“As a singer grows older, his conception goes a little bit deeper, because he lives life and he understands what he is trying to say a little more”—Smokey Robinson
The above quote from William “Smokey” Robinson, a fifty-plus year veteran of the music industry, could have been directed at any number of his still living contemporaries, such as Al Green or Ronald Isley. Green’s psychic and spiritual conversion over a pot of grits (and a suicide) and Isley’s recent tax conviction are well known to the public. Bobby Womack’s story is less well- known, thus it is fitting that Robinson’s quote is heard on Womack’s new recording The Bravest Man in the Universe—his first studio recording in twelve years.
For the uninitiated, Bobby Womack was born in Cleveland, OH in 1944, and first came to prominence as a teen recording with his brothers as The Valentino’s. The group caught the attention of Soul legend Sam Cooke, who managed and mentored the group, and encouraged Womack to allow The Rolling Stones to record his song, “It’s All Over Now,” which became the group’s first number one record in the UK.
Cooke and Womack developed a particularly close friendship, which is perhaps why Womack, thought it was logical to marry Cooke’s widow, Barbara Campbell, only months after the singer’s murder in December of 1964. The couple only waited that long, because Womack was still too young to get married without a parent’s permission. Womack publicly hints at the relationship on his 1985 track “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much,” which is about a man who falls in love with his best friend’s wife.
Womack and Campbell shared a tumultuous relationship for five years, including an affair with Campbell’s daughter Linda (his step-daughter), that Womack documents in his memoir Midnight Mover: The True Story of the Greatest Soul Singer in the World. The relationship ended when Campbell shot Womack. Womack’s only son with Campbell, committed suicide in the mid-1980s, an infant son he had with his second wife died a crib death, and a third son is incarcerated for second-degree murder. Add to the mix, his struggles with drug addition, and his recent bout with a benign tumor in his colon and pneumonia, and Bobby Womack’s life seems like a reality show in the making.
Yet, there was also way the music. Womack began his solo career in 1968, and had a run of strong albums in the early 1970s with Communication (1971), Understanding (1972) and Looking For a Love, the title track of which—a cover of an old Valentino’s hit–was the closet thing Womack ever had to a pop hit. Womack again re-emerged in the mid-1980s with a couple of classic R&B albums The Poet (1981) and The Poet II (1984). Though Womack hasn’t released a studio album in more than a decade, the 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, continued to perform and record, most recently contributing vocals to the Gorillaz’s Plastic Beach (2010) and The Fall (2011). It was the latter relationship that has been the inspiration for Womack’s sudden revival.
The Bravest Man in the Universe represents dual traditions in contemporary pop music where iconic figures like the late Johnny Cash and Gil Scott-Heron are given the proverbial new coat of paint, or reasonably obscure Soul artists like the late Solomon Burke, Bettye LaVette or Jimmy Scott are “discovered” by some dutiful producer or record executive (usually White) and introduced to a new generation of listeners.
Like Scott-Heron’s final release, I’m New Here (2010), Womack’s The Bravest Man in the Universe, was released on the British label XL Recordings. The label was co-founded by Richard Russell, who produced Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here and shares production credits with the Gorillaz’s Damon Albarn on Womack’s new release. Scott-Heron even makes a brief “appearance” on the interlude to “Stupid.” Despite the contemporary sonic clutter that The Bravest Man in the Universe is wrapped in, the voice is classic Bobby Womack. Always a “knowing” vocalist—a voice that carried the weight of experience, loss, and redemption—Womack’s sound is very much like the Soul elder, he likely never thought he’d live long enough to become.
Amidst the mix of new tracks like the exquisite “Dayglo Reflection” with Lana Del Rey and “Please Forgive My Heart,” Womack pays tribute to his earlier Gospel roots with a version of “Deep River” (accompanied by only his guitar) and a Drum ‘n Bass version of “Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around)” that would have made his father Friendly Womack proud. As the story goes, when Womack and his brothers decided to sing “secular” music in the late 1950s—like virtually every young Black Gospel virtuoso in the era—his father kicked his sons out the house. As the point has often been made about Cooke’s life, there are many who believe Womack has suffered for trading his gifts from the Lord, for the fame of the pop charts. Father and son did have the opportunity to musically reconcile, when the two recorded a version of “Tarnished Rings” together in the mid-1970s.
With the release of The Bravest Man in the Universe, Womack is more visible than he has been at any point in his career. That he had to leave the United States to find this late career success, speaks volumes about the state of Black radio and the US recording industry in general; One is not likely to hear anything from this recording on their local Hot-whatever or “Classic Soul & R&B” station; Womack won’t be visiting the “Red Velvet Studio” on the Tom Joyner Morning Show. Womack is one of the last links to a generation of singers—Soul Men and Women—who most explicitly linked the social vision of the Black Church with the political energies of the Civil Rights Movement. Rather that the “Last Soul Man,” Bobby Womack is a ‘Soul Man Revived.”