- Across 110th Street
Robert Dwayne “Bobby” Womack (March 4, 1944 – June 27, 2014) was an American singer-songwriter and musician, and producer.
Since the early 1960s, when he started his career as the lead singer of his family musical group The Valentinos and as Sam Cooke‘s backing guitarist, Womack’s career spanned more than 50 years, during which he played in the styles of R&B, soul, rock and roll, doo-wop, gospel, and country.
Womack wrote and originally recorded the Rolling Stones‘ first UK No. 1 hit, “It’s All Over Now” and New Birth‘s “I Can Understand It” among other songs. As a singer he is most notable for the hits “Lookin’ For a Love“, “That’s The Way I Feel About Cha“, “Woman’s Gotta Have It“, “Harry Hippie“, “Across 110th Street“, and his 1980s hit “If You Think You’re Lonely Now“.
Born in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood, near East 85th Street and Quincy Avenue, to Naomi Womack and Friendly Womack, Bobby was the third of five brothers. Friendly Jr. and Curtis were the older brothers, Cecil and Harry were his younger brothers. They all grew up in the Cleveland slums, so poor that the family would fish pig snouts out of the local supermarket’s trash. He had to share a bed with his brothers. His mother told him he could “sing his way out of the ghetto”. Bobby recalls:
We came up very poor. My kids have had a much better life than I’d ever thought of livin’
The neighbourhood was so ghetto that we didn’t bother the rats and they didn’t bother us.
Raised Baptist, their mother played the organ for the church choir, and their father was a steelworker, part-time minister, musician who played the guitar and also sang gospel. Their father would advise his sons to not touch his guitar while he was away. One night, eight-year-old Bobby, who was often playing it, broke a guitar string. After Friendly replaced the string with a shoelace, he let Bobby play the guitar for him. According to Bobby, Friendly was stunned by his son’s talents as well as the talents of his other sons. Soon afterwards, he bought Bobby his own guitar.
Bobby’s career started before he was 10, when he began touring with his four brothers, Curtis, Harry, Cecil and Friendly, Jr., on the midwest gospel circuit in the mid-1950s, initially as The Womack Brothers. The gospel group toured along with their parents accompanying them on organ and guitar. In 1954, under the moniker Curtis Womack and the Womack Brothers, the group issued the Pennant single, “Buffalo Bill”. More records followed.
Sam Cooke, the lead singer of The Soul Stirrers, first saw the group performing in the mid-1950s. He became their mentor and helped them go on tour. They went on national tours with The Staple Singers. Even though Curtis Womack often sang lead, Bobby Womack was allowed to sing alongside him showcasing his gruff baritone vocals in contrast to his older brother’s smoother tenor. During performances, Bobby would sometimes imitate the role of a preacher, which later became his nickname. At just 16, Bobby dropped out of high school.
At the beginning of the 1960s, Cooke formed SAR Records and signed the quintet to the label in 1961, where they released a handful of gospel singles. Then, Cooke changed their name to The Valentinos, relocated them to Los Angeles and convinced them to transition from gospel music to secular soul- and pop-influenced sound. Cooke produced and arranged the group’s first hit single, “Lookin’ for a Love“, which was a pop version of the gospel song, “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray”, they had recorded earlier. The song became an R&B hit and helped land the group an opening spot for James Brown‘s tour. The group’s next hit came in 1964 with the country-tinged “It’s All Over Now“, co-composed by Bobby. Their version was rising on the charts when The Rolling Stones covered it.
Womack was also a member of Cooke’s band, touring and recording with him from 1961. The Valentinos’ career was left shaky after Sam Cooke was shot and killed in a Los Angeles motel. Devastated by the news, the brothers disbanded and SAR Records folded. Womack continued to work as a session musician. Between 1965 and 1968 he toured and recorded with Ray Charles.
Circa 1965, Womack relocated to Memphis where he worked at Chips Moman‘s American Studios. He played guitar on recordings by Joe Tex and the Box Tops. Womack played guitar on several of Aretha Franklin‘s albums, including Lady Soul, but not on the hit song “Chain of Fools“, as erroneously reported. His work as a songwriter caught the eye of music executives after Wilson Pickett took a liking to some of Womack’s songs and insisted on recording them. Among the songs were “I’m a Midnight Mover” and “I’m in Love“.
In 1968, he signed with Minit Records and recorded his first solo album, Fly Me to the Moon, where he scored his first major hit with a cover of The Mamas & The Papas‘ “California Dreamin’“. In 1969, Womack forged a partnership with Gábor Szabó and with Szabó, penned the instrumental “Breezin’“, later a hit for George Benson. Womack also worked with rock musicians Sly and the Family Stone and Janis Joplin, contributing vocals and guitar work on The Family Stone’s accomplished album There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and penning the ballad “Trust Me”, for Joplin on her album Pearl.
