Copyright © by Marc Taylor, 4/9/03
[Chapter excerpted from A Touch Of Classic Soul, Soul Singers Of The Early 1970s, Copyright © by Marc Taylor, 1996. Read more about Marc & Soul at his website A Touch Of Classic Soul, & listen to Marc guest on Omniversica's Show # 4, recorded 4/9/03.]
A prolific songwriter, singer, and guitarist whose career has spanned
four decades, Bobby Womack had an important influence on the development of
postwar black music. With roots in the gospel field, Womack was able to parlay
his talents as a writer and guitarist in the mid-1960s into a significant career
as a soul artist. In the early to mid-1970s he scored with a series of hits,
such as “Woman’s Gotta Have It” and “Lookin’ for a Love,” sung in
his raspy, almost gravelly tenor. After a brief dry spell at the end of the
decade, Womack made a tremendous comeback in the early 1980s with “If You
Think You’re Lonely Now.” With several of his songs being covered by artists
ranging from the Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin to George Benson and Chaka
Khan, Womack created a body of work ranking among the finest in modern music.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1944, Womack got his first exposure to music in church. He and his four brothers, Cecil, Curtis, Harry, and Friendly, Jr., formed the Womack Brothers under the guidance of their father, Friendly Womack, Sr., a singer and guitar player with a quartet called the Voices of Love. The brothers toured the country, appearing on religious shows with other notable gospel groups such as the Five Blind Boys, the Caravans, and the Pilgrim Travelers. When the Womack Brothers opened for the Soul Stirrers at a local gospel show in 1953, Bobby came in contact with their lead singer, Sam Cooke, who was just beginning to branch out into secular music.
In 1961 the Womack Brothers were signed to SAR Records, a label owned by Cooke and his manager, former Pilgrim Travelers singer J. W. Alexander. Cooke convinced the Womack Brothers to branch into secular music and change their name to the Valentinos. The following year, the newly christened group had a hit with “Lookin’ for a Love,” originally the gospel melody of “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” to which SAR writer Zelda Samuels wrote new lyrics. In addition to having the brothers open up for him, Cooke recruited Bobby as his guitar player. This stemmed from a night when Cooke’s regular guitarist did not show up and Bobby, then 16 years old, filled in and impressed Cooke so much that he fired two of his guitar players and replaced them with Bobby.
“Sam Cooke had a helluva influence on me,” says Womack, “not only because he was a great singer but because he was a great person. He would be the epitome of what the newcomers today would call a star. Sam was the kind of person who made you feel like you were he and he was you. He did it so well. I would ask him how could he do that. His idea was if somebody’s a fan and they love you so much and all you have to do is sit there and talk to them for a few minutes ... turn it on. He said, ‘I enjoy singing. Bobby, they have nothing else going. When they come from that show, they go back to that daily pressure, the system. I feel lucky to be able to throw that party for them and get paid for it.’ That to me was something I always dug.”
Soon after Bobby left Cooke’s band in 1963, he wrote and recorded “It’s All Over Now,” which briefly charted for the Valentinos in 1964. That same year the Rolling Stones had a moderate hit with their cover version. On December 11, 1964, Sam Cooke was shot to death by the manager of a cheap Los Angeles motel, amid circumstances that remain mysterious nearly 40 years later. Bobby was soon mired in controversy due to his marriage to Cooke’s widow Barbara, which took place less than three months after his mentor’s death. The Valentinos remained together for another year, recording unsuccessfully for Checker Records. Bobby then began taking steps toward a solo career. However, with the soul music world closing ranks against him because of his marriage, rumors persisted that DJs at black radio stations refused to play his records. As a result, Bobby’s efforts for Chess, Keymen, Him, and Atlantic achieved middling results. Unable to break out as a solo artist, Bobby began to blossom as a session guitar player and songwriter. Among the artists he backed were Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Joe Tex, and King Curtis. He also wrote the hits “I’m in Love,” “I’m a Midnight Mover,” and “Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won’t Do)” for Wilson Pickett.
In 1968 Bobby scored his first chart entry on Minit Records with “What Is This,” a gritty, Southern-soul track exemplifying his stay in Memphis working with Chips Moman. He continued to have moderate success with soul versions of the pop songs “Fly Me to the Moon” and the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’.” A songwriting collaboration with Darryl Carter, an engineer at Moman’s American Sound Studios, helped Bobby achieve better quality and greater success on “How I Miss You Baby” (fall 1969) and “More Than I Can Stand” (spring 1970). In 1970 Minit Records was absorbed by its parent company Liberty, and Womack was switched over to that label. The following year Liberty was closed by its owners, TransAmerica, and the roster was moved to United Artists.
