Rolling Stone reports that the soul music legend Bobby Womack, one of the toughest and most expressive voices of the ’70s, has died. No cause of death has been revealed yet, though Womack has, in recent years, suffered from ailments that include colon cancer, diabetes, pneumonia, and the early signs of Alzheimer’s. He was 70.
Womack was born in Cleveland, and he started out leading his brothers in a family gospel group called the Womack Brothers. Sam Cooke discovered the group, changing their name to the Valentinos. Cooke produced their first hit “Looking For A Love,” a pop rewrite of a gospel song that Womack had written. Womack also co-wrote their song “It’s All Over Now,” which the Rolling Stones covered.
After Cooke’s death in 1964, the group broke up. Womack married Cooke’s widow Barbara Campbell three months after Cooke’s death. (Womack’s brother Cecil would later marry Linda Cooke, the daughter of Cooke and Campbell, and they’d become the successful duo Womack And Womack.) Bobby moved to Memphis and became a studio guitarist and songwriter-for-hire, penning songs like “I’m A Midnight Mover” for Wilson Pickett. He sang and played guitar on Sly And The Family Stone’s album There’s A Riot Goin’ On, and he scored his first solo hit in 1968 when he recorded an amazing psychedelic soul cover of the Mammas And The Papas’ “California Dreamin’.”
Womack’s absolutely badass 1972 funk-soul song “I Can Understand It” became one of his signature songs, and his theme for the 1973 blaxploitation flick Across 110th Street became another; you might remember Pam Grier singing along with it while crying at the end of Jackie Brown. Through the early to mid-’70s, he cranked out some seriously huge songs, many of which became even huger when other artists covered them.
Womack’s career lost some steam during the disco era, and it almost derailed during the early ’80s, and he battled serious drug addiction. But he hung on long enough to achieve elder-statesman status, collaborating with younger admirers like the Roots and Gorillaz. He recorded a few songs with Gorillaz for their albums Plastic Beach and The Fall. The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inducted Womack in 2009. In 2012, Damon Albarn and XL Recordings boss Richard Russel produced his skeletal, dark, intense album The Bravest Man In The Universe. He played Glastonbury last year.
That’s quite a biography, but it doesn’t come close to describing Womack’s greatest asset, the visceral grit in his voice. He brought a psych-rock wildness to orchestral soul music while still keeping the stuff rooted in the gospel music he’d grown up with. If you listen to anything he recorded between, say, 1968 and 1976, you will hear one of the greats of the form. He had a long peak and made some truly great recordings. Below, listen to some of his songs.