A dramatic life, a distinct voice: remembering the soul legend and his incredible seven-decade career
Soul-music genius Bobby Womack had talent to burn — and he burned it. He was in the first rank of songwriters, penning classics such as “It’s All Over Now,” which became the Rolling Stones’ first Number One single in the UK. He was a top-notch guitarist, backing up everyone from Ray Charles to Aretha Franklin. And when he sang on his own records, he could compel you to get on your feet (“Looking for a Love”), reinvent standards as R&B anthems (“Fly Me to the Moon”) or express yearning like nobody else (“Across 110th Street”). Somehow, all that didn’t add up to superstardom: Womack kept sabotaging himself with bad record deals and cocaine abuse. “It seems that every once in a while I pop up from out of the water and then disappear again,” he complained to Rolling Stone in 1974. “Well, I’m tired of that shit.”
Bobby Womack was born on March 4th, 1944 to Friendly Womack and Naomi Womack, and grew up in the Cleveland slums, so poor that the family would fish pig snouts out of the local supermarket’s trash. “The neighborhood was so ghetto that we didn’t bother the rats and they didn’t bother us,” he said. “They walked past and hollered, ‘How you doin’, man?'” He was the third of five sons: Bobby had to share a bed with his brothers, Friendly Jr., Curtis, Harry and Cecil.As a child, despite being prohibited from touching his father’s guitar, Womack taught himself to play it. When he broke a string one day, he was young enough to think that he might be able to conceal the damage by fixing it with his shoelace. When his father came home from working at the steel mill and discovered what had happened, he prepared to beat Bobby — but then told him that if he could play well enough, he would let it slide. Womack remembered, “Even with one string short, I played classical music, soul, country and western and rock & roll. I played my ass off. Every lick I knew and then some I didn’t.”The five brothers started performing gospel as the Womack Brothers, playing on the local religious circuit, standing on boxes so they could reach the microphones. Their big break came in 1956, when their father arranged for them to open for the Soul Stirrers. The group’s lead singer, Sam Cooke, became their mentor and helped them go on tour. “Sam was on that gospel highway so we got right on there after him,” Womack said. The sweet-throated Curtis was the group’s lead singer, but Bobby had some gravel in his baritone and the charisma to exhort crowds like a teenage preacher. They toured with the Staple Singers — and were still young enough that their parents let the Womack brothers sleep in the same bed as the Staple sisters.
In 1961, the Womack Brothers followed Sam Cooke’s lead and made the transition from gospel music to secular soul music. They renamed themselves the Valentinos and signed to Cooke’s SAR label. They had a 1962 R&B hit with a rewrite of a gospel song they had previously recorded: “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” became “Lookin’ for a Love.” (A decade later, the J. Geils Band’s cover of “Lookin’ for a Love” would become their first top-40 single.) Two years later, Bobby and his sister-in-law Shirley Womack wrote “It’s All Over Now,” a defiant breakup song with a loose blues-country feel and a hot bass line.
“It’s All Over Now” was rising up the charts in 1964 when it got knocked out by a cover by a white band from England: the Rolling Stones. Womack was irate. He told Rolling Stone two decades later that his initial reaction was, “Tell them to get their own fucking song!” But he relented when the royalty checks started rolling in. “And the checks kept coming,” he remembered.
Womack said, “I came up in an era when you had to perform with people like Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell and James Brown — all on one bill. Whoever had the hottest record had to close the show, and it wasn’t easy getting your butt kicked every night.”
In December 1964, Sam Cooke was fatally shot at the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles motel by the motel manager, Bertha Franklin. The circumstances were murky and controversial, but the shooting was ruled justifiable homicide. SAR Records shut down and the Valentinos broke up. Within days, Bobby Womack began a relationship with Cooke’s widow, Barbara Campbell (who was 10 years his senior); they got married just three months after Cooke’s funeral. Womack, who said he was trying to step up to take care of “Mrs. Cooke” and her children, found himself branded an opportunist and ostracized in the soul-music world.
Unable to get a record deal after a couple of solo singles flopped and Atlantic R&B honcho Jerry Wexler declared that he didn’t like his voice, Womack relocated to Memphis circa 1965 and worked at American Studios, where he played guitar on a host of classic recordings, including Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, the Box Tops’ “The Letter,” and Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis. He also spent a couple of years playing in Ray Charles’ band and forged an alliance with Wilson Pickett, who recorded multiple songs by Womack, including hits such as “I’m in Love,” “A Man and a Half,” and “I’m a Midnight Mover.” Having funneled so many compositions to Pickett, when Womack signed a record deal and released Fly Me to the Moon in 1968, he found himself covering other people’s songs, including a sultry version of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’.”
In 1970, Bobby’s marriage to Barbara ended abruptly when she found him in bed with her teenage daughter (his stepdaughter) Linda. As he told it, “I’m lying there kissing Linda and the light comes on — ‘You dirty fucking bastard. What are you doing with my daughter?’ It was Linda.” She shot him with a .32, grazing his temple; he ran out of the house and they soon got divorced. Linda later married Bobby’s younger brother Cecil; they formed the successful R&B duo Womack & Womack. “That was all really fucked up,” Bobby said.
