The Preacher, a 2015 reissue of a previously-issued collection featuring the late Bobby Womack’s first five albums, provides an apt introduction to some of the soul great’s best-known recordings. While Womack would come to be regarded as much for his vocals and guitar as his songwriting, his earliest recordings tended to offer more in the way of covers than solid original songwriting.
Early on, Womack is a raspy-voiced soul singer clearly modeling his approach and phrasing on that of his late mentor, Sam Cooke. Given Cooke’s virtual invention of the genre, it can be easy to forgive Womack borrowing a large portion of the latter’s approach. One can easily hear Cooke’s own voice on “Baby! You Oughta Think It Over” and “Moonlight in Vermont” off Fly Me to the Moon, while “I’m a Midnight Mover” owes more to Wilson Pickett.
And while his performances here are certainly high-energy and impressive, these first steps out of the shadow of his late mentor show an artist still searching for his true voice. More than any of the other albums in this collection, Fly Me to the Moon possesses a somewhat generic soul air about it, one very much in keeping with the times in which it was recorded. Strong, but not entirely individualistic, it offers a glimpse into the formative years of an artist who would go on to become nearly as influential as his mentor.
To his credit, Womack quickly manages to create a sound and feel all his own, one that would become equally influential, especially in the decade to come. Traces of this begin to crop up during Fly Me to the Moon’s back half, but it wouldn’t be until Communication and Understanding, released in ’71 and ’72, respectively, that Womack’s true artistic voice came to the fore. On these, he moves beyond his influences, asserting himself as an influential voice.
Mixing a series of covers with a handful of stellar originals, Communication is a solid slab of early ‘70s soul. Among the covers is an impressive reading of James Taylor’s oft-covered “Fire and Rain.” Recognizing the number of other versions circulating, Womack prefaces the song with the following spoken introduction: “Everybody’s got their own way of doing anything…this particular song, for instance, has been done by many, but I’ve got to do it my way”. From there, he proceeds to do just that. Slowing the song down even further and adding a depth and gravity to the song’s melancholic sentiments, Womack imbues the song with a funky soul that manages to channel both Sam Cooke and the then contemporary R&B sound.
But it’s 1972’s Understanding that truly finds Womack at the height of his powers. Here he delivers a searing set of soul-stirring funk and R&B that finds him stretching out on a handful of originals (“I Can Understand It” and the hit “Woman’s Gotta Have It” among others) as well as trying his hand at the Beatles (“And I Love Her”). Understanding also serves as a showcase for Womack’s stellar guitar playing. “I Can Understand It” features a scorching solo while his inimitably funky playing underscores the other tracks on the album.
Ultimately, The Preacher serves as a handy way to collect Womack’s first few releases. But beyond that, it shows the evolution of an artist, one looking to step out of the shadow of his mentor and become a powerful force all his own. By collection’s end, Womack has done just that, setting the stage for a wildly influential run through the remainder of the ‘70s. In this, The Preacher helps contextualize Womack’s influence and transformation from soul singer to soul shouter to soul icon.