In appreciation of a great American: Bobby Womack

This Fourth of July, let us celebrate and appreciate the life and legacy of a great American: soul singer Bobby Womack, who passed away last week at the age of 70.

This is not an occasion for mourning. Given the notoriously high-flying, hard-touring life he lived, it’s amazing Womack made it into his seventh decade. His was a life lived to the fullest, and then some.

Womack’s career began more than 60 years ago, when he and four siblings hit the road as a gospel group called the Womack Brothers, under the strict tutelage of their father, Friendly Womack, a steelworker and Baptist minister in Cleveland who led them to believe that the punishment for singing secular music was eternal damnation in the fiery pits of hell. Among his last live performances was an appearance last month at the gigantic Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee.

I had the opportunity to see Womack perform a decade ago, in Rochester, N.Y. As was the case when I saw Al Green take the stage in that city earlier that year, I was one of the few white people there and one of the worst-dressed, but one of Womack’s enduring messages, expressed on albums like 1971’s “Communication,” was that such superficial differences make no difference. “We shouldn’t care about the length of his hair or the color of his skin,” he sang on “Everything is Beautiful.” “Don’t worry about what shows from without, but the love that lives within.”

Bobby_Womack

What relevance does Womack’s work have for us up in this corner of the country, where good soul music is as rare as good soul food? The answer is both too little and more than you realize.

Too little, because Womack’s music is seldom played on any radio station in Maine these days. For most of the past 15 years, I endeavored to remedy this travesty by hosting a soul-music show on community radio station WMPG every other Saturday night, but I’m under no illusion that this effort converted more than a handful of listeners to the cause.

Womack directly addressed his lack of “commercial” appeal in another song on “Communication,” a medley that begins with a monologue about his frustrating experience auditioning for a group of money-minded record executives and then segues into a rendition of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” The medley is a triumph on several levels: a stinging indictment of the music business (released on a subsidiary of industry giant Capitol Records) backed up by a staggeringly powerful version of the schmaltzy pop song The Carpenters cashed in on the year before.

The same album contains Womack’s stirring interpretation of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” one of numerous examples of his ability to infuse the light rock and pop that ruled the airwaves of the day with genuine emotionality. The back-and-forth between Womack and the white musical establishment is fascinating to observe and evidence that his influence is much greater than today’s music fans recognize.

For example, The Rolling Stones’ first No. 1 hit was a Bobby Womack song, “It’s All Over Now.” Two decades later, Womack — a hero of both Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, with whom he collaborated — sang backup on the Stones’ hit version of “Harlem Shuffle.” The J. Geils Band scored a hit in 1971 with their version of a song Womack’s early group, The Valentinos, charted with in ’62, “Lookin’ for a Love” — only to be topped by Womack’s second, solo version of that tune in 1974.

A gifted guitarist and songwriter, Womack also performed with, and penned songs covered by, such luminaries as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Sly Stone, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. His discography is imposingly long, but other than a greatest-hits compilation, the best place to start is with the string of five classic albums he released between 1971 and 1974 — a hot streak only matched, in this soul aficionado’s opinion, by Stevie Wonder’s output during roughly the same period.

Bobby Womack pursued his dream against what he believed were the wishes of both his heavenly and earthly fathers. He overcame adversity, addictions, prejudices and professional jealousies to maintain a successful six-decade career on his own terms. His wise and often witty songs preached for peace, perseverance, personal responsibility, love and understanding between couples and among races.

This Independence Day, I can think of no greater embodiment of America’s ideals than this soulful poet. A source of profound inspiration to me, may his music and spirit inspire you as well.

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Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.