Born March 4, 1944, in Cleveland, Ohio; son of a steelworker; children: Vincent. Addresses: Record company-- Epic, 51 West 52nd St., New York, NY 10019.
Bobby Womack is one of the most respected artists in black music, with a long and distinguished career in rhythm & blues and soul. Like many other black singer/songwriters, Womack began performing gospel music in church settings as a youngster and then moved into the secular field as a composer, guitarist, and singer. Although so-called "mainstream" success has always eluded him, Womack is immensely popular among black American listeners and a veritable superstar in Europe, where his albums often sell in the millions. In the Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, Irwin Stambler notes that, through his many stylistic incarnations, Womack has "provided a body of work ranking among the finest in modern pop music."
Bobby Womack was born in Cleveland, Ohio, one of five sons of a steelworker. He and his brothers--Cecil, Curtis, Friendly, and Harris--began singing gospel as the Womack Brothers while Bobby was still a youngster. The group travelled throughout the Midwest and performed in shows with other gospel ensembles. Looking back on those days in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Womack said: "We were so sincere we thought singing anything else was the way to hell." Despite his deep faith, Womack felt something else stirring in the mid- to late-1950s--the nascent soul music movement that provided money and fame far beyond the bounds of the gospel circuit.
Womack became fast friends with another gospel singer, Sam Cooke, who had decided to move into secular music. Cooke offered Womack a job as backup guitarist in his first rhythm & blues band, and in 1960 Womack accepted, dropping out of school. Womack told the Philadelphia Inquirer that his father warned him he would face eternal damnation if he joined Cooke. "Sam got me thinking," he said. "I remember telling my father, '[God] blessed you with this voice and look at you--$100 a week in the steel mill.' So I started to think, 'I hope the Lord understands that I can sing a different kind of music and do good deeds as well.'"
The move proved fruitful for both Cooke and Womack. By 1962 Cooke had convinced the other Womacks to go secular as well, and the brothers formed a group called the Valentinos. Within two years the Valentinos were filling halls on the R&B circuit, led by Bobby's smooth vocals and steadily sharpening songwriting talents. Their biggest hit came in 1964, when Bobby's "It's All Over Now" sold four hundred thousand copies. The song was also picked up by a white group--none other than the Rolling Stones, who made it their second American hit. Another Womack song, "Looking for a Love," later became a major hit for the J. Geils Band.
Womack has always been ambivalent about the fact that white artists have been able to make bigger hits of his music than he could himself. "I like the fact that people sang my songs," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "because there was a blockage for me because I was black. So I appreciated the fact that they could take the message a lot further than me. But then, after 30 years, you've got to ask yourself: 'Can I say something myself now?'"
In effect, Womack has been asking himself that question all along. He went solo shortly after Sam Cooke's violent death in 1964 and steadily worked his way to prominence in the soul field. Womack has earned Top 40 hits in three decades while providing material and backup work to artists as varied as Aretha Franklin, Joe Tex, Ray Charles, Janis Joplin, and jazzman Gabor Szabo. He has also maintained close ties with the Rolling Stones, contributing instrumentals and even vocals to more than one Stones album.
Womack's solo career has had peaks and valleys, the lowest ebbs coming when he has tried to write and sing for the middle-of-the-road audience. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he had an array of soul hits with United Artists, including "A Woman's Got To Have It," "Daylight," "Check It Out," and a remake of "Looking for a Love." In 1976, however, he moved to Columbia Records, where a crossover consciousness and an overloaded roster of stars virtually buried him. In The Death of Rhythm & Blues, Nelson George writes: "With his gutsy voice echoing Cooke's gospel recordings, Womack should have remained a vital force in R&B throughout the decade. Instead, his career was lost in the flood of black CBS releases. By 1978 Womack was gone from CBS and, after a failing album at Arista, ended the seventies a nonentity in R&B."
Womack rebounded quickly as the 1980s began, producing one of his best-known albums, The Poet. That work rose into the Top 10 on Billboard' s soul chart and even made it into the Top 30 on the pop chart. A single, "If You Think You're Lonely," peaked in the Top 20 on the soul chart in early 1982. After a painful hiatus caused by the shooting death of his brother, Womack returned to work in 1984, releasing The Poet II the same year. That album sold even better than its predecessor, especially in Europe, bringing Womack his first platinum recording. The artist had two Top 10 singles from The Poet II, "Let Me Kiss It Where It Hurts," and "I Wish He Didn't Trust Me So Much."
