Bobby Womack never experienced massive crossover success like contemporaries Sam Cooke or Wilson Pickett; his gritty vocals and authentic rhythm and blues sound, however, gained him favor with soul fans as well as rock bands such as the Rolling Stones. A true survivor, Womack weathered drug addiction and other personal problems throughout his life; he succumbed to a complications from Alzheimer's and cancer last week at age 70. His legacy will be his passionate vocal style and a minimalist sound that stripped soul music to its basics.
Born in Cleveland on March 4, 1944, Womack was reared on his father's gospel music. He formed a gospel quintet with brothers Cecil, Curtis, Harry, and Friendly, Jr. in the early 50s; appropriately named the Womack Brothers, the group earned a spot opening for the Soul Stirrers in 1953. There Womack first met Cooke, a fateful event that would officially kick off his music career. Cooke recruited the Womack Brothers for his newly formed SAR label; the brothers relocated to Los Angeles, changed their name to the Valentinos, and scored their first secular hit with "Lookin' for A Love" in 1962. Two years later Womack wrote "It's All Over Now," and the Valentinos released it as a single. The original version was quickly eclipsed by the Rolling Stones' cover; when it reached number one in the UK, Womack was transformed into an in-demand songwriter.
Womack would first encounter controversy in 1965--after Cooke's tragic 1964 death, Womack married Cooke's widow, Barbara Campbell, only a few months later. R&B audiences shunned him for apparently betraying his mentor, the hits dried up, and his career with the Valentinos was all but over. Womack recovered by becoming a top session musician and penning hits for Picket including "I'm in Love" and "I'm a Midnight Mover." His work with Pickett earned Womack renewed attention, and he capitalized on it by recording a string of hit R&B singles starting with 1968's "What Is This?" In addition to his own recording he collaborated with artists such as Janis Joplin and Sly and the Family Stone, and had his past material covered by artists as varied as J. Geils Band and George Benson.
The 1970s would mark the most successful yet troubling period of his life. Beginning with his 1971 album Communication, he released several now classic soul tracks such as "That's the Way I Feel About 'Cha," "Woman's Gotta Have it," "Harry Hippie," and his rerecording of the Valentinos song "Lookin' for A Love." The breakup of his marriage to Campbell and his brother Harry's murder, however, sent him into a drug-fueled downward spiral for a great part of the decade. After the 1979 death of his infant son, he retreated from music, only to appear with 1981's The Poet LP. While he scored a hit with "If You Think You're Lonely Now," contract disputes prevented him from returning to the R&B charts until the mid-1980s. His 1985 ballad "I Wish He Didn't Trust Me So Much" introduced him to a new generation, with the track reaching the top five on the R&B charts. Health problems interfered with much of his career, although he sporadically released albums and collaborated with rocker fans such as Ron Wood, Keith Richards, and Rod Stewart.
His recent comeback came courtesy of Damon Alburn, the Blur lead vocalist who recruited Womack for his other major project: Gorillaz, the virtual hip-hop/eletronica/indie rock group. Womack became a featured player on the 2010 Gorillaz release Plastic Beach, where he sang lead on the single "Stylo." Alburn returned the favor by producing what would be Womack's last album, 2012's The Bravest Man in the Universe. His health problems, drug addiction, and otherwise turbulent life certainly made Womack embody the album's title.
Why has Womack's music endured? His stripped-down, no-holds-barred singing style exuded honesty. He lived every single syllable he sang, and audiences could hear and feel his sincerity. His arrangements were simple, wisely showcasing his vocals. According to AllMusic, Womack's guitar-playing style influenced Jimi Hendrix and resembled Curtis Mayfield's minimalist approach. In addition, Womack's songs exemplified not only soul, but blues and rock--these qualities earned him respect in varied music communities.
While difficult to select just one Womack composition, the funky track "Woman's Gotta Have It" captures Womack's strengths as a songwriter and performer. Co-written with stepdaughter Linda Womack and collaborator Darryl Carter, "Woman's Gotta Have It" warns men not to neglect their wives or girlfriends. As is typical of many Womack tracks, it begins with Womack directly addressing listeners. "You know, sometimes we have a tendency, or should I say we forget, what a woman needs every now and then," he tells male fans. "That is, if you wanna keep your thing together. Listen to me now." The spoken introduction harkens back to his years performing gospel music with his brothers. Underscored by Womack's delicate guitar, his slightly gravelly voice urges the audience to learn from his mistakes. "Oh I, had a love, a true love and I lost it / I'm suffering all this pain that that love caused me," he moans. He states that "She wants to know that she's not walkin' on shaky ground," and one feels he has experienced every word he sings. "Well, think it over, think it over my brother / Don't take for granted the smile on her face," he warns. The shuffling beat softens the otherwise bleak tone of the track, but Womack's voice remains at the forefront.
While he did not write the track specifically about his marital troubles, his mounting problems with then wife Barbara Campbell could not have been far from his mind. As with his other songs, Womack's desire to directly communicate his emotions shines through in "Woman's Gotta Have It." Few soul singers possess this quality, and it is one that cements his legacy as one of the best--and most influential--R&B artists in history.