Two generations before Love & Hip Hop, Bobby Womack’s life could have been a reality television show. The now legendary story of Womack’s marriage to his mentor Sam Cooke’s widow, Barbara, months after Cooke’s shooting death, is just the entry point to a life that was as tragic as it was well lived. To his credit, Womack, who died Friday at age 70, managed to present the fullness of that experience in every note he sang over the course of a career that spanned more than 50 years.
The Cleveland native first came to prominence singing gospel as part of the Womack Brothers in the mid-1950s, catching the attention of Cooke, who mentored the group and encouraged them to change their name to the Valentinos. Their first hit was “Looking for a Love,” produced by Cooke in 1962.
When the Valentinos followed up with “It’s All Over Now” in 1964, the song caught the attention of the Rolling Stones, who recorded it. Womack, who co-wrote the song with his sister-in-law, had reservations, given the negative history of white artists covering black artists’ songs. But Cooke convinced Womack that the Stones’ cover would be good for his career. And indeed, “It’s All Over Now” was the Rolling Stones’ first No. 1 song in the U.S. and the beginning of a long friendship between Womack and the band.
Cooke proved prescient; in the lean years for Womack after the breakup of the Valentinos in the mid-1960s, he established himself as a songwriter and studio guitarist, writing “I’m a Midnight Mover” and “I’m in Love” for Wilson Pickett—the latter song also recorded by Aretha Franklin, for whom Womack provided guitar work on several of her early Atlantic albums. Womack also appeared on Janis Joplin’s last studio album, Pearl, to which he contributed the original song “Trust Me.” He even collaborated with Hungarian guitarist Gábor Szabó, contributing four songs to his album High Contrast (1971), including an obscure tune called “Breezin’” that become one of the best-selling jazz instrumentals of all time when George Benson recorded it five years later.
Womack’s profile as a songwriter led to the first of his most prolific periods as a solo artist, with a string of critically acclaimed recordings for the United Artists Records label, including Communication (1971), Understanding (1972), Facts of Life (1973) and Looking for a Love, Again (1974). Some of Womack’s best-known songs, like “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha,” “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” “I Can Understand It” (covered by the New Birth), “Across 110th Street” (from the soundtrack recording), “You’re Welcome to Stop on By” (later covered by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan), “Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out” and “Lookin’ for a Love,” his highest-charting pop song, were all recorded during this fertile period of Womack’s career.
Womack’s career in this era was derailed by a series of tragedies, including the shooting death of his brother Harry and the death of his infant son Truth (another son, Vincent, would take his own life in the late 1980s), as well his admitted addiction to cocaine. Womack continued to record throughout the late 1970s, though none of the recordings captured the magic of his early-1970s sides.
When he was signed by the independent label Beverly Glen, the same label that initially signed a young Anita Baker, Womack ushered in a second period of sustained success with the albums The Poet (1981) and The Poet II (1984). The B-side of The Poet, which features the suite of “Games,” “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” (Womack’s signature ballad) and “Where Do We Go from Now,” perfected the brown-liquor, after-midnight vibe that marked his career as a mature artist.
Womack moved to the MCA label in 1985 and recorded So Many Rivers, which featured “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much.” Though he didn’t write it, its theme was eerily reminiscent of Womack’s own friendship with Cooke two decades earlier.
Though Womack was musically curious and adventurous throughout his career—his last release, The Bravest Man in the Universe, was co-produced by Damon Albarn of Gorillaz—he refused to modify his sound to find pop success. As Womack sang on the spoken monologue of his cover of “They Long to Be (Close to You),” he was challenged by record execs who said he wasn’t “commercial.” But like Cooke, Womack was the product of musical world, for which success meant that you could be heard on a jukebox in a bar in any corner of any city in America. That he never forgot that world is what made him such a beloved artist.
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter.