Bobby Womack has earned the right to the title of true soul survivor. There is no doubt that he possesses a unique and exceptional talent. It is not only the rough and raspy classic soul voice, it is the torment in Bobby Womack's music, his pain is honest and deeply personal, leaving him vulnerable and exposed. The singer/songwriter operates on the notion that the best songs are rooted in common experience, and Bobby Womack's music comes straight from his soul.
He was born Bobby Dwayne Womack to Naomi and Friendly Womack Sr., a steelworker, in Cleveland, Ohio on March 4, 1944. In the early 1950's, with some help from his father, Friendly Womack Sr., who was a singer and guitar player with a quartet called the Voices Of Love, he joined his brothers Cecil, Curtis, Friendly Jr. and Harry to tour the country appearing on religious shows as The Womack Brothers. The quintet toured with notable gospel groups such as the Five Blind Boys, the Caravans, and the Pilgrim Travelers, as well as the late great David Ruffin long before Ruffin would become famous as the greatest of The Temptations lead singers. At the time, the brothers thought gospel was the only way to go, that singing anything else was the way to hell.
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. Sam, who would become Bobby’s mentor and a major influence, tried to recruit Bobby as a guitarist for his backing band. This stemmed from a night when Cooke’s guitar player 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. The more successful Sam became, the harder he tried to convince Bobby and his brothers that it was secular music that provided money and fame far beyond the bounds of the gospel circuit. He told them to think about his new house and driveway filled with cars the next time they recorded. Eventually, against threats of eternal damnation from his strictly religious father, Bobby accepted Sam's offer, and dropped out of school.
In 1962, the young heartthrobs made their way to Los Angeles with a $3000. dollar advance from Cooke to buy a car, where they settled into the historic Dunbar Hotel in South Central Los Angeles. Cooke and business partner, former Pilgrim Travelers singer J.W. Alexander , signed the quintet to their new SAR Record label, and renamed them The Valentinos. According to Bobby, they cut a single "in about two hours, with just a guitar and a piano". The gospel song "Somewhere There Is a God", became "Somewhere There's A Girl", The traditional "Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray", became the hit single "Lookin' For A Love". It reached #8 on the R&B charts, and broke the Top 100 pop. Seemingly destined for pop stardom, within two years the Valentinos were filling halls on the R & B circuit.
In December of 1964 Sam Cooke was murdered in a sleazy Los Angeles hotel. Cooke’s death shattered his young protege emotionally and, as things worked out, professionally. Sam's widow and the much younger Bobby began openly dating and were seen together at local nightclubs. Less than 3 months later, shrouded in scandal, and at only twenty one years old, Bobby married Sam's widow, Barbara Campbell. Womack would much later recall how the untimely marriage would cause his career to suffer. When introduced on stage as the boy who married Sam Cooke's wife, people would forget about his talent. Bobby says this about the situation, “When it came down to me marrying his wife, I never knew his wife.” Womack continues. “She was just so hurt and outdone that he had went out that way. She was ready to tackle the first thing that was the closest thing to him, that he liked. And that was me. And I was ready to be there because I knew she needed guidance. I knew if I put myself in there, a lot of people were gonna hate me. But if I don’t marry this woman, this woman's gonna do something crazy, and she may not be able to get out of it.”
“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 him 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.”
Following Sam’s tragic death, the Valentinos remained together for another year, recording unsuccessfully for the Checker label.
By the mid-1960s Bobby’s career as a session guitar player and songwriter was beginning to blossom. 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. Pickett recorded a total of seventeen Womack compositions. During this time Bobby began taking steps toward a solo career and recorded briefly for Him, Chess, and Atlantic, but without much success.
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” and “More Than I Can Stand.” 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 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 songs he covered on the LP. including the traditional gospel song “Yield Not To Temptation,” Womack wrote three original songs. The albums 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 track laid the foundation for Womack’s reputation as a down-home philosopher about everyday life.
