Bobby Womack’s musical career began in the early ’50s when he joined his brothers in a gospel group that was called, reasonably, the Womack Brothers. He made the acquaintance of Sam Cooke in 1953 when Cooke was on the road with the Soul Stirrers, one of the top gospel acts of the day. When Cooke founded SAR Records, he signed the Womack Brothers, hoping they could cross over to the R&B charts. That idea didn’t play very well with Bobby’s father, Friendly Womack.
The Womack Brothers made some gospel records for SAR in the early ’60s before Cooke convinced them to rename themselves the Valentinos, and take a shot at R&B. Cooke’s intuition paid off as the Valentino’s first record, “Lookin’ For A Love,” became a Top Ten hit on the R&B charts.
Cooke felt that the group needed some road experience, so he sent them out to back James Brown. Bobby later became the guitar player in Cooke’s band. The next big break for Bobby came when the Rolling Stones covered his song “It’s All Over Now” in 1964. The song went to #1 on the UK charts. I once heard Bobby say that he had never heard of the Stones when they covered his song, and he wasn’t too happy about it, but then the checks started rolling in and he changed his mind.
Sam Cooke died tragically in 1964 and suddenly the Valentinos were rudderless. Bobby married Cooke’s widow Barbara Campbell just three months after Cooke’s death, and the R&B community wasn’t very happy about it. His early solo recordings for Chess Records were dead on arrival, despite their obvious quality. Bobby made ends meet with his guitar skills, playing for Ray Charles, and working at American Studios in Memphis, and in Muscle Shoals. Bobby played on records buy Aretha Franklin, Joe Tex, and King Curtis, among others. Wilson Pickett became a fan of his songwriting and had hits with Bobby’s “Midnight Mover,” and “I’m In Love.” Pickett also recorded 15 other Womack songs.
Solo success finally came to Bobby in 1968 with the single “What Is This?” More hits followed and by 1971 Bobby found himself on United Artists Records where he had his greatest success. His song “Trust Me” was on Janis Joplin’s Pearl album, and the J. Geils Band had their first hit with a cover of “Lookin’ For A Love.” The experience of playing guitar on Sly & the Family Stone’s epochal album There’s A Riot Goin’ On had a huge impact on Bobby’s style going forward. The hits kept coming, including “That’s the Way I Feel About ‘Cha,” “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” and “Harry Hippie.” Bobby wrote the score for the film Across 110th Street, and Quentin Tarantino used the title track to great affect in his 1998 film Jackie Brown.
In 1974 Bobby decided to revive the old Valentino’s hit “Lookin’ For A Love.” His newly recorded version hit #1 on the R&B chart, and was Top Ten on the Pop chart. Despite the success, or maybe because of it, dark days were ahead.
Bobby was used to partying with rock stars, but when his beloved brother Harry was murdered by a jealous girlfriend in 1974, things got serious. The hits continued, with “Check It Out” in 1975, and “Daylight” the following year. Bobby wanted to do an all country album, and even though his label advised him against it, he went ahead and did it anyway. The album went nowhere. UA dumped him and Columbia picked him up. Two albums there failed and by 1979 he had moved on to Arista. Not long after his infant son died suddenly, the album Roads of Lifeappeared on the label.
Bobby was at a low point in his life. He made a guest appearance on the Wilton Felder album Inherit the Wind, singing the title track. In 1981, he signed to Beverly Glen records, and The Poet came out of nowhere to become a hit album featuring “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.” A dispute with the label held The Poet II back until 1984, but the album spawned another hit, “Love Has Finally Come At Last,” a duet with Patti LaBelle. Beverly Glen pieced together another album with leftovers from previous sessions, but by the time it was released Bobby had moved on to MCA.
Bobby joined Felder again, and they had another hit with the stunning “(No Matter How High I Get) I’ll Still Be Looking Up To You.” His first MCA album, So Many Rivers, featured the R&B hit “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much.” Bobby made two more albums for the label, Womagic in 1986, and The Last Soul Man the next year. During this time he also backed the Stones on their cover of “The Harlem Shuffle.”
Bobby’s career since then has been hit-or-miss. He released Resurrection, an album that featured Ron Wood, Keith Richards, Rod Stewart, and Stevie Wonder, in 1994. He returned to gospel with Back To My Roots in 1999. A guest appearance on the Gorillaz album Plastic Beach in 2010 led to a collaboration with Damon Albarn. Together with Richard Russell they produced the brilliant album The Bravest Man in the Universe.
Bobby Womack died on June 27, 2014. He was 70 years-old.
Ken Shane is the New Music Editor at Popdose
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