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Bobby Womack: Trading in the timeless

The R&B legend died Friday at age 70, leaving behind an impressive catalog of enduring music

We won’t see many others like Bobby Womack, who died Friday at age 70. His extraordinary music career was all-inclusive: hits, misses, drug addiction, legendary work as a sideman, lasting recognition as a songwriter, crossovers and comebacks.

Womack stood astride some of the most tectonic shifts in music history over the last five decades: when 1950s gospel turned to soul he was there, tailoring lyrics to fit. He wrote a song that deepened the black roots of the British Invasion. His guitar playing shaped the development of the deep and soulful mid-60s Memphis groove, and he flew high on the fly funk of early 70s blaxploitation soundtracks and their subsequent hip revival. The man did it all.  

We are lucky to have had Womack as long as we did; his eventual triumph over a serious cocaine habit did not spare him from an onslaught of health problems in later life: diabetes, colon cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. The cause of his death, confirmed by his label XL Recordings, is as yet unknown.

Womack was discovered by none other than soul icon Sam Cooke. In 1956, Womack was singing gospel with his brothers, alongside lead singer Curtis. Cooke, doing the same work with the Soul Stirrers, was impressed. Four years later he signed The Womack Brothers to his SAR label.

By this time Womack was already impressive on many levels: he was developing a unique, choppy guitar style and singing in a throaty, gospel-inflected voice that, although it mimicked Cooke’s, would soon become its own powerful instrument.

He was also writing. Womack’s “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” was mutated into the secular “Looking For A Love” — much the same way Cooke re-recorded the Soul Stirrers’ “Wonderful” for a pop audience — and it became an R&B hit. Womack also co-wrote 1964’s “It’s All Over Now,” which proved magic for a young British band called The Rolling Stones, whose cover version became their first number 1 single.

At Cooke’s suggestion, The Womack Brothers changed their name to The Valentinos and continued recording until Cooke’s untimely death, gunned down in a Los Angeles motel. Shocked and disheartened, the Valentinos disbanded, the SAR label imploded, and Bobby scandalously married Cooke’s widow, all in a matter of months.

Womack re-appeared in Memphis in the latter half of the 1960s, playing guitar on all the right sessions. He backed Aretha Franklin on her seminal Lady Soul album, was a member of the studio band for Alex Chilton’s hit machine The Box Tops, and cut records with Joe Tex and Sly and the Family Stone. As if that wasn’t distinguished enough, Womack also wrote songs for Wilson Pickett and Janis Joplin.  

By the early 1970s Womack was front and center, writing and singing the hit title track to “Across 110th Street” — a song so iconic it would reappear over three decades later in the opening and closing credits for Quentin Tarantino's movie Jackie Brown. Womack also reworked The Valentinos’ “Looking For A Love” in 1974, yielding his biggest hit.  

Right after recording backing vocals for “Looking For A Love,” Womack’s brother Harry died suddenly and violently — shot to death just as their mentor Cooke had been. Devastated, Womack’s career stalled for a few years but came roaring back with the 1981 hit “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” and two duets with Patti Labelle.

Settling into a debilitating cocaine habit in the mid-80s, Womack faded from public view, at least for a while. In 2009, he was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “I wish I could call Sam Cooke and share this moment with him,” he said.

In 2010, he took a startling vocal turn with Mos Def on Gorillaz’ “Stylo.” For the track, Womack was told to sing about what was on his mind. "I was in there for an hour going crazy about love and politics, getting it off my chest,” he said about the session. He might as well have been describing his approach to singing in general.

Womack’s last release, 2012’s “The Bravest Man In The World,” was produced by Damon Albarn and Richard Russell. “You know more at 65 than you did at 25,” he told Rolling Stone. “I understand the songs much better now."

It was the final proof, if any was needed, that Womack traded in the timeless. He played sparingly, wrote tastefully and sang honestly. Succeeding generations continued to rediscover a man who, at least until Friday, never really went away. Each decade placed him in a slightly different musical light, but all it ever did was make Womack shine more brightly.

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