Robert Dwayne “Bobby” Womack (//; March 4, 1944 − June 27, 2014) was an American singer-songwriter and musician. An active recording artist since the early 1960s, when he started his career as the lead singer of his family musical group the Valentinos and as Sam Cooke’s backing guitarist, Womack’s career spanned more than 50 years and spanned a repertoire in the styles of R&B, soul, rock and roll, doo-wop, gospel, and country.
Womack wrote and originally recorded The Rolling Stones’ first UK No. 1 hit, “It’s All Over Now” and New Birth’s “I Can Understand It” among other songs. As a singer he is most notable for the hits “Lookin’ For a Love”, “That’s The Way I Feel About Cha”, “Woman’s Gotta Have It”, “Harry Hippie”, “Across 110th Street” and his 1980s hit “If You Think You’re Lonely Now”.
In 2009, Womack was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Born and raised in Cleveland’s East 85th & Quincy area to Naomi Womack and Friendly Womack, Womack was the third of five brothers.Raised Baptist, their mother played organ in their church and their father was a minister and musician, often known to play guitar though he advised his sons to not touch the instrument while he was away. One night, eight-year-old Bobby, who was often playing it, broke a guitar string. After Friendly replaced the string with a shoelace, he let Bobby play the guitar for him. According to Bobby later, Friendly was shocked by his son’s talents as well as the talents of his other sons. Soon afterwards, he bought Bobby his own guitar and formed The Womack Brothers. The group toured the gospel circuit with their parents accompanying them on organ and guitar respectively. In 1954, the group under the moniker Curtis Womack and the Womack Brothers, the group issued the Pennant single, “Buffalo Bill”. Bobby was only ten years old at the time.
Even though Curtis Womack often sang lead, Bobby Womack was allowed to sing alongside him showcasing his gruff baritone vocals in contrast to his older brother’s smoother tenor. During performances, Bobby would sometimes imitate the role of a preacher. Sam Cooke discovered the group performing while he was still in the Soul Stirrers in 1956 and began mentoring the boys, promising them that he would help with their careers once he established himself. Within four years, Cooke had formed SAR Records and signed the quintet to the label. Changing their name to the Valentinos, Cooke produced and arranged the group’s first hit single, “Looking for a Love”, which was a pop version of a gospel song they had released titled “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray”, written by Bobby. The song became a R&B hit and helped land the group a spot on James Brown’s Revue. The group’s next hit came in 1964 with the country-tinged “It’s All Over Now”, co-composed by Bobby. Their version was rising on the charts when the Rolling Stones covered it. The Valentinos’ career was left shaky after Sam Cooke was shot and killed in a Los Angeles motel. Devastated by the news, the brothers disbanded and SAR Records folded.
Womack worked at Chips Moman’s American Studios in Memphis and played on recordings by Joe Tex and the Box Tops. Womack played guitar on several of Aretha Franklin’s albums, including Lady Soul, but not on the hit song, “Chain of Fools”, as erroneously reported. His work as a songwriter caught the eye of music executives after Wilson Pickett took a liking to some of the songs and insisted on recording them. Among those songs included the hits, “I’m a Midnight Mover” and “I’m in Love”.
In 1968, he signed with Minit Records and recorded his first solo album, Fly Me to the Moon, where he scored his first major hit with a cover of the Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin'”. In 1969, Womack forged a partnership with Gábor Szabó and with Szabó, penned the instrumental, “Breezin'”, later a hit for George Benson. Womack also worked with rock musicians Sly and the Family Stone and Janis Joplin, contributing vocals and guitar work on The Family Stone’s accomplished album, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and penning the ballad “Trust Me”, for Joplin on her album, Pearl.
After two more albums with Minit, Bobby switched labels, signing with United Artists where he changed his attire and his musical direction with the album, Communication. The album bolstered his first top 40 hit, “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha”, which peaked at number two R&B and number twenty-seven on the Billboard Hot 100 in the spring of 1972.
Following Communication, Womack’s profile was raised with two more albums, released in 1972. The first of which was Understanding, noted for the album track, “I Can Understand It”, later covered by the funk band New Birth and a three-sibling lineup of Bobby’s old group, the Valentinos, and two hit singles, “Woman’s Gotta Have It” and “Harry Hippie”, the latter song was written for Womack by Jim Ford in a country version, in which Womack re-arranged in an R&B version. “Harry Hippie” later became Womack’s first to be certified gold. Contrary to popular belief, the song was not about Womack’s brother Harry. “Woman’s Gotta Have It” became Womack’s first to hit number-one on the R&B charts.