After two more albums with Minit, Bobby switched labels, signing with United Artists where he changed his attire and his musical direction with the album Communication. The album bolstered his first top 40 hit, “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha“, which peaked at number two R&B and number twenty-seven on the Billboard Hot 100 in the spring of 1972.
Following Communication, Womack’s profile was raised with two more albums, released in 1972. The first was Understanding, noted for the track “I Can Understand It“, later covered by the funk band New Birth and a three-sibling lineup of Bobby’s old group, The Valentinos, and two hit singles, “Woman’s Gotta Have It” and “Harry Hippie“. The latter song was written for Womack by Jim Ford in a country version, which Womack re-arranged in an R&B version. “Harry Hippie” later became Womack’s first single to be certified gold. Contrary to popular belief, the song was not about Womack’s brother Harry. “Woman’s Gotta Have It” became Womack’s first single to hit number one on the R&B charts.
Another hit album released after Understanding was the soundtrack to the Blaxploitation film Across 110th Street. The title track became popular during its initial 1972 release and later would be played during the opening and closing scenes of the 1997 film, Jackie Brown. In 1973, Womack released another hit album, Facts of Life, and had a top 40 hit with “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, an older song Sam Cooke had done years before.
In 1974, Womack released his most successful single during this period with a remake of his first hit single, “Lookin’ for a Love“. His solo version of the song became even more successful than the original with The Valentinos’, becoming his second number one hit on the R&B chart and peaking at number ten on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming his only hit to reach that high on the pop chart. The song was featured on the album Lookin’ for a Love Again and featured the minor charted “You’re Welcome, Stop on By”, later covered by Rufus & Chaka Khan. Womack’s career began stalling after Womack received the news of his brother Harry’s death. Womack continued to record albums with United Artists through 1975 and 1976 but with less success than previous albums. In 1975, Womack collaborated with Rolling Stones member Ronnie Wood, on Wood’s second solo album, Now Look.
Womack languished with his own recordings during the late 1970s but continued to be a frequent collaborator with other artists, most notably Wilton Felder of The Crusaders. In 1980, Wilton Felder released on MCA Records, the album Inherit The Wind, featuring Bobby Womack, that became a Jazz-Funk classic (notably in the UK – Robbie Vincent at Radio London included the track as one of his all-time winners in October 1982). In 1981, Womack signed with Beverly Glen Records and had his first R&B top 10 single in five years – since the 1976 single “Daylight” – with “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” that peaked at number three on the R&B singles chart. His accompanying album The Poet reached number one on the R&B album charts and is now seen as the high point of his long career, bringing him wider acclaim not only in the U.S. but also in Europe. He had two more R&B top 10 singles during the 1980s including the Patti LaBelle duet, “Love Has Finally Come at Last“, and “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much“. He had a hit featuring on the Wilton Felder single “(No Matter How High I Get) I’ll Still Be Looking Up to You”.
Womack duets with Van Morrison on “Some Peace of Mind”, from Morrison’s 1991 album, “Hymns to the Silence”, on Morrison’s album “Duets: Re-working the Catalogue” released in 2015.
Womack’s solo career started to slow down, however, after 1985, partially due to Womack’s issues with drug addiction. After sobering up in the mid-1990s, he released the album Resurrection and continued his performing career.
In 1989, Womack sang on Todd Rundgren’s “For the Want of a Nail” on the album Nearly Human. In 1998, he performed George Gershwin‘s “Summertime” with The Roots for the Red Hot Organization‘s compilation album Red Hot + Rhapsody, a tribute to George Gershwin, which raised money for various charities devoted to increasing AIDS awareness and fighting the disease.
In 2010, Womack contributed lyrics and sang on “Stylo” alongside Mos Def, the first single from the third Gorillaz album Plastic Beach. Womack was told to sing whatever was on his mind during the recording of “Stylo”. “I was in there for an hour going crazy about love and politics, getting it off my chest”, said Womack. He also provided vocals on the song “Cloud of Unknowing” in addition to the song “Bobby in Phoenix” on their December 2010 release “The Fall“.
A new album was released on June 12, 2012 by XL Recordings of London. The album, The Bravest Man in the Universe was produced by Damon Albarn and Richard Russell. The first Song “Please Forgive My Heart” was offered as a free download on XL Recordings’ official website on March 8, 2012.Contact Music reported that Womack was working on a blues album called Living in the House of Blues, featuring collaborations with Stevie Wonder, Snoop Dogg and Rod Stewart.
