This year the R&B world lost one its most iconic figures: Bobby Womack. Bobby had an outstanding career spanning 50 years. The extraordinary length of his career led him to brand himself as the ‘Soul Survivor': Bobby outlived many of his contemporaries such as Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding. However Bobby’s career was continuously punctuated by personal tragedy and a chaotic lifestyle. Speaking in an interview last year he considered his status as the last great soul man: “I ask the question, why am I still here? I’ve been as crazy as anybody could have been”.
Bobby Dwayne Womack was born on March 4th 1944. His musical talents were spotted early and aged 10 Bobby began touring the gospel circuit with his parents, Naomi and Friendly, and four brothers Harry, Friendly Jnr., Cecil and Curtis, under the name The Womack Brothers.
In 1962, The Womack Brothers came to the attention of Sam Cooke. Cooke signed the group to his SAR Records, convincing them to make the same move from gospel to secular R&B that he himself had made earlier. Under Cooke, the group changed their name to The Valentinos and in 1963 released their first single Lookin’ for a Love which sold one million copies. In the same year the group wrote, recorded and released It’s All Over Now. Cooke gave the song to The Rolling Stones, whose cover topped the UK charts.
Bobby’s early success came to a sudden end after Cooke was shot and killed by a hotel manageress in 1964. Cooke’s death took a heavy toll on Bobby and in the months following the shooting he grew close to Cooke’s widow, Barbara. Just 3 months after Cooke’s funeral, Bobby and Barbara married. The marriage left Bobby ostracised by both his family and the wider musical community, who viewed him as betraying Cooke and taking advantage of Barbara.
After Cooke’s death, Bobby continued his career working mainly as a session musician and song writer. He toured with Ray Charles and played guitar on recordings with artists including Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Wilson Pickett, Janis Joplin and Sly Stone. Bobby also wrote 17 songs for Pickett, recording none of them himself.
In 1970 Bobby’s marriage to Barbara broke down when she found him in bed with her 18 year old daughter, Linda. He had also developed a cocaine habit. However despite the deterioration of his personal life, the early ’70s were to prove some of the most successful years of Bobby’s solo career. He released two hit albums, Communication (1971) and Understanding (1972). In 1972 Bobby wrote and recorded the soundtrack to Barry Shear’s blaxploitation movie Across 110th Street. The title track to the film became one of Bobby’s most iconic songs and was later used in soundtracks by Quentin Tarantino (Jacky Brown) and Ridley Scott (American Gangster).
After the release of Across 110 Street Bobby’s personal life was again struck by tragedy, and his career hit another low. In 1974 his younger brother Harry, the subject of his 1973 single Harry Hippie, was murdered by his girlfriend whilst staying at Bobby’s house. The girlfriend suspected Harry of being unfaithful after finding another woman’s clothes in his wardrobe. The clothes in fact belonged to a girlfriend of Bobby’s. In 1976 Bobby was dropped by his record label, United Artists. Two years later his 4-month old son, Truth Bobby, died. In an attempt to cope with his chaotic personal life, Bobby turned again to cocaine.
Commercial and critical success returned to Bobby with the release of The Poet in 1981 and The Poet II in 1984: the latter being named Album of the Year by NME. The albums included hits such as If You Think You’re Lonely Now, and Love Has Finally Come At Last (a duet recorded with Patti LaBelle). However, despite the commercial of the albums, Bobby saw little money from them.
Over the next 20 years Bobby continued to record and tour, but received little financial or commercial success. As he would later remark in an interview for The Telegraph “Nobody was knocking down doors to get to me. It was like they were walking over me. I just didn’t know how to get back, even if I wanted to.”
However in 2010 Bobby experienced an unexpected career revival when Damon Albarn invited him to guest on Gorillaz’s third album Plastic Beach, singing on and co-writing the single Stylo. Albarn later offered to co-produce Bobby’s 2012 album The Bravest Man in the Universe alongside president of XL Records Richard Russell. The album proved to be Bobby’s greatest US commercial success since the 1980s, and his most successful UK release ever. Speaking about the album he said “I was ostracised from the music community aged 21 when I married Sam Cooke’s widow. After 45 years, I feel like Damon has welcomed me back in.”
Bobby Womack died on June 27th 2014, aged 70. His 28th album The Best is Yet to Come is to be released posthumously.