Back in Los Angeles, Womack became part of the Laurel Canyon scene, hanging out with Keith Richards, Arthur Lee and Frank Zappa, and arguing onstage with John Lennon at a Donny Hathaway gig over which of them would get to play guitar. “I never will forget when Woody [Ron Wood] brought Keith Moon up to my place,” Womack told writer Harvey Kubernik. “Moon jumps on top of my couch and starts running all over it and the counter. He fell on the floor and started pouring water on himself. He was just crazy. But when I saw him play, I knew that was a place where he could be himself.”
Janis Joplin called Womack to the studio to work on her last album, Pearl, and recorded his song “Trust Me.” They became close; his car apparently inspired Joplin to write “Mercedes Benz.” Womack was with Joplin on the last night of her life; he says that she declined his offer of cocaine and told him to leave when her heroin dealer showed up.
Womack’s drug consumption in this period reached epic proportions, he told Rolling Stone in 1984. “I was really off into the drugs. Blowing as much coke as I could blow. And drinking. And smoking weed and taking pills. Doing that all day, staying up seven, eight days. Me and Sly [Stone] were running partners. He didn’t think about making music; he had a genuine partner. He said, ‘I don’t feel like I’m goofing off, because Bobby Womack’s doing it.'” Before everything went off the rails, they worked together on Sly and the Family Stone’s dark classic There’s a Riot Goin’ On; Womack helped Stone put it together and played guitar on much of the album.
Meanwhile, Womack made a string of classic R&B albums, including Communication, Understanding and the gorgeous 1972 blaxploitation movie soundtrack Across 110th Street. (The title track was just as evocative in 1997 when Quentin Tarantino recycled it in Jackie Brown.) He was a mainstay on the R&B charts, with semi-regular crossovers to the pop world. His hit singles in this era were generally slow, groovy, and regularly featured Womack talking: “That’s The Way I Feel About Cha” (“Everybody wants love, but everybody’s afraid of love,” he testified), “Woman’s Gotta Have It” (“Sometimes we have a tendency to forget what a woman needs,” he warned), and “Harry Hippie” (“Everybody claims that they want the best things out of life,” he declared). That song was a tribute to Bobby’s free-spirited younger brother Harry; tragically, its success became ashen in 1974 when Harry was fatally stabbed by his girlfriend.
Womack’s supple music in this era was sympathetic to women and lovelorn. He said, “Sly Stone once told me, ‘Bobby, you fall in and out of love faster than anyone I know.’ I live for love. I’ve always been tortured by love. I don’t mind the pain. I want to be the king of pain.”
In 1976, Womack married Regina Banks; after they split up, she still worked as his manager (and, he said, they remarried in 2013). His career stalled as funk turned into disco; it didn’t help when he made a country album, BW Goes C&W. But he had a revival in the early Eighties with the single “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” and the acclaimed albums The Poet and The Poet II (which featured multiple duets with Patti LaBelle). At the end of the ’80s, he went into rehab for his cocaine addiction; his albums became more scattershot, and his career became notable for unusual collaborations (with the likes of Todd Rundgren, Van Morrison, and the Wu-Tang Clan). He also sang on the Rolling Stones’ album Dirty Work, with his vocals particularly prominent on the single “Harlem Shuffle.”
In 2009, Womack was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by his old friend and collaborator Ron Wood, who described him as “a great inspiration to my band and all of the musicians that I know.” In his acceptance speech, Womack remembered playing guitar for Sam Cooke, cited Cooke’s civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and astonished by how society had changed, addressed his dead friend: “Sam, we have our first black president.”
In recent years, Womack suffered from multiple health problems, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer. “I gotta get back on the road — I’m broke,” he told Rolling Stone from his hospital bed. The collaboration that revived his career one last time was working with Gorillaz — appearing on the 2010 song “Stylo” led to an album produced by Damon Albarn (Gorillaz and Blur singer) and Richard Russell (head of XL Recordings), The Bravest Man in the Universe. Womack proved to be in remarkably strong voice and the match of his soulful singing with skittering electronic rhythms and cut-up sounds was deeply satisfying; Rolling Stone named it the 36th-best album of the year. Another album, The Best Is Yet to Come, was scheduled for this year, and reportedly includes collaborations with Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart, Snoop Dogg, Eric Clapton and Teena Marie.
Womack is survived by Regina Banks and four children, Gina, Bobby Truth, Cory and Jordan; he also had the tragedy of a stillborn child in the Sixties, an infant son, Truth, who died at four months of age in 1978, and a son, Vincent, who committed suicide in 1986, at age 21. He died just two weeks after playing the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee.
“I’m so sorry to hear of the passing of Bobby Womack,” said soul singer Candi Staton. “We practically grew up together and traveled together with our gospel groups as young children. He had a style that nobody else could ever capture.”
“He was a true pioneer of soul and R&B, whose voice and songwriting touched millions,” the Rolling Stones said in a statement posted to their website. “On stage, his presence was formidable. His talents put him up there with the greats. We will remember him, first and foremost, as a friend.”