Another hit album released after Understanding was the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film, Across 110th Street. The title track became popular during its initial 1972 release and later would be played during the opening and closing scenes of the film, Jackie Brown, years later. Across 110th Street is a 1972 American crime drama film starring Anthony Quinn, Yaphet Kotto, and Anthony Franciosa, and directed by Barry Shear. Commonly associated with the blaxploitation genre at the time, it has received considerable critical praise from writer Greil Marcus and others for surpassing the limitations of that genre. This film is set in Harlem, of which 110th Street is an informal boundary line. By-the-book African-American Lieutenant William Pope (Kotto) has to work with crude, semi racist but streetwise Italian-American Captain Frank Mattelli (Quinn) in the NYPD’s 27th precinct. They are looking for three black men who slaughtered seven men—three black gangsters and two Italian gangsters, as well as two patrol officers—in the robbery of $300,000 from a Mafia-owned Harlem policy bank. Mafia lieutenant Nick D’Salvio (Franciosa) and his two henchmen are also after the hoods. The movie was filmed on location in Harlem, New York. The film is also notable as being the first feature film to use a self-blimped camera (the Arriflex 35BL) for sync sound; the much-reduced size of the camera allowed the production to not only use more hand-held shots and smaller locations than normal, but also record usable sound at the same time – an endeavor not previously possible under those circumstances.The critically praised title song, written by Bobby Womack and J.J. Johnson, was a No. 19 hit on the Billboard Hot Black Singles chart in 1973, and was later featured in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 blaxploitation homage Jackie Brown. It is also heard in Ridley Scott’s 2007 film American Gangster, and as a background song for the video game True Crime: New York City. All songs were written and performed by Bobby Womack; the score was composed and conducted by J.J. Johnson
In one of many violent scenes, D’Salvio finds getaway driver Henry J. Jackson (Antonio Fargas) and brutalizes him in a Harlem whorehouse.
In 1973, Womack released another hit album, Facts of Life, and had a top 40 hit with “Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out”, an older song Sam Cooke had done years before
In 1974, Womack released his most successful single during this period with a remake of his first hit single, “Lookin’ for a Love”. Bobby’s solo version of the song became even more successful than the original with the Valentinos’, becoming his second number-one hit on the R&B chart and peaking at number ten on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming his only hit to reach that high on the pop chart. The song was featured on the album, Lookin’ for a Love Again and featured the minor charted “You’re Welcome, Stop on By”, later covered by Rufus & Chaka Khan. Womack’s career began stalling after Womack suffered from the tragic news of his brother Harry’s death. Womack continued to record albums with United Artists through 1975 and 1976 but with less success than previous albums. In 1975, Womack collaborated with Rolling Stones member Ronnie Wood, on Wood’s second solo album, Now Look.
Womack languished with his own recordings during the late 1970s but continued to be a frequent collaborator with other artists, most notably Wilton Felder of The Crusaders. In 1981, Womack signed with Beverly Glen Records and had his first R&B top ten single in five years since the 1976 single Daylight with “If You Think You’re Lonely Now”, which peaked at number three on the R&B singles chart. His accompanying “The Poet” album become a number one on the R&B album charts and is now seen as the high point of his long career, bringing him wider acclaim not only in the U.S. but also in Europe. He had two more R&B top ten singles during the 1980s including the Patti LaBelle duet, “Love Has Finally Come at Last” and “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much”. He had a hit featuring on the Wilton Felder single, “(No Matter How High I Get) I’ll Still Be Looking Up to You”.
Womack’s solo career started to slow down, however, after 1985, partially due to Womack’s issues with drug addiction. After sobering up in the mid-1990s, he released the album, Resurrection and continued his performing career.
In 1989, Womack sang on Todd Rundgren’s “For the Want of a Nail” on the album Nearly Human. In 1998, he performed George Gershwin’s “Summertime” with The Roots for the Red Hot Organization’s compilation album Red Hot + Rhapsody, a tribute to George Gershwin, which raised money for various charities devoted to increasing AIDS awareness and fighting the disease.
In 2010, Womack contributed lyrics and sang on “Stylo” alongside Mos Def, the first single from the third Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach. Womack was told to sing whatever was on his mind during the recording of “Stylo”. “I was in there for an hour going crazy about love and politics, getting it off my chest”, said Womack. He also provides vocals on the song “Cloud of Unknowing” in addition to the song “Bobby in Phoenix” on their December 2010 release “The Fall”.