Bobby 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, Bobby 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 released as a single. Highlighted by Hood’s hypnotic bass and the effective use of female background singers, the song 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 woman for granted, which Bobby co-wrote with Daryl Carter and Linda Cooke Womack (Sam’s daughter) who married Bobby’s brother Cecil Womack then divorced from Motown singer Mary Wells, who later married brother Curtis. Recorded at American Sound, personnel on the track included Mike Lech 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. As a follow-up, United Artists released Womack’s 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. However, black radio DJ’s played the flip side “Harry Hippie”, and it became the hit reaching number eight on the R&B charts early in 1973 and giving Bobby his first certified gold single.
In 1973 Bobby 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 had been reluctant to give Womack the assignment.
For his next release, Bobby returned to his very first hit, and cut a remake of the Valentinos’ 1962 “Lookin’ for a Love.” Womack re-recorded the song almost as an afterthought while sorting through several original songs to be placed on his next album. Womack gave his album the tile Lookin' For Love Again and released the title track as the first single. It was his second Number One R&B hit, topping the charts for three weeks in the spring of 1974. It was the only top 10 pop hit for Bobby who had achieved very limited crossover success, and second certified gold single. 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.
Bobby’s consistent chart presence in the early 1970s took him to superstar status. However, along with the triumph came signs of him beginning to become a victim of the dark side of the entertainment industry. 1975 found Bobby still in Los Angeles, divorced from Barbara since 1970, and lost in a world of drugs, partying, womanizing, fancy hotel rooms, and expensive champagne. 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. It would be his final hit on the United Artists label. He was dropped from the label after a dispute over the title of a collection of country and western songs, eventually titled B.W. Goes C&W. While Bobby thought that country and western was another avenue for him to channel, United Artists thought he had gone crazy.
On December 31st, of that same year, Bobby married Regina Banks. In 1976, now signed with Columbia, Bobby pulled himself together and returned to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He was a changed man, and a different singer. His voice was grittier, and rougher. The results show in the finished product, his album, At Home In Muscle Shoals, where he ultimately delivers the message of hope, as in the song he co wrote with brother Cecil, "Never Let Nothing Get The Best Of You." During his brief stay at the label he turned out two other self-produced albums, Home Is Where The Heart Is (1976) and Pieces (1977), neither of which achieved much commercial success. Problems at Columbia mounted, when Womack became lost in the shuffle of the many artists on the label’s roster, as well as almost being caught up in a political scheme with a company executive that Womack refuses to identify.
Womack finished the decade on Arista with the Roads Of Life album in 1978 which he dedicated to his infant son Truth Womack who died tragically at only 4 months of age.
Bobby’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.
In 1981, Bobby signed with the small Beverly Glen label and produced the masterpiece, The Poet, and instant success. But all was not well with Womack’s new success. In between the release of The Poet and The Poet II, another fine album, 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 Beverly Glen 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.“
The Poet albums were a breakthrough for Womack in the UK. That same year, Britain's Blues & Soul named him the best male vocalist, best songwriter, and best live performer. The Womack is a true superstar in Europe, where his albums often sell in the millions.
In 1985, free from his legal hassles, Womack again collaborated with Wilton Felder for the latter’s second album, Secrets, and scored with “(No Matter How High I get) I’ll Still Be Looking Up To You,” a duet with Altrinna 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 and in 1989 the album titled Save The Children was released on Solar.
After a period away from recording at the beginning of the 1990’s, Bobby 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 to try to do it right this time, not just for everybody else but for me to grow with it.”
In 1997, (I Wanna) Make Love To You was released on MCA. Bobby's most recent project is a return to gospel Back To My Roots. This soulful collection takes him back to church, and features 19 gospel songs and classics. This may be his best record yet, with his sense of gospel strongly influenced by his R&B experience.
With his return to gospel, Womack hoped to reconcile the conflict with his father, to whom the album is dedicated. Unfortunately, his father died during the making of the album and would never get to hear the finished product.
Through it all Bobby Womack has remained optimistic, and dedicated to what he is, a true soul singer and survivor. Womack is a veteran who has done everything from Gospel to doo-wop to collaborations with The Rolling Stones. When it comes to old school R&B, few perform with more ease and assurance than Bobby Womack. Unjustly, he has never received the accolades he deserves, like that given such peers as Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Jackie Wilson, although he's just as influential a figure in black music.