Bobby Womack

TrackAlbum
California Dreamin'Fly Me To The Moon
Monologue / (They Long to Be)
Close to You
Communication
I Can Understand ItUnderstanding
Across 110th StreetAcross 110th Street
I'm Through Trying To
Prove My Love To You
Facts Of Life
(If You Want My Love)
Put Something Down On It
I Don't Know What
The World Is Coming To
A Change Is Gonna ComeHome Is Where The Heart Is
If You Think You're Lonely NowThe Poet
Someday We'll All Be FreeAcoustic Poet
I Wish He Didn't Trust Me So MuchSo Many Rivers

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm

 

 

 

 

Contributor: Robert Webb

Back in the late eighties I bought an album by Bobby Womack called The Last Soul Man. It was an audacious title perhaps, when so many other great soulful singers were still alive (Al Green, Curtis Mayfield or Smokey Robinson might have fought him in the playground for it). As far as Womack was concerned though, he carried the mantle of the late Sam Cooke – in Womack’s eyes the paradigm of Soul. Perhaps he figured no one else mattered.

The Last Soul Man wasn’t classic Womack, but he was undoubtedly one of the great surviving singers from the golden age of soul and R&B. His career stretched from the early sixties to the late nineties, with a brief comeback just before his death with the album The Bravest Man In The Universe (he was fond of those titles to the end – although in this case it was one that he claimed dated back 40 years).

Womack started out in the early sixties with his brothers in the Valentinos vocal group, during which time Sam Cooke took him under his wing, and he penned It’s All Over Now, a quick hit for the Stones in 1964. The Valentinos split up in the wake of Sam Cooke’s murder in the mid-sixties and Womack married Cooke’s widow – a controversial move that had him ostracised by the industry for a while. “I stopped wanting to be a part of music when the Monkees retired,” he once quipped, looking back on those years. He went on to hone his skills as a session man and made a name for himself as a go-to songwriter, notably for Wilson Pickett. But it’s his solo recording career that is the focus of this Toppermost. He released over 25 solo albums, so picking just ten tracks is hard. But here goes.

Womack’s first solo album, Fly Me To The Moon, came at the tail end of the sixties and was a fairly run-of-the-mill collection, but what it did do was showcase Womack’s muscular voice. I’ve selected California Dreamin’, partly because it fits the spirt of the times, but also I’ve always liked the song and Womack’s take on it has a particularly nostalgic feel.

He hit his stride in the early seventies, after contributing guest guitar to Sly & the Family Stone ’s landmark There’s A Riot Going On. His 1971 and 1972 releases, Communication and Understanding, are two of my favourite soul albums. Womack forged his own style with these records. From the former I’ve chosen his version of the Carpenters’ hit Close To You (itself a cover of a 1963 Richard Chamberlain original, via Dusty and Dionne). Bobby stretches his rendition to nine minutes, prefacing it with a monologue in which he addresses his treatment by the music industry; how record company guys – “presidents, vice presidents, producers … and the little ol’ engineer” – all dismissed him as just not commercial enough, perhaps sidestepping him as a tricky customer who came with baggage. Bobby knows better though. It’s virtual self-therapy, but when he segues into the song proper, he transforms it into sublime healing.

From Understanding I’ve picked I Can Understand It, a classic Womack track that has been covered by many others over the years. Understanding also includes Harry Hippie, a song (by writer Jim Ford) about Bobby’s brother that originated during the Sly Stone sessions. It’s another iconic Womack number. Other great tracks on this album are Ruby Dean and the ebullient Woman’s Gotta Have It. If you don’t know Bobby at all, Communication and Understanding (now available as a two-fer) are the place to start. Womack’s athletic, raw voice; the funky, skin-tight arrangements and the fantastic playing make these albums indispensable.

Their critical and commercial success led Womack to be invited to compose songs for the soundtrack to a movie, Across 110th Street. The result, more memorable than the film itself, is terrific inner-city soul. The title track has perhaps become Womack’s best-known song (apart from It’s All Over Now), largely due to its inclusion on the Jackie Brown soundtrack. ‘Blaxploitation’ songs about living in the ghetto were in vogue in 1972 but this is amongst the best. The album made Womack one of the most successful black artists of the day.

