The poet and polymath who touched hearts by bearing his own.
Cleveland-native Bobby Womack did it all and did it well. Whether he was singing, writing songs or backing up another phenomenal musician, he gave everything he had, dug deeper, then gave some more.
Bobby Womack is a stalwart soul and gospel figurehead whose résumé includes significant contributions across the decades as a singer, songwriter and guitarist.
The son of a steelworker, he was born in Cleveland, where he and his siblings formed a gospel group at a young age. While touring with the Soul Stirrers, the Womack Brothers met that group’s lead singer, Sam Cooke. After Cooke’s move from gospel to soul, he contacted the Womacks and asked them to move to California. Bobby Womack was only 16 years old at the time, and he dropped out of school. Under Cooke’s tutelage, they crossed the bridge from sacred to secular music, recording for his Sar label as the Valentinos and the Lovers.
The Womack brothers—Bobby and his siblings Cecil, Curtis, Harris and Friendly, Jr.—cut two R&B classics as the Valentinos: “Looking for a Love” (later covered by the J. Geils Band) and “It’s All Over Now.” The Rolling Stones’ cover of the latter song beat the Valentinos’ own version onto the charts, giving the Stones their second Top 40 hit in the States. Bobby Womack also played guitar in Cooke’s band. In the wake of Cooke’s shooting death under mysterious circumstances, the Valentinos broke up and Womack turned to songwriting, guitar playing and a solo career.
He has written songs recorded by Wilson Pickett (“I’m a Midnight Mover”), George Benson (“Breezin’”), Janis Joplin (“Trust Me”) and others. Pickett alone recorded seventeen of Womack’s compositions. A solid guitarist who worked on the Memphis session scene for a period in the Sixties, Womack played on sessions for Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Joe Tex, King Curtis, Dusty Springfield and other soul and R&B artists. He cut an album with jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo, too.
Recording under his own name, Womack scored a string of minor hits toward the end of the Sixties. These included remakes of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” and Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” as well as originals like “How I Miss You Baby.” Womack made his greatest mark in the Seventies and Eighties, discovering and refining a unique identity as a soul man with a message. Earning the nicknames “The Preacher” and “The Poet,” Womack often prefaced his songs with monologues on the subjects of love and communication. Understanding firsthand like few others that soul’s roots lay in the church, he didn’t just sing, he testified.
From 1970 to 1990, Womack was popular and prolific, charting thirty-six singles. These include such major R&B hits as “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha” (Number Two), “Woman’s Gotta Have It” (Number One) and “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” (Number Three). Womack topped the R&B chart with his 1974 re-recording of “Lookin’ for a Love,” while his contemporary update of a blues classic, “Nobody Wants to Know You When You’re Down and Out,” made it to Number Two. He was a hitmaking machine in the mid-Seventies, perennially present in the Top 10 with such numbers as 1974’s “You’re Welcome, Stop On By,” 1975’s “Check It Out” and 1976’s “Daylight.”
In addition to his success on the singles charts, Womack cut a series of albums whose thematic depth moved soul music forward much like the work of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. These include Communication (1971), Understanding (1972), Someday We’ll All Be Free (1985) and The Poet (1981).
His first gold single was 1972’s “Harry Hippie,” written specifically about his laid-back brother Harris and indirectly about the larger counterculture. Womack, who became close friends with Sly Stone, got ensnared in the darker side of the hard-partying world of Los Angeles’ musical community. A series of personal tragedies—including the murder of brother Harry and the deaths of two sons—triggered descents into drugs and creative dry spells. However, Womack drew on his religious upbringing and love of music, emerging as a survivor with even deeper messages to impart.
The first half of the Eighties saw the release of his two best-selling albums, The Poet and The Poet II (1984). In 1985 he released “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” the title track from an album of the same name that was renamed The Poet III for its CD release. A 1984 duet with Patti Labelle, “Love Has Finally Come at Last,” reached Number Three. His biggest hits of the Eighties, “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much” and “(No Matter How High I Get) I’ll Still Be Lookin’ Up to You,” both made it to Number Two at mid-decade. Womack duetted with Mick Jagger on “Going Back to Memphis,” from the Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work album (1986) and with Shirley Brown on “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Lovin’ We Got.” Womack reunited with his brothers for 1989’s “Save the Children,” which was the title track of his last album for five years.
After an extended absence, Womack returned with 1994's Resurrection, which appeared on two-time Hall of Fame Inductee Ron Wood’s Slide label. (Womack had previously produced and played on Wood’s 1975 solo album Now Look.) Such guest artists as Wood, Keith Richards, Rod Stewart, Stevie Wonder and Ronald Isley lent Resurrection the atmosphere of a soulful homecoming. Later in the decade, Womack kept a promise he made to his father by cutting a gospel album, Back to My Roots (1999).
In 2009 Gorillaz co-founder and musical mastermind Damon Albarn (also of Blur fame) connected with Womack to record "Stylo" for the group's third studio album, Plastic Beach (2010). Released as the first single, "Stylo" featured Womack's unmistakable, throaty vocals, and introduced the Hall of Fame Inductee to an entirely new audience after a long absence from recording. Three years later Womack—reunited with Albarn and signed with Richard Russell's XL imprint—released his first album in more than a decade, The Bravest Man in the Universe (2012). Although the album updated his sound with electronics and break beats, the mostly minimalist arrangements proved an ideal foil for Womack’s rough, weathered voice.
Womack is a music business survivor, elder statesman and champion of old-school soul. “The whole thing is to make music feel real,” he told Craig Warner in a 1998 Goldmine profile. “You’ve got two or three minutes to connect, and it’s important that you have a story, a good hook line. It’s always gonna go back to that.”
Inductee: Bobby Womack (vocals, guitar; born March 4, 1944, died June 27, 2014)