The switch move to United Artists proved to be a major breakthrough for Womack’s solo career. He was given the artistic freedom to produce his own album and the result was the highly acclaimed Communication released late in 1971. Continuing his penchant for covering pop hits, he gave soulful readings to James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” and Ray Stevens’ “Everything Is Beautiful.” On another cover, a bluesy take on the Carpenters’ “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” Womack delivered a long monologue about being pressured to make his music sound more commercial. Aside from the four tunes he covered on the LP, including the traditional gospel song “Yield Not to Temptation,” Womack wrote three original tracks. The album’s biggest hit was “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha,” a bluesy ballad which Womack again opened with a monologue. With a theme of bringing the grim realities of the ups and downs of being in love to the forefront and removing the frills of unrealistic romance, “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha” cracked the pop top 30 and reached number two on the R&B charts early in 1972. More important, the song laid the foundation for Womack’s reputation as a down-home philosopher about everyday life.
He says, “My songwriting inspiration comes from growing up in the ghetto, being a project child, and seeing events like people fighting. You work all day, there’s love through the week, and then on the weekend you get drunk and try to kill each other. Everybody knew of a neighborhood drunk. He was a normal guy, good person, had a family and all that, but on the weekend his only release was to get as much alcohol as he could, come staggering home and argue with his wife; just be crazy. It comes from different things like people falling in and out of love; me watching my parents go through ups and downs, and changes. Sometimes the pressure built so high that you thought they hated each other. They just had to find some release. They didn’t drink or have a different outlet that people normally do to use to relax because they were churchgoing people, but they would explode on each other. It’s just everyday life like that, that my songwriting comes from.”
Womack followed Communication with Understanding later in 1972. Like his previous album, Womack recorded Understanding both in Memphis at American Sound Studio and in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. At Muscle Shoals, he utilized top session players, including drummer Rodger Hawkins, guitarists Jimmy Johnson and Tippy Armstrong, bassist David Hood, and keyboardist Barry Beckett. One of the key songs from the album was “I Can Understand It,” which inexplicably was never issued as a single. Highlighted by Hood’s hypnotic bass and the effective use of female background singers, “I Can Understand It” has become a soul classic and was a major hit for New Birth the following year.
The first single released from Understanding was “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” a warning to a man who was taking his wife for granted, which Womack co-wrote with Darryl Carter and Linda Cooke Womack (Sam’s daughter). Recorded at American Sound, personnel on the track included Mike Leech on bass, Reggie Young on guitar, Hayward Bishop on drums and percussion, Bobby Wood on piano, and Bobby Emmons on organ. With emphasis on Leech’s bassline, “Woman’s Gotta Have It” was Womack’s first Number One R&B hit, topping the charts in the spring of 1972. He followed with a cover of Neil Diamond’s 1969 hit “Sweet Caroline (Good Times Never Seemed So Good).” The song had moderate success on the R&B charts, perhaps on the strength of Womack’s two previous hits. However, black radio deejays played the B-side, “Harry Hippie.” When the label flipped the single, “Harry Hippie” became the hit, reaching number eight on the R&B charts early in 1973 and giving the artist his first certified gold single. “Harry Hippie” had special meaning to Womack because the song was an ode to his brother Harry, who was found stabbed to death two years later.
He explains, “Harry was the bass player and tenor for the brothers when we were the Valentinos. He lived a very carefree life. As a child he always said he wanted to live on an Indian reservation. We used to joke about it, but when we got older he was the same way. He always thought I wanted the materialistic things and I said, ‘I just want to do my music. My music put me into that comfortable territory.’ He didn’t want the pressure. We used to laugh and joke about the song when I’d sing it. When he was brutally killed in my home, it was by a jealous girlfriend who he’d lived with for five years. She fought a lot, violence. And in our home it was considered to be worth less than a man to fight a woman, so he didn’t fight back and she stabbed him to death.
“At the time I was in Seattle doing a gig and he was going to join me when we got back. Previously I had hired a new bass player because I felt it would help [Harry’s] relationship with his spouse if he weren’t on the road. And that turned out to be very sour. He ended up losing his life behind it. At that time [‘Harry Hippie’] wasn’t a joke anymore; I had lost a brother. I still do that song in his honor today.”
