Since the early 1960s, when he started his career as the lead singer of his family musical group The Valentinos and as Sam Cooke’s backing guitarist, Womack’s career spanned more than 60 years, during which he played in the styles of R&B, soul, rock and roll, doo-wop, gospel, and country.
His mother played the organ for the church choir, and their father was a steelworker, part-time minister, musician who played the guitar and also sang gospel. His father would advise his sons to not touch his guitar while he was away. One night, eight-year-old Bobby, who was often playing it, broke a guitar string. After Friendly replaced the string with a shoelace, he let Bobby play the guitar for him. According to Bobby, Friendly was stunned by his son’s talents as well as the talents of his other sons. Soon afterwards, he bought Bobby his own guitar.
Sam Cooke, the lead singer of The Soul Stirrers, first saw the Womack Brothers performing in the mid-1950s. He became their mentor and helped them go on tour. They went on national tours with The Staple Singers. Even though Curtis Womack often sang lead, Bobby Womack was allowed to sing alongside him showcasing his gruff baritone vocals in contrast to his older brother’s smoother tenor. During performances, Bobby would sometimes imitate the role of a preacher, which later became his nickname. At just 16, Bobby dropped out of high school.
At the beginning of the 1960s, Cooke formed SAR Records and signed the quintet to the label in 1961, where they released a handful of gospel singles. Then, Cooke changed their name to The Valentinos, relocated them to Los Angeles and convinced them to transition from gospel music to secular soul- and pop-influenced sound. Cooke produced and arranged the group’s first hit single, “Lookin’ for a Love”, which was a pop version of the gospel song, “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray”, they had recorded earlier. The song became an R&B hit and helped land the group an opening spot for James Brown’s tour. The group’s next hit came in 1964 with the country-tinged “It’s All Over Now”, co-composed by Bobby. Their version was rising on the charts when The Rolling Stones covered it. Actually nine days after hearing the song for the first time during a radio interview, Mick and the Boys quickly interrupted their US tour for a recording session at Chess Studio in Chicago; that’s how eager they were to add this song to their historic repertoire climbing to the top of Rock and Roll.
Womack was also a member of Cooke’s band, touring and recording with him from 1961. The Valentinos’ career was left shaky after Sam Cooke was shot and killed in a Los Angeles motel. Devastated by the news, the brothers disbanded and SAR Records folded. Womack continued to work as a session musician. Between 1965 and 1968 he toured and recorded with Ray Charles.
Bobby Womack was closely related to Sam Cooke’s life and music, so much that 3 months after Cooke got killed in a mysterious Motel altercation in Los Angeles, Womack married his wife Barbara and his brother Cecil later married Cooke’s daughter Linda.
Womack became a prolific songwriter who further wrote New Birth’s “I Can Understand It”. As a singer he is most notable for the hits “Lookin’ For a Love”, “That’s The Way I Feel About Cha”, “Woman’s Gotta Have It”, “Harry Hippie”, “Across 110th Street”, and his 1980s hits “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” and “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much”.
Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s other artists would regularly record his songs. They included Ella Washington and Baby Washington who recorded ‘I Can’t Afford To Lose Him’ in 1968, Jerry Butler who released ‘Yes My Goodness Yes’ in 1968, Margie Joseph who issued ‘What You Gonna Do’ and Roosevelt Grier who had an R&B success with ‘People Make The World’. One of his most famous songs ‘Trust Me’ was recorded by Janis Joplin and later by Winfield Parker amongst others. The 1960s and 1970’s were especially profitable years for Womack’s songwriting, either solo efforts or in partnership with the likes of Darryl Carter and Jim Ford. Whilst working as a session musician with Wilson Pickett he regularly contributed songs included the original version of ‘I’m In Love’, later covered by Aretha Franklin. Another Atlantic Records artist Percy Sledge issued ‘Baby Help Me’ in 1967. The J. Geils Band covered “Lookin’ For A Love”, released on several albums, including the live gem “Blow Your Face Out”.
In the following decade Millie Jackson with ‘Put Something Down On It’ , Kokomo and New Birth with ‘I Can Understand It’, Ronnie Wood with ‘I Got A Feeling’ and George Benson with the instrumental ‘Breezin’ recorded versions of Womack songs. Lou Donaldson, the American jazz saxophonist reinterpreted ‘You’re Welcome To Stop On By’ in 1974. The British singer Rod Stewart used the distinctive string arrangement from ‘Put Something Down On It’ for his massive hit ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’. Other significant artists to record Bobby Womack songs include: Georgie Fame and Kelly Rowland with ‘Daylight’, O V Wright’s cover of ‘That’s The Way I Feel About You’ and reggae acts Dennis Alcapone who issued a distinctive version of ‘Harry Hippy’ entitled ‘Sorry Harry’ and Triston Palma who issued ‘Love Has Finally Come At Last’ in 1984.
Jodeci’s K-Ci Hailey, a notable admirer of Womack’s work, covered “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” in 1994. Hailey again covered Womack in 2006 with his rendition of “A Woman’s Gotta Have It”. The song is referenced in Mariah Carey’s song “We Belong Together”, a number one hit in June 2005. Carey sings “I can’t sleep at night / When you are on my mind / Bobby Womack’s on the radio / Singing to me: ‘If you think you’re lonely now.'” In 2007, R&B singer Jaheim interpolated the song as “Lonely” on his album “The Making of a Man”. Neo Soul Singer, Calvin Richardson also covered many of Womack’s tunes. “That’s The Way I Feel About Cha” was covered by the late R&B musician Gerald Levert and fellow singer Mary J. Blige on Levert’s 1998 album Love & Consequences.
Film director Quentin Tarantino used “Across 110th Street” (which, in a different version, had been the title song of the 1972 movie) in the opening and closing sequences of his 1997 film Jackie Brown. His work has been used in several other popular films, including Meet the Parents (2000), Ali (2001) and American Gangster (2007). A 2003 Saab commercial used Womack’s interpretation of “California Dreamin'”. In 2005, “Across 110th Street” appeared in the hit Activision video game True Crime: New York City.
On the 1994 release 1-800-NEW-FUNK, Nona Gaye covered “Woman’s Gotta Have It”, produced by Prince and backed by his band, New Power Generation.
During the spring of 1997, R&B singer Rome covered the original song from his self-titled debut album.
In 2008, Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child recorded her own version of his R&B hit “Daylight” with Travis McCoy of the Gym Class Heroes, which became a hit in the UK Singles Chart, where it was previously released as a single by Womack in 1976.
In 2009, Calvin Richardson was chosen to record a tribute album to Womack to coincide with Womack’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Grammy-nominated album was entitled Facts of Life: The Soul of Bobby Womack. It reached No. 30 on the US R&B chart.
Bobby Womack, singer/songwriter and guitarist, who was a session musician for Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Dusty Springfield and Wilson Pickett, to name just a few, left a rich musical legacy spanning seven decades and 28 studio albums.
He passed on June 7, 2014 and although the exact cause of the 70-year-old’s death was not announced. Womack’s life was blighted by drugs, and he slipped off the radar for years at a time. Despite this – and pneumonia, diabetes, two forms of cancer and the early stages of Alzheimer’s – Womack outlived most of the artists he was associated with, including Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. He said towards the end of his career: “Maybe if I wasn’t high, my life might not have lasted so long.”