Now that the tears have finally stopped, the disbelief has subsided and the skepticism has been addressed; the attempt to organize my thoughts in a fitting tribute to one of the greatest recording artists that America has produced, seems a little more possible. Bobby Womack the Soul singer who gave us “A Woman’s Gotta Have It”, “I Can Understand It”, “If You Think Your Lonely Now” and “Across 110th Street” has died at the age of 70. At this time, no cause of death has been confirmed.
In my formative years – like most Black folks my age – I went to church often. Because the Civil Rights movement was organized and led, mostly, by preachers, the feeling of secularized Gospel singing had greater resonance. The church was the center of Black life, and it informed the politics and culture of the day. If you’re too young to remember, or you were old enough but unaware of the social and political fabric of the Black American community at the time: imagine this: A people engaged in a daily struggle for freedom to be educated in any fashion they chose, to live where they wanted, to vote for whomever they wanted to without fear, to earn a fair day’s pay in return for a full day’s work and equal protection by and under the law. And while all of this is going on, people trained in the church are singing of your hopes, joys, pain and triumphs in the deepest, purest and most emotional and inventive ways imaginable – that’s why the call it Soul Music. Bobby Womack, in that time, in that way and in that genre, was a master.
In the New York of the early seventies, WWRL, “Super 1600 on your AM dial,” was the hub for Southern based, church influenced singing. It was on their air that I first discovered the mournful, bluesy, gritty and funky voice of Bobby Womack – sounded like sandpaper with honey poured over it.
I was in the third or fourth grade, and “Harry Hippy” his tale of a vagrant who lived the free life, on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, struck a very deep chord in me. The frustration that Womack expressed because he couldn’t inspire Harry to – as my late mother used to say – “do better,” was haunting. You could hear the ache pouring out of the radio. At that time, James Brown, Sly Stone, Aretha Franklin and Funk were the flavor, but Bobby Womack’s vocals and lyrics managed to cut through it all on the strength of pure emotion. He had a grown man’s depth, and you could hear it in his voice.
Last week, an Internet based hoax had killed him off before his time. My Facebook newsfeed had several posts in tribute to the Rock Roll Hall of Fame caliber “midnight shouter”. In disbelief, I contacted Chris Rizik of soultrax.com, and the legendary Sparkie Martin, a former manager who had introduced me to Womack years ago. They both confirmed that he was gone. My heart broke.
Bobby Womack began his career as a member of a Gospel group that he and his brothers formed. They were signed to a label operated by the great Sam Cooke. In the mid-sixties, Womack broke away to pursue a solo career that resulted in a string of hit albums and singles. Struggles with addiction and poor health marked his later years until Richard Russell of London’s XL Records returned Womack to the studio in 2012.
These tributes are becoming more and more frequent, and unfortunately, more and more necessary. It seems that the truly great contributors to Soul Music are passing on daily, and with each one’s death, the living witnesses to one of the great eras in American culture passes on.
Even as I write this, I can recall the opening lyric to Womack’s heartfelt ballad “That’s The Way I Feel About ‘cha,” If you get anything out of life/you got to put up with the toils and strife – a simple and brilliant assertion that is no less true than when I first heard it over forty years ago. Bobby Womack, a man they called “The Preacher”, was a man of his time who knew what he was talking about.
Gary Harris is a former music executive and noted music historian. Read his poignant musings at Insideplaya.