Jodeci‘s K-Ci Hailey, a notable admirer of Womack’s work, covered “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” in 1994. Hailey again covered Womack in 2006 with his rendition of “A Woman’s Gotta Have It”. The song is referenced in Mariah Carey‘s song “We Belong Together“, a number one hit in June 2005. Carey sings “I can’t sleep at night / When you are on my mind / Bobby Womack’s on the radio / Singing to me: ‘If you think you’re lonely now.'” In 2007, R&B singer Jaheim interpolated the song as “Lonely” on his album “The Making of a Man”. Neo Soul Singer, Calvin Richardson also covered many of Womack’s tunes. “That’s The Way I Feel About Cha” was covered by the late R&B musician Gerald Levert and fellow singer Mary J. Blige on Levert’s 1998 album Love & Consequences.
Film director Quentin Tarantino used “Across 110th Street” (which, in a different version, had been the title song of the 1972 movie) in the opening and closing sequences of his 1997 film Jackie Brown. His work has been used in several other popular films, including Meet the Parents (2000), Ali (2001) and American Gangster (2007). A 2003 Saab commercial used Womack’s interpretation of “California Dreamin'”. In 2005, “Across 110th Street” appeared in the hit Activision video game True Crime: New York City.
During the spring of 1997, R&B singer Rome covered the original song from his self-titled debut album.
In 2008, Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child recorded her own version of his R&B hit “Daylight” with Travis McCoy of the Gym Class Heroes, which became a hit in the UK Singles Chart, where it was previously released as a single by Womack in 1976.
In 2009, Calvin Richardson was chosen to record a tribute album to Womack to coincide with Womack’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Grammy-nominated album was entitled Facts of Life: The Soul of Bobby Womack.
In March 1965, just three months after Sam Cooke‘s death, 21-year-old Womack married Cooke’s widow, Barbara Campbell, ten years his senior. The marriage was considered a scandal by some in the music business, and Womack found himself ostracized in the soul-music world. Womack fell out with his brothers, was booed at concerts, and was severely beaten up by Barbara’s brother. Womack claimed he initially went to Barbara’s side to console her following Cooke’s death for fear that, if she were left alone, she would “do something crazy.”
In 1970, Bobby and Barbara divorced after she found out that he had an affair with his 18-year-old stepdaughter Linda, daughter of Sam Cooke and Barbara. In the ensuing tussle, Barbara fired a gun at her husband. Vincent Womack, his son with Barbara, committed suicide in 1986, at age 21.
In 1974, Harry, Bobby’s brother, was fatally stabbed in the neck with a steak knife by his jealous girlfriend.
Womack’s second marriage (1976) was to Regina Banks with whom he had two sons, Truth Bobby and Bobby Truth, and a daughter, Gina. In 1978, Truth Bobby died aged four months old, and Womack turned again to cocaine. The marriage also ended in divorce.
From his relationship with Jody Laba he fathered two sons, Cory and Jordan.
Linda, Sam Cooke and Barbara Campbell’s daughter, later married Cecil, Bobby’s younger brother. Bobby and Linda collaborated on the hit song “Woman’s Gotta Have It” and he applied background vocals for Cecil and Linda as the pair teamed up as Womack & Womack. The song “Baby I’m Scared of You” by Womack & Womack, from their album Love Wars, was released as a single in the US and UK in 1983.
Womack opened up about his frequent drug use in his memoirs, Midnight Mover. Womack said he began using cocaine sometime in the late 1960s. He had become close friends with Sly Stone, and was an enthusiastic participant in Stone’s infamous drug binges. Womack told Rolling Stone in 1984:
“I was really off into the drugs. Blowing as much coke as I could blow. And drinking. And smoking weed and taking pills. Doing that all day, staying up seven, eight days. Me and Sly [Stone] were running partners.”
His cocaine use turned into an addiction by the late 1970s. Womack partially blamed his habit for his son Truth’s death. Throughout most of the 1980s, Womack struggled with drug addiction. In the early 1980s his career slowed down partially due to his drug usage. At the end of the 1980s, he went into a rehabilitation center to get over his cocaine addiction, which he said he conquered.
Womack survived prostate cancer. A series of health problems would follow, including diabetes, pneumonia, colon cancer and the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
Womack developed diabetes in his later years. It was revealed in March that Womack was diagnosed with colon cancer after Bootsy Collins reported it on his Facebook page. Womack announced afterwards that he was to undergo cancer surgery. On May 24, 2012, it was announced that Womack’s surgery to remove a tumor from his colon was successful and he was declared cancer free. On January 1, 2013, Womack admitted that he struggled to remember his songs and other people’s names, and later he was diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Womack died at his home in Tarzana, California at the age of 70 on June 27, 2014. He was cremated, and his ashes were interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California, in an unmarked niche.