One of the most enigmatic and talented Soul men of all time, Bobby Womack has been a sort of Soul Forrest Gump, serving as a link from 50s Gospel to 60s Soul to 70s Rock and to some of the greatest musicians in each genre. Born in an extremely devout religious family, he was singing Gospel with his brothers Cecil, Friendly, Harry and Curtis as the Womack Brothers while he was still a child. The talented group was discovered by Gospel/Soul legend Sam Cooke, who redubbed them the Valentinos and transformed them into a teenage secular vocal group.
By the early 60s they were touring with James Brown and scoring on the R&B charts with their first hit, "Lookin' For A Love." Cooke's death in 1964 sent the group on a spiral from which it would never recover. Also, Womack encountered some public fallout when married Cooke's widow less than a year later (even more ironic was that brother Cecil ultimately married Cooke's daughter, Linda, who became his partner in the popular writing/singing group Womack & Womack).
Without their mentor, the Valentinos faded, and Womack became principally a writer and guitarist for an A-list of 60s Soul and Rock stars, including Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones, Sly Stone, Aretha Franklin and others. Interestingly, while he had established himself as a top notch songwriter, it took a 1968 cover of the pop standard "Fly Me to the Moon" to jump start his solo career, hitting the Soul Top 20. Over the next 4 years, he alternated original compositions ("What Is This," "More Than I Can Stand") and pop covers ("I Left My Heart In San Francisco," "Sweet Caroline") to stay a middling Soul charter. However, from 1972-76, a series of his own excellent compositions propelled him to the top of the Soul charts. Songs like "That's the Way I Feel About Cha," "Woman's Gotta Have It," "Harry Hippie," "Check It Out" and "Daylight" provided a Southern soulfulness that more resembled the gritty Memphis and Alabama sounds of Aretha and Sam and Dave than the silky sounds emanating from Detroit and Philadelphia. During this period Womack also hit the Pop Top 10 for the first and only time with a cover of the old Valentino's song, "Lookin For A Love." He also issued some of the great Soul albums of this period, a few of which (Communication and Understanding) are revered by a generation of Soul music lovers.
Personal problems and his inability to adjust to the changing music scene (particularly the rise of disco) left Womack virtually irrelevant in the latter 70s, and by 1980 it appeared he was headed for the oldies circuit. However, he signed with the fledgling Beverly Glen label and released 1982's The Poet, a surprise #1 album and Womack's best LP in years. By that time, disco had alienated Soul Music lovers, and they found solace in Womack's seven minute masterpiece, "If You Think You're Lonely Now" and the follow-up single, "Where Do We Go From Here." Unfortunately, a fallout with Beverly Glen led to a two year delay before he released The Poet II on MCA. While not as strong as the predecessor album, Poet II included a great duet with Patti LaBelle, "Love Has Finally Come At Last," which hit Soul #3. Womack scored again the next year with the excellent So Many Rivers and its haunting hit single, "I Wish He Didn't Trust Me So Much."
Womack continued to record sporadically over the next decade, releasing fairly good material through the mid-90s. Then, after nearly a half decade break, in 1999 Womack cut two discs, a Christmas CD called Traditions and his first Gospel CD, the critically acclaimed Back to My Roots.
Womack's career was immortalized in a 2012 edition of TV One's Unsung. However, he also suffered health setbacks in 2012, first being diagnosed with colon cancer and, devastatingly, later in the year was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease.
It is a shame that Bobby Womack never achieved the across-the-board acclaim that his talent deserved. While revered by both Rock and Soul musicians, his popular appeal was generally limited to Soul audiences and to two periods (1972-76 and 1982-85). However the quality of his songwriting and the singularity of his emotive, soulful voice make him one of the most important Soul performers of all time. Young lovers of Soul music should seek out his extensive recorded work as representative of the best Soul music has to offer.
By Chris Rizik
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