Bobby Womack was the voice of experience, an iconoclast, and one of music’s most talented artists. The combination of Womack’s writing, guitar playing, and singing gave his work a singular emotional honesty.
Born in 1944 in Cleveland, Ohio, Bobby Womack came from a religious and musical family. He and his four brothers formed the Womack Brothers in the early 1950s and released a few singles. In 1956, they met Sam Cooke, lead singer for the Soul Stirrers, who became a mentor to them. The Womack Brothers signed to SAR and released “Somebody’s Wrong/Yield Not Into Temptation” in 1961; in 1962, Cooke changed their name to the Valentinos and moved them into secular work. Their early songs included the hits “Lookin’ For a Love” and “It’s All Over Now.” Womack had also gone on the road with Cooke as his guitarist.
After Sam Cooke’s death in 1964, the Valentinos disbanded and Womack joined Ray Charles’ band and toured and recorded with him for the next few years. Womack also became a session guitarist for Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, and Dusty Springfield. Womack was also known as a songwriter and he penned tracks for Pickett including “I’m In Love” and “I’m a Midnight Mover.”
Despite his talent, Womack’s solo career took a while to take off. Although Womack’s vocal style seemed to be a cross between Sam Cooke’s conversational tone and Wilson Pickett’s raw power, Atlantic executive Jerry Wexler famously passed on him because he didn’t like his voice. Womack signed with Minit Records in 1968 and was paired with producer Chips Moman for 1969’s Fly Me To The Moon and 1970’s My Prescription. While the work only yielded minor hits, a listener could hear Womack’s emerging style on his fun cover of “Fly Me to the Moon” and “It’s Gonna Rain.”
In 1971, Womack signed to United Artists and started his artistically and commercially successful career. Communication found Womack crafting his inherent mix of gospel, rock, and R&B. The album produced the funky “Communication” and the passionate ballad “That’s The Way I Feel About You.” 1972’s Understanding boasted the Womack classics “I Can Understand It,” the #1 R&B hit “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” and the devastating, much-loved track, “Harry Hippie.” Later in the same year, Womack wrote and produced the soundtrack for the action m movie Across 110th Street, and the single of the same name became a genre classic.
Womack’s next album just may have been his best. 1973’s Facts of Life seemed to capture the breadth of Womack’s talent, his vulnerability, and his creative powers. Songs like “I’m Through (Trying to Prove My Love To You),” “Fact of Life/He’ll Be There When the Sun Goes Down,” and covers including Sam Cooke’s “That’s Heaven to Me” created a rich tapestry that made the album a true artistic statement.
By the mid-‘70s, Womack’s life began to be marked with tragedy and escalating drug use. Albums like Lookin’ For a Love Again, I Don’t Know What This World is Coming To, and Safety Zone were filled with good to great songs and just as many near misses. The single releases were more forgiving and the hits “Check It Out,” “You’re Welcome, Stop On By,” and “Daylight” ranked with his best work. Womack’s last effort for United Artists was the intriguing and fun country and western album, 1976’s BW Goes C&W.
Womack left United Artists for Columbia Records in 1976. At first, it seemed like a great idea, but during this time, Womack realized that he was tapped out in regards to new material and ideas. He released 1976’s Home is Where the Heart Is with little success, and 1978’s Pieces suffered the same fate. Despite his often horrific personal woes, Womack proved to be resilient.
In 1979, he signed to Arista Records for one album and released the strong Roads of Life. The album was an artistic comeback and the effort was filled with uniformly strong, well-produced songs like “The Roots in Me,” “How Could You Break My Heart,” and a cover of Olivia Newton-John’s “I Honestly Love You.” Womack then signed with the small LA label Beverly Glen and released the The Poet in 1981. The album became a #1 R&B smash on the strength of the great single, “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.” The rest of the Poet was equally potent with the well-loved tracks “Where Do We Go From Here” and “Games.” The Poet II followed in 1983, and although it wasn’t as successful as its predecessor, the effort featured the hit duet with Patti Labelle, “Love Has Finally Come at Last,” and “It Takes a Lot of Strength.” Womack appeared on Soul Train with Patti Labelle and performed the two aforementioned tracks.
The combination of The Poet II‘s diminishing returns and Beverly Glen’s label woes caused Womack’s comeback to stall. In 1984, Womack returned to the charts by way of the inspiring Wilton Felder track, “No Matter How High I Get.” By the mid-‘80s, the changing sounds had caught up to Womack but he still had some interesting prospects. He signed to MCA for the promising album So Many Rivers which was no masterpiece, but the ballads “Let Me Kiss It Where It Hurts,” “Got To Be With You Tonight,” and the single and video “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much” were commendable efforts.
Womack’s personal issues and the changing musical landscape of the late 1980s made it difficult to compete on the charts. Albums like Womagic, The Last Soul Man, and Save The Children were low sellers. Although his career seemed to slow, Womack did make some surprising appearances in the late ’80s and early ‘90s: He supplied backing vocals to Todd Rundgren’s 1989 album Nearly Human, and 1993, he teamed up with Ali-Ollie Woodson for a fun performance on the Arsenio Hall Show.
In 1994, Womack released Resurrection on Continuum Records. Womack later signed with Capitol Records and released a gospel set, 1999’s Back To My Roots and later, a Christmas album, 2000’s Traditions. Womack remained a great live act and BET on Jazz: The Jazz Channel Presents Bobby Womack was a popular feature on television as well as DVD.
Womack had semi-retired from the business when The Blur’s Damon Albarn tapped Womack to add vocals for the Gorillaz’s 2010 album Plastic Beach. The gritty single “Stylo” brought Womack’s trademark cathartic vocal power to another generation. Albarn also produced his autobiographical and emotional 2012 release, The Bravest Man in the Universe. Womack had been suffering from multiple illnesses—including colon cancer, and during the tour for The Bravest Man in the Universe he revealed that he had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Womack gave a rousing performance at the 2013 Glastonbury Festival, where his set included the new songs he did with Albarn as well as classic hits such as “You’re Welcome Stop On By” and “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.”
Bobby Womack died in 2014 at the age of 70.
Jason Elias is a pop culture historian and a music journalist