damon Albarn also produced Womack’s 2012 album, The Bravest Man in the Universe, and was also working on his follow-up album which featured Stevie Wonder, Snoop Dogg, and Rod Stewart. In the late 00s, Bobby Womack was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with his original group, the Valentinos.
Despite his impressive body of work and positive persona, Bobby Womack saw himself as struggling with his own demons and against the parts of society he felt were unfair. In his 2006 memoir, Midnight Mover, Womack outlined his personal struggle between his church upbringing and his love of soul and rock and roll. He also speaks to his struggle in the streets of New York, the inspiration for “Across 110th Street,” his heart-wrenching relationship with Sam Cooke’s widow, and his drug addiction. In the BBC Documentary Bobby Womack: Across 110th Street, rapper Chuck D is quoted as saying, “Listening to Bobby Womack, there’s such a mix of heaven and hell at the same time coming at you. You can’t but to hear the church and the streets.”
Despite all these struggles, Womack was a quiet yet relentless political and social activist. His moves didn’t necessarily gain him the kind of civil rights status as Marvin Gaye or Joan Baez, but he spoke about being attacked for his interracial marriage, and inserted as much activism into his songs as he felt wouldn’t spoil the tone and timbre of the track. Most notably, when he released “Woman Gotta Have It,” a song inspired by Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” he was pressured by both his label and the media to remove the opening monologue where he professed his views that women were not respected and given a hard time both in the music industry and the home. Womack refused to remove the monologue, and eventually his label relented. “Woman Gotta Have It” thus saw Womack as a champion for women’s rights as well as overall social change, and garnered him the largest female soul audience outside of Marvin Gaye’s.
It seems impossible to fully chronicle the life and work of Hall of Famer, soul legend, and not-too-outspoken activist Bobby Womack. The BBC’s 2013 documentary can be seen on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1ZdgAzervA, and in the coming weeks the music world will be watching to see if his last album, tentatively called The Best is Yet to Come, will be released posthumously. Presumably his performance at the Bonaroo festival in Tennessee only two weeks ago and his impending tour in July were in support of the new album, but it remains to be seen whether it was in a stage of completion where it could be released soon. In the 24 hours since his death, downloads and searches of his work and life have soared, seeing his memoir and catalog prices increase exponentially. This will likely be little comfort to his family who survive himand those who knew him intimately. Tribute albums and shows are already in the works for this multi-talented musical legend, who will no doubt continue to inspire musicians for decades to come.
By Layla Marino