In 1973 Womack took time out to record the soundtrack to Across 110th Street, one of the period’s more outstanding “blaxploitation” films. The album’s title track, recorded with his backup band Peace, gave Womack his fifth straight top 20 R&B hit in less than two years. Despite having a successful track record that included two consecutive self-produced albums, United Artists was reluctant to give Womack the assignment. He recalls, “My company was doing a lot of recording and I was really hot at the time. I approached them and asked, ‘Why do y’all keep going outside to hire people to do your soundtracks when I’m number one?’ They asked, ‘Bobby, have you ever done soundtracks before?’ and I said, ‘No, I ain’t ever gonna do one if you don’t give me a shot.’ So I complained that I would leave the company and go somewhere better where somebody else would utilize my talent and let me go ahead instead of trying to console me. When it came around they came to me and said, ‘Okay, you have your chance to do a soundtrack.’ I knew they didn’t want me to do it because at that time I was getting ready to go on tour. They let me see the movie one time with no music, but they wouldn’t give me a [copy of the] film to be able to go on the road and remember what I saw. Plus they said I had to finish it in two weeks. You know they didn’t want me to do it but that gave me the incentive to show them.
“Fortunately the movie was about Harlem. There’s a ghetto in every city. I could write that with my eyes closed. So, I wrote the songs and never saw the movie again until it came out. I not only finished it but I got it out there and they said, ‘We’re sorry that we did that because if you had an equal opportunity, think what you could’ve done with it.’ Now, if they told me to write about war in two weeks I wouldn’t have been able to do that. It’s a whole different ball game. I haven’t been there.”
Womack followed the soundtrack with the Facts of Life album, which gave him a two-sided hit with “Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out” and “I’m Through Trying to Prove My Love to You.” The former, a smooth, mid-tempo track, somewhat up-beat given its theme, rose to number two on the R&B charts in the fall of 1973 and remains a song Womack considers “a very true song to me, along with ‘Harry Hippie.’”
For his next release, Womack returned to his very first triumph, and cut a remake of the Valentinos’ 1962 “Lookin’ for a Love.” In 1971, “Lookin’ for a Love” became the first hit for the Boston-based rock group J. Geils Band. Two years later Womack re-recorded the song almost as an afterthought while sorting through several original tunes to be placed on his next album. Later convinced by associates that his new version would be a hit, Womack gave his LP the title Lookin’ for Love Again and released the title track as the first single. The remake was more heartfelt and good-natured than most of Womack’s previous songs about the realities of everyday life, and gave him his second Number One R&B hit, topping the charts for three weeks in the spring of 1974. Perhaps it was the song’s good-natured flavor, which allowed it to become Womack’s only top 10 pop hit, and second certified gold record.
At a time when most singles to reach the summit of the R&B charts at least cracked the pop top 10, Womack enjoyed very limited crossover success. With his raw, gritty, soulful voice, drawing from the soul superstars he worked with in the previous decade, and the themes of his songs drawn predominantly from the ghetto experience, Womack’s appeal was almost exclusively to the black audience.
“I’m proud to be a soul singer,” he says. “I’m not proud of the way soul music has been treated but with every other thing, they take it, steal it, and say they did it. They take your song that you sell, maybe a million copies in the black market, and it won’t reach their stations unless white people do it. My music is just a symbol of what Aretha [Franklin], Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and others have done.”
The second single from Lookin’ for Love Again, “You’re Welcome, Stop on By” reached number five on the R&B charts in the summer of 1974 and soon became identified as a classic in the repertoire of Rufus and Chaka Khan, although the group never released it as a single.
With a steady run of hits in the early 1970s, Bobby Womack reached superstar status. However, along with the glory came signs of him beginning to become a victim of the dark side of the entertainment industry. He admits, “I was flying very high. I was doing all the wrong things. I was partying, getting high, hanging out. It was just like somebody had turned up the volume. I was already doing it when I was a kid and they were praising me as the new bishop, like the youngest bishop in the neighborhood or in the gospel field. I was always the greatest thing that ever happened. When you’re born and people are surrounding you like that, you just get used to it. So, when they turned it up louder, I started doing it more. I never considered myself as being number one. I was still thinking it was James Brown, Sam Cooke, and Jackie Wilson, and they had moved over and gave me a slot. So, when the volume turned off, I was still there. It’s what I do. I can always do that. That’s why I pass on to people, if you can find something that you love to do, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Womack’s career began to take a slight dip during the mid-1970s. The funky “Check It Out” was his only hit in 1975, peaking at number six. A year later, returning to his production trademarks of an effective use of female background singers and emphasis on the bassline, Womack took “Daylight” to number five. “Daylight” proved to be his final hit on the United Artists label. After a dispute over the title of a collection of country and western songs, B.W. Goes C&W – Womack’s own title had been Move Over Charley Pride and Give Another Nigger a Chance— he left the label.