The next release, Facts Of Life, was another strong collection of self-penned numbers and carefully selected covers. I’ve picked I’m Through Trying To Prove My Love To You, one of Bobby’s own compositions and another that begins with one of his trademark spoken intros.

 

This was followed by 1974’s Lookin’ For A Love Again which I’ve had to skip over. It’s a shame as it also contains some pivotal Womack songs. If I was compiling a Toppermost Twelve, I’d have to include the title track. Instead I’ve gone for (If You Want My Love) Put Something Down On It from the 1975 album, I Don’t Know What The World Is Coming To, in part because it’s the song that provided Rod Stewart with the string riff for Da Ya Think I’m Sexy. Womack’s name doesn’t appear as co-writer on Rod’s million-selling hit though, as far as I know. Sounds like Rod declined to put anything down on it.

By 1976, Womack had switched labels from UA to Columbia and was perhaps guilty of career coasting. Nevertheless there is some great stuff on Home Is Where the Heart Is and its follow-up, Pieces. His version of Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come is one of my favourites. I love the song anyway, but Bobby really gets behind it and makes it his own, whilst still paying respects to his one-time mentor.

His comeback proper began in the early eighties with the album The Poet, on a new label, Beverly Glen. This and its sequels, The Poet II and Someday We’ll All Be Free, brought Womack to a whole new audience. Over 35 years on, they still sound terrific, despite the occasional jarring (to these ears) eighties arrangements and production values. They’re works of, as the NME put it, “awesome beauty”. I’ve gone for If You Think You’re Lonely Now from The Poet – a closely-wrought, intricate ballad that confirmed Womack as a singer-songwriter of great stature. I could just as easily have gone for Secrets or Games, both great tracks.

Again, I’ve had to skip an album here. If you scanned the list above before reading you might have wondered why there is nothing from 1984’s highly acclaimed The Poet II. If I was doing the dozen, from that I’d be foolish not to include Love Has Finally Come At Last, Womack’s soaring duet with Patti LaBelle, or perhaps the despondent I Wish I Had Someone To Come Home To.

Someday We’ll All Be Free is the title track from the third of the triumphant trilogy. The original is emotional high ground but I’ve chosen the more intimate version here from Acoustic Poet, a bonus disc of unplugged cuts. Instead I could have had I’m So Proud, a perfect testament to love and pride penned by Bobby’s brother Cecil, fresh from his commercial success with wife Linda as Womack & Womack.

With these three albums, Bobby Womack reinvigorated soul and regenerated himself. They’re also essential listening. His releases that followed in the late eighties and nineties lacked the same punch, but there are still gentle blows to be found. I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much from So Many Rivers is as good as anything Bobby did and rounds off my Toppermost. I’ve not chosen anything from The Last Soul Man (an album that reunited him with Sly Stone). Nor have I ventured into the current century with The Bravest Man In The Universe, the 2012 Damon Albarn-produced album that resurrected his career as he was dying of cancer. I may need a Toppermost Twenty for that.

 

 

 

 

 

Bobby Womack (1944–2014)

 

Bobby Womack archived website

Bobby Womack discography

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Bobby Womack

Bobby Womack interviewed on “Soul Train” (1973) and performs Across 110th Street (YouTube)

Bobby Womack – The Making of The Bravest Man In The Universe (YouTube)

Bobby Womack biography (iTunes)

Robert Webb is a freelance writer and editor. His writing has appeared in The Independent and BBC Online. He is the author of The 100 Greatest Cover Versions and a new biography of John Lennon.

Some of Robert’s other topper-posts: Alan Hull, Harry Nilsson, Laura Nyro, Todd Rundgren, Scott Walker

TopperPost #708

2 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Apr 5, 2018

    Rob, thanks for this excellent piece. Have been meaning to explore Bobby’s work properly for some time now and this give me the perfect point from which to start. On a side issue, there is a good interview with Johnnie Taylor’s daughter here where she talks about his friendship with Bobby.

    • Rob
      Apr 5, 2018

      Cheers Andrew, I hadn’t seen that interview. Hope you enjoy Bobby!

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