Bobby Womack, the singer/songwriter/guitarist who died June 27 at the age of 70, was one of R&B’s greatest musicians, and one of its most confounding. His 50-year career was marked by one wrong turn after another, party due to his habit of making genuinely catastrophic personal decisions; yet it always righted itself over time. Womack was a singular talent who very often subordinated his own vision to other artists’, or relied on other voices to offer contrast to his own.
Bobby and his brothers — Cecil, Harry, Curtis and Friendly Jr. — started recording in the early ’60s as the Womack Brothers, cutting gospel singles for Sam Cooke’s label SAR Records. It apparently was Cooke who suggested they follow him in the transition to pop music. In those days, though, turning one’s back on the gospel world could mean commercial poison, so the Womack Brothers hedged their bets: They changed their name to the Valentinos, but their first single under the new name, “Lookin’ for a Love,” was a rewrite of Bobby’s best gospel song, “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray.”
By the middle of 1964, Womack was already making a name for himself as a songwriter. Almost as soon as the Valentinos released his “It’s All Over Now,” the Rolling Stones swooped in and covered it, scoring their first British No. 1 single and beginning their intermittent but long relationship with Womack. In December of that year, though, Cooke was killed, and the Valentinos’ career was derailed. Womack made a point of his deep debt to Cooke ever after, but the grieving process went weirdly: Three months after Cooke’s death, Womack married his widow, Barbara. (The marriage lasted until 1970, when Barbara caught Womack in bed with her daughter Linda Cooke. Linda subsequently married Cecil Womack, with whom she wrote and recorded hits as Womack & Womack.)
For the next few years, Womack drifted, working as a session guitarist (that’s his delicate, elastic tone all over Sly and the Family Stone’s masterpiece There’s a Riot Goin’ On) and handing off a lot of his best songs to other performers. Wilson Pickett got “I’m In Love” and “I’m a Midnight Mover”; Al Perkins got “Yes, My Goodness, Yes”; the Soul Clan got “That’s How It Feels”; Janis Joplin got “Trust Me.”
By 1968, Womack started to claw out a solo career — a toe-hold on the lower reaches of the pop charts here, an R&B Top 50 hit there. Oddly for a songwriter of his caliber, he favored the un-hip pockets of the Great American Songbook: His first two solo hits were covers of “Fly Me to the Moon” and “California Dreamin’,” and within a few years he’d followed those up with “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out,” and a take on “Sweet Caroline” that was a touch grittier than Neil Diamond’s. “Harry Hippie,” a de facto tribute to his brother Harry Womack, was actually written by his frequent associate Jim Ford.
His solo breakthrough was his 1972 single “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha,” a slippery, airy love song that Womack sang with gospel fire. For the next few years, he carved out a niche as a modern soul man, slick and tricky. His theme song for “Across 110th Street” was a killer pastiche of Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly soundtrack; “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” his first No. 1 R&B single, is a deceptively complicated composition, with its odd chords and Womack’s imploring vocal smoothed over by spun-sugar strings.
Even then, though, burnout was creeping in around the edges. Womack’s second and final No. 1 R&B single was a souped-up 1974 remake of his 12-year-old hit “Lookin’ for a Love,” and he followed that by re-recording his 11-year-old hit “It’s All Over Now” with Bill Withers and making a bizarrely ill-considered country album called BW Goes C&W. One of his best songs of that era was 1976′s “Daylight,” a simultaneously bubbly and bone-weary jam about being totally partied out. He had indeed been having way too good a time; for a lot of the disco era, he struggled to regain the heights of the R&B chart while nursing a prodigious cocaine habit.
And then Womack got his fourth act. His 1981 album The Poet was a major R&B success, thanks to its magnificently torchy single “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.” He followed it up by hedging his bets again: in 1984, he released The Poet II, featuring three duets with Patti LaBelle (one of which, “Love Has Finally Come at Last,” was a significant hit). In the next few years, there were a more songs in which Womack’s now-shakier voice conjured up deep despair, especially 1985′s “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much”; in 1987, his quavering cover of new wave band Living in a Box’s self-titled song was a minor British hit.
By that time, though, R&B was focused on the extremes of hip-hop rawness and quiet-storm silkiness, and Womack’s career petered out. Like his old associate Sly Stone, he made a string of albums whose titles testified to the absence of his old audience: Last Soul Man, Resurrection (which featured guest spots by Stevie Wonder and a couple of Stones), Back to My Roots (a gospel record), Traditions (a Christmas record). Then he dropped out of sight. It’s not clear exactly what he was doing for the first decade of the 2000s; it’s fairly clear that it was nothing much.
Finally, Damon Albarn gave Womack’s career its fifth act, or rather its coda: His group Gorillaz pulled Womack out of retirement to testify on their 2010 songs “Stylo” and “Cloud of Unknowing,” and Albarn oversaw Womack’s final comeback record, 2012′s The Bravest Man in the Universe. By that time, Womack was already in the thick of a series of health crises, and the album is effectively a celebration of the remains of Womack’s voice. He’d always courted the road-shredded tone of his gospel idols — there were Sam Cooke’s fingerprints all over the “ohhhhh”s of “Lookin’ for a Love,” of course, but it’s also not hard to hear echoes of the Sensational Nightingales’ The Rev. Julius “June” Cheeks in the hard testifying of “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” — and by the time that that rasp was all that was left to him, he’d learned to master it. Womack had wriggled away from gospel half a century earlier, but it never left him.