Understanding Bobby Womack

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.

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R.I.P. Jimmy Castor

Oh no! Jimmy Castor of the immortal Jimmy Castor Bunch has slipped this mortal coil. It’s good we have this to remember him by:

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The Pointy-Headed Spawn of the Bee Gees and Crosby Stills and Nash…

 

… can be found HERE.  Go ahead. Click. You know you want to.

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Total Freak Out!

Check out my review of The Freak Scene’s Psychedelic Psoul at the awesome Rising Storm blog!

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It’s Really Just a Question of Your Honesty

Gratuitous bizarre Rush pic. Rush porn, if you will.

I have two posts on this blog that have enduring interest, according to my stats: my Rush post and my Cream post. This is hardly shocking; Rush and Cream are two of the better-known bands I’ve posted about, and Rush has a following that can only be described as rabid (I resemble that remark).

I’m going to get back to Rush and Cream, but bear with me for a moment while I get to the real purpose of this post.

A few weeks ago, I found myself attempting to explain to someone why I did not like a particular hipster darling band‘s music, and I was evidently at a loss for words, because the only reason I could come up with was that the music sounded dishonest to me.  The person I was talking to treated me like a raving lunatic; after all, this band leader’s dedication to his “craft” (I’m gagging just typing that) gets as much press – or more – as the music does.  The words I was likely looking for were insincere and contrived, but I could only come up with dishonest.

I think “dishonest” came to mind so readily because honesty truly is a trait of the best music. To explain, let’s go back to Cream and Rush.

As the group for which the term “supergroup” was coined, I think it’s safe to say that Cream was somewhat manufactured. Here you have God, aka Eric Clapton, Ginger Bruce, who although he has only two arms, is often mistaken for Kali behind a drum kit, and Jack Bruce, a man of extraordinary talents both as a singer and a bass player. There was nothing organic about these three outstanding talents coming together, and each of the three has said as much in hundreds of interviews over the years.

Yet at first, before the new wore off, anyway, Cream made pretty honest music.  Often, some sort of alchemy took place, and they managed to transcend their manufactured, blues-derivative beginnings – see “Badge,” “SWLABR” or “Deserted Cities of the Heart.”

But what happened to Cream? The generally accepted version of events reads that they became victims of their own success, of the sheer weight of their talent and the expectations for them, and imploded.  It boils down, however, to honesty; Eric Clapton heard The Band, and decided that the psychedelia and faux-blues that Cream had become mired in was musically impure.

If you listen to The Band and Cream back-to-back, that’s an easy attitude to understand. Certainly the guitar heroics, endless drum solos, and pseudo-psychedelic lyrics sound overblown next to the easy, unstudied elegance of The Band.  But I don’t find Cream dishonest; rather, I think they disbanded at the perfect point in the band’s career – they could have gone on autopilot for years, riding on their reputation (sound familiar?).

Now contrast Cream with Rush. Again, you have a three-man band comprised of a guitar hero, a singing bass player, and a drummer who sounds like he has 40 arms. The difference is the element of contrivance. If Jack Bruce had sounded like Geddy Lee, I highly doubt he’d have been invited to join Cream. Had any member of Cream suggested a futuristic concept album (2112, from which that lovely picture up top was taken from) four albums into a career that had hardly taken off, that member would likely have been asked to retire. But for Rush, to do anything but put Geddy Lee up front, put out concept albums, add synthesizers, and write lyrics too intelligent for mainstream radio would have been patently dishonest.

No one’s ever going to accuse Rush of making slapdash, under-produced albums, but by the same token, no one’s ever going to accuse Rush of making an album they didn’t make purely for the joy of making music. Neither will anyone ever accuse Rush of creating any sort of cult around the way they make music, or of trying to make something that will appeal to the mainstream or hipsters. Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart are simply too musically honest to do so.

Music that is honest is ars gratis artis – music for music’s sake. It’s what Eric Clapton responded to when he heard The Band’s first album. It’s music that exists for the sheer love of music.

That’s not to say that music for pretense’s sake is not lasting, or can’t be enjoyable. One need only look at Kiss for proof; Kiss may have made 10 songs in the 200 years they’ve been recording that were made for the sake of making a song that any member of Kiss loved, and likely, all ten songs are scattered throughout the two “Kiss solo albums” made by Ace Frehley and Peter Criss (I doubt that Gene Simmons or Paul Stanley have made an uncalculated move since they were in diapers).  But I defy you not to enjoy “Rock-n-Roll All Nite.”

Maybe Neil Peart had all the dishonest elements of music in the 1970s – Boston, late 70s Stones, disco-era Rod Stewart – in mind when he wrote these immortal lines:

All this machinery
Making modern music
Can still be open-hearted
Not so coldly charted
Its really just a question
Of your honesty

One likes to believe
In the freedom of music
But glittering prizes
And endless compromises
Shatter the illusion
Of integrity

It doesn’t matter if your glittering prize is the top slot of the charts, or the coveted 9.5 on a Pitchfork review, the result is the same. It’s a great line, Neil, but endless compromises do not shatter the illusion of integrity, they shatter the illusion that music exists for its own sake.  Hence you have dishonest music.

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Damaged Notion: The Rolling Stones’ “We Love You”

We hope you love we too?

Vanilla Fudge.  Childproof cigarette lighters.  Doggie diapers.  The list of things that simply do not make sense is long and all-inclusive.  Hence “Damaged Notions,” otherwise known as songs, sometimes complete albums, that defy logic and good sense.

One of my favorite musical descriptors may be the word “menacing.” That I often gravitate toward songs that I then describe as “menacing” may be indicative of some defect in my personality, but I digress. Menacing often makes for the strangely beautiful, or the  beautifully strange, and either could describe today’s entry: “We Love You” by the Rolling Stones.

