Even if you didn’t know Bobby Womack by name, you probably dug some of his songs that helped make other performers into stars.
Womack, who died on June 27 at age 70, was one of the pioneers of the soul sound – a singer, guitarist and songwriter who helped create the fusion of gospel, R&B and jazz that moved a generation to get out and groove to the music.
Womack’s own roots stretched back to the great Sam Cooke, who gave him and his brothers their start in the music business in the early 1960s. But it was in the 1970s that Womack made his mark with solo hits such as “”That’s the Way I Feel About Cha,” “Woman’s Gotta Have It” and “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.” His 1981 album The Poet topped the R&B charts.
As the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot notes, Womack’s realistic lyrics about the struggles of urban life made his songs stand out: “He wrote about adult issues, and embodied characters from the preacher to the philanderer, ever the philosopher about the everyday travails in the inner city.”
Here are some more facts about a performer whose memoirs were subtitled, unabashedly, “the true story of the greatest soul singer in the world.”
- Womack grew up in a Cleveland neighborhood he described as “so ghetto that we didn’t bother the rats and the didn’t bother us. They walked past and hollered, ‘How you doin’, man?'” His father, Friendly Womack, was a steelworker and amateur singer.
- Womack, who was left-handed, learned to play his father’s guitar by holding it upside down.
- Womack and his brothers – Curtis, Harry, Cecil and Friendly Jr. – started singing gospel music as teenagers. They got their big break when Sam Cooke agreed to let them open for his group, the Soul Stirrers, in a show in Cleveland. They also toured as the opening act for the Staple Singers.
- “Lookin’ for a Love” actually started out as a gospel song called “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” until Cooke persuaded the Womack brothers to rework the song. “I wrote a few new words, we ditched the gospel and crooned about love and lust,” Womack recalled. The song, which the brothers recorded as The Valentinos, sold two million records.
- Womack was inspired to write “It’s All Over Now” by his uncle’s marital difficulties. After the Valentinos’ 1964 recording didn’t do well, Cooke had to struggle to persuade Womack to allow a band he’d never heard of, the Rolling Stones, to cover it. (It became the Stones’ first British chart-topping hit in 1964) “Why don’t they get their own song?” Womack recalled complaining. “… I was still screaming and hollering right up until I got my first royalty check.”
- Womack was a sought-after session guitarist in the 1960s, working on records by Aretha Franklin, the Box Tops and Joe Tex, among others. He also wrote extensively for Wilson Pickett.
- After achieving stardom in the 1970s and 1980s, Womack reportedly struggled with drug addiction and ill health for the next couple of decades. He made a comeback in 2012 with a critically acclaimed album, The Bravest Man in the Universe.
- Womack was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.
Here is Womack performing “Across 110th Street” in London in 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWqy05zz7xc
Photo: Womack at a 2010 concert by Bill Ebbesen via Wikipedia
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