Bobby Womack: Singer and songwriter whose five-decade career included work with the Rolling Stones and Gorillaz
Monday 30 June 2014
Blessed with a gruff baritone voice that was instantly recognisable, and a heart-rending ability to convey his travails, trials and tribulations in his memorable compositions and interpretations of other people’s material, the soul singer, guitarist and composer Bobby Womack was a constant in popular music, a performer whose career and influence spanned over five decades and seeped into many genres and areas of popular culture, whether the listener was aware of it or not.
Sixties aficionados knew him for “It’s All Over Now”, the single he co-wrote and recorded in 1964 with the Valentinos, the sibling gospel-turned-secular group mentored by Sam Cooke; after discovering the track on their first US visit, the Rolling Stones covered it and took it to the top of the British charts, prompting an initially furious Womack to revise his opinion. “I was screaming and hollering right up until I got my first royalty cheque,” he recalled in Midnight Mover, the memoir he wrote with Robert Ashton in 2006. “Man, the amount of money rolling in shut me right up. I have been chasing the Stones ever since, trying to get them to record another one of my songs.”
This didn’t quite happen, though Womack forged lasting friendships with the band, collaborated with guitarist Ronnie Wood on his 1975 album Now Look and guested on their 1986 album Dirty Work, including their hit revival of another 60s rhythm and blues gem, Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle”.
Cinema-goers gloried in Womack’s superlative soundtrack to Barry Shear’s 1972 blaxploitation film Across 110th Street, particularly its enduring title song that had echoes of his troubled life story, and was used by Quentin Tarantino in his 1997 blaxploitation homage Jackie Brown. It also featured in American Gangster, Ridley Scott’s 2007 crime film starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.
Womack only made the UK Top 40 in 1987, after he was approached by the British synthpop trio Living In A Box to contribute to a remix of their third single, “So The Story Goes”. He went on to cut a striking version of their eponymous debut song, showcasing his prowess as a supreme interpreter that had already seen him take the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’”, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and standards like “Fly Me To The Moon” into the US charts early on in his solo career.
As well as inspiring British vocalists such as Rod Stewart, Peter Gabriel and Mick Hucknall, he enjoyed a strong UK cult following, ranging from the blue-eyed-soul pub rockers Kokomo, who covered “I Can Understand It” in 1975, via the ’80s soul brigade, who loved his gospel-soaked contributions to Inherit The Wind and Secrets by saxophonist Wilton Felder of the Crusaders – and bought his solo sets, The Poet II and So Many Rivers – to the Manchester production duo Rae & Christian, who asked him to sing on their 2001 album, Sleepwalking.
Womack was in and out of the wilderness throughout his career because of various setbacks including a long-lasting cocaine addiction, personal tragedies and a complicated private life that included a marriage to Cooke’s widow Barbara and an affair with his stepdaughter Linda, who subsequently married his brother Cecil (obituary, February 2013). However, he reconnected with both the hipsters and the mainstream when Damon Albarn drafted him into his Gorillaz project in 2010.
As he admitted to The Independent last year, he had never heard of “the Gorilla [sic]. People always send me music, want you to do something. I was really in a state where nothing new was interesting to me. My daughter said, ‘Dad, you got to do this’. I ain’t ever seen her this excited!” he explained about the chain of events that led to the recording of ”Cloud Of Unknowing” and the moody and magnificent “Stylo” for the Plastic Beach album. “I was in there for an hour going crazy about love and politics, getting it of my chest.”
Womack joined the Gorillaz tour and contributed “Bobby In Phoenix” to The Fall, the next Gorillaz album assembled by Albarn on the road. Albarn and Richard Russell then produced The Bravest Man In The Universe, Womack’s first album of original material in two decades, setting his timeless voice and unorthodox acoustic guitar – he was left-handed but played a right-handed instrument without changing the stringing – against a stark contemporary backing, to startling result.