A new album was released on June 12, 2012 by XL Recordings of London. The album, The Bravest Man in the Universe was produced by Damon Albarn and Richard Russell. The first Song “Please Forgive My Heart” was offered as a free download on XL Recordings’ official website on March 8, 2012. Contact Music reported that Womack was working on a blues album, called Living in the House of Blues, featuring collaborations with Stevie Wonder, Snoop Dogg and Rod Stewart. In an interview with Uncut, Womack revealed that the followup is now called The Best Is Yet To Come and also features Teena Marie and Ronnie Isley.
Jodeci’s K-Ci Hailey, a notable admirer of Womack’s work, covered “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” in 1994. Hailey again covered Womack in 2006 with his rendition of “A Woman’s Gotta Have It”. The song is referenced in Mariah Carey’s song “We Belong Together”, a number-one hit in June 2005. Carey sings “I can’t sleep at night / When you are on my mind / Bobby Womack’s on the radio / Singing to me: ‘If you think you’re lonely now.'” In 2007, R&B singer Jaheim interpolated the song as “Lonely” on his album “The Making of a Man”. Neo Soul Singer, Calvin Richardson also covered many of Womack’s tunes. The song was covered by the late R&B musician Gerald Levert and fellow singer Mary J. Blige from Levert’s 1998 album Love & Consequences.
Film director Quentin Tarantino used “Across 110th Street” (which, in a different version, had been the title song of the 1972 movie) in the opening and closing sequences of his 1997 film Jackie Brown. His work has been used in several other popular films, including Meet the Parents (2000), Ali (2001) and American Gangster (2007). A 2003 Saab commercial used Womack’s interpretation of “California Dreamin'”. In 2005, “Across 110th Street” appeared in the hit Activision video game True Crime: New York City.
On the 1994 release 1-800-NEW-FUNK, Nona Gaye covered “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” produced by Prince and backed by his band, New Power Generation.
During the spring of 1997, R&B singer Rome covered the original song from his self-titled debut album.
In 2008, Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child recorded her own version of his R&B hit “Daylight” with Travis McCoy of the Gym Class Heroes, which became a hit in the UK Singles Chart, where it was previously released as a single by Womack in 1976.
In 2009, Calvin Richardson was chosen to record a tribute album to Womack to coincide with Womack’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Grammy-nominated album was entitled Facts of Life: The Soul of Bobby Womack. It reached No. 30 on the US R&B chart.
In early 2012, Womack’s career was the subject of the documentary show Unsung on TV One.
In March 1965, just three months after Sam Cooke’s death, 21-year old Womack created scandal by marrying Cooke’s 29-year old widow, Barbara Campbell. Womack claimed he initially went to Barbara’s side to console her following Cooke’s death for fear that, if she were left alone, she would “do something crazy”.
Bobby Womack’s younger brother, Cecil, later married Linda, the daughter of Sam Cooke and Campbell. Womack and Linda collaborated on the hit song “Woman’s Gotta Have It” and he applied background vocals for his brother and Linda as the pair teamed up as Womack & Womack. Womack & Womack are also the artists of the song “Baby I’m Scared of You”.
By 1976, Bobby and Barbara were divorced with one son, Vincent, and Womack was on his third marriage to Regina Banks.
Womack opened up about his frequent drug use in his memoirs, I’m a Midnight Mover. Womack said he began using cocaine sometime in the late 1960s. His cocaine use turned into an addiction by the late 1970s. Womack partially blamed his habit for his son Truth’s death as an infant in 1976. At the end of the 1980s, Womack went into a rehab facility to get over his cocaine addiction, which he said he conquered. Womack developed diabetes in his later years. In early 2012, Womack entered several hospitals with health problems including pneumonia, for which he was successfully treated. It was revealed in March that Womack was diagnosed with colon cancer after Bootsy Collins reported it on his Facebook page. Womack announced afterwards that he was undergoing cancer surgery. On May 24, 2012, it was announced that Womack’s surgery to remove a tumor from his colon was successful and he was declared cancer free. On January 1, 2013, Womack admitted that he has struggled to remember his songs and other people’s names, leading doctors to suggest that he was in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Womack died on June 27, 2014 at age 70. Though the cause of death is currently unknown, he had a number of health issues including diabetes, prostate cancer, heart trouble, colon cancer and pneumonia.
Here’s another Bobby Womack Harlem song “Harlem Clarinet”:
Photo credit: Warming Up The Hague Jazz 2011 – Bobby Womack (Photo credit: Haags Uitburo).