In the early 1990s, Bobby Womack is assured of a devoted audience both in America and abroad. His 1986 duet with Mick Jagger, "Harlem Shuffle," introduced him to MTV viewers, while his albums Womagic and The Last Soul Man endeared him to his many black fans. Womack's continuing success is no mystery--as Philadelphia Inquirer contributor John Milward puts it, the artist "knows what it takes to write a sexy song." Womack also knows what it takes to infuse a song with emotion. "People will buy the news if it's got a melody," he said. "The news is cold and hard. But put a melody onto it, and people take it with a smile."
Womack's releases So Many Rivers (1985) and Save the Children (1990) are works with a social theme that confront the singer's own problems with drug abuse as well as his concerns for his friends and his son. "In my music, I have ... tried to tell the truth," Womack told Blues & Soul. "I've never been afraid to do so because the truth never dies. It lives on beyond the person. Look, I'm not ashamed to tell you that I was hooked on drugs. Everybody around me always used to tell me not to talk about it but ... it's the truth.... Man, I'll tell you--I'm just glad to even be here today to talk to you about it. It could easily have been me up there on the night shift with Marvin Gaye."
Milward calls Womack a "soul survivor" who can "give you a firsthand account of the connection between the sanctuary and the street." Milward adds that the performer "operates on the ... notion that the best songs are rooted in common experience. Womack learned from a master [Sam Cooke], and years later continues to keep that faith. He knows that whether it's in church or in the recording studio, the most profound music comes from a singular place: the soul." Womack has come to terms with his roots and is proud to be simply a soul man, making music for his people. He told Blues & Soul: "You know, a ... big problem today is that blacks no longer want to be soul singers anymore. Have you noticed how they all want to be crossover artists these days? Me? I'm not ashamed. People like Otis [Redding], Sam [Cooke], and James Brown have laid down a tradition and I'm proud to say that I want to continue in that tradition. I want to be one of the true survivors."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Bobby Womack's Career
Singer, songwriter, guitarist, 1955--. With brothers Cecil, Curtis, Friendly, and Harris formed gospel group the Womack Brothers; changed group name to the Valentinos, 1960. Solo performer, 1964--; has cut albums with R&B, Minit, United Artists, CBS, and MCA, among others. Major R&B singles hits include "Looking for Love," 1962, "Fly Me to the Moon," 1967, "Check It Out," 1975, "If You Think You're Lonely," 1982, and "I Wish He Didn't Trust Me So Much," 1985.
Bobby Womack's Awards
Named the best male vocalist, best songwriter, and best live performer by Britain's Blues & Soul, 1984.
- Selective Works
- Fly Me to the Moon Minit, 1968.
- California Dreaming Minit, 1968.
- How I Miss You, Baby Minit, 1969.
- More Than I Can Stand Minit, 1970.
- That's The Way I Feel about You United Artists, 1971.
- Communication United Artists, 1971.
- Understanding United Artists, 1972.
- A Woman's Got To Have It United Artists, 1972.
- Sweet Caroline United Artists, 1972.
- Harry Hippie United Artists, 1972.
- Facts of Life United Artists, 1973.
- Across 110th Street (film soundtrack), United Artists, 1973.
- Nobody Wants You When You're Down and Out United Artists, 1973.
- Lookin' for a Love United Artists, 1974.
- Bobby Womack's Greatest Hits United Artists, 1974.
- You're Welcome, Stop on By United Artists, 1974.
- Check It Out United Artists, 1975.
- BW Goes CW United Artists, 1976.
- Safety Zone United Artists, 1976.
- Home Is Where the Heart Is CBS, 1976.
- Pieces CBS, 1977.
- Roads of Life Arista, 1979.
- The Poet Beverly Glen, 1981.
- The Poet II MCA, 1984.
- Bobby Womack and the Valentinos Beverly Glen, 1984.
- So Many Rivers MCA, 1985.
- Womagic MCA, 1986.
- Soul Survivor EMI America, 1987.
- The Last Soul Man MCA, 1988.
- Greatest Hits of Bobby Womack Liberty, 1989.
- Save the Children Epic, 1990.
- Also recorded Facts of Live and I Don't Know What the World Is Coming To with United Artists.
September 30, 2003: Womack's album, Anthology, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_4/rock.jsp, October 2, 2003.
- George, Nelson, The Death of Rhythm & Blues, Pantheon, 1988.
- Given, Dave, Dave Given Rock 'n' Roll Stars Handbook, Exposition Press, 1980.
- Illustrated Encyclopedia of Black Music, Harmony, 1985.
- Nite, Norm N., Rock On: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock 'n' Roll, Volume II, Crowell, 1978.
- Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St.
- Martin's, 1989.
- Blues & Soul, October 1985.
- Philadelphia Inquirer, January 25, 1990.