While he never enjoyed the accolades or chart-topping success of some of his peers, arguably none of them could match the artistic versatility of Bobby Womack. The consummate singer, songwriter, and guitarist died Friday at age 70. The cause of death was not immediately revealed.
His demise came as a surprise, given the significant health issues he’d overcome over the years. These included the drug addiction that claimed some of his colleagues, cancer both of the colon and prostate, and Alzheimer’s disease. As recently as two weeks prior, he’d given a live performance at a music festival in Tennessee.
Robert Dwayne Womack was born into an impoverished musical family in Cleveland, Ohio, and he and his siblings had an upbringing steeped in the gospel traditions brought north in the migration of African Americans from the south to urban enclaves in the Northeast, Midwest, and West.
Young Bobby proved to be proficient enough on guitar to accompany the family group, The Womack Brothers, as well as the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi on the Gospel and “Chittlin’ Circuit” during the early 1950s. He also developed an expressive baritone singing voice (patterned in part after the “hollers, screeches, and yelps” of Blind Boys lead singer Archie Brownlee) that served as a counterpoint to his brothers’ tenor voice.
This pedigree suited his nickname, “The Preacher,” a label he embraced, since men who took up this calling were at the pinnacle of the social pecking order in the community he grew up in. “…the preachers had everything in the neighborhood; they had all the money and the Cadillacs, and they got the best part of the chicken.”
The Womack siblings attracted the attention of another up-and-coming artist, Sam Cooke, who was then singing with the landmark quartet The Soul Stirrers. He, in turn, steered them to the more lucrative genre of secular music, eventually renamed them The Valentinos, and became a guru in their musical and professional endeavors. As Cooke’s star ascended with increasing crossover success, The Valentinos followed him to the West Coast, and became one the first groups signed to Cooke’s ground-breaking SAR Records, with the 1963 hit “Lookin’ for a Love.”
In a dual professional path that would continue throughout the decades, Bobby Womack pursued work as a session guitarist for the likes of Ray Charles, King Curtis, Aretha Franklin, Sly and the Family Stone, and others. A natural lefty, he was unique because he played a right-handed guitar upside down like another product of the Chittlin Circuit with whom he jammed and exchanged guitar techniques, Jimi Hendrix.
Womack also provided The Rolling Stones with their first number-one hit record—“It’s All Over Now” in 1964 (in 2009, Rolling Stone’s Ronnie Wood would induct Bobby Womack into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).
The well-publicized murder of Sam Cooke late in 1964, after a tryst with an alleged prostitute, caused the Valentinos’ career to stagnant. In a move that some think may have inhibited his rise to legitimate international superstardom, Cooke’s 21-year-old protégé (Womack) married the grieving widow, Barbara, a mere three months after his death, in a scenario rivaling anything Hollywood script hacks could muster.