*“Mannn, when you gon’ put on some weight?” That was Bobby Womack greeting me the last time I saw him, one afternoon about six years ago, at Los Angeles’ Farmer’s Market. He was seated at one of the outdoor tables over a bowl of gumbo with cornbread that he’d crumbled up and sprinkled on top.
With him was a young man he introduced as either a son or grandson, I don’t recall. I only remember the young man was polite and tolerant to deal with me standing over their table, interrupting their meal, talking to Womack. But I had to. This was Bobby Womack.
I first met Womack in 1975, when I interviewed him for Soul Newspaper during the promotion of his United Artists album, Safety Zone, featuring the hit single, “Daylight.” After that, for years I’d run into Womack around L.A.—at somebody’s concert backstage, at a restaurant, a party, etc.—and he always treated me like an old friend, discussing music, politics and whatever else came up.
This year, after learning he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, among dealing with other ailments that included diabetes and cancer, I knew I—I mean, Womack–didn’t have long. However, I thought he’d have time enough for me to have at least one more good time chat.
But he didn’t. And so, the way global warming melts the arctic; the way our cutting down trees diminishes forests and our continued industrialization drives more animals toward extinction is how, with the June 27, 2014 passing of Bobby Womack, popular music lost just a little more of its soul.
Quite simply, Womack personified the term Soul Singer. It wasn’t merely what he sang about—being in love, the pain of losing love, the anxiety that came with the search for love– but the wholehearted, impassioned way in which he sang that assured listeners they weren’t alone in their emotions.
Most of Womack’s songs carry a lesson. “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” for example, is a three minute and thirty second audio seminar on how a man can make a relationship go. Fellas, even if you (think you) know what you’re doing, occasionally put on “Woman’s Gotta Have It” just to tune up your technique.
Womack loved to talk on his recordings, and his soliloquy at the top of “He’ll Be There When The Sun Goes Down”– straight talk about, in this case, being honest with oneself regarding who you’re going to sleep with and why–is classic Womack.
Where there isn’t soulful enlightenment, there is spirit-soothing camaraderie. Next time the bills get you down, find commiseration in Womack’s intense, smoldering cover of “Nobody Wants You When You’re Down And Out,” a song he didn’t write but sings the hell out of.
Womack’s heart-wrenching 1981 anthem, “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” offers swaying, gospel-tinged consolation to any lover who finally gives up on their forever complaining, never-pleased partner. “If you think you’re lonely now,” goes Womack’s anguished, weary plea, “wait until tonight.” Tell it, Bobby.
But then, song titles alone belonging to the man whose cover of his 1964 hit, “It’s All Over Now” also became the first number one record for the Rolling Stones in ‘64, often say it all. “I’m Through Trying To Prove My Love To You.” No mystery there. The man said he’s done.
No artist’s life has informed his work more than the Cleveland-born, church-reared Womack. In the ‘60s and ‘70s the former gospel singer and one-time session guitarist for the likes of Joe Tex and Aretha Franklin–who wrote “I’m A Midnight Mover” and “I’m In Love” for Wilson Pickett–wrestled a fierce cocaine addiction.
In 1965 a 21 year-old Womack caused gasps and gossip when he married Barbara Campbell, the 29 year old widow of his mentor and idol, singer Sam Cooke, just three months after Cooke’s death. They divorced ten years later after she discovered Womack had an affair with Linda Cooke, Cooke and Barbara’s daughter, which made Linda Bobby’s step-daughter. (Talk about writing what you know–Linda, who with Bobby, co-wrote “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” eventually married Bobby’s brother Cecil; together they wrote the Teddy Pendergrass classic, “Love TKO.” )
Womack lost a younger brother, Harry, when Harry’s girlfriend stabbed him to death after accusing him of cheating. More heartache followed in the ‘70s when Truth, Womack’s infant son with his third wife Regina Banks, rolled off a bed and suffocated between the bed and the wall. Vincent Womack, Bobby’s son with Campbell, committed suicide in 1988.
Womack’s pain and subsequent wisdom is what makes his music so appealing to so many. That—and Womack’s warm, easygoing demeanor in spite of it all—is why I so cherished my modest association with the legend.
That’s also why I suggested to my buddy, actor and voice over artist Rodney Saulsberry, himself a Womack fan, that the next time he spotted the singer out and about in the San Fernando Valley where he said he often saw him, to say hello and mention my name.
When Saulsberry noticed Womack in Du-Par’s bustling coffee shop in Studio City at breakfast alone three years ago, his intentions were to simply tell the soul man he enjoyed his work. However, Womack, having eggs sunny-side up, hash browns, bacon and toast, insisted Rodney have a seat.
For more than an hour the two engaged in casual conversation, during which Womack informed Saulsberry that David Ruffin was his favorite singer; that he considered Bill Withers “a hell of a writer;” that even though longtime friend guitarist/singer George Benson had been bugging Womack to play on his 1976 commercial breakthrough album, Breezin,’ (the title track of which Womack wrote), Bobby wasn’t moved to until a mischievous Benson called him from Capitol Records studio one evening and put Womack’s wife on the phone. “She was down there with George,” Womack laughed, “so I figured I better get on down there, too.”
Eagerly, I asked Saulsberry if he’d mentioned my name to Womack. He said he did. Womack acknowledged knowing me and continued talking about something else before returning to my name.
“Yeah, one time Ivory told me he wanted to promote one of my concerts,” Womack said matter-of-factly. “I got the band together and rehearsed them and everything…and Ivory never through with the money.”
I was speechless. I’ve never promoted concerts and have never approached Womack about such a thing. Then I burst out laughing. We couldn’t know it then, but Womack’s story preceded the sad announcement years later that the singer was in the initial stages of Alzheimer’s.
Tragic characteristic of the disease aside, perhaps somebody else might have felt maligned by someone jumbling such a claim. Not me. Not when the man doing the jumbling was Bobby Womack.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]