It takes only seconds of listening to “We Love You” to get the menacing vibe; as with many songs by the Rolling Stones, you may feel vaguely unclean after listening. Then, as you try to understand why you feel unclean, it occurs to you that there’s something wrong when a song stubbornly titled “We Love You” makes you feel as though you’re under siege.

There’s a part of you that understands this, that knows the Rolling Stones most certainly do not love you, no matter what they say. The Rolling Stones don’t love each other, they ostensibly don’t love children, so you can feel fairly safe in assuming that they do not love you.

Yet there those Stones are, insisting that they love you. They sing “we love you – of course we do,” as though you should have known this all along. And then they add:
We don’t care if you hound “we” and love is all around “we”
Love can’t get our minds off
We love you, we love you

It’s beginning to make sense now. This is love as only psychopaths understand it. And as though that were not crazy enough:

I love you. I love you
And I hope that you won’t prove wrong too
We love you. We do. We love you. We do.

Crazy, every one of them. Making a big deal out of convincing you they love you, then in the next breath insinuating that you’re the one with the problem, you treacherous vixen you.

Meanwhile the musical accompaniment that is so cacophonous, so sultry and depraved that you’re afraid not to believe they love you. Naturally. It takes the Rolling Stones to write a song called “We Love You,” then use it as a vessel to taunt and frighten you.

Ah, but the plot thickens.  You go straight to Google to get to the bottom of this, and discover that as though the Rolling Stones writing and performing any song titled “We Love You” is not a damaged enough notion, the song was written for those who supported Mick Jagger and Keith Richards after the infamous Redlands drug bust in 1967 that resulted in short stays in the pokey for both of the Glimmer Twins.

That’s when your hysterical laughter begins, and you decide that the Stones, in their infinite wisdom, decided to menace the public into supporting them. And it worked! Because, after all, who but the Rolling Stones can write an unabashedly evil song about love, then garner enough public sympathy that would-be poets accuse their tormentors of breaking a butterfly on a wheel?

Oh! Those dastardly Stones!

And just when it couldn’t possibly get anymore wonderful or awful, you find out that the Stones actually made a proto-video for “We Love You,” to further distress you, camping up the whole bust, and featuring prominently that girl who likes to wear fur rugs:

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You Be the Judge: “Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out)”

They say that history is written by the victors, and nowhere is that adage more apt than on oldies radio.  As much as I enjoy oldies radio, the indisputable fact is that I am listening to the same 200 or so songs over and over ad nauseum, 200 songs that represent the upper echelon of the Billboard charts for the era.

Ostensibly the cream rises to the top, but the Billboard charts prove yet another adage, that one about another, less pleasant substance that floats.  I’m not calling everything that rises to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 shit by any means, but I would posit that oftentimes, perfectly good songs become stuck in the lower rungs of the Billboard ladder.  What this means for you, oldies fan, is a drive-time commute sorely lacking in minor hits.

The definition of a minor hit is purely subjective; it may be a song that scrapes the bottom of the charts, a one-hit wonder that zooms to the top of the charts, only to descend as quickly, or a song that hovers in the mid-range of the charts before disappearing entirely.  The fact that the song charted at all gives it minor hit status, but the fact that its tenure on the chart was short or undistinguished means that it is often lost to history, and thus to the playlists on oldies radio, regardless of its worthiness.

I hereby introduce “You Be the Judge – The Minor Hit Edition,” wherein I ask you, gentle reader, to judge a minor hit on its merits alone, and decide whether or not the song deserves to be relegated to the cut-out bin of music history, shunned by all but the most adventurous radio programmers, unavailable for download, in most cases, and available for purchase only on a ridiculously overpriced import from Japan or Germany.

For this inaugural edition of “You Be the Judge – The Minor Hit Edition,” I bring you one of my favorite minor hits:  “Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out)” by the Hombres.

I’ll skim over the biographical details of the late lamented Hombres and instead delve directly into the awesomeness of “Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out).”  Ranking number 69 on Billboard’s 1967 Top 100 list, “Let It Out” is the perfect example of a minor hit – a song unknown to most but revered by the true believers. You may have heard it on that Bible of forgotten 60s gems Nuggets, or you may have heard it in Cameron Crowe’s rightfully forgotten minor hit Elizabethtown.   Likely you’ve never heard it at all, or if you did, you thought you were listening to a Hee Haw skit, what with that crazy “I’m about to preach dear friends about John Barleycorn, nicotine and the temptations of Eve” intro.

The bitter injustice of “Let It Out”‘s minor hit status is only magnified when you realize that the number one song on Billboard’s 1967 Top 100 list is “To Sir With Love” by Lulu, a song you’ve probably never heard of, and if you have heard, never want to hear again. I’m sure that “To Sir” has its merits, but whatever they are, they pale in comparison to the sheer wickedness of “Let It Out.”  Yet, it’s easy to see why, in 1967 or any other year, for that matter, a song that reflects the free-association wordplay of Bob Dylan and predicts Beck by three decades would have languished in the middle of the charts while the twee pap of “To Sir” soared.  It’s hard to cozy up to a song that sounds like the ramblings of someone who’s just smoked a bowl – unless you’ve just smoked a bowl.

A sample of the lyrics:

Saw a man walking upside down

My TV’s on the blink

Made Galileo look like a Boy Scout

Sorry ’bout that man

Let it all hang out

Deep, right? Yet it’s got a great groove, propelled by what sounds like a child’s toy organ.  It makes you want to giggle and shake your moneymaker, and what more does pop music need to do if it can accomplish that?

Well, anyway. Decide for yourself – does “Let It Out” deserve it’s minor hit status, or should it have been a monster?  I imagine you can guess my vote.

LISTEN: Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out)

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