This inspired collaboration had its own logic since his ’70s recordings had proved such a rich source of samples for hip hop artists, even if the last of the great soul men drew the line when a famous rapper, unnamed in his book, offered him $175,000 cash to revoice “Woman’s Gotta Have It”. “He wanted me to sing ‘bitch ain’t gonna have it’. I told him I couldn’t go against what I’d sung in the ’70s. It would have been like I hadn’t really believed what I said.”
The conflict between the sacred and the secular, the spirit and the flesh, informed much of his work, as it did Marvin Gaye’s. Born in 1944, “in a neighbourhood so ghetto that we didn’t bother the rats and they didn’t bother us,” he was the third of five sons of a steel worker who continued the family tradition of gospel singing after moving from Charleston to Cleveland. Bobby and his brothers, Friendly Jr, Curtis, Harry and Cecil, would borrow their father’s guitar without his knowledge and imitate the harmony group he had formed with work colleagues. After their father overheard them he renamed them the Womack Brothers and they began performing on the “gospel highway circuit” of Baptist Churches in the Midwest, where they opened for Cooke’s Soul Stirrers when Bobby was barely in his teens.
Cooke encouraged a move to Los Angeles and they joined his label, SAR Records, for a couple of flop singles before they changed their name to the Valentinos and recorded ‘‘Lookin’ For A Love’’, a secular adaptation of Bobby’s ‘‘Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray’’, featuring him on lead, in 1962. ‘‘Lookin’ For A Love’’ crossed over from the R&B to the pop charts and provided Boston’s barnstorming J Geils Band with their US Top 40 debut in 1971, before Womack took it back into the US Top Ten with a new solo version backed by his brothers in 1974.
The group also sang background on Womack’s 1972 hits ‘‘That’s The Way I Feel About Cha’’ and ‘‘Woman’s Gotta Have It’”, but the reunion was overshadowed by another tragedy, when Harry Womack was stabbed to death by a jealous girlfriend in Bobby’s home in 1974. Forever more, Bobby would dedicate ‘‘Harry Hippie’’, the 1972 Jim Ford composition inspired by his carefree brother, to his memory.
Bobby had broken away from the Valentinos Womack after Cooke was shot dead by a motel manager in Los Angeles in December 1964, and was ostracised following his marriage to Barbara Cooke the following March. “Everyone saw me as the guy who moved in on Sam’s widow,” he said. For a while he backed Ray Charles before moving to Memphis, where he sessioned at Chips Moman’s American Studios, contributed sterling guitar to recordings by Joe Tex, the Box Tops, Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield and penned hits including ‘‘I’m A Midnight Mover’’ for Wilson Pickett in 1968.
After moving again, to California, he contributed to There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 landmark album, and composed the instrumental ‘‘Breezin’’’ for the Hungarian jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo, which became George Benson’s breakthrough into the smooth jazz genre in 1976. But he struggled to come to terms with the death of Truth, his three-month old with his second wife Regina in 1978, the suicide of Vincent, his son with Barbara, in 1988, and his estrangement from his brother Cecil. He also partly blamed himself for the drug overdose of Janis Joplin – he wrote ‘‘Trust Me’’ and inspired ‘‘Mercedes Benz’’, on her posthumous album Pearl.
“Coke was my escape,” he said of a drug habit he eventually kicked in the late 1980s. He developed diabetes, cancelled live dates in 2012 after pneumonia and was diagnosed with colon cancer earlier this year. Yet once he got on stage his indomitable spirit took over and he rose to the occasion. The last time I saw him, at London’s Forum in November 2012, he delivered a masterful two-part set showcasing both the Albarn material and the vast repertoire he had given the world, preceded by the moving monologues that had earned him the nickname “The Preacher”.
Robert Dwayne Womack, singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer: born Cleveland, Ohio 4 March 1944; married 1965 Barbara Cooke (one son deceased), 1976 Regina Banks (one son, one daughter and one son deceased); two sons with Jody Laba; died 27 June 2014.
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