The Secrets of Bobby Womack

Illustration for article titled The Secrets of Bobby Womack

Mention the phrase “soul man,” and a litany of names runs through your mind: Otis Redding, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, Teddy Pendergrass and, of course, Sam Cooke. Even newbies like Anthony Hamilton and Jaheim are likely to make the cut, particularly for those who like their contemporary soul, down home and gritty.

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For far too many, Bobby Womack is unfortunately an afterthought. But that should change with Womack’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on April 4. Womack joins the ranks of many of the aforementioned legendary soul men including his late friend and mentor Sam Cooke.

At the height of soul music’s popularity in the 1960s and early 1970s, the male soul singer’s status rivaled that of his “race man” peer. The soul man icons of that era congealed grand narratives of tragedy—shot dead in a motel; shot dead by your father; shot dead in a game of Russian Roulette; killed in an airplane crash; scorched by a pot of boiling grits—wedded to even more complicated personal demons—physical abuse of wives and girlfriends; sexual assault of younger female artists; sex with underage girls.

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So, at a time when Martin Luther King Jr. and others presented African Americans as the moral compass of American society, the soul man signified a noble and decidedly secular struggle against good and evil.

Bobby Womack’s path to the Hall of Fame is filled with such battles. Did God punish the singer for abandoning gospel music? Did Womack betray his mentor Sam Cooke by marrying his wife? In the end, was he “commercial” enough to crossover?

Sam Cooke was first to create the template for the soul man. His good looks and virile masculinity helped him become gospel music’s first sex symbol. While Cooke clearly sang of the Lord—often in that fluttering, feathery riff that became his signature—he clearly desired the flesh as evidenced by the philandering that purportedly instigated his murder in 1964.

Though Cooke’s posthumously released “A Change is Gonna Come” became a civil rights era anthem, some “true believers” thought his death was punishment for the sin of breaking ranks from the gospel world and opening up the floodgates for many others—most famously Aretha Franklin.

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One of those who came through was Bobby Womack. Recording with the Valentinos in the early 1960s, Womack and his brothers were tutored by Cooke on the professional aspects of the recording industry.

Shortly after Cooke’s death, Womack offered counsel and comfort to Cooke’s widow Barbara. But three months after Cooke’s death and just as Womack turned 21 years old, he went a step further, marrying Cooke’s still-grieving wife. “They didn’t let his body get cold in the ground,” family members sniffed in the Pittsburgh Courier.

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Despite the drama, Womack began a solo career of some distinction, initially establishing himself as a solid session musician (he played guitar on Aretha Franklin’s classic I Have Never Loved a Man) and an in-demand songwriter, whose credits include tunes recorded by Franklin, Wilson Pickett, The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin and George Benson. After releasing a string of singles, beginning with “I Found a True Love” in 1965 for the legendary Chess label, Womack released his first solo album in 1968 with Fly Me to the Moon on the Minit label. It would still be a few years before Womack would hit his artistic stride, recording a sequence of stellar recordings for the United Artist label in the early 1970s that included signature tracks such as “I Can Understand It,” “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha,” “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” “Across 110th Street” (from the movie soundtrack of the same name) and “Lookin’ for a Love,” a song Womack originally recorded with his brothers in 1962.

Though Womack’s music was well-regarded by black audiences and received the support of black radio, he never made the crossover inroads that his friend and mentor Sam Cooke did.

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But, Womack kept recording and made a bit of a comeback in the early 1980s recording for the independent label Beverly Glen. On The Poet, Womack recorded what is perhaps his most recognizable tune, “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.”

It was during the midst of this resurgence that Womack finally responded musically to the drama that initially unfolded in the months after his mentor’s demise. “I Wish You Wouldn’t Trust Me So” rather casually tells the story of a man who has fallen in love with his best friend’s wife. By the time the song was released in the summer of 1985, most listeners didn’t know about the singer’s relationship with Cooke’s widow, who Womack had divorced a decade earlier.

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To complicate matters, Womack’s brother Cecil married Linda Cooke, the daughter of Sam and Barbara Cooke. During the time that Bobby Womack recorded “I Wish I Wouldn’t Trust You So Much,” Curtis and Linda Womack were popular songwriters and artists in their own right recording as “Womack & Womack;” the duo, for example, penned Teddy Pendergrass’s hit “Love T.K.O.”

In the end, it’s all about how great the music was, and more than anything, this is what the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame recognizes with their induction of Bobby Womack.

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Mark Anthony Neal is professor of African & African-American Studies at Duke University. The author of several books, he is currently completing Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities for New York University Press.

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

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