As always, I’m fashionably late to the party, but the Unsung episode about Bobby Womack that aired a few weeks ago was high up on my list of favorite Unsung episodes. Thank you, TV One, for providing this valuable service.
Why someone hasn’t made a Bobby Womack biopic is a mystery to me. The man’s life is the definition of Oscar-bait pathos. He married his hero/mentor Sam Cooke‘s widow shortly after Cooke’s bizarre death, earning the enmity of disc jockeys and fellow artists alike (not to mention earning himself a potentially career-ending beatdown at the hands of Cooke’s brothers) for years. He made a quiet comeback at the tail end of the 1960s before exploding into huge success in the early 1970s. By the middle of the decade, he’d descended into a druggy madness exacerbated by the deaths of his brother and infant son. He staged yet another short-lived comeback in the late 70s and early 80s, before drugs and the death of another son brought him low again. By the 2000s, a living legend, he was recording with hip-hop artists.
Yet, I’d hate to see Bobby Womack’s life diminished by a treacly movie. Musician movies are, by and large, overblown montages of formative moments and lip-synched “performance” shots. And no movie could come close to what makes Bobby Womack transcend his tabloid-ready history — his talent for writing lyrics that stick in your head and delivering them in a style that is truly his own.
I’d never seen an interview with Bobby Womack prior to seeing the Unsung episode, and it was enlightening, in that you can literally hear his musical talent just by listening to him speak. There’s no doubt that Womack owes at least part of his conversational singing style to Sam Cooke, but when you hear Womack speak, you can see where his uncanny talent for lyrics comes from. Few artists can write songs that sound as much like natural speech as Bobby Womack, but, then, few artists are as naturally well-spoken and compelling in conversation as Bobby Womack, either.
Songs like “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha,” “I’m Through Trying to Prove My Love to You,” and “Woman’s Gotta Have It” sound as much like Bobby Womack speaking as they do songs. Even his rhymes seem natural; you’re never jarred out of the enjoyment of a Bobby Womack song by a contrived rhyme or the sense that a line has been manipulated to fit the meter.
I’ve always thought that Bobby Womack’s lyrics were more like conversations than any others I’ve ever heard, so I was thrilled to hear how many times he referenced a song of his, only to say it was inspired by a conversation he’d had with someone, or that he’d overheard.
“I’m Through Trying to Prove My Love to You” was not one of the songs he mentioned, but see if (some of) the lyrics don’t explain my hypothesis:
… But I’ve found someone, and I think she understands
What it really means to have a real man.
Her daily deeds, the things she do and say,
She say, “I’m not trying to take that other woman’s place, but if I can’t help you I swear I won’t stay in your way-”
“Tell that woman you’re through, trying to prove your love to her.”
… I’m through staying up all night, waiting on you to return.
I don’t think there’s another lesson I have to wait awhile to learn.
You’ll find out further down the road
See when you take my heart I can’t let you take my soul.
… It always happens in so many love affairs
You’re so in love today and tomorrow you just don’t care.
One gets tired and gives up on loving the other,
The other one goes running in the streets trying to find it in another…
There’s nothing mind-blowing there, but the lyrics are remarkable for the way that they read, as much as sound, like something someone would actually say. That’s a hallmark of Bobby Womack’s songwriting, and goes a long way toward explaining the enduring appeal these songs have. It’s no wonder his songs have been covered to death.
But no matter who does his songs, no one does them like Bobby Womack does. He’s a gifted, emotive singer and one of the few soul artists aside from Bill Withers I’ve seen who evidently writes most of his songs on acoustic guitar.
And when he does play them stripped down, just him and a guitar — did you realize that Bobby Womack plays acoustic guitar primarily? Or that he’s left-handed? Or that his style is so elegant and gorgeous that he’s played on Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, and Don Covay records?
Anyway, to get the essence of Bobby Womack, check out the string of awesome albums he made from Fly Me to the Moon to Lookin’ for a Love Again. These albums capture what makes Womack’s style so timeless: great songs (whether his own or covers), his unique delivery, and the simple, elegant production that makes these albums sound just as relevant now as they did when they were released and transcend genre. They’re sophisticated, adult in a way that even the silky Philly soul albums of the time couldn’t touch. Bobby Womack’s songs would sound at home on any radio station, be it rock, R&B, blues or even country.
In fact, when he plays his songs live, stripped down, most of his songs sound more like folk or country than what we think of as soul.
Which brings me to one of my favorite moments in the Unsung documentary, an apochryphal story about the, ah, unique name Womack wanted to give his 1976 country album, B.W. Goes C&W — Move Over Charlie Pride and Give Another Nigger a Chance. Yes, you read that right. According to Womack, his label didn’t like that title.
But you can only appreciate the rich irony here if you’ve seen the cover:
Interestingly, two of the songs Womack tackles on this album of covers are songs made famous by Charlie Rich, who, like Womack, had a career full of struggles before becoming wildly successful in the early 70s with a string of songs that brought a new sophistication to country.
You need to see this shot, too:
Bobby Womack, ever the rebel.