To Bobby Womack, talent came too easily. The man was so proficient in every area of music that he simply forgot to harness it. Mega stardom may have escaped him or else slid right by, but he had songwriting chops to rival any songsmith, guitar licks to shame any so-called virtuoso and voice that could slip you into something more comfortable from twenty city blocks away.
In his career he managed to pen such the Rolling Stones first UK number one single ‘It’s All Over Now’, lend his guitar plucking to Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, and rubbed shoulders in the studio with luminaries like Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield. He paid his dues working as a collaborator with some of the biggest stars of the day before he got a shot at solo stardom and when it came, he both seized it and sabotaged it, mixing scintillating hits with long stints of debilitating cocaine.
In 1974 he publicly lamented his flaky ways to Rolling Stone, stating, “It seems that every once in a while, I pop up from out of the water and then disappear again,” before adding, “well, I’m tired of that shit.”
He grew up in the ‘slums of Cleveland’ and it would appear it was a mire that he failed to escape the trappings of. His story is one of personal turmoil, but one that also highlights the socio-economic disparities of America. Fame should have offered escape and fleetingly it did, but more often than not it simply highlighted the continuation of the mutated hardships of his childhood.
When success was arriving having penned hits for the Stones and rolled with Janis Joplin, his brother, Harry, was murdered by a jealous girlfriend in Bobby’s apartment and his drug-taking escalated thereafter. Following that 1974 catastrophe, Womack drifted in and out of the music industry until the 90s when he a string of high-profile comebacks, that solidified his legacy as a genre-straddling musical hero, beloved amongst friends in the industry and fans alike.
Thankfully his music, which was revolutionary for its clean, minimalist groove, still shines through to this day. We’re diving into the six best places to start with one of the most punk rock paradigms in R&B below.
The six definitive Bobby Womack songs:
‘Fly Me To The Moon (In Other Words)’
Although his superb version of ‘California Soul’ may well be the most well-known take from his 1969 solo debut, it is the titular take on the Bart Howard classic that seems to most scintillatingly Womack-Esque.
His composition of the classic piece is chocked full of all that is best about soul. The gentle intro riff could peel apart your curtains and then the horns and vocals bring the spring in through your window. His eye for a groove is in full swing. Womack was a man with his musical finger to the pulse and his Minit Records debut is a sensual piece of soul brilliance that should have catapulted his star into the stratosphere if only the world was fair.
‘Everyone’s Gone to the Moon’
If there is one song in his back catalogue that shows off his vocal chops to their fullest, then it may well be his take on the Jonathan King penned tune ‘Everyone’s Gone to the Moon’. Womack had some of the best pipes in the business, and his smooth, soaring ways sting like a butterfly and buzz like a bee on this glossy tune.
Once again, his work on the composition with Daryl Carter reveals his keen eye for what makes a palatable hit. The song exhibits the songwriting control and intellect that he developed from a decade worth of being the man in the studio but not front and centre.
‘Across 110th Street’
The quintessential Bobby Womack song saw him take on the tale of his roots. It is a gritty dirge to street life and a subtle entreaty for salvation. In many ways, it is the greatest hip hop song that never was. It has everything in common with the genre bar the musical style.
The song is a glorious piece of exultant music, originally penned for the same name’s film. It has since been eternalised in cinema via the rather more high-profile Quentin Tarantino, with Jackie Brown. It is a song that would elevate just about any score and makes for a refreshing slice of soul on a summers day. The ’70s were surely the best decade in music, and this track is surely one of the best tracks of the decade.
‘There’s One Thing That Beats Failing’
Throughout the ‘70s, Womack released a prolific slew of records that were often crowded with soul standards and reinventions of pop, folk and rock songs. These reimagined classics always sat alongside at least one or two songs that Bobby had penned either by himself or a producer.
With ‘There’s One Thing That Beats Failing’ Bobby showed that he’s as gifted at crafting a song as he is performing one. There are traits in this song that have been repeated forevermore in the legions of R&B tracks to follow. From the spoken word set-ups to the screeching ‘ah baby’s’ and the string-clad crescendo there is so much of this song that inspired the generations that followed.
‘If You Think You’re Lonely Now’
Admittedly there is a glossy edge to this 1982 classic that approaches being a little bit cheesy, but that comes with the era. Thankfully, there’s enough of a finger-clicking groove to see it over the line.
Driven along on driving low-end bass Womack screeches through a narrative of a disgruntled lover until he makes it to a sensual ear-worming chorus. The song might have been squeeze away from the top of the charts by the incumbent surge of dance music, but for anyone with an ear for a soul cut this track is a thing of head-bobbing beauty.
‘Please Forgive My Heart’
In 2012 Bobby Womack collaborated with Richard Russell and Damon Albarn for what would be his final ever record, The Bravest Man Alive. The album proved to be swansong to rival the best works he ever produced.
With ‘Please Forgive My Heart’ the production surrounding his song may have changed by everything else remained. His voice has a matured richness without the croak of old age, and it is this added maturity that adds a real heartfelt sincerity to his lament. There is something implacably affecting about this tune and it shows that behind all the personal highs and lows, is a heck of a lot of talent and soul.