Bobby Womack sang like his life depended on it, and that endures

Tributes have poured in for soul legend Bobby Womack, who died on Friday. laurent Gillieron/EPA

By now you’ll be aware that the legendary soul singer Bobby Womack died on Friday, aged 70. As with the death of many cultural “greats”, social media and traditional media have been united in singing his praises. And rightly so.

Tributes have poured in from music industry titans including The Rolling Stones, who had their first number one hit covering one of his songs, and who have acknowledged him on their website as a “formidable” stage presence and “a true pioneer of soul and R&B”. Musically active over seven decades, Bobby Womack is revered for his soulful singing, prolific songwriting, and amazing guitar playing.

Born in 1944 and raised in a Cleveland ghetto, Bobby Womack started singing at age seven in a gospel group with his four brothers. They played in local churches but needed to cross over from gospel to singing secular music if they were to make careers as entertainers.

Soul legend Sam Cooke advised them on this transition and the Womack Brothers became The Valentinos. Their big breakthrough came in 1964 with a song that Bobby Womack wrote with his sister-in-law Shirley Womack, It’s All Over Now.

It’s All Over Now.

It entered the American Billboard Hot 100 charts in June 1964 and it might have climbed higher if it hadn’t been displaced by a competing version: a young British band called The Rolling Stones heard it while on their first American visit and released their own version a month later.

It’s All Over Now became the Rolling Stones’ first UK number one.

The Rolling Stones: It’s All Over Now.

Womack later said that Sam Cooke was a major influence on his songwriting, particularly for telling him to write in the way he spoke. But he also learnt from and worked with music luminaries including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Sly Stone, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

By 1968, Womack had composed almost 300 songs and was seeking fame in his own right. His debut album Fly Me To The Moon featured his cover of The Mamas and the Papas’ song California Dreamin.’

Theirs is a dreamy, wistful version, but Bobby Womack brings a world of pain to the song in a style that comes straight out of the impassioned singing of the black church.

The Mamas and the Papas, California Dreamin’.
Bobby Womack, California Dreamin’.

Certainly, personal gravitas is layered into Womack’s interpretation: his own Californian odyssey included being ostracised from the soul community for marrying his mentor Sam Cooke’s widow just three months after Cooke’s death and becoming a drug addict.

But, more broadly, comparing and contrasting the two versions of the song gives us views into white and black America at the end of the 1960s and helps us understand Womack’s legacy as part of a bigger story about the influence of black gospel on white rock.

Without the vocal influence of crossover gospel artists like Bobby Womack, there would have been no rock opera, no passion in Christ’s Jesus Christ Superstar Gesthemane, and Led Zeppelin would not have become the biggest band in the world.

Gesthemane.

The two albums for which Womack received most early acclaim as a solo artist were Understanding (1972) and the soundtrack for the 1972 blaxploitation film Across 110th Street.

Set in Harlem, the film was about drugs and ghetto life, themes Womack had lived. The album’s title track, Across 110th Street, combined the new funk sounds of the early 1970s with social consciousness about black life in the ghetto.

Across 110th Street.

Along with Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, and Isaac Hayes, Womack helped to shift the direction of black music in the 1970s away from what many saw was the formulaic pop coming out of Motown in the 1960s.

White musicians had taken rock as their own and many audiences associated black musicians only with Motown or soul. In the 1970s Womack helped expand consciousness about “black” music pushing it along experimental lines, incorporating R&B with gospel and soul, helping to define funk and early disco, and mixing these sounds with social and political consciousness particularly about the black community. These are important underpinnings for hip-hop and musicians including Prince.

Yet Womack didn’t seek to make music that was defined by race, trying a country music album of his own and working with musicians across the spectrum throughout his career. As he said in a 1975 interview for Sound magazine, he wanted to make music that wasn’t:

black or white. I don’t know how to describe it. I just want them to like it.

He had planned to release an album later this year that included collaborations with musicians ranging from Stevie Wonder and Teena Marie to Rod Stewart and Snoop Dogg. The album’s working title is The Best is Yet to Come.

In the 1980s, Womack achieved chart hits and gained new fans with The Poet and The Poet II albums. He continued making music in the 1990s but his output trailed off because of his health. Among other ailments, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

In 2012, broke and sick, Womack recorded The Bravest Man in the Universe, his first album of original material since 1994. This gorgeous, critically celebrated album was co-produced by and was the brainchild of Damon Albarn (frontman from Blur and Gorillaz) and Richard Russell (head of XL Recordings). It brings Womack’s genius into the new millennium with cool, contemporary music. Lana del Rey features on the song Dayglo Reflection.

Dayglo Reflection.

Incredibly, in addition to other health problems, Womack was diagnosed with and survived treatment for pneumonia and then colon cancer while recording the album and waiting for its release.

But then Womack has made music throughout, in spite of, because of, a life beleaguered by drug addiction, personal failings, tragedy, and the kind of romantic dramas you couldn’t make up.

Created at the tail end of this life, the album’s lyrics have a reflective quality, even as the stark power of Womack’s voice pulls you into the present. Just listen to Please Forgive My Heart – he sings as though his life depends on it, and in the music he lives:

Please Forgive My Heart.

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