[5 June 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Those who are not exactly familiar with the name Bobby Womack certainly know the man’s music. The Rolling Stones had their first UK number one hit with “It’s All Over Now”, the J. Geils Band first hit the pop charts with “Lookin’ for a Love”, and Wilson Pickett recorded two career-defining songs written by Womack. In more recent years, Quentin Tarantino and Ridley Scott have prominently featured Womack’s work in their movies. The Best of Bobby Womack: The Soul Years is a testament to Womack’s own impressive track record as a songwriter, hit maker, and soulful interpreter.
The Cleveland, Ohio, native began his professional career when he formed a gospel quintet with his brothers in the early-‘50s, the Womack Brothers. After opening for the Soul Stirrers, the Womack Brothers signed with the SAR label, owned by the Soul Stirrers’ front man, Sam Cooke. Renamed the Valentinos, Womack and his siblings crossed over from gospel to R&B in 1962 with “Lookin’ for a Love”—a song Womack re-recorded the in 1974 and took to number one on the R&B charts. The Valentinos toured with James Brown while “It’s All Over Now” earned them another hit single, which again Womack later re-recorded, this time with Bill Withers, on his I Don’t Know What the World is Coming To (1975) album.
During this professionally fertile early period, Womack played guitar in Sam Cooke’s touring band. Following the shocking murder of Cooke in 1964 and the dissolution of the Womack Brothers, Bobby Womack turned to more stage and session work, including stints with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Elvis Presley. He contributed to a number of legendary recordings, including Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” and Franklin’s Lady Soul (1968) album.
Bobby Womack’s solo career truly took flight in 1968 on Minit Records with Fly Me to the Moon (1968). The album featured an array of material popularized by other artists, including an unlikely cover of the title track. Womack’s take on “Fly Me to the Moon” is far removed from anything remotely resembling Frank Sinatra. He treats the song like a desperate wish rather than a swinging invitation, crying out in solitude to someone who may not even be real. A suitably melancholy version of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” also joins a pair of cuts that Womack wrote for Wilson Pickett, “I’m in Love” and “I’m a Midnight Mover”. The latter two are combustible rhythm and blues workouts of the highest order.
“Across 110th Street”, the theme to the 1972 film of the same name, begins the collection here. Because of its high-profile appearances in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) and Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007), the song has earned a fair amount of renown in recent years. Womack tells the gritty tale of one man’s escape from “the capital of every ghetto town”. His evocative depiction of Harlem in the early ‘70s transports listeners right to the middle of 110th street.
Womack offers a different side to the social conditions of the era on “Harry Hippie”, a song inspired by his brother, Harry. Unlike the character in “Across 110th Street”, the subject of “Harry Hippie” is a man who’s just “floating through life”. Originally from the Understanding (1972) album, “Harry Hippie” is sung with sensitivity, but layered with a kind of resignation. It’s as if Womack was foreshadowing his brother’s tragic murder in 1974.
Most of The Best of Bobby Womack, however, is founded on a twin concern: a man pleasing his woman and a woman pleasing her man. “I Can Understand It” is a propulsive piano-and-drum-driven cut from Understanding that finds Womack attempting to reason with his lover. The extended guitar solo by Womack also illustrates why he was a sought-after session player earlier in his career.
A couple of tracks from Lookin’ for a Love Again (1974) make Womack’s pursuit of a woman even more explicit. Though Womack’s search for someone to do housework and fix him breakfast on the title track might have been the prevailing sentiment of the time, it doesn’t play quite as well in the 21st century unless the listener interprets Womack’s effervescent performance as tongue-in-cheek. Far more palatable is another track from the same release, “You’re Welcome, Stop on By”. It’s a sumptuous listening experience, one that Rufus and Chaka Khan memorably embellished on their Rufusized (1974) album.
A generous compendium of Bobby Womack’s classic catalog, The Best of Bobby Womack: The Soul Years guides listeners through a time when Bobby Womack was a perennial force on the R&B charts with a dozen Top 20 R&B hit singles to his credit. Though his accomplishments are often overshadowed by those of his peers—Isaac Hayes, Al Green, and Curtis Mayfield—The Soul Years underscores his vital contributions to rhythm and blues. Its 22 tracks provide a compelling portrait of one of the great, unsung figures of soul music.