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I got a story I want to tell

Submitted by on June 28, 2014 – 7:23 pmNo Comment


“I was the third brother of five, doing whatever I had to do to survive” is the opening, auto-biographical line to “Across 110th Street” which featured prominently in Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown”. Like the film, the song is a tale of drugs, hustlers, pimps and the ghetto that mirrors Womack’s own, stranger-than-fiction, life.

He was born and raised in the ghetto of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1944. Although a sickly child, he was a born survivor, raking through butchers’ dustbins for off-cuts that were considered unfit for human consumption.

Singing in church on a Sunday provided welcome relief from the harsh realities of everyday life and it soon became apparent that the Womack Brothers had inherited their father’s musical talent, especially Bobby. Being left-handed he learnt to play the guitar upside down without reversing the strings and this led to his unique and distinctive style.

The boys eventually attracted the attention of Sam Cooke who had recently left the gospel group the Soul Stirrers to go solo and record secular music in order to crossover to the financially rewarding pop market. An astute businessman and something of a visionary, he soon established his own label SAR, to which he signed the Womack Brothers in 1961.

Their initial gospel releases failed to make an impression so Bobby adapted an old spiritual song, changing the lyrics to “Lookin’ for a Love” and, rechristened The Valentinos, this became their first hit selling over two million copies.

In order to learn their stage craft, Cooke decided to put the boys on the road as part of the James Brown Revue playing five shows a day. When they got to New York to play the Apollo, they were booked into a fleapit hotel-cum-brothel where Bobby persuaded a local hooker to entertain all five of them with the $50 they’d been given for living expenses. The result was a dose of sibling clap.

Although not a hit in America, their fourth single “It’s All Over Now” – which Bobby wrote with his sister-in-law – provided the Rolling Stones with their first Number 1 single when they covered it in 1964. Bobby later forged a friendship that led to him supporting the Stones on tour in the 70s, playing on their 1986 album “Dirty Work” and sharing lead vocals on the single from it “Harlem Shuffle”.

In December 1964 Sam Cooke was shot dead in California by the female manager of a sleazy motel following a fight about a woman Cooke had taken there. He left a widow, Barbara, who Bobby married only three months later, on the day after his 21st birthday. The marriage caused immense controversy among both families with Womack’s parents condemning it and Sam’s brother physically beating up the youngster.

Further complications arose years later when Bobby was caught in a compromising situation with his step-daughter Linda. Barbara pulled a gun on her husband and chased him out of the house while unloading the weapon, one of the bullets grazing his temple. The couple divorced in 1970. In a bizarre twist Linda married Bobby’s brother Cecil and the duo went on to receive international renown as Womack & Womack with the hit “Teardrops”.


By now Bobby had left The Valentinos to go solo but, following the controversy, he found himself ostracised by the music industry. Ray Charles came to his rescue and offered a job as a guitarist in his band but he quit after two years following numerous disagreements.

In 1967 he took the decision to head down to Memphis where he got a job as a session musician at American Sound Studios, playing on “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis, “Son of a Preacher Man” for Dusty Springfield, “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman”, “Think” and “Rock Steady” for Aretha Franklin.

His musical rehabilitation was by now complete and his growing reputation led to a solo contract with Liberty Records and a debut album “Fly Me to the Moon” released in August 1968. Although he’d been signed on the strength of his songwriting, Wilson Pickett had already recorded “I’m in Love”, “I’m a Midnight Mover” and many other Womack originals leaving Bobby to cover the title track and “California Dreamin’” with great success – the latter giving him a new lease of life in 2003/4 when Saab utilised it for a TV campaign.

“Trust Me”, his debut single on Liberty, was covered by Janis Joplin on the “Pearl” album which Bobby played on. After a late night session the pair went for a ride in his new car and Janis was so impressed with it that she made up the renowned “Mercedes Benz”. They returned to the studio and cut the track together ending up at her apartment. Bobby left when her dealer was due to come round and a few hours later he received a call informing him that Janis had died of an overdose – a month after the death of Jimi Hendrix who was another close friend.

By now Bobby had developed his own drug addiction which was exacerbated when, in 1971, he hooked up with Sly Stone to work on his monumental “There’s a Riot Goin’ On”, a dark, brooding album containing the classic “Family Affair”. They often went several days without sleep while high on cocaine surrounded by guns, a menacing, paranoid atmosphere and a retinue of dealers, hustlers, prostitutes and hangers on which eventually destroyed the wayward genius’s career.

Womack somehow escaped from the madness to record the first of a series of classic albums for United Artists beginning with “Communication” followed by “Understanding” in 1972, “Facts of Life” and “Lookin’ for a Love Again” both in 1973. His soulful, gritty vocals and penchant for spoken, scene-setting intros that became his trademark were evident on angst-ridden ballads “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha” and “I’m Through Trying to Prove My Love to You”.

It was during this spell that Bobby recorded the biographical “Harry Hippie” about his younger brother. Two years later Harry was murdered at Bobby’s house by a jealous girlfriend who plunged a knife into his neck and he bled to death.

Distraught by this turn of events, Bobby faked blindness in order to get out of a string of concerts he was contracted to; however his record company later discovered the truth and numerous promoters threatened to sue him. When he recorded a country & western album which he wanted to call “Step Aside Charley Pride, Give Another N****r a Try” they, understandably, sold his contract to Columbia. However, he bounced back in 1976 with the brilliant “Home is Where the Heart is” followed by “Pieces” two years’ later and “Roads of Life” for Arista in 1979.

Bobby had remarried in 1978 and had a son named Truth who tragically died age four months after suffocating in bed. In later years his son with Barbara Cooke committed suicide age 21 and a third son was locked up for 28 years on manslaughter charges after killing another driver while in a stolen car.


Unbelievably, amid the chaos of his life, Womack produced his masterpiece “The Poet” in 1981. It was the biggest hit of his career, containing the monumental “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” but it all ended in acrimony when the label owner ripped him off and underpaid royalties, which resulted in a bitter court case.

When this was finally settled Bobby signed to Motown Records and released “The Poet 2” in April 1984. I remember walking into HMV on Market Street and standing transfixed while I listened to the first side. Half an hour later I was £5.65 poorer but had a treasured LP to add to my collection.

Bobby continued to release quality albums throughout the 80s and 90s which enhanced his reputation for “keeping it real” and refusing to sell out for commercial gain. In 2000 he featured as guest vocalist on Manchester duo Rae & Christian’s “Get a Life” and I saw him live at the Apollo a few years ago.

On April 4th (coincidently my 50th birthday) Bobby became the first Cleveland native ever inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as an individual performer. In a life that’s encompassed incredible personal tragedy and a lifestyle that took him to the brink of madness, it stands as testimony to the ultimate Soul Survivor.

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