“I left United Artists because they were afraid of me being in control of my own life. I said, ‘Why shouldn’t I? I bring the songs, I write them, I sing them, I produce them, and I publish them.’ Plus United Artists wanted to produce me and put me on the shelf and say, ‘Give me another hit like the other one. Make it sound like the other one or something close to it.’ They wanted to hear the old Bobby Womack. I did it a couple of times and I thought about it but I said, ‘Hey, I’m not there today. That was done yesterday so why should I do it again when I’m going further?’
“I cut a country and western album and that pissed them off. They said I had gone crazy. Charley Pride was the only other [black artist] doing country and western. I thought that was another avenue for me to channel.”
During the mid-1970s many of the independent labels folded or were swallowed up by the majors due to a loss in popularity of the artists on their roster, thanks to disco. Many of the top performers from earlier in the decade signed with major labels (e.g., the signing of Tyrone Davis, Johnnie Taylor, and Bill Withers by CBS/Columbia). After leaving United Artists, Womack also signed with Columbia Records. During his brief stay on the label, he turned out two self-produced albums, Home Is Where the Heart Is (1976) and Pieces (1977), neither of which achieved commercial success. Womack’s problems mounted during his tenure with Columbia, including being lost in the shuffle of the many artists on the label’s roster, and almost being caught up in a political scheme with a company executive he refuses to identify.
“It was a political move on the part of a gentleman who was in the business, who now is out of the business because his mind was distorted. He came to me and signed me and told me he wanted me to do a benefit for all of the people in Africa, babies that didn’t live to be a certain age. I said I didn’t mind doing a benefit. He said, ‘If you do this I will give you a million dollars.’ I told him he didn’t have to pay me but who’s going to profit? I want to see if the money goes there. He said I couldn’t watch over his shoulder so I asked if I could put somebody on the board of directors. He said no, so I decided not to do the benefit. Then he took the album, put it in the can and didn’t do anything with it. And I made my decision, I don’t need a platinum album if I have to sell somebody down who’s already down.”
Womack finished the decade on Arista Records with the little-noticed Roads of Life album in 1979. By the start of the 1980s, his career was flagging. Black popular music was still dominated by disco and self-contained funk groups like the Commodores, Parliament/ Funkadelic, and Slave. Traditional soul artists had become relics. Also at the root of Womack’s problems was a drug addiction.
“I’m not a saint. I’ve fallen down but when I fall, I fall on my back. If I can look up, I can get up. There are some people who believe everything you say. That’s why when I got drunk I got drunk in my own chambers. I’m on my own time then. But I respect you enough to not come on stage that way because I wouldn’t want some kid to say, ‘I want to be just like you and come on stage drunk.’ That would be sad to me. I’d do a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; always walk out on my g.p. fall down behind the curtain. But I don’t have that problem ’cause I’m still here. I’ve weathered the storm. I’ve had bouts with drugs but ... life is a drug. The system is a drug.”
Womack’s career began to take a turn for the better in 1980 with the help of George Greif, manager of the Crusaders. Greif recruited Womack as a vocalist on several songs for Crusader Wilton Felder’s solo album Inherit the Wind.
The following year, Womack signed a contract with Beverly Glen Records, a new company started by former ABC Records vice president Otis Smith. His first release for the label was The Poet, which proved to be the comeback of all comebacks. Sticking with his soul roots, which was still unfashionable in the age of disco, the first single, “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” gave the artist his first hit record in six years. This track, which would become Womack’s signature song despite all of his earlier success, contained all of the elements of his hits from the previous decade: the opening monologue, the down-home production flavor, and the effective use of female background vocals. “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” reached number three on the R&B charts early in 1982 and brought Womack back to superstar status after years of being considered a has-been. Adding to the success of The Poet was the follow-up, “Where Do We Go from Here.” An underrated hit from the album, it was released almost as an afterthought and its modest chart success (number 26) does not accurately reflect its popularity. Ironically, the LP’s two more contemporary tracks, “So Many Sides of You” and “Lay Your Lovin’ on Me,” were never issued as singles.
Two years later, Womack followed up with an equally impressive album, The Poet II. The LP’s biggest hit was the ballad “Love Has Finally Come at Last,” a duet with Patti Labelle, another traditional soul legend, herself experiencing something of a hit famine at the start of the decade but was now fresh off a Number One hit, “If Only You Knew.” British publication Blues & Soul named The Poet II best album of 1984 in its prestigious annual poll. In addition, Womack was named best male vocalist, best songwriter, and best live performer. Although Womack received recognition in the States for his accomplishments, he has always been regarded as a bona fide superstar in Europe.
“I was popular in Europe because I was a foreigner there. All of the music that the Europeans have taken from America was black music and they became very famous with it. These artists were real enough to say, ‘If you like what we do, listen to the original.’ They always gave us props for being there. These white kids heard the B.B. Kings, Sam Cookes, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Bobby Womack. Living in this country you’re only as good as your last record. What happened was that we went to Europe and it was like Jimi Hendrix going to Europe. They found a place for us. There the music is the Bible, and we were at the forefront of it. That’s what made it what it is. Here it’s like fast food music. You’re only as good as your last record. There they still like songs I cut 15 years ago, and they come out in droves to hear it, so that made a difference.”
However, all was not well with Womack’s new success. In between the release of The Poet and The Poet II, Womack took label owner Otis Smith to court, claiming that he received no royalties. At the time of signing the contract with Beverly Glen, Womack was at a low and considered the label to be his only chance at recording again. The restrictive contract made no financial guarantees to Womack beyond an initial advance and forbade him from working on any other label, either as an instrumentalist or background singer.
“Being at Beverly Glen was like being back in slavery before I got here, by being whipped by my own brother. The only thing that came out of it that did people good was my music. I never got paid on it and I never forgot it.”
In 1985, free from his legal hassles, Womack again collaborated with Wilton Felder for the latter’s second solo album, Secrets, and scored with “(No Matter How High I Get) I’ll Still Be Looking Up to You,” a duet with Alltrinna Grayson. Later that year he signed with MCA and recorded the highly acclaimed So Many Rivers. The album’s debut single, “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much” reached number two on the R&B charts for two weeks that fall, and was followed up by “Let Me Kiss It Where It Hurts.” The disc fared even better in England, where many critics named it the number one release of 1985. The following year he worked with the Rolling Stones on their new album Dirty Work, singing a duet with Mick Jagger on the hit “Harlem Shuffle.” Later that year he reunited with Chips Moman for Womagic but met with little success, as did his 1989 Solar album Save the Children.
In the mid-1980s, Womack’s brother Cecil and sister-in-law Linda began a recording career as Womack and Womack on the Elektra label, and had their biggest hit in 1984 with “Baby I’m Scared of You.” Already a successful songwriting team, the duo previously wrote several songs for Teddy Pendergrass, including “Love TKO” and “I Can’t Live Without Your Love.”
After a period away from recording at the beginning of the 1990s, Bobby Womack released Resurrection in 1994 on Rolling Stone Ron Wood’s Slide label. “Resurrection is just another album and another phase in my life,” he says. “I paid more attention to the music business than the business of life. My family and myself suffered dearly for it because I was always out there trying to make somebody else happy when I wasn’t giving it at home. Resurrection means born again and I’m glad that I can say I’m born again and to try to do it right this time, not just for everybody else but for me to grow with it.”
In a recording career that has spanned over 40 years, Womack has created an important body of music and earned himself a permanent place in the annals of soul music. Reflecting on how he has been able to survive in the music business despite the numerous ups and downs of his career, he says, “I’ve been able to survive because I was a part of the business that made the business. The only people who trip are the people who don’t have my talent and try to find a way to rip me off. So, they put all the things with you that can tempt you; women, cocaine, booze, everything. And of all those things, you’ll pick one of them. That will be your vice, and when they want to take you out, that’s the vice they’ll use. Well, I switched up on them so fast that they didn’t know what to give me. It was fun seeing the movie. It’s still fun seeing the movie. The only sad part is that I know more dead people than I do people who are living. They’ve taken my brothers out, sisters out, one way or another. I’d trip but I wouldn’t trip too long. I like to walk and feel like I’m in control, not walk and run halfway and fall down ... Ain’t no drug that good.
“Everybody isn’t that fortunate but I think I have the greatest job in the world; to be able to walk into a place, get everybody feeling the same way, good, for two or three hours so when Monday rolls around they say, ‘Man, f___ this. I’ll deal with this and try to catch Bobby Womack again next week.’ I’m a disciple. [God] gave me the talent to do this. When I leave I hope somebody else will want to be a soul singer. It’s my whole life as it passes by me and from what I can remember, nothing